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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

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, Apr 20 2014 07:18PM

In the early 70s, radio was a vital medium which began to play an increasingly important role in my interest in prog. Though BBC Radio 3 was primarily dedicated to classical music, the Sunday Times journalist Derek Jewell hosted a not to be missed programme called Sounds Interesting that featured jazz and progressive rock bands, but it was Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on Radio 1 which aired from 1973 until 1978 that provided the best introduction to new acts to buy into. We were allowed to use a large Grundig stereogram in ‘The Big Room’ normally reserved for entertaining guests, probably to keep the noise to a minimum. This stereogram was more like a piece of furniture than a radio, but the speakers were of a decent quality and the walnut-finish wooden construction produced a warm tonal response. The sprung turntable was hardly at the cutting edge of hi-fi but it was certainly adequate. We cemented our claim on this piece of equipment by buying a new stylus, being unaware of its previous history, and prided ourselves on our careful handling of any vinyl. If we borrowed a record we would take great care of it, and if we lent one of ours to a friend, we expected that they would take as good care of it as we would ourselves. In reality our hopes were sometimes dashed: one friend left a borrowed copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth above a radiator, reducing it to something like a timepiece in Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory.


The Saturday afternoon radio sessions were often accompanied by a scouring of one of the UK’s weekly music papers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, or (less commonly) Sounds that we’d bought in town earlier that day. At the time progressive rock was big business and consequently these papers carried many column inches of information about acts we were interested in, and also acts that might potentially interest us. Melody Maker originally concentrated on jazz, and though at first rather dismissive of rock and roll, in the early 70s it became quite sympathetic to prog, particularly the writers Richard Williams and Chris Welch who raised the standard of writing on the subject of popular music. I always preferred the professionalism of MM and felt that NME journalists were rather fickle, likely to follow any trend in the hope of appearing ‘hip.’ The NME was more likely to champion straight forward rock acts and espouse the Dionysian values of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in the mid 70s it was quick to latch on to punk and new wave and embark upon some serious dinosaur bashing, advocating the view that exponents of progressive rock were class traitors with an unhealthy obsession for high culture. I have to admit to subscribing to the view that prog did represent high culture, whether it was the symphonic sound of Yes, the politically driven stridency of Henry Cow or the electronic musing of Tangerine Dream, this was all thought-provoking and often challenging music, aimed at the head and not the heart (or genitals.) I wasn’t interested in rock for its rebelliousness (which has since been shown to involve a great deal of hypocrisy as acts like the Rolling Stones are now firmly embedded within the establishment); I was interested in the possibilities of the music. Henry Cow were anti-establishment and unashamedly complex and for me, the prog ethos reflected a philosophy of expanding an understanding of art, literature and science, not simply a ‘get your rocks off’ base instinct.


The inclusion of lengthy instrumental passages meant prog was increasingly able to be used as the soundtrack to documentary pieces on TV. In 1973 Jacob Bronowski included a short section of Echoes in the Generation Upon Generation episode of his seminal series The Ascent of Man on BBC television. The accompanying clip was of two stags fighting for the right to mate with a female and it seemed to me that it was a fitting piece of music for the subject. Pink Floyd were even credited at the end of the programme. My feeling was obviously not without reason. Will Romano suggests that Echoes is as much as song about Darwinism and instinctual knowledge as about human connectedness. In 2010, Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine presented a television programme entitled My Father, The Bomb and Me in which she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. She had discovered that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and wondered how she could reconcile this piece of information with the loving father that she remembered. Whether by accident or design, she used Pink Floyd as incidental music.


In December 1976, imagining that I knew it all, I wrote to the editor of the daily television news programme, Nationwide, suggesting a number of prog instrumentals that could be used as music for their documentary features. I was a little disappointed to get a post card in reply with the stock phrase “Thank you for your recent letter to NATIONWIDE. The Team are always interested to hear from individual viewers in this way and are grateful to you for taking the trouble to write.” I don’t recall ever hearing any of my suggestions being played.


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