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ProgBlog catches King Crimson on an auspicious date at the beginning of their 2018 UK tour

By ProgBlog, Dec 18 2016 09:32PM

After the death of Greg Lake and a subsequent marathon session of listening to very early King Crimson and ELP albums I’ve not really had much opportunity to listen to music over the past week, my leisure time being taken up with two home games for Crystal Palace, a variety of reunions and a work Christmas party. Not being someone who rejoices in either the religious or commercial nature of Christmas, I find it a bit of a challenge when it comes to interacting with those that do get into the Christmas spirit. One of my gripes is the radio at work which is either tuned to a station broadcasting non-stop Christmas singles, other than Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas which I wouldn’t actually mind hearing, or tuned into something with more edge playing more contemporary chart rubbish; another is the seasonal TV programming which invariably excludes me from being part of the stereotypical family and which becomes ever more tired each year; and another is the general encouragement to eat and drink too much.

The idea of a reunion is to catch up with old friends but it’s difficult to communicate effectively in a crowded pub where the televised sport competes with the piped music. Having said that, en route to the work Christmas meal, we stopped off at Turner’s Old Star in Wapping where the vanguard were able to drink, talk and play pool for over an hour with only a couple of locals in attendance. This turned out to be the calm before the storm as the meal was held at Tobacco Dock and we were a small group amongst around 1000 other revellers. The live band seemed very professional but they weren’t likely to play anything remotely interesting or challenging, unlike the entertainment at the gala dinner for an American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Dallas in 1995 where the band were unable to perform the King Crimson I requested but did play some Talking Heads as compensation. When I was a student I occasionally used to take a pair of cushioned over-ear headphones to discos (only if they were held at my hall of residence – I wouldn’t have wanted to lug them all over south London) which was done primarily to indicate my disapproval of the music but also to partially reduce the volume; putting in a pair of in-ear headphones at the Tobacco Dock party was rather pointless, such was the overwhelming din coming from the disco.


Turner's Old Star
Turner's Old Star

The little music I have managed to play for my personal pleasure in the past week includes King Crimson’s Red (1974). I’d seen a tweet about the album and made a mental note that it was something I should make a point of listening to again. Red was one of the Crimson LPs I’d sold to a second hand record store when I got a copy of the original issue of the CD, but that has been replaced with the mighty Road to Red box set. It was also one of the first Crimson albums I’d heard, a copy was owned by a friend from across the road in Infield Park in my youth. Along with the heavy prog of the title track and the soaring Starless which has gone on to inspire a host of other works with its killer melody line, Providence is a track which I found particularly inspiring; at the time of the album’s release I didn’t have a clue that this was a live improvisation, despite the rather truncated ending, but the structure formed the basis of a composition by my late school - early university group where, dependent on our rehearsal space, we would utilise found objects like bicycle wheels and door keys. I think Fallen Angel and One More Red Nightmare point the way to John Wetton’s future musical course but both are carried off with distinct aplomb and fit in with the feel of the entire album. The most recent version of Starless I’ve heard was by the David Cross Band at The Lexington earlier this year which rivalled the three drummers King Crimson version (Hackney Empire, September 8th 2015) in terms of excellence.


The Road to Red
The Road to Red

Next on my list was the debut self-titled album by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (1972). Desperate to find some Banco, my first purchase was the sub-standard Donna Plautilla (released 1989) which I didn’t have on my list but it was the only Banco album available from a store in Treviso when I visited in 2005. Donna Plautilla is a compilation of pre-1972 material which doesn’t really fit the progressive Italiano tag, unlike the excellent first album. My current version of the album is a (2012) 40th anniversary 2CD edition where the second disc contains previously unreleased tracks Poilifonia, Tentazione and Padre Nostro and live versions of R.I.P, Metamorfosi and Traccia recorded in 2012.

The original album is one of the classics of the genre and, thanks to the vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, truly operatic. I’d always associated the Banco sound with ELP because of the predominance of organ and piano, provided by the Nocenzi brothers Vittorio and Gianni respectively, but this time I was struck by the similarity to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in March 1972. There may not be very much flute on Banco del Mutuo Soccorso but the stop-start nature of the music, plus the organ/piano which also feature heavily in TAAB (one of the main reasons I really like that album) sound as though they could all have come from the same sessions. Tull were undoubtedly a major influence on the early Italian prog acts but it’s hard to imagine Banco having time to rearrange their material to sound more like Jethro Tull in the two months that elapsed between the availability of the two records.


Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso 40th Anniversary edition

Though I didn’t get much time to myself I did manage to squeeze in, over two days, the DVD of The Golden Compass (2007), the somewhat unsatisfying cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s brilliant Northern Lights. I can’t work out if it was the characterisation which was off, despite thinking that Nicole Kidman might actually make a suitable Mrs Coulter, or if it was just Disneyfication, stripping away all the darkness and complexity of the novel. As with all fantasy books, the film version relied heavily on CGI, mostly successfully but sometimes less so. I found the stage version of the Pullman trilogy (His Dark Materials, an adaptation by Nicholas Wright) which had a couple of seasons at the National Theatre more in keeping with the original work despite the necessary condensing, with an ingenious depiction of the daemons. The arctic setting made it an appropriate season to watch the film but I hadn’t realised, until I was distracted and left the credits running, that Kate Bush sang her own composition Lyra at the end of the film. I must have been walking out of the cinema as this began playing and missed it but apparently it was a commission which utilises the Magdalen College choir, a nice Oxford-related fact, and it is a genuinely beautiful song.

My inability to enjoy Christmas is becoming hardened with every passing year but I see decorations and other Yule-related paraphernalia go on sale in October and, apart from a couple of recent Decembers when we had a healthy sprinkling of snow even in the south east, the country has been subjected to some record-breaking flooding. Isn’t it supposed to snow at Christmas? We all know about the chances for peace on earth... I may find it hard to find any decent music being broadcast at this time of year but it’s incomprehensible that a large proportion of the human race has an inability to even consider working together for the common good, whether it’s finding a meaningful accord on climate change, cancelling third-world debt, halting the civil war in Syria or ending violence against women.

Merry Christmas?









By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






By ProgBlog, Nov 29 2015 08:41PM

The scene: a dimly lit village hall around 7pm in a small rural town in Wiltshire. A group of middle aged men sit on chairs placed in a circle. After a period of silence I start to speak, stuttering, “Erm...my name’s, er 'John' and I like progressive rock music.” In a reassuring voice the bearded man with more than a slight paunch speaks reassuringly “Welcome 'John', it’s OK you are among friends. It is safe here.” That’s how it used to feel when you bared your soul and spoke the bitter truth about your musical interests. Records in gatefold sleeves with science fantasy artwork, intricate fiddly solos, weird time signatures, keyboard players with ten keyboards, drum kits so big they need their own articulated lorry, yep that’s what we prog fans like, but it wasn’t always that way for me.


So, my thanks to Baz for allowing me this guest slot on ProgBlog, and there’s another belated thanks due too. In 1979 we moved to Infield Park in Barrow, I was just 12 with two older brothers, and IP residents Baz and Bill Burford were away at Uni when we arrived, but in a couple of months they arrived back for summer. Now finding great music all by yourself can be pretty difficult and time consuming, so it’s very helpful when big brothers and their friends show you some of what’s out there and help fast track some of your learning.


That learning for me over those first 2 or 3 years included the delights of PFM, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Nice, “Crimso”, Camel, Yes and Jethro Tull. In fact Baz and Bill bought me a Tull compilation album for my fourteenth birthday, and thus started a life long interest in the band. It probably came back to haunt them because by the time I was 16 or 17 I was a full on Tull bore, following the band on several dates on the same tour, having Tull pen friends and gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the band which I just had to share with everyone. I can still be a bit of a Tull bore now but I’m more socially adept these days.


Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

So I was given a great grounding, but as brothers and older friends completed studies and moved away exposure to new and undiscovered prog become less and less, and my interest in other music started to grow. Flirtations with The Stranglers, Ramones, The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. took place, and they sat alongside my prog faves and jostled for attention.


In 1988 I left Barrow for the bright lights of Newcastle. I stayed there for the next eleven years and never again called Barrow my home. What Barrow lacked Newcastle had in spades – great music venues, record shops, pubs without gits, culture (!), a variety of wide minded people to meet, learn from and share things with. During my years in the Toon I bought an average of three albums a week, saw 80 – 100 gigs a year as a student, and expanded my musical horizons to places I never thought I’d go. I went on a proper musical journey and it was bloody brilliant.



Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

Prog was forgotten, the old records mostly allowed to gather dust (although Floyd and Tull still got a regular airing). I found punk and blues, I then found Funk, Blue Note, Latin and Brazilian as my tastes veered towards black American music and great rhythms. James Brown, The Meters, Horace Silver, Art Blakey; Howlin’ Wolf; Gil Scott-Heron...they collectively elbowed out the polite English prog rockers. As my record collection grew and grew it was regularly taking twenty minutes to dig out the next album I wanted to play, so I decided to sort them out alphabetically - in two categories:- “black music” and “white music”. There’s only two sorts of music right?


Then one I day in the mid to late ‘90s I randomly pulled out Close to the Edge by Yes and put it on. I was propelled back ten years to the last time I’d played it, and it was like finding this thoroughly gripping music for the first time, but I knew every word! Perhaps this prog stuff was worthy of a re-look after all. Slowly prog reclaimed its place next to the rest of them, and that’s where it’s remained to this day – a treasured friend amongst other treasured friends.


So what to make of the musical journey? It’s been great, and it continues of course. The added joy of the musical journey compared with a ‘travelling’ journey, and I’ve done lots of those too, is that you don’t have to leave anything behind, you really can take it all with you. In fact I’ve got a 160GB iPod so I can actually take the majority of it with me wherever I go.


Now let it not be said that I have any musical ability whatsoever, I don’t. I can’t even clap in time for more than about four seconds, but as my musical experience has grown I’ve been able to better see the depth of all this music, to pick out the great bits, the subtle bits, the really clever bits, the bits where the simplicity is the key, and also the dross that should never be heard again. I’m proud to be a widely travelled musical snob, it’s taken a lot of time, effort and money to get there and I won’t be giving it up that easily I can tell you.


Nature always looks for the simplest and most efficient ways to do things, and it’s wonderful to hear something stunning in its brilliance, yet simplicity. John Lennon was the master of it lyrically, and I’d throw The Buzzcocks, Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly in there too (musically). But sometimes...sometimes you just need something a bit more than that, where the sheer intricacy and complexity of the music, and the level of skill needed for a group of people to work together in perfect understanding to navigate their way through it is what impresses and challenges us. That’s where yer Blue Note Jazz, yer String Quartets and yer Prog comes in!


So the journey has taken me full circle, to a degree, and I’m out of the prog closet. It’s a dear old friend again and not a dirty little secret, and now and again I even get to see some of it live - in recent years I’ve caught up with the likes of Tull, Yes, Focus and Roger Waters, as well as some non-prog too of course. And at this point in the musical journey, and with all that experience gathered, I can say there’s still only two sorts of music – but it’s good and bad, and it’s not always black and white.



In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez



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