ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM

Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.


A witch hunt is never a good idea
A witch hunt is never a good idea

Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.


Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill
Civil Defence bunker, Abbot's Wood Hill

Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.


Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978
Bonfire Night, Loring Hall 1978

Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.


In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.


Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.

A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.


The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.



With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.


Halloween by Pulsar
Halloween by Pulsar

According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....









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, May 7 2017 06:11PM

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

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

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



Inside the Design Museum
Inside the Design Museum

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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



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

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







By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM

Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.

I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.



In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.


Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.

The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).




But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.






By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2016 09:20PM

I’ve just taken receipt of the Anderson/Stolt LP Invention of Knowledge and, sitting in my Barcelona chair with the gatefold sleeve open in my hands, I’m transported back to the mid 70s.


TV plays a balanced part in my life although the ability to call up 24 hour news or watch catch-up programmes on mobile devices means that breaking news or doing something else the same night that Brian Pern is scheduled means I never miss anything I want to see. In reality, programmes I’m missing in real time are conveniently recorded on a TiVo box and I get pretty sick of 24 hour news streaming where the anchors frequently have to ad-lib as some sort of live action reaches an impasse and the scrolling red ribbon runs on an ever quicker cycle, complete with uncorrected spelling errors. I think there are too many channels, most of which peddle meaningless nonsense, cheap programming and repeats. I may have watched a little too much TV in the 70s but at least broadcasting was restricted to three terrestrial channels where, despite the airing of tired, formulaic situation comedies and crass game shows, it appeared that on the BBC at least there was some thought about what was shown.

I was at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday, attending a very enjoyable presentation called Transport as Architecture: Ballard to Banham that featured three short films: Crash! directed by Harley Cokeliss from 1970 that featured JG Ballard himself along with Gabrielle Drake (who I remember as Lieutenant Gay Ellis from Gerry Anderson’s UFO which ran from 1970-1973); The Thing Is... Motorways, part of a 1992 Channel 4 ‘talk show’ series by Paul Morley which also included short contributions from JG Ballard; and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles from 1972, in which the writer, critic and Professor of Architectural History drove around LA in search of interesting features to show to tourists. Both Cokeliss and Morley were present to introduce their pieces and, despite his writing for the NME from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, I hold a sneaking admiration for Morley, not because he’s a northerner (he was born in Farnham, Surrey), but because he has some interesting things to say and his taste in music is pretty eclectic; I thought that some of the music that accompanied his documentary, a short piece of electronica, was like a Mancunian take on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn only inspired by the Preston by-pass section of the M6. Before the films I flicked through a somewhat small collection of soundtracks on re-released vinyl in the BFI gift shop and, alongside Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to the harrowing The Killing Fields, was an LP from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


The Radiophonic Workshop was a revolutionary sound effects unit created in 1958, originally to provide sound effects for radio programmes which became most famous for recording Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme in 1963. The creators and contributors included trained musicians with an appreciation of musique concrète and tape manipulation and their rooms at Maida Vale are reported to have looked more like an electronics laboratory than a routine recording studio. The pioneering work was carried out by some memorable names including Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. A synthesizer designed by Oram, where sounds and compositions were produced by drawings, featured in BBC Technology news last week and forms the centrepiece of an exhibition Oram to Electronica at the Science Museum in London. A mini-Oramics machine, based on original plans but never completed during her lifetime, has just been completed by a PhD student from Goldsmiths College and though there are now apps that mimic the principle it predated sequencing software and, if the machine had been available in 1973, it could have changed the way music was taught and performed.

Strange electronic noises are very suited to science fiction and the inception of the Radiophonic Workshop coincided with the rise in popularity of SF, from radio serials Quatermass and the Pit to Douglas Adams’ immensely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which later translated to television, as well as shows like Dr Who.

One area where the BBC excelled was in its children’s programming. I distinctly remember a drama series, based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson and first broadcast in 1975 called The Changes. This near-apocalyptic vision was notable for its pro-integration message, being one of the first programmes to feature Sikhs, making it genuinely progressive. The excellent theme music was by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which I seem to recall was available as a 45rpm single, but which wasn’t stocked by any of the record stores in Barrow. The long-running Blue Peter which at one time featured Barrovian Peter Purves (I used to deliver papers for his parent’s newsagents on the corner of Oxford Street and Furness Park Road) included an updated theme tune performed by Mike Oldfield that was available as a single, reaching no. 19 in the charts in 1979 and raising money for the Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. Another BBC children’s programme was Horses Galore, presented by Susan King which had a relatively short run, from 1977 to 1979. I’ve got no idea why I would watch a programme about horses, not being interested in equestrian pursuits and having once been bitten on the shoulder by Nicola Richardson’s horse, but the theme music was Pulstar by Vangelis from Albedo 0.39 (1976).

There was a lot of instrumental progressive rock around at the time and I thought that some of this should be used for items on BBC TV’s regional news and current affairs programme Nationwide that was shown immediately after the early evening so I wrote to them in December 1976, prompted to put pen to paper because I’d detected a snatch of Echoes on Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man, providing them with a list of suggestions. I don’t believe they took any notice but I did get a standard postcard in reply.


I was reminded of this when I read Rick Wakeman’s programme notes for his recent appearance at the Stone Free Festival; the Arthur theme was used by the BBC for Election Night specials on a number of occasions, a very fitting use of the music.

Yorkshire TV, one of the Independent Television company franchise holders ran a science-based show called Don’t Ask Me from 1974 to 1978 which used House of the King by Focus as a theme tune and exposed panellists David Bellamy (botany), Miriam Stoppard (medicine) and Magnus Pyke (natural sciences) to a wide audience. Pyke came across as the archetypal mad scientist and it was his unforgettable manner that was largely responsible for the success of the series, such that a large proportion of my generation will think of Don’t Ask Me rather than Focus when they hear the song.

Holiday was a long-running BBC programme that began in 1969, featuring reports from holiday destinations around the world. I think it was broadcast on a Sunday in the early evening and it was therefore something that could be watched while eating an informal Sunday tea. I’d bought Gordon Giltrap’s Visionary shortly after it was released in 1976 and bought the subsequent album, Perilous Journey when that came out in 1977. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Heartsong used as the theme tune for Holiday ’78 and it continued to be used until replaced by an unpopular piece by Simon May in 1985. Interestingly, the ITV holiday reviews show Wish You Were Here? (essentially a rip-off of Holiday) used Giltrap’s The Carnival as a theme tune.

One of the best original theme tunes was by Greenslade for the gritty BBC crime drama Gangsters (appearing on Time and Tide, 1975.) I think I saw the programme before hearing the album, immediately recognising the twin keyboard work of Daves Greenslade and Lawson. Set around Birmingham and originally a one-off Play for Today in 1975, this was the most lifelike screen violence I’d seen and was genuinely gripping.

Like The Changes, it’s a lost gem with excellent title music.







fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time Il fuoco sstto la cenere