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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, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM

I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.



It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.


I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.




So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.

I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.




It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.

The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.




In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.


By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2016 12:02AM

I’ve had an innate aversion to all things that instruct “Keep Calm and Carry On...”, including the almost acceptable Keep Calm and Mellotron T shirt that I spotted during 2014’s Resonance Festival in Balham, since these things began appearing in 2008 or 2009. I don’t like the juxtaposition of the font and the crown but it’s hard to pin down why it offends me so much. Fortunately, author and journalist Owen Hatherley has just done a piece for The Guardian in which he succinctly explains and justifies my hatred: probably resurrected as a joke this war-time phrase, seemingly innocent nostalgia, quickly took on a dark meaning as governments imposed austerity in response to the global financial crisis. From signifying that we should invoke the ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ as the poor, ill and disabled had their benefits cut and many had to rely on food banks, Hatherley coins the phrase ‘austerity nostalgia’ and suggests that the message is a return of the nostalgia of repression, when there was public spirit in the face of adversity; the real world is of course currently geared towards greed and selfishness.


Keep Calm and Carry On in all its countless forms encourages us to carry on consuming as though capitalism hadn’t just taken a massive shock and I find it somewhat ironic that Past Times, a UK retailer based on the purveyance of nostalgia (and therefore just the sort of place you’d see Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise) went into administration in 2012. Austerity nostalgia transports us back to a time between roughly 1930 and 1970, encompassing a period before the decline of the Empire and the post-war revival and social revolution where health and housing were provided by the state and the call from Harold Wilson for ‘a New Britain to be forged in the white heat of technology.’ Though the Beatles, the swinging sixties and the birth of progressive rock are covered by this time frame, we don’t appear to have been too successful in creating a better Britain through technology – government spending on R&D slumped below 0.5% in 2012. The privatisation of iconic council housing is a major contributory factor to the national housing shortage. My son came close to sharing a flat in Keeling House, a former Tower Hamlets council tower block designed by Denys Lasdun (completed in 1957.) Hatherley name checks this modernist masterpiece, an early example of a public asset being hived off to a private developer, as an illustration of how the romantic notion of design classics form part of this austerity nostalgia. The clean lines of the building (and an array of other iconic modernist edifices) have now been turned into limited edition prints and crockery to adorn the flats of hipsters, sold off by the local council and redeveloped by private equity barons. The reality is that Keeling House was emptied of council tenants in 1993 because of safety fears and was threatened with demolition; it was granted listed status that year but there was no council money to affect repairs and return it to the public housing pool.

Is the resurgence of vinyl part of this wave of nostalgia? It just about fits into the time frame and many diehard prog fans are now able to live their audiophile dreams, including me. I may have not been without a turntable since 1978 but I chose to play CDs when there was sufficient material available on that format, eschewing LPs because of the convenience of their digital cousins. However, the miniaturisation of the artwork and sleeve notes was always a problem, most evident on dual format releases like the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (1989); I bought the CD and struggled with the insert.

My short-lived semi-retirement allowed me to indulge in an upgraded hi-fi to fit in our upgraded dining room but the problem of the through lounge/diner, the inability for different family members to indulge in separate, different leisure pursuits (TV, and for me, music) meant that I needed a new pair of headphones...

I last owned a pair of closed back headphones between (about) 1976 and 1983. I don't remember the make but the sound quality was far better than that from the speakers that came with our Philips stereo deck. Like much of that record player, the speakers were housed in plastic and the slide volume and tone controls matched the slide volume controls on my cans! I can’t remember why I referred to headphones as cans, other than it was an adoption of a term used by professionals. I also assume that Rick Wakeman’s adaptation of Brahms 4th symphony is called Cans and Brahms (from Fragile, 1971) because of the headphone association with recording. My headphones may have originally been used for their designated purpose but in addition I used to take them to student discos to obscure the music and later used them in lieu of a microphone when making primitive recordings with friends. A few years after their demise I requested a pair of headphones for Christmas and my wife very kindly bought me a Sennheiser HD414 Anniversary Edition which are on their third set of foam pads but still going.


Towards the end of last year I noticed that the high frequency response of the 414s was causing a bit of distortion which is why I acquired a pair of wireless Sennheiser RS165s so I could listen to music while other members of my family watched TV; wireless because unlike in my youth where the comfy armchair was in easy reach of the headphone socket on the stereo, my new listening position, a gorgeous Barcelona chair, is on the opposite side of the room to my amplifier. I exercised some brand loyalty in my choice; I also have Sennheiser ear buds for my mp3 player and I'm happy with the quality of them, so the opportunity to buy the RS165s for £159 seemed like a good move. It was. The sound quality is exactly what you'd expect. Within the myriad forms of progressive rock are an amazing range of amplitude, frequencies and tones, all of which are handled with effortless clarity. Another reason for getting a good set of cans was so that I could follow the instructions inside Edgar Froese’s Aqua (1974) which features Gunther Brunschen’s artificial head system to produce binaural recordings, allowing the listener to perceive the direction of the sound source. The experience of listening to Aqua through closed ear cans was reminiscent of listening to Tangerine Dream through headphones in the dark when I was a teenager.




Headphones were helpful to discern song words when the speakers were located in shoulder high alcoves in a Victorian dining room which made putting your ear to the cone on the uncomfortable side of awkward, taking into account having to go back to the deck to lift and replace the tone arm to replay a section of track. Working out the words in the absence of a lyric sheet was something of a hobby, one that I don’t look back on with a warm and fuzzy feeling.







By ProgBlog, Dec 6 2015 09:34PM

I’ve now set up my new Rega RP3 and have started to put on vinyl in preference to my somewhat larger collection of CDs. My first record deck, bought from Comet within days of finishing work at Barrow’s Steelworks during the annual two-week shutdown in the summer of 1978 (when the UK still had a sizeable steel industry) was a Pioneer PL-514. This solid piece of kit had a heavy aluminium platter and a thick rubber mat and I really liked it. I wasn’t too fussed by the tone arm lifting at the end of an LP but it had a fairly basic design and I thought it sounded pretty good – I paired it with an Ortofon OM20 and though I passed this on to my brother-in-law in the mid 80s, I still have the original Pioneer screwdriver for attaching the cartridge.


The new Rega Planar 3
The new Rega Planar 3

When I was choosing my hi-fi I believed it important to stick to basics; there was a NAD turntable that came out shortly afterwards that could be played vertically but I thought that was rather gimmicky. The speed change on the Pioneer was a choice between 33 rpm and 45 rpm whereas the record player that I had been using, a sprung turntable in a walnut-finished stereogram, include 78 rpm and may even have had a 16 rpm selection. Neither of the two Regas I’ve owned have had speed selector and you have to manually move the drive belt if you want to switch between single and album formats; the default position is 33 rpm.

One of the defining features of progressive rock is that the music expanded beyond the constraints of the sub-3 minute single, allowing for development of ideas and sonic experimentation. It’s no coincidence that the time of progressive rock was also a golden period for album sales where the gatefold sleeve was a gateway to other worlds, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in intricate artwork and song words imbued with meaning.

I don’t believe I ever played a single on my old RP2 and I can’t play any on my RP3 because I don’t own any. I have bought singles in the past, the first of which was probably Solsbury Hill (1977) by Peter Gabriel, bought in lieu of his first album to see if I liked the material enough to warrant going to see him on his first solo tour. I did. My friend Bill Burford also dabbled in singles, though his first, And You and I, with Roundabout on the B side (1973) was played at 33 rpm. I seem to recall he later went on to buy Don’t Kill the Whale (1978) as a single because I was unimpressed with the B side, Abilene; it reached no. 36 in the UK charts. His next was Rock n Roll Star (1977) by Barclay James Harvest, from Octoberon, released the previous year. We’d been to Lancaster to see BJH during their Time Honoured Ghosts tour but Octoberon, like many releases by progressive rock bands at this time, had a more commercial sound than the earlier material. Rock n Roll Star reached no.49 in the UK single charts and earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops; though Wonderous Stories wasn’t really overtly commercial it was single-length and when Yes released that in 1977 it peaked at no.7 in the UK charts and appeared on Top of the Pops on more than one occasion but I had no need to buy the single because I already owned the album. There was also no need to rush out to buy Camel’s Highways of the Sun, the single released from Rain Dances (1977). This radio-friendly number was somewhat at odds with the jazzier and experimental tracks on the album but it still didn’t manage to climb into the Top 50. It was undeniably Camel at their most melodic and was only as concise as the other material yet, though the sleeve notes for the 1991 CD reissue suggest otherwise, it does seem to possess a commercial or accessible quality that’s not present on the other songs. What I did buy was the Genesis Spot the Pigeon EP, left-over material from Wind and Wuthering (1976) that reached no. 14 in the singles charts in 1977. The two tracks on side A are very throwaway, especially Pigeons. Match of the Day is slightly better and it’s these two songs that give rise to the title of the EP, a play on the ‘spot the ball’ football competitions. Side B is a very different kettle of fish, where Inside and Out, the only one of the three songs to feature Steve Hackett in the song writing credits, hints at early Genesis and includes enough changes of mood to warrant its inclusion on Wind and Wuthering in place of the uninspiring, insipid Your Own Special Way, a track that even more than Afterglow signposts the direction that Genesis would take following the departure of Hackett.

I bought Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (1979) from Elpees in Bexley when I was a first year student on the same day that I bought a Deutsche Grammophon release of Handel’s Water Music. I have claimed that I bought it for the use of the syndrum but I think that I had to get it because I’d threatened to buy it and friends Jim Knipe and Mark Franchetti probably didn’t believe me; I also attended an Ash Wednesday mass because I said I’d go as a joke and Mark didn’t believe me. I didn’t play Ring My Bell very often and it’s long since been despatched to a charity shop, though I can still sing along when I hear it on the radio...

I lived at various addresses in Streatham during my final undergraduate year and for the first couple of years as an employee of the National Blood Transfusion Service and picked up singles by The Enid and Marillion from the bargain bin an independent record store.



Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single
Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single

These were picture sleeve editions of Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean (from 1980) and Garden Party b/w Margaret (from 1983) respectively. Marillion managed to get to no. 16 but the humorous 665 The Great Bean, containing the lyrics “the discos in heaven all shut at eleven and they only serve pop in the bar, sir. I’ll put you at ease with some good Lebanese, a blue film and two or three jars, sir” and sung to the tune from The Devil (from In the Region of the Summer Stars) failed to trouble the singles chart compilers. Though not over-impressed by the live recording of Margaret I did rather like the attack on elitism in Garden Party, the lyrical content in general and some great musicianship. I could see where the accusations of imitating Genesis came from but that was really only a small part of the music; I loved Pete Trewavas’ trebly, staccato bass lines. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that it took me so long to buy any of their albums. Also in the bargain bin were copies of UK’s Nothing to Lose and I did feel that perhaps I ought to have supported the band by buying a copy, even though I already owned Danger Money (1979) and Night After Night (1979).

Throughout my youth I resisted the urge to by the odd prog single that I didn’t own on album, unable to reconcile their value and cost; I did splash out on two Asia 12” singles, at £0.99 each from the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1984 or 1985 that I gave to two girlfriends. They were the last singles I ever bought and one remains in my household; one went to my wife-to-be Susan. I think she might like Asia’s music more than me...


Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain
Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain




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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