ProgBlog

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Five days of progressive rock, dedicated to musicians and friends who have died since the last event, divided between historic and new bands, symphonic prog and jazz rock, the avant-garde and a tribute to an important story. Along with the desire to share music together, the event is only held thanks to the effort of all those who work for free: artists, organisers, hosts and helpers. The Progressivamente Festival is a display of dedication, comradeship and great music

By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2017 02:46PM

I pay £1.47 for four pints (2.27 litres) of milk at our local Co-op, and I choose to pay almost half as much extra than is strictly necessary (there are supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, which is also very close to me, where that volume of milk only costs £1) because a supermarket price war over essentials which began in 2015 depressed the price of milk to a level below production costs, threatening the UK dairy industry. Consumers suggested that they were willing to pay more for the product and the supermarkets, faced with protests involving cows being herded through their aisles, agreed to pay a minimum price for processed milk to the dairies, which was set at around 26p to 28p per litre. However, guaranteeing a minimum price for milk doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy farmers will benefit because the large dairies supplying the supermarkets might not pay the minimum cost to the farmers. Something is broken in the economy when a staple like milk is sold for less than what it cost to produce so it’s fortunate that consumers, who stand to benefit in the short-term from this high-street competition, have decided that paying 47% more is worth avoiding the collapse of the industry.



I’ve been buying a fair amount of vinyl recently, both new and second-hand, and I’ve started to wonder if today’s prices are anywhere near equivalent to what I paid for albums in the 70s and 80s. Inflation in the UK was recorded at 2.9% in June and is expected to average out at 2.8% for 2017 and an online calculator shows me that the total inflation in the UK economy since 1973, the year I first bought an LP, is 1113.42%; if the laws of economics have held true, the equivalent of a new release costing £2.50 in 1973 would now set you back a little over £30 so it would appear that a new release 12” LP is good value for money compared to prices in the 70s. Of course I used to seek out bargains if I could but these tended to be old releases (my copy of Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star for example, bought for £2.99 from Simons Records in a large basement on London’s Oxford Street in 1981), and ‘cut outs’, sleeves with small slits in one corner or punch holes just off centre which would also penetrate the label in the middle of the LP. These items were slow selling records that had been returned to the record company by a retailer, subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost (they weren’t selling well anyway) and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. During the late 70s and early 80s it is hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling and ended up at sale prices. My cut out edition of Livestock by Brand X cost £2.49 from Virgin Records in Oxford Street in August 1981.


It’s interesting that a full price album, using Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls as an example because it’s still got the Our Price sticker on it, which cost £5.29 when it was released in 1985, would sell for £15.64 at today’s prices and that the total inflation since 1985 is only of the order of 195%. The massive hike in inflation occurred in the mid 70s with CPI inflation peaking at around 24% in 1975 and high inflation persisting into the early 80s. The oil crisis of 1973, precipitated by an embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Export Countries in response to US support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, generated inflationary forces which increased energy and commodity prices, quadrupling the price of oil in less than four months. At the same time, the world economy was in recession and this was mirrored in the UK economy. It was a period of 'stagflation', in which recession combined with inflation; inflationary wage increases were accompanied by a rise in unemployment, reaching one million in early 1976. High unemployment required increased government expenditure and borrowing.

The oil crisis had a direct effect on vinyl, a petrochemical offshoot, causing shortages and a concomitant rise in LP price. Some vinyl got thinner and my copies of The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Rick Wakeman and Fruupp’s Seven Secrets from this time are semi-transparent (with a red hue.)



The Labour Party was elected to government in February 1974 without an overall majority and they pursued a commitment to the 'social contract' (voluntary wage restraint in return for better bargaining rights) and public spending. Unfortunately, an international loss of confidence in sterling followed due to the combination of recession, instability and commitment to social expenditure, and led to the devaluation of sterling. Labour was again voted into power, this time with a tiny majority, after a further election in October 1974 and the subsequent budget in April 1975 attempted to reduce the deficit by increasing the basic rate of taxation to 35%, cutting the rate of growth of public expenditure and restricting the supply of money but it was viewed critically in the financial sector; the Wall Street Journal advised against investment in Sterling. By mid-1976 the economy was under extreme pressure and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healy made a nationwide broadcast on TV in an attempt to reassure the markets and investigated the possibility of loan arrangements with the chairman of The Group of Ten (richest countries.) Late that year the government was forced to apply to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of $3.9bn, with IMF negotiators insisting on deep cuts in public expenditure, which had a huge effect on immediate economic and social policy but also on the politics of the 1980s and beyond.

At this stage I’d like to point out that I have no faith in economic theory because movement of capital seems to be reliant on whim or the perception that a country or organisation may be at any given time in a state of stability or instability, and built on exploitation. The inflexibility of thinking within the IMF and the European Central Bank dragged out austerity and caused near-irreversible damage to most of the southern European countries and Greece in particular, spawning groups of right-wing nationalists looking for someone to blame for their economic misery. Furthermore, I believe that the global financial system is run by chancers and geared towards enriching those already with great wealth. When a government intervenes to bail out some venerable banking group because it’s too big to fail, the bank denounces regulation and carries on as though nothing happened.


I should also make it clear that I’m not buying vinyl as an investment but because it has always been my preferred medium for listening to music. If there’s anything nostalgic about my habit, buying LPs I used to own but got rid of because the music/band fell out of favour so that I stopped playing the records (Rubycon by Tangerine Dream, L by Steve Hillage, The Civil Surface by Egg, Camembert Electrique by Gong and Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) or because I needed to fund the replacement of old vinyl with shiny new CDs and maybe get some bonus material), it’s the desire to hold a gatefold sleeve in my hands and look at the artwork as originally presented and maybe to count my leisure hours in (roughly) 20 minute chunks.

I don’t buy very many LPs where I have some updated form of CD though replacing my original King Crimson and Pink Floyd albums was a must; I tend to look in second-hand stores for particular recordings or bands that interested me when I was a youth but never took the plunge – Spyglass Guest by Greenslade, Ricochet by Tangerine Dream, Aqua by Edgar Froese are examples, along with Mother Focus. One of my first excursions from home to see a gig at Lancaster University was for Focus, promoting the just-released follow-up to the excellent Hamburger Concerto. It was one of the most disappointing performances I’ve ever witnessed, where Philip Catherine had replaced Jan Akkerman and the new material was not of a good standard.



I thought it was worth testing the inflation theory some more, wondering if it applied to beer. I go to the pub perhaps every couple of months and on a night out earlier this month I was paying £4.50 for a pint of Shepherd Neame (the oldest brewery in the country) Bishop’s Finger in the Bishop’s Finger pub between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Smithfield market. I accept that’s central London but when I first started drinking in 1977, a pint of Hartley’s XB (‘best’) bitter cost 28p and by the same calculation I’d expect to pay £1.85 today. Of course Hartley’s was brewed in Ulverston and there’s a documented price disparity between northern and southern beers. I can’t remember how much I paid for a pint of bitter when I first arrived in London because I actively had to seek out decent beers in an era when real ale in London was in decline and I was never a fan of Courage – the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was an essential part of the student survival kit. Two worthwhile London breweries were Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller's of Chiswick but there were a few free houses where the 70s equivalent of the ubiquitous Sharp’s Doom Bar, Ruddles County, could be found. I’m pretty sure this used to sell for a little shy of 50p in 1978 so I shouldn’t really expect to pay more than £2.86 for a pint in London today.

A final piece of economics: Ruddles brewery was based in Langham, in Rutland, the smallest historic county in England and produced a good-quality bitter (allegedly at least part due to the unique Langham water) which travelled well. This independent brewery was bought out by Watneys in 1986 and sold on again, to Grolsch in 1992. Following a downturn in fortunes, the beer and brewery were valued at £4.8m and sold to Morland & Co. in 1997. The brewery was closed down in 1999 and production moved to Abingdon but Greene King bought Morland in 2000 and shut down the Abingdon site...


The bottom line (as economists might say) is that whether I’m searching for second-hand or new vinyl, in real terms I’m paying less than I did when I started collecting albums. Yes, you might see pristine original pressings of In the Court of the Crimson King selling for £50 but equally, it’s possible to come across an original pressing of Tubular Bells with the black and white Virgin labels, etched stampers without matrix numbers, laminate sleeve, pinched spine top and bottom and a back cover which states "Printed in England by Robor Limited" in the bottom right corner (later sleeves were printed by E J Day), for just £5.50 and in excellent condition.



Vinyl, please!








By ProgBlog, May 21 2017 08:21PM

Yes, another trip to Genoa. The weekend had to be carefully planned: on call on the Thursday hastily rearranged; gig on Friday; Crystal Palace playing their last home game of the season with kick off at noon on Sunday...

My wife and I left on the 07.10 flight from Gatwick on Thursday morning and returned on the 13:25 flight on Saturday. It was a bit of a whirlwind stay but rather successful. Susan doesn’t come to the gigs so we spend as much of the remaining time getting around. Ideally we’d have been able to leave on the Sunday but the importance of the football match, with both Palace and opponents Hull involved in a relegation scrap, it was a game I was not prepared to miss.

After checking in at the hotel, the first stop was for coffee in a local bar, Caffé del Sivori before moving on for a bite to eat. We were then able to wander into the historical centre where, among the narrow lanes and small piazza, you can find the second-hand record, CD and book stalls. This was where I bought the 1997 Ulisse and the 2000 Serendipity CDs by PFM, along with Anthony Phillip’s Wise after the Event. The main shopping attraction however, was the small but perfectly formed Black Widow record shop in Via del Campo; specialising in progressive rock, psychedelia, heavy rock, ‘dark’ prog and folk. It turns out that the founders of the shop Massimo Gasperini, Pino Pintabona and Alberto Santamaria, used to come to Beanos in Croydon to buy stock and that the reputation of the store within the prog community is really high; the Prog Archives website published an interview with Massimo in 2010, remarking that he’s a friendly guy and I concur - I’ve had lengthy chats with both Massimo and Alberto on the occasions I’ve visited and can honestly say that their generosity, knowledge and graciousness are boundless. It’s easy to form a connection when you share a passion for the same kind of music, despite my lack of Italian.



You might wonder why such a small shop has such a big influence but part of the reason is because Genoa is at the heart of the current prog scene in Italy, with the emergence of a number of new bands seeped in the traditions of 70s progressivo Italiano, plus a renewed interest in the original bands, some of the most influential of which were based in Genoa (New Trolls, Delirium, Latte e Miele, Nuovo Idea, Garybaldi.) This historic connection must have influenced the foundation of the Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano (in Genoa’s Pontedecimo district) who aim to create a comprehensive archive of material relating to Italian prog and build a complete database of material, but also study the material at a musicological level. The other part of the explanation is that Black Widow also operates as a record label, promoting new talent and, where possible, reissuing old classics. They play an important role in the live music scene, being instrumental in the Fiera della Musica which had been held in Genoa until the area, with buildings by local architect Renzo Piano, was scheduled for redevelopment. (Susan and I visited an exhibition of competitors for this redevelopment and, rather to my delight, one entrant included the cover of Atom Heart Mother in their presentation.)



Black Widow were putting on a Metal festival that weekend, though I was far more interested in their Prog Festival to be held in the old harbour from 14th – 16th July, featuring local and nearby acts Delirium and Il Cerchio d’Oro, prog from France and Norway and Nik Turner, formerly of Hawkwind, headlining on the Saturday.



I walked away from the shop with a selection of British and Italian prog on vinyl: The first Saint Just album (rereleased by AMS on green vinyl); Inferno by Metamorfosi, Acquiring the Taste by Gentle Giant, Future Legends by Fruupp, plus a second-hand copy of Quark, Strangeness and Charm by Hawkwind.


Daytime on Friday was spent in Alessandria, visiting the UNESCO World Heritage listed Cittadella, the most important hexagonal fort in Europe due the integrity of the site, though our access was restricted because there seemed to be some event being set up. We visited the W Dabliu record store but I didn’t buy anything there, however I did come across the first three editions of Prog Italia, bundled into one, for €12.99 which I had to buy, having spent the last three trips to Italy looking for copies of the magazine.

It’s become increasingly obvious to me that Friday night is the time for prog in this part of the country because the excursion had been organised to see a couple of bands, playing on a Friday, at la Claque; Finisterre and Ancient Veil.



I’d seen Finisterre as recently as the 31st March at the Z Fest in Milan, but I enjoyed this performance more. Maybe it was the theatre itself, with tables organised like a club rather than crowding the stage at Milan’s Legend Club (and where the space on stage was divided by supporting columns), or maybe it was that the recent exposure to the band had made me more aware of the material. Despite coming from Genova and performing around the world, Finisterre hadn’t played in their home city since 2004, so it must have been a rather emotional return. Their set list comprised of material from three of their four albums Finisterre, In Ogni Luogo and La Meccanica Naturale: Tempi Moderni, Anaporaz; La Maleducazione; Macinaaqua, Macinaluna; La Perfezione; Ninive, In Ogni Luogo and Coro Elettrico performed as a mini-suite with Edmondo Romano from Ancient Veil as guest; Ode al Mare; La Fine; Incipit; Phaedra; with chat, announcements and introductions made alternatively by Sefano Marelli and Fabio Zuffanti. The musicianship was sublime and despite the absence of anything from In Limine, my favourite Finisterre album, the set was perfect. If I had to make any complaint, it would be that from where I was seated, fairly close to the front and centre, I couldn’t hear Boris Valle’s keyboards too well but the overall sound was clear.

There was a poignant moment when Zuffanti introduced Davide Laricchia, the original vocalist for the band, to perform Macinaacqua, for which he wrote the words but left before he could appear on the first album. This track encapsulates the experimental approach of the group, interspersing classical motifs into some riff-driven prog, Marelli guitar effects and Agostino Macor electronics. The delivery was over-the-top theatrics along the lines of Alex Harvey, though the melodic denouement hinted at 70s The Enid, coalescing into classic Zuffanti material; Macor even used a xylophone on this piece. Their superb set ended with a medley of prog classics; a little bit of Interstellar Overdrive, 21st Century Schizoid Man and the Hackett-friendly portion of Firth of Fifth.



I first came across Ancient Veil after seeing an article about Eris Pluvia, and received Rings of Earthly Light as a Christmas present in 2012. Released in 1991, six years after the band formed, this is an uplifting piece of neo-prog which at times, thanks to the woodwind and reeds of Edmondo Romano, borders on prog-folk. The upbeat lyrics, all in English, and the calm, warm voice of guitarist Alessandro Serri help to give it an almost New Age feel but there are odd time signatures and sudden changes that would suit the most ardent of prog fans. Eris Pluvia disbanded in 1992 and Ancient Veil was formed by Alessandro Serri, Romano, with Fabio Serri on keyboards and they released one eponymous record in 1995, with music very much in the same vein as Eris Pluvia. Ancient Veil reappeared this year with bassist Massimo Palermo and drummer Marco Fuliano and the CD I am Changing. Remarkably, this presentation of their new album was the band’s first ever live performance and though there were a couple of hitches, technical and human, the audience was understandably forgiving. The material was set out in three blocks, commencing with The Ancient Veil, followed by Rings of Earthly Light and concluding with I am Changing but the material flowed seamlessly. I bought a copy of the CD during the interval between bands so I had not heard any of the new songs; I’d also not been able to lay my hands on a copy of The Ancient Veil but it would not be unfair to say that the composers have a distinctive style. Maybe their most recent material contains a hint of wistfulness? They also introduced a guest from the past, Valeria Caucino, who sang on Eris Pluvia’s Sell My Feelings and also appears on the new album, on the song Chime of the Times. And, just as Romano had accompanied Finisterre on stage, Zuffanti and Marelli returned the favour during In the Rising Mist, making four acoustic guitarists (along with Serri and drummer Fuliano); this summed up the camaraderie of not only the musicians gracing the stage that evening, but the Italian progressive rock community as a whole.



What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...
What made the evening special was a combination of great music and a sense of history; the return of Finisterre to Genoa after a considerable absence, and the first gig by a band who have long been praised in prog circles – a remarkable double bill and immensely enjoyable. I’m already preparing for my next trip...

Postscript

Palace beat Hull 4-0 on an afternoon basked in sunlight, securing their tenure in the Premier Leaguue for another season. What a fantastic few days












By ProgBlog, Jul 24 2016 05:20PM

Last week was the hottest of the year so far and it started very badly. Sometime during the middle part of Monday a sinkhole appeared underneath the railway tracks at Forest Hill, rendering this route and my back-up route, the London Bridge to East Croydon line, unavailable for my journey home.


The staff at Whitechapel Station could have been a bit more helpful, by telling the commuters that the service between New Cross Gate and both Crystal Palace and West Croydon was suspended, for instance; instead, they suggested that passengers should “board this train for West Croydon and Crystal Palace” even though the service was going to Clapham Junction. I asked a woman who had just been making arrangements for someone else to pick up children if there was a problem and she told me about the subsidence. I guessed that London Bridge services might also be affected, though I had no idea how badly until I eventually got home and, having already missed two opportunities to go to Clapham Junction, decided to adopt Plan C.


Unable to concentrate on the Mellotron-drenched Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (Edgar Froese, 1975) because of the requirement to listen to station announcements, I made my way on a relatively empty train to New Cross, but decanted onto a thronging platform to wait for one of the three South Eastern train services per hour to Hayes; the first of which was cancelled because of ‘signal problems’ at London Cannon Street. Since I began commuting by train through South London 38 years ago, there has been woefully inadequate investment in the railways, which despite privatisation continues to suck in taxpayer money through government subsidies to the tune of £3.8bn in 2015. The private train operators then pay out millions of pounds to shareholders while the travelling public have to put up with a fractured and fragmented service dogged by delays, infrastructure failings, cancellations and increasing ticket prices. Needless to say, the state of overcrowding on the train that eventually appeared, late, carrying twice as many commuters as normal, made the scheduled 20 minute journey to Elmers End in 30oC heat deeply unpleasant; it was further delayed by signalling problems at Lewisham and I had to repeat the journey, when it was even hotter, the next day. There’s a simple solution: Renationalise the railways; use public money (or through a re-jigged Green Investment Bank that doesn’t rely on commercial rates) to invest in staff, infrastructure and rolling stock that is fit for purpose; support British engineering. Failure to do so will result in an economy which, like the trains on Monday and Tuesday, is going nowhere.

It was a hot summer forty years ago, too. I had finished my ‘O’ Levels and took part in what can only be described as an epic mountaineering holiday with brother Tony and friends Steve Dickinson, John Ullock and Guy Wimble, camping on mountainsides between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, bagging Munros. The planning for this event rivalled a Chris Bonnington Everest expedition though our chosen food supplies, Ryvita crackers and Vesta freeze dried meals had to be supplemented by free mountain fare, blueberries, which were accompanied by an attempt to concoct cream from dried milk powder, margarine and water from mountain streams, and a stop for takeaway haggis and chips in Kinlochleven. I was somewhat leaner and fitter at the end of the trip...

1976 was also rock’s ‘Year Zero’, the foundation of Punk in the UK which I first noticed when I started in the Sixth Form in the autumn. School friends were now showing interest in bands spearheading the scene around CBGB in New York and whereas school mates’ bands had only a few months before been plying covers of Focus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and even Fruupp, a trip to the RAF Club would result in having to listen to attempts at Ramones songs and scrawled in my ‘rough book’, the school exercise book used for making notes, was a picture of a penis with the words ‘Sex Pistols’ along its length; thanks, John Bull. The Sex Pistols had begun to gig in late 1975 (as support to Bazooka Joe at St Martin’s College) but only played cover songs. Even this early on the Pistols’ influence was spreading and by early 1976, a core group of fans that included Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin and Billy Idol had coalesced into the so-called Bromley Contingent, brought together by an accident of south London geography, music and fashion, the latter supplied by the Malcolm McLaren – Vivienne Westwood shop SEX. I may not have heard much punk when it first appeared but it was the fashion, specifically the appropriation of Nazi symbolism which really inflamed my dislike of the genre, rather than a musical form that was the antithesis of prog: short; simple; simplistic.

So what was prog doing at the time? The premier league of prog bands were on hiatus, effectively exiled by what their accountants would have told them was a punitive tax regime. Yes and ELP were huge acts, though even less commercially successful bands like Gentle Giant set up recording sessions outside of the UK to minimise how much of their cash went to the exchequer. The highest rate of income tax throughout the 50s and 60s was 90% but this was reduced by the Conservative administration to 75% in 1971. When the Labour government took over in 1974, the top rate of income tax was increased to 83% but the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98% and these rates applied to incomes over £20000 per year, affecting 750000 people, including some major prog bands. The absence from home turf for prolonged periods (there was an allowance for so many days residence without triggering the tax) deprived the music journals of prog-related copy and coverage of new bands, who wished to be seen to eschew the perceived overblown and self-indulgent nature of progressive rock, was fed by a new generation of journalists armed with sociology degrees who regarded prog as elitist. The Stranglers were already gigging in spring 1976 and The Damned were formed sometime around the middle of the year, famous for being the first UK punk band to release a single. Captain Sensible, born Raymond Burns, lived in Edith Road SE25, the location of my first flat as an owner-occupier. There’s a rumour that if it wasn’t the same property, it was next door to the Burns’ home.


It’s often been commented on that many original punks were into prog. The Damned had evolved from jazz improvisation; Johnny Rotten is often cited for his appreciation of Van der Graaf Generator after being invited to play his own records on a Tommy Vance show on Capital Radio in July 1977; He played some Can, The Blimp by Captain Beefheart, Fleance from the Polanski film soundtrack The Tragedy of Macbeth by Third Ear Band and The Institute of Mental Health (Burning) plus Nobody’s Business from Peter Hammill’s 1975 solo album Nadir’s Big Chance. Rotten also accused David Bowie (he played Bowie’s Rebel Rebel) of copying Hammill’s moves!

Punk didn’t really last very long and, apart from the legacy of bands like The Clash, the punk ethos became swiftly diluted, revealing itself to be nothing but an expression of fashion in the broadest sense. The snarling bands like the Sex Pistols, put together to generate outrage, burned with a very brief flame. Bromley Contingent leader Siouxse quickly branched into proto-Goth; Billy Idol dabbled in proto-Goth, too, and appeared to be obsessed with his own image. Were The Stranglers really punk in the first place? I’m disappointed to have missed them when they played Maxim’s in Barrow in March 1977 but I have a confession: I’ve seen The Undertones twice. Once at a free concert in Brussels in August 1980 and in 1983, supporting Peter Gabriel at Selhurst Park. Manchester-based Buzzcocks were always just a clever pop band and are now reaping in cash from What do I Get? being used in an advert for McDonalds. This is hardly punk-principle. It appears that every musician has to continue to make a living somehow...






By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM

It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.


I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.


The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.



One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.


Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.


King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.


It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...







By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.


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