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, 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, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM

The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.



As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.

My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.

This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.

Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.



The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.


An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.

As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.



I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.

If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.


The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.







By ProgBlog, Aug 21 2016 08:07PM

When I arrived at The Lexington for the David Cross Band gig the week before last, I stopped at the merchandise stand and along with the excellent English Sun (2009) by David Cross and Andrew Keeling, I also procured Re-Collage, a live album by Tony Pagliuca and David Jackson with the Massimo Donà Quintet, progressivo Italiano being my thing and Le Orme’s Collage (1971) being regarded as the first true progressive rock album to be released in Italy. I put the two CDs in my jacket pocket and went off to the bar before the second performance of the evening, Davids Cross and Jackson with a challenging but fun set, It wasn’t until I got home to view my two purchases that I realised the CD was missing from the Re-Collage sleeve. My email to David C was passed on to David J who apologised, gave a plausible explanation and put a disc in the post for me.



The baroque-prog of the original album has been replaced by a much more jazz-inflected feel, imbued by Pagliuca’s fellow Venetian Donà, a jazz trumpeter (and philosopher) and the other members of the quintet. The sound on this recording is incredibly clear, taken from gigs in the north east of Italy in March 2004 and, without knowing how much rehearsing took place, remarkably tight. Apart from the Collage material, the ensemble tackles Theme One and We Go Now from the VdGG back catalogue and Frank Zappa’s G-Spot Tornado. The result is an enjoyable, different take on some classic Italian prog. It is also further demonstration of the prestige in which Van der Graaf Generator were held in Italy; Peter Hammill provided English lyrics for a Charisma (UK) release of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona and Jackson would go on to play with Osanna, one of the other greats of progressivo Italiano who incorporated Theme One into their live set.

I obviously make an effort to see the bands I follow in a live setting and am willing to go to some lengths to do so. The David Cross Band gig was close to my workplace though a combination of a (justified) strike by rail workers and unannounced engineering work (I have not heard any justification for this, which I suspect may have been a political move by track operator Railtrack to erode sympathy for the rail transport unions) meant that getting home was slightly more problematic than expected. Sometimes getting across London takes more time than (for instance) getting down to a gig in Brighton.

One issue that raises itself at concerts is the use of cameras or camera phones. I’m as guilty as anyone for transgression but I remain conflicted, willing to adhere to any request from the performers not to take pictures, restricting myself to photography of an empty set before the performance and the bow at the end of the show. We should all be there for the music and the experience and should not be concentrating on a small screen held between our faces and the group performing onstage but the importance of social media for promoting a musician’s activity, coupled with an insatiable human desire to share our experience, shifts any ambivalence towards amateur concert photography in the direction of being a necessary evil. Other than at the request of the group (think King Crimson: Keep your phones in your pocket. Have fun. Enjoy the moment. “Please come and *be* with the band and not with your smart phone and other weapons of mass distraction”) I do take photographs, though not incessantly. I’m not sure why my camera was taken away from me at a Yes gig a long, long time ago when equipment for bootlegging would surely have been a more important target. The smart phone is theoretically an easy medium to use for recording a show, along with the uncontrollable volume of crowd sounds but I’d really rather wait for the band, who frequently make their own, high quality, balanced recordings, to officially release the performance. Some venues have a ban on both audio and photographic recording equipment and this is fairly strictly though not necessarily efficiently policed by staff (the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican, the Fairfield Halls, for instance.) David Cross joked about audience photos before his concert (he welcomed them, in contrast with his erstwhile band mate) and Jon Anderson has also asked people taking photos to share them on social media; for smaller or independent acts it’s free publicity. It’s only polite to listen to the requests of those you’re going to see and hear but with progressive rock, you’re more likely to be required to concentrate on who is doing what. Why would you want to disturb those around you with the glow from your LED screen as you try to focus on the band instead of just watching and listening? Unfortunately, sometimes my memory needs a jog but I do feel pangs of guilt.

I’ve been at a number of concerts from which there’s been an associated official release and, whether I’m one of 1500 or one of 10000 people in the crowd, I feel a stronger bond between myself and the music. What makes a great live album? Of my favourites, there may be only one occasion I’ve attended the show where the release gets in my personal top 10 but this highlights the importance of the relationship between the performers and the audience. I think that recording quality is essential to get across the musical content though the material selected for the release has to be sufficiently representative of the band up to that time; on a few occasions I’ve bought a live album as an introduction to the recorded work of a group and this has encouraged me to become better acquainted with someone’s back catalogue.

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been happy with the sound quality, so when the tapes that made up the source material for that release were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be only slightly stricter than the content of the Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, presented in a sonically true manner.



Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs
Roger Dean's paintings for Yessongs

Beating the bootleggers, maintaining an income stream and remaining relevant in a cut-throat industry was achieved by Robert Fripp by releasing archive material through official DGM releases and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Road to Red and Starless box sets and the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 and it became something of a treasured possession even after the appearance of the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition on CD. I used to blast this out of my room at university, posing with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM.

Actually, it’s pointless attempting to list my favourite live recordings in any sort of merit-based order. Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album; Playing the Fool (1977) is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette; Camel’s A Live Record (1978) has the sumptuous RAH Snow Goose performance plus a collection of some of their most memorable back catalogue up to that time, and the 2002 remastered and expanded CD was an even better potted history of the band; Genesis Live (1973) was my introduction to the band and I still think it’s the best collection of their early material in a live setting even though it’s only a single LP, because of the presence of Peter Gabriel.

I could go on but I’ll just mention one last release recorded with me in the audience (and possibly featuring, albeit too small to make out, on the sleeve.) Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... I can tell him: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. Great gig, great live recording of the gig.

Photographs taken at a performance and recordings of live shows allow you, in your own time, to revisit some great moments, frozen (these days, digitally) in time. As real-time memory fades, these aides-memoire can transport us to a time when prog ruled the earth.






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, Apr 26 2016 08:52PM

The desire amongst modern prog bands for the authentic sounds of the 70s has led to a mini revolution in digital samples. The unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance, a recent example of which was the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård performing at the Resonance Festival in 2014, meant that anyone who favours the sound of the Beast is now better off utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards which have the bonus of considerably less mass to move around. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from minimoogs to polymoogs when he rejoined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the sounds he utilised lacked substance and the same goes for the Emerson sound with the Yamaha GX-1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1. Minimoogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.


Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014
Emanuele Tarasconi of Unreal City, Genoa May 2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of progressive rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard four years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015) plus the very recent Höstsonaten release Symphony No. 1 Cupid and Psyche (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes / Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the instrument, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but that particular keyboard tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.


The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.
The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as those for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, from sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tonebars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite. The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz, then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From the In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period Miles, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on minimoog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope.


Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron
Back cover of Moroccan Roll by Brand X showing Fender Rhodes and Mellotron

Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior pushes all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental pieces; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

The popularity of the Rhodes piano dipped at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself suffered as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997. It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.








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