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

By ProgBlog, Sep 23 2015 04:06PM

I’m currently reading Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) and thoroughly enjoying it; I’ve just reached the part where Wyatt becomes paralysed after falling out of a window at Lady June’s party on 1st June 1973. This was just after Wyatt had asked Nick Mason to produce the third album by a reconfigured Matching Mole, the original line-up having been disbanded by Wyatt after the release of Little Red Record (1972) because he found himself unable to take the decisions required of a band leader. This time point coincides with the start of my interest in music; in June 1972 I had no idea what I liked but by August I’d noticed there was a qualitative difference between Chinn and Chapman pop and the art-rock of Roxy Music. It wasn’t until much later in the 70s that I started to collect Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt related material but the first time I came across Wyatt’s music was a performance of I’m a Believer on Top of the Pops in the autumn of 1974, made more intriguing by the presence of Nick Mason and his ‘wave’ drum kit; I also seem to recall that Wyatt sung with his eyes closed. By this time I’d been become a regular reader of Melody Maker and New Musical Express so I had some idea of how well he was regarded as a musician.

Never mind his inability to hand out orders, he’d also proved unable to take them towards the end of his time in Soft Machine and though his departure from that band represented the end of a chapter in the Softs’ history, in reality the band had changed dramatically over that time going from pop psychedelia to power trio to to big band septet to jazz rock quartet so that none of the first four albums sounded alike. Third (1970) was released after the line-up had stabilised as a quartet (the septet never committed to the studio) and Fourth (1971) was performed by the same personnel. The difference between the two albums is creative input from Wyatt. Fourth had no Wyatt-penned material and though limited to one track (the entire side three of the original Third LP), Moon in June is essentially a Wyatt pop song, albeit a very clever one and it indicated the future course of the drummer; the ensemble hardly contributes and there’s a guest musician, Veleroy Spall, who adds violin. O’Dair suggests that Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge really didn’t like the vocals but also demonstrates that Wyatt’s preferred direction was back to song-based material, making the split inevitable. I can detect continuity between Moon in June and the eponymous Matching Mole debut that was released in 1972.

Fourth demonstrates Elton Dean pulling the band towards free jazz and it was only after I’d discovered jazz rock and fusion and subsequently lost faith in the sub genre that I thought William Burroughs’ term ‘soft machine’ meaning the human body, was no longer appropriate as a moniker. I think that at the beginning of the fusion movement, with jazz musicians moving towards rock and rock musicians moving towards jazz, the spark of creativity produced some incredible music. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew / In a Silent Way period, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever uncovered new musical ground to populate but eventually technique became valued above all else. The jazz rock of Fourth may have been cerebral but it was disconnected from warmth and feeling; I prefer the organic nature and humour of Matching Mole and Little Red Record. It’s not really surprising that Wyatt should return to a song format with his own band, encouraged by Dave Sinclair, and reusing material like Instant Pussy that was originally aired in 1969.

The trajectory of Gong, originally fronted by ex-Soft Machine Daevid Allen who instilled a sense of mischievous fun into music, evolved from space rock psychedelia into very slick jazz rock similar to that produced by Soft Machine in the mid-late 70s, Allen being jettisoned during the process. First coming to my attention when Camembert Electrique was reissued by Virgin in 1974 for the price of a single, I subsequently picked up Time is the Key (1979) on cassette from the bargain bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1981 to discover a very different sound. It’s only since then that I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces: You (1974); Shamal and Gazeuse! (both 1976.) Similarly, from being the long-time owner of only one Soft Machine album Softs (1976) that I picked up for £1.99 in Virgin in January 1982 and having been donated a copy of The Soft Machine (1968) that I can no longer find, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to move to complete the collection.

It’s the coincidence of filling in the gaps at the same time that allowed me to hear the similarities but it’s no coincidence that there’s one individual who appears at the pivotal time point in both bands – Allan Holdsworth.

Apart from some Kevin Ayers guitar on the first Soft Machine album, the band eschewed guitar in favour of keyboards and saxophone, until Holdsworth was recruited for Bundles (1975.) Holdsworth’s guitar style is instantly identifiable, with fluid, fast melodic runs and a unique tone. I’d first come across him on the first Bruford album and subsequently on the first UK album (both 1978) and I bought a battered second-hand copy of the first Tempest album featuring Holdsworth, from a flea market in Crystal Palace sometime in the mid 80s. I also managed to get to see him play at the 100 Club as part of Plough with Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Gordon Beck in the early 80s that I described as ‘complex, challenging music’ in a letter to my brother Tony. Superimposing the guitar over the almost mathematical keyboard work of Karl Jenkins (with Ratledge becoming less involved) added a degree of feeling to what I described as ‘sterile’ jazz rock; Bundles and Softs, where Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge, were the only high points after Third. Perhaps the parallels between Soft Machine and Gong aren’t so surprising when you consider their origins and shared members. Daevid Allen may have left Soft Machine when he was unable to return to the UK with the rest of the band after some gigs in France, so he formed Gong with a group of largely French musicians; the inclusion and subsequent leadership of tuned percussionist Pierre Moerlen, during which phase Holdsworth was part of the band, was characterised by jazz percussion which was used to play fast, melodic, extended and repeated riffs, much as keyboards were used by Soft Machine. Even today, the Gong-Soft Machine cross-pollination continues with Theo Travis.



By ProgBlog, Sep 25 2014 07:12PM

I’ve just had a birthday and was fortunate to receive a remarkable number of prog-related presents in the form of CDs, DVD and Books.

Andy Latimer announced at Camel’s Barbican show last year that it was being filmed for release and I’m now the proud owner of that DVD, In from the Cold. The ‘big’ present was The Road to Red, which is a really well-packaged box set – I haven’t had time to listen to any of it yet. Also new to my collection were Product by Brand X, an album I’d only possessed as a home-recorded tape before, which as some really good material but also has two weak, very Phil Collins solo album-like tracks that detract from some amazing playing; a 40th anniversary Darwin! by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso that contains a CD of the album performed live in 2012; the Oliver Wakeman solo album The Three Ages of Magick featuring Steve Howe which shows the virtuoso keyboard playing has been inherited from his father to such a degree that the synth solos are indistinguishable from those performed by Wakeman senior. This has a sonic connection to his father’s New Age output and another genetic trait seems to be an inability to fully realise some of the very good musical ideas, such that some tracks come across as a little aimless. This is a criticism that has been levelled at dad Rick, too, but I think it’s partly to do with band dynamics, the what you bring to a song to make the whole better than the individual parts; Three Ages is a solo effort, not music by committee. I also got Alt, Van der Graaf Generator’s experimental offering from 2012, a vocal-less set of edits and out takes that sort of calls to mind the somewhat maligned disc 2 of Present, but I can quite imagine this being classed as jazz. I also got some classic progressivo Italiano, Searching for a Land by the New Trolls, nicely repackaged by BTF, and a more recent offering from La Torre dell’ Alchimista, their second album Neo (2007) that is true to the spirit of RPI and 70s prog in general, with lengthy multi-part songs and plenty of classic analogue instrumentation. I also got the eponymous Let Spin CD, a showcase for the both the writing and playing of the four members. This is quality modern jazz played at a high tempo with a hefty dose of improvisation. This comes in a three panel cardboard gatefold sleeve with artwork by bassist Ruth Goller. If I have a choice, I like to buy CDs with mini album sleeves rather than the universal jewel case. I also like CD books, whether they conform to similar dimensions to a jewel case (Focus X; Journey to the Centre of the Earth) or if they are more book-like (my two new BMS acquisitions; Mainstream by Quiet Sun). Whatever the format, they don’t fit in my CD storage! In the week following my birthday I received the latest CD from Bill Burford’s band, the east Cumbrian-based Water’s Edge, entitled Silent Applause. This isn’t prog but Bill, the drummer in the first band I was in, has carved a niche as an intelligent adult rock musician and Water’s Edge feature a fair proportion of poignant social commentary.

I also got some prog-related books including a signed copy of Michael Rutherford’s The Living Years. I’ve always felt that Rutherford, despite his post-Hackett Genesis lead guitar playing when Genesis had become a soft-rock band, was very much a background figure. I’ve deliberately set out to listen out for his bass parts and concluded that there’s nothing flashy about his playing; it does what it has to do and it fits in well with what the other band members are doing, whether it’s short runs or his staccato style. He’s solid but not inspiring. His writing style is rather similar and the book comes across as a kind of print version of a family tree TV programme such as BBC TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?. He did once get a speeding ticket in Texas... Actually, his 12-string work with both Genesis and with original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips forms a very fitting part of the structure, in the context of the early, pastoral songs.

I didn’t own any books specifically about ELP until I received Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The Show That Never Ends by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew for my birthday. I read Keith Emerson’s Pictures of an Exhibitionist and then I gave it away; I’ve got Martyn Hanson’s Hang on to a Dream: The Story of the Nice, so I’m not expecting any great revelations but I am looking forward to getting into that... I think that I’ve got a copy of the forthcoming biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time by Marcus O’Dair, when it comes out at the end of October. I’m fascinated by Wyatt’s music and politics and, though he now appears to have attained the status of ‘national treasure’, I think that his opinions on the industry, life and music in general are totally relevant and valid.

One more new book that has just been added to my collection is Jerry Lucky’s 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock. Apparently, and I’m sure my wife won’t mind me revealing this, the book has been spotted for £275 on Amazon but she got it, off the shelf, for £10. The seller suggested that the cover might be marked with some indentations but it really is in very good condition. I’ve used two of Lucky’s guides to progressive rock and, for the most part, they’ve been reliable indications of the quality of the music; they’ve certainly been helpful when I’ve gone off to Spain, France, Australia and even Italy to help me seek out indigenous prog.

This offering is an alphabetical list of the top 50 most influential prog bands. It expands on his history of each band in the Files and Handbook and provides his reasons why the bands are influential. Everyone is going to have their own personal preference so I’m not too worried that his choice doesn’t exactly coincide with mine – that’s one of the great things about fans of progressive rock. But I’m not sure that the text can have been proof-read because the grammar is very poor and, more worryingly, is the absence of checking of facts. Who let him publish a history of the Floyd with repeated reference to Dave Gilmore?

Pink Floyd obviously have a place in the top 50 most influential prog bands because their early material and studio mastery inspired many other bands. Gilmour’s guitar is very distinctive and they’ve made history with album chart longevity, so why the schoolboy error? That’s a hard question to answer, especially as Lucky began hosting a prog radio show, Exposure, over 35 years ago and is a renowned collector of progressive and psychedelic music. There’s a passing reference to Marc Bolen and his history of PFM, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant are spoiled by what I’d regard as terrible mistakes. Apparently, John Weathers took up drumming duties for Gentle Giant in 1976 for the Interview album... What does that say about the mini-biographies of the bands I don’t know very well?

I frequently flick through his Progressive Rock Handbook (which is more up-to-date than his Files) and I’ve noticed that he sometimes refers to other people’s impression of bands. There’s no shame in that as it would be almost impossible to have examples of music from all the bands he lists; it’s just good research and I’m thankful for him suggesting that RPI band Celeste would appeal to people who like Finisterre. This has opened up a whole world of Fabio Zuffanti projects for me to seek out and enjoy.


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