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I had previously thought that the 80s was a bleak time for prog, but a conversation in my local retro-homeware, fashion and vinyl shop made me think again. I didn't embrace neo-prog at the time, though I did dabble. A reappraisal of the importance of that music, starting about 10 years ago, together with the discovery of a range of Italian neo-prog bands, has made me change my mind. About time, too...

By ProgBlog, Jun 18 2018 03:41PM

In addition to progressive rock, I harbour an interest in architecture and last Saturday I signed up to a London Society lecture by Urban Design academic Dr Jane Clossick ‘The Plan for London and the Concrete Better World’ at London Metropolitan University. Highlighting her talk with pertinent case studies to explore themes of civic, economic, social and architectural change, she began with Abercrombie’s Plan for London (1943-44) which represented a shift from cities simply growing around people to the modernist notion that man was able to plan the city using the view from above, with pedestrians and vehicles spatially separated and distinct zones for industry, commerce and housing, with the housing soaring above the smog of the city. Her enthusiasm for this unique phase in the history of the capital’s architecture and how it has left its indelible print on the urban grain of the city was not a straightforward paean to concrete because she was dismissive of some of the social housing schemes, citing the deliberate design of spaces which had not historically featured in neighbourhoods and how these became the focal points for antisocial behaviour; what she did admire was the idea of the Southbank which facilitated access to high culture for all social strata.



I’ve previously blogged about the mistaken idea that progressive rock was elitist, personally believing that efforts to bridge high culture with popular culture coincided with a flourishing of civic architecture in concrete and that a wave of expansion of higher education institutions, often featuring iconic buildings in concrete, created a particular zeitgeist that allowed prog to develop. I found myself surrounded by the former-imprinted concrete of the Southbank again last week, to hear the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal performing pieces for David Bedford at 80 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Bedford died from lung cancer aged 74, in October 2011; he would have been 80 this August.



Bedford was one of the foremost proponents of providing universal access to high culture, whether through his best known work, orchestrating Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and his time as arranger and keyboard player for Kevin Ayres’ The Whole World or with his approach to composition; charts using pictures, rather than staves and notes and advocacy for unusual instrumentation, employing balloons, kazoos and even suggesting at one time that cans of dog biscuits were just as good as maracas.

One of the pieces last Tuesday was Orchestral Tubular Bells, marking a return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Bedford with Oldfield’s music; Bedford played keyboards for an ensemble created to promote Tubular Bells in the Hall a month after it had been released in 1973, alongside Oldfield and a cast of musicians associated with Virgin Records, including John Greaves and Fred Frith of Henry Cow and Steve Hillage from Gong.


My interest in the work of Bedford was first sparked by Oldfield’s 1974 sophomore release Hergest Ridge when I bought it in 1975. It remains my favourite Oldfield album, largely because it seems to have been influenced by the style of Romantic composers, its development and execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. Around this time I’d have also picked up the sleeve of Star’s End (1974) and later Instructions for Angels (1977) while browsing in record stores, though I never bought either record. In my opinion, developed over the last 45 years, Bedford’s scoring and arrangement for Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975) is the best example of seamless blending of rock group and orchestra but it was The Song of the White Horse, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978 which most made me appreciate his music. The programme showed Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it, interspersed with footage of him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission. He utilised a small ensemble with brass and strings, borrowed Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge to help out on keyboards, and used the hand-picked female Queen’s College choir from his place of work and even employed another avant garde innovation, helium gas to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s vocals by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s) as the piece reached a climax of the libretto, GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse celebrating King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in 870.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which were filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. One of my friends from university may have bought the Instructions for Angels LP in lieu of The Song of the White Horse, because the latter wasn’t available until 1983. It wasn’t until much later that I started to collect Bedford’s music; first a 1977 live recording of The Odyssey on CD which is a relatively formal rock piece, then Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon/The Song of the White Horse (1983) located at a second-hand vinyl fair in Brighton, and then The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), first on CD and subsequently on vinyl from a Brighton flea market.


Seduced by the promise of a performance of The Orchestral Tubular Bells though quite happy to experience any of Bedford’s music I’d not heard, I signed up to the concert well over a year ago; it was only later that I learned that we’d also be treated to Alleluia timpanis, Symphony No.1, and a guest composition, the world premiere of A Little Bit of Everything by Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner.

Alleluia timpanis was commissioned for the King’s Lynn Festival in 1976 and incorporates the medieval Alleluia psallat theme, a joyous, uplifting refrain that interrupts, and contrasts with an ominous four-note descending line that is varied, developed and inverted throughout the piece, which forms the finale of Instructions for Angels. It was a rather good introduction to the evening.


Programme notes written by Bedford’s daughter Tammy explain why Scanner’s work was included that evening; any celebration of his work had to include an acknowledgement of his support for fellow composers throughout his life, so commissioning someone whose compositional style was different from her father’s but who would be inspired by Bedford’s work, fitted in neatly with the idea of his 80th anniversary. Tammy Bedford had known Scanner since 2002 and was aware of his works created in response to other musicians, but also that he respected her father’s work, so he was invited to write a piece for the concert. Interviewed just before the composition was premiered, Scanner explained that A Little Bit of Everything wasn’t a cover version or arrangement of Bedford’s music, but used phrases from the works, much like Bedford himself had borrowed from other texts such as the Worcester Fragments in Alleluia timpanis, and presenting a form of time travel, highlighting the exploratory nature of Bedford’s compositions and combining the orchestra with live electronics played by Scanner himself, closing with synthesizers in a nod to Bedford’s use of the instrument in the mid 70s. The stage was mostly cleared for this piece, leaving only a small chamber orchestra with Scanner towards the edge of the platform on the left. In good Bedford tradition, the music brought the best out of the players, sounding fairly challenging though ultimately very satisfying. The one drawback was that from my seat, the electronics were a little under-mixed.


When I first took my seat and saw the musicians appear I was a little surprised that a conventional orchestra was being used for a celebration of David Bedford; it was less surprising to see multi-instrumentalist, composer, instrument designer and Stick Men guitarist Markus Reuter, whose compositions share some traits with Bedford’s, sitting in the row behind. For those who like their avant-garde, there had been a performance of Bedford’s Balloon Music 1 in the foyer using members of the public before the concert proper but Symphony No. 1 (1984) conforms to a more traditional compositional style than the works associated with his atonal avant-garde output and rock (specifically crossover prog), employing a strongly melodic, tonal approach. Sitting in the third row was the first time I’d been close enough to an orchestra to relate to the instrumentation with a clear view of the ensemble slightly raised above the floor of the auditorium. The BBC Concert Orchestra is not the biggest, with around 60 members on stage, but I found that being able to discern its organisation was helpful in discriminating how the piece had been scored, how the overall composition fitted together, and even how Bedford had so successfully blended Camel’s melodic progressive rock with (an unnamed) orchestra which I now see has his stamp all over it.



Orchestras have changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century, having expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the size and make-up dictated by the writing of prominent composers of the time who were in turn largely influenced by the possibilities of the instruments available to them. The clarinet was not invented until around the turn of the 18th century, so it doesn’t appear in accurate renditions of Baroque music and valves for brass instruments were not invented until the early 19th century, at which point there was a rapid growth in both the number and the prominence of trumpets and horns, coinciding with the Romantic period. As the number of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments increased, the size of each string section also increased in order to balance the output of the different sections of the orchestra.


Orchestral Tubular Bells was everything that I’d hoped for. I hadn’t heard the album since around the time of its release, but had to agree with the comment from Neil Jellis, who had organised the tickets for the evening, that if you hadn’t heard the original, the music could well have been a classical composition. It’s possible that Bedford’s arrangement, while true to the recording, was the spur to Oldfield’s remastering of the classic album in 2009 in an attempt to bring out buried layers; the orchestral version does this so well. One of the very few weak spots on the original, as much for the stomping rhythm as the vocals, is the ‘Piltdown Man’ section on side two, a nod to the perceived belief it was necessary to have singing on the album, which is covered much better by an orchestra. Another of the highlights was the guest appearance of Steve Hillage on guitar. There’s a brilliant YouTube clip of Hillage with the London Philharmonic playing Orchestral Tubular Bells at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974, causing consternation or confusion (or both) for one of the double bassists. Invited to play the music again, he had swapped his Stratocaster for a Steinberg GL2T, lost the woolly hat and wore his hair at a more conventional length. After a cautious start he provided a surprisingly clean-toned blues-heavy solo, before switching on the distortion and giving us a tantalising glimpse of his trademark glissando guitar at the end of his appearance. He left the stage to rousing applause while the orchestra ploughed into the Sailor’s Hornpipe section, and they too were given an ovation that may have taken some of them by surprise.



The possibilities afforded to composers since the birth of electronic instruments together with a willingness to explore different fields ensured that formal music progressed. The appropriation of classical music forms by rock musicians from the late 60s onwards marked the birth of progressive rock. David Bedford was equally at home in both camps, at the forefront of a movement ensuring that all forms of music could be appreciated by everyone and anyone.









By ProgBlog, Aug 13 2017 09:44PM


Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral

A cultural hot-spot in the middle of a largely agricultural county, (Kent was, up until 2006 when it was deposed by North Yorkshire, described as ‘the Garden of England’ thanks to a dish of Kentish cherries which particularly satisfied King Henry VIII) Canterbury is a city of surprises. Since geography lessons in the early 70s I had always assumed that the description ‘Garden of England’ was associated with agricultural output but the criteria now applied are much wider than the initial fame for orchards and allotments which won Kent its title. They now include scenery, hidden corners, village traditions and the variety of wildlife and Kent has lost its place because of perceived congestion, pollution and the adverse affects of over-building, plus a derogatory view of young, less-well off fashion slaves who, it is alleged, first appeared in Chatham; even the Channel tunnel rail link was considered to be a negative factor.

Most recently and dramatically, this provincial city which had returned a Conservative MP since the constituency was created in 1918 (prior to that it was the Canterbury borough where up until 1885 there were two seats) elected a Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, with a 45% share of the vote. Duffield ousted sitting MP of 30 years, Sir Julian Brazier by 187 votes. This stunning victory was due to two factors, the candidate herself who seems genuinely liked by the constituents, and the student vote – Canterbury is a university city and young people have been reconnected with politics thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s vision that there is a viable, alternative way of running the country. The promise of ending tuition fees was seen by some as a bribe but it’s clear that the current system for student finance is working neither for the students nor the loans company itself, with half of all students unlikely to pay back their loan in full and it has been argued by people like Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education and former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, that ending student tuition fees makes both economic and social sense. Furthermore, reneging on the promise would have been electoral suicide for Corbyn; does anyone remember Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems? A member of the public interviewed after the 2017 general election said that she never thought of Canterbury as a Conservative city and that her vote was vindicated, yet every other constituency in Kent has a Conservative MP and Canterbury is home to the Church of England.


It doesn’t have the feel of an especially devout place, either. There are probably more tourists on a pilgrimage to the shops, now that Sterling is so weak against the Euro, than there are who come to see the site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, though the 11th Century cathedral, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church, all part of a UNESCO World Heritage site are destinations worth seeking out for history and atmosphere. It’s not just the trainloads of schoolchildren arriving from France with matching laminated lanyards, part of the attraction of Canterbury is that is has an outward-looking vibe, welcoming everyone. The student adoption of Corbyn ideals fits nicely with this openness and even outside of university terms, the city feels surprisingly young.


Canterbury is of course the city associated with a particular sub-genre of progressive rock though some of the participants deny that such a construct really existed. What can’t be denied is that Soft Machine and Caravan were formed there and that Gong also has its roots in Canterbury. Original Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt knew Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Brian and Hugh Hopper through the Simon Langton School; Dave Sinclair also attended the school; and Daevid Allen lodged at Wyatt’s parents’ house near Canterbury. The forerunner of Soft Machine and Caravan was The Wilde Flowers, where the collective of musicians included Pye Hastings (Ayers went out with Hastings’ sister Jane); Richard Sinclair (who became friends with the Hoppers when they went to see Sinclair Sr. play in his jazz band); and Richard Coughlan (who was introduced to Hugh Hopper via a mutual friend in the Sea Cadets.) Egg (Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell and Clive Brooks) are classed as a Canterbury band despite having formed as Uriel when at the City of London School, along with fellow pupil Steve Hillage. When Hillage left to go to the University of Kent (at Canterbury) Uriel continued as a trio, got a record deal and were encouraged to change their name. The organ-heavy material has little in common with Caravan, though the overdriven keyboards do at times come into Soft Machine territory, but that’s hardly surprising since Stewart has acknowledged Ratledge as an influence. The psychedelia, whimsy and humour seemingly shared by Egg with the other two groups, was more a product of the times though they did share an interest in odd time signatures. Hillage would later join Gong (1973-75) for some of their most coherent material, having disbanded his own group Khan and played with Kevin Ayers in Decadence, appearing on Gong’s classic Radio Gnome trilogy.



If there is a Canterbury scene, then Hatfield and the North surely fit in, the result of a number of intertwining band histories. Well away from that geographical area of Canterbury, Delivery was formed in 1967 featuring Phil Miller on guitar, his brother Steve Miller on piano, Pip Pyle on drums, Jack Monck on bass and Carol Grimes on vocals. Steve Miller would replace Dave Sinclair in Caravan for Waterloo Lily (1972) and Phil Miller, who was a guest musician on Waterloo Lily joined Robert Wyatt in his post-Soft Machine Matching Mole, a band that originally included Dave Sinclair on keyboards; Wyatt introduced Pyle to Daevid Allen and the drummer went off to live and gig with Gong from 1971 to 1972.

The Hatfields first convened in 1972 and comprised Phil Miller, Pip Pyle, Dave and Richard Sinclair but the band only played a couple of gigs before Dave Sinclair left, deciding that he wasn’t best suited to lack of structure. His replacement, Dave Stewart, fitted perfectly and their two albums, the self-titled debut (1973) and The Rotters’ Club (1974) are both excellent examples of progressive rock tinged with complexity and jazz sensibility, and presented with a madcap humour. Tricky time signatures and nice melodic moments are linked together by Sinclair’s ever-so-English vocals; a collective of incredible writing skills from all four members. The branches of this scene spread out to a remarkable array of other musicians and groups, including Bill Bruford, Camel, Henry Cow and Mike Oldfield, none of which should be classed as part of the Canterbury sub-genre but which display links back to a fertile source of inspiration and musicianship.


It’s been a couple of years since I was last in the city and there’s noticeable change. My first shopping visit in 2007 (I had been a few times before that for meetings at the hospital) included a stop at the Fopp record store where I picked up two Syd Barratt CDs, and a stall in the indoor market where the owner had connections with the original Canterbury bands and I bought Hugh Hopper’s Two Rainbows Daily (with Alan Gowen) and Numero d’Vol on CD; by the time of my next visit, Fopp had gone into liquidation and had been replaced by an HMV and the indoor market stall had closed down so subsequent trips tended to focus on non-musical shopping and the odd bit of tourist activity. The difference this time was that I’d checked for record stores and their opening hours and found three I’d not previously been aware of. First stop was Vinylstore Jr (http://www.vinylstorejr.co.uk/), a new vinyl-only shop in Castle Street (which is close to Canterbury East railway station) which concentrates on new issue LPs but does have a small second-hand section.


It’s run by a very pleasant, helpful and knowledgeable chap called Nick who recognised the difficulty of providing a dedicated ‘Canterbury’ section in a shop selling new vinyl; there appear to be only two Caravan albums which have been rereleased as an LP, In the Land of Grey and Pink (the 40th anniversary edition remastered by Steven Wilson from 2011 which is actually a double LP with bonus tracks), and If I Could do it Again, I’d do it All Over You. The former was a limited pressing and there can’t be many available now and the latter is on the 4 Men with Beards label in the US (catalogue no. 4M239). There are reissues of a few Soft Machine albums on vinyl commencing in 2010, including the self-titled first album, Second and Third. I indulged in the latest Roger Waters album Is this the Life we Really Want? plus a 2017 reissue of On An On by a much more recent Canterbury-based band, Syd Arthur; Sound Mirrors and Apricity were also available. This quartet, now comprised of three Magill brothers and Raven Bush play mostly short, always intelligent and intricate songs washed with a gentle psychedelia which at times do call to mind Canterbury bands of the late 60s and 70s. The closest On An On comes to progressive rock (the group won the Prog Breakthrough Act award in 2014) is the rather wonderful Paradise Lost. After explaining to him the sort of music I liked, Nick pointed out one album and suggested that I listen to Melbourne psyche band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard latest release, Murder of the Universe. He was right that it’s more proggy than their previous work but it’s still a little too straight psyche for my taste.


Second stop was the almost all second-hand Soundz ‘n’ Sitez in St Peter’s Street, the main thoroughfare through the city heading towards the Westgate. Run by Paul and Jayson, the shop is absolutely rammed with crates of albums and a small comic collection, retained from the store’s previous incarnation, but still no dedicated section for ‘Canterbury’. It turns out that they knew the former stall-holder from the indoor market, Dave Radford, and that Radford used to be in a Canterbury prog band called Gizmo... ...and Gizmo had released a couple of albums in the past five years, a self-titled effort in 2012 and Marlowe’s Children, part 1: The Innocence from 2015. The band had also covered Van der Graaf Generator's House with No Door for a Mellow Records compilation. Available on two formats in the shop, I chose the limited edition Gizmo on vinyl. The shop has attracted a few famous visitors including Rick Wakeman, in town for a gig, who ventured in and signed some records.




The third stop was a like walking into a slice of history. Canterbury Rock has been around since around 1979 and is run by Jim, a former council gardener and Fairport Convention fan, even though this was the first time I’d managed to find it, out beyond Canterbury West station. The shop has second-hand records, CDs, DVDs and audio equipment and has housed small musical events. If you were fussy you might think the place shabby, but its collection of posters and memorabilia from all genres, none of which is for sale, provides a unique documentary of popular music from the 60s onwards. There are some treasures which remain out-of-sight, but if you engage Jim in conversation he’ll tell you some brilliant stories. The Sinclairs lived around the corner, and when I’d handed over my money for a couple of LPs, he showed me a rather unusual, slightly battered copy of Soft Machine’s Third, hidden somewhere behind the counter. Pasted inside was a Simon Langton School photo, with an arrow linking the sleeve photo of Mike Ratledge to a young Mike Ratledge in the school photograph.

Jim, if you read this, your website link doesn’t work.




This means there’s now a different reason to make the pilgrimage to Canterbury; three excellent independent record stores which cover subtly different markets. Some of the other touristy bits aren’t too bad either.













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, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



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