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Progressive rock may have first emerged in the UK but, thanks to touring continental Europe and the US, the genre flourished. ProgBlog examines the use of English-language lyrics by bands around Europe who have their own mother tongue...

By ProgBlog, Feb 12 2018 04:43PM

Coming from something of a backwater, as far as I was aware the Round House was a 1970s concrete replacement for the former pavilion and bandstand at Biggar on Walney Island, just off the mainland at Barrow-in-Furness. Originally a council-run facility, it may have been an unusual piece of architecture with an amazing windswept location but I seem to remember it becoming a Chinese restaurant which had a bit of a troubled history, culminating in the murder of owner Lai Yo Fu by disgruntled former employee Ke Yuan who stabbed her to death in front of a number of witnesses in February 2000. It’s a popular place to eat today and seems to inspire admiring and disapproving reviews in roughly equal measure. Its conversion to a restaurant must have coincided with my departure from Barrow and I have never had food from there; the Infield Park Gang used to head inland, away from the coast towards the Furness countryside on nights out and, if the occasion arose, we’d stop off at an alternative Chinese take-away in Dalton on our way home.

I must have read about gigs at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in the mid 70s, amongst the pages of one of the weekly music papers Melody Maker, NME or Sounds after getting into prog in 1972, though wasn’t until sometime later, having ploughed through a few books concerning the early history of Pink Floyd, that I came to understand the significance of the venue in the birth of UK counterculture. Despite being intended as an arts centre planned by playwright Arnold Wesker, the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of IT, the International Times in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave billed as a ‘strip-trips-happening-movie-pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings.


Poster advertising the IT launch party
Poster advertising the IT launch party

The Roundhouse was built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther, a Birmingham-based civil engineering and construction firm, out of yellow brick, using designs by architects Robert Dockray and Robert Stephenson as a building containing a turntable for turning round railway engines. The conical slate roof is supported by 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces braced with a framework of curved ribs. The central smoke louvre, now glazed, adds to the distinctiveness of the building and the interior still contains portions of original flooring, parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. It was recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and made a listed building in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, and declared a National Heritage Site in 2010.

The original building had a diameter of 48m to accommodate the turntable and although the designs were meant to allow for advances in locomotive engineering, it was only used for this purpose for ten years before locomotives became too big for the space. It was repurposed as a bonded warehouse for London Gin distillers W & A Gilbey, lasting around 50 years from 1871 but fell into disuse just before the Second World War.


Arnold Wesker established the Centre 42 Theatre Company in 1964 and prepared a scheme to adapt the building as a cultural centre to contain a theatre, cinema, art gallery and workshops with committee rooms for local organisations, a library and youth club with an estimated cost of between £300,000 and £600,000. The proposals were supported by well-known names within the arts community and in 1966, the Roundhouse became an arts venue, with the freehold taken up by the Greater London Council. By the time Camden Council assumed control of the Roundhouse in 1983, Centre 42 had already run out of funds so the building remained unused until it was bought on a whim for £3 million by former investment banker and local philanthropist Torquil Norman in 1996. Performing arts shows resumed before an extensive redevelopment in 2004, reopening on June 1st 2006.

Seven layers of soundproofing were added to the roof during these renovations, the glazed roof-lights were reinstated and the steel and glass New Wing, curving around the north side of the main building was added to house the box office, bar and café, an art gallery foyer and offices. The auditorium is quite spectacular, seating 1700 or accommodating up to 3300 standing. The performance space is highly flexible and provides both artist and audience an experience they won’t find anywhere else. And the sound is brilliant.



Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.
Considering my interest in music and architecture, it’s surprising that my first ever visit was for a gig by the Portico Quartet on February 3rd this year. I’d seen posters for the event in Whitechapel where I work, possibly as early as last year, but didn’t do anything about it until the day itself; fortunately there was at least one seat remaining at the time I booked.

Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018
Portico Quartet listing, The Guide, 3rd February 2018

I’d been given the self-titled Portico Quartet CD as a present in 2012, probably, I suspect, because it had been favourably reviewed by John Fordham in The Guardian. I really liked it and, rather like The Necks which it called to mind, it was obvious this shouldn’t be simply labelled as ‘jazz’; the treated bowed bass puts it in Esbjörn Svensson Trio bassist Dan Berglund territory, the saxophone has at times an almost choral quality and the repetitive gamelan-like motifs on the hang together with looped keyboards put it in the realm of trance. All this is held together with a mixture of neat drumming and electronic drum patterns, creating a mixture that genuinely defies a simple description, though if you triangulate the labels that are most often thrown at the band, jazz, ambient and electronica, you might get a rough idea of the form in which they operate, a sound like no other band. The hang was actually developed as recently as 2000 by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland and I probably first came across one being played by a busker in Oxford in 2011 on a trip to visit my son who was studying for his Masters Degree, and whereas it’s most certainly incorrect to suggest that the hang alone provides their USP, this tuned percussion instrument with its beautiful harmonic resonance adds an exotic flavour to the music, quite unlike any other small ensemble working in a loose jazz idiom.


ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)
ProgBlog's Portico Quartet CDs (before the gig)

I received Art in the Age of Automation as a birthday present last year so my choice at the merchandise stand looked like it was going to be limited. Despite not bringing my vinyl-specific cotton bag I bought double LP Live/Remix from 2013, for what I thought was a very reasonable £15, and a £5 EP Abbey Road on CD.


...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig
...and from the merchandise desk just before the gig

Before we were treated to Portico Quartet, there was a 30 minute set from Riah, one of the students attached to the Roundhouse through the Roundhouse Trust, set up by Norman in 1998 and which runs a creative programme for young people aged 11 - 25. They get taught live music, circus, theatre and new media on-site in the Roundhouse Studios located in the undercroft beneath the Main Space, and allowing them to perform a support slot is an essential part of the program.


I’d had an excellent view of Riah, albeit from the back, framed by one of the cast iron arches but when Portico Quartet took to the stage, the columns obscured saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, though I could make out everything that Duncan Bellamy did with his drum kit (he was closest to me) and Keir Vine faced me when he was playing his keyboards and was in profile when he played hanghang (the official plural!) They started off with Endless from Art in the Age of Automation which was extended after a fake pause, and followed with Ruins (from 2012’s self-titled album) and Current History from the latest release. Bellamy, who is responsible for all the album artwork, took on role of compere and provided the song introductions, and gave a more full explanation about the next number Double Space, an as yet unreleased track due to appear on a mini-album comprised of material which is an extension of that on the current album and is due out in April.


The performance was relatively brief, finished off with an encore taken from another track on Art in the Age of Automation, Lines Glow but I was really pleased I’d managed to attend. I really like their music but the combination of the tunes, the musicianship, the sound (I was just above the mixing desk), the unique architecture of the venue and the visual effect created by a smoke machine with (relatively basic) lighting made it a really special occasion.


Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow
Duncan Bellamy, at the conclusion of Lines Glow







By ProgBlog, May 7 2017 06:11PM

When my son was young we had family membership of both English Heritage and the National Trust and some part of most weekends was spent on outings to properties and gardens in the south east, with occasional forays into the north west when we returned to visit my family. Our subscriptions lapsed when Daryl became an adult; not only would this have incurred extra cost but we also saw less of him when he graduated and went off to do a Master’s degree in Oxford and then went to work in Australia for 18 months.

Remarkably for someone who graduated after the global economic meltdown, his career is based on his academic choices, architecture and historic conservation, and it’s this calling which has rekindled our interest in wandering around London in search of bits of fascinating architecture and design. When I first came to London in 1978 I roamed the streets from Notting Hill to Holborn looking for sites both off and on the tourist radar and, after almost weekly trips for three years, I considered myself well acquainted with the capital. This obsession with exploring the urban environment was an extension of my behaviour in Barrow, where almost all accessible and many (theoretically) inaccessible parts of the Furness peninsula were forensically investigated, inviting derision from anyone outside of a close circle of friends. Genetic or environmentally influenced, Daryl’s fixation with seeking out architectural gems means his knowledge of London’s streets is far better than mine ever was.

On a recent trip to the Design Museum in Kensington, a must for lovers of modernist architecture or anyone with a curiosity about the history of design, we stopped off at Café Phillies for a coffee and some lunch. I was intrigued to see a minibus pull up outside, the London Rock Legends Tour, on a stop to visit Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant which is opposite Café Phillies in Phillimore Road. I’m sure there are plenty of music-related sights, from the Abbey Road zebra crossing in St John’s Wood to The Hendrix/Handel museum in Brook Street, Mayfair, but it can’t be easy planning a sightseeing tour in London by road; the roadworks and sheer volume of traffic are hardly conducive to a strict schedule.



Inside the Design Museum
Inside the Design Museum

I was amazed to see the Yes logo on the side of the bus, along with more rock ‘n’ roll acts but, as the itinerary takes in pubs and clubs, it could be that there’s a stop at what used to be La Chasse at 100 Wardour Street, just down from the old Marquee. Writing songs about a particular location is nothing out of the ordinary but it tends to be a bit of a rarity in progressive rock; The King Crimson improvisations given the title of the town or city where they were recorded don’t count, whereas Egg’s A Visit to Newport Hospital (on the Isle of Wight) from The Polite Force (1971) is an excellent example – at this point it’s pertinent to mention that former Egg drummer and Pink Floyd drum tech Clive Brooks died last week, another loss to the progressive community.

I decided to challenge myself and go through my collection in search of London-themed compositions, requiring lyrics about the place, to see if it was possible to put together a virtual tour of physical locations, streets or landmarks which warranted a mention somewhere in the prog catalogue.

Public transport may have its problems but a combination of rail, tube and foot is by far the best way to move around the city and coincidentally, the tube map turns out to be a good place to start looking. Crimson’s Doctor Diamond from the Red-era, a song that never managed to get a studio release, doesn’t mention a place despite the reference to an ‘underground train’. I’d always assumed it was a New York subway train because Fallen Angel from the same cohort of songs is set in New York, but there’s every possibility that it’s London Underground, with a capital ‘U’. The most comprehensive reference to London Underground is on Alight, released earlier this year by progressivo Italiano Cellar Noise, where apart from the track Underground Ride, other songs are named after District and Circle Line stations Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars and Monument. This remarkable debut effort is a concept album where the narrative takes place somewhere between the real world and the imagination of the protagonist who, stuck in the monotonous grind of the daily commute through the underbelly of London, who suddenly finds a reason for existence. Musically and lyrically there are parallels with Genesis, from the Trespass-era to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (another New York-themed album) and the opening track on the album, Dive with Me is stylistically and harmonically linked to Foxtrot. It comes as no surprise that the play The Knife at gigs as an encore.



Genesis name-checked Epping Forest on Selling England by the Pound, a remnant of ancient woodland straddling the Greater London-Essex border where Peter Gabriel set his fictitious skirmish between rival East End gangs, apparently inspired by a piece in a newspaper that he’d read some years earlier. As much as I like this track, the piece has so much going on that when you include the four-minute instrumental After the Ordeal, it feels as though it’s taken up the entire side of the record when you’ve still got the ten-minute Cinema Show to come! Epping Forest is served by a number of stops on the Central Line and Forest Road, lined with its luxury cars (according to the song) heads into the forest from Loughton.

Also on the London Underground network is Turnham Green, served by the District and Piccadilly lines. This appears in Suite in C from McDonald and Giles’ self-titled album released in 1970, as a sub-section of the 11’40 mini-epic. This is a love song dedicated to Charlotte Bates, where the Turnham Green lyrics refer to the first time McDonald set eyes on Bates and the tube station where she disembarked. Besotted, McDonald placed an advert in International Times and remarkably, this was spotted by Bates’ friend who had been on the tube with her. It’s not really like Crimson but Michael Giles’ jazzy drum patterns do call to mind his work with his former band and his brother’s bass wouldn’t have been out of place on anything by the Crims; the subject matter is quite different, giving a more Beatles-like feel to the track.



Perhaps there’s a link between London geography and songs by King Crimson alumni. The UK song Nevermore, from their first album is about Soho, though it doesn’t relate to one particular location. Lyrically, it appears to be thematically linked to In the Dead of Night; commencing with some beautiful Allan Holdsworth acoustic guitar, it’s an altogether underrated piece with changes of dynamics and an experimental middle section. If Nevermore is a little hazy in its precise location, Rendezvous 6:02 from subsequent UK album Danger Money describes both time and place. When I first arrived in London I used to use the Sidcup branch of the railway from Charing Cross to Dartford, because my hall of residence was in North Cray, between Sidcup and Bexley. Stopping at Waterloo East, this journey afforded an excellent view of the (now Grade II Listed) Victory Arch leading into the main Waterloo Station. Built from Portland stone and completed in 1922, I find it an ugly piece of architecture but it relates to one of the most memorable UK songs, the poignant Rendezvous 6:02, which first describes the car journey from Hyde Park to Waterloo before specifically mentioning the arch itself. It was always a favourite pastime reviewing the departures timetable for trains leaving at two minutes past six in the evening and the last time I attended a talk at the nearby BFI, I deliberately arranged to meet Daryl at 18:02 under the arch.

It may not be part of the Underground network but Bill Bruford wrote the tune Palewell Park for the last of the Bruford albums. I’m labouring the point here, but this location, like the somewhat lengthier (in terms of both track timing and ground dimensions) Hergest Ridge was to Mike Oldfield, was evidently very inspiring to Bruford who lived close by in East Sheen and it's surprising because it's a piano-bass duet!.



Ian Anderson dedicated almost a full side to Baker Street on Minstrel in the Gallery, and Fulham Road features in A Passion Play. Of the former, which also mentions Blandford Street and Marylebone Road, this is the district inhabited by Anderson during 1974, making observations of everyday life in London W1. It’s possible that some of the lyrical content reflects some of the rehearsals for the album, where Anderson took on a great deal of the work as his fellow band members entertained themselves around Monte Carlo; there’s certainly more of a singer-songwriter feel to parts of the album, more acoustic guitar and less flute, but it remains one of the high points of the Jethro Tull canon. I’m less convinced about A Passion Play, particularly the use of saxophone and synthesizer, although the storyline is rather good. Is Fulham Road referenced because Brompton cemetery is close by?



Returning to modern prog, Big Big Train recite the names of underground and former waterways in Lost Rivers of London, from 2016’s Folklore. Citing Old Kent Road and Turnagain Lane (off Farringdon Road), there is much to be admired in their approach which reconnects modern, melodic prog with the importance of the roots of the genre. With the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Neckinger, the Westbourne, the Walbrook and the Effra, there are plenty of places to put on a progressive rock map of London.

...and there are a number of mews around Baker Street!







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