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There’s now a new reason to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury; the city has three excellent independent record stores, two of them very new, which cover subtly different markets.

Some of the other touristy bits aren’t too bad either!

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, Apr 30 2017 11:20PM

The Crystal Palace was originally built in Hyde Park for the first World Exposition in 1851, a structure designed to be temporary with the exhibition, themed around the industry of all nations, lasting from April to October that year. The success of the venture, attracting 6 million visitors (and subsequently spawning a litany of world fairs, the most recent of which was Expo 2015 in Milan) prompted architect Joseph Paxton to look for a permanent home for his Crystal Palace. He had tried to have the building remain in Hyde Park but, aware that there was considerable opposition from within parliament, he busied himself raising £0.5m to form a company to buy the building and a new site for its reconstruction. The materials that made up the structure were bought from building contractors Fox and Henderson (who had lowered their original Hyde Park bid in return for ownership of the materials when the structure was dismantled at the end of the Great Exhibition); the land chosen was an area of wooded parkland on Sydenham Hill and the Crystal Palace reopened in 1854.


Joseph Paxton
Joseph Paxton

The remains of the Crystal Palace, which burned down in 1936, are in the suburb of Upper Norwood, an area falling into four London Boroughs: Bromley; Croydon; Lambeth and Southwark. I moved to Upper Norwood from Balham while working at the Blood Transfusion Centre in Tooting. During 1985 I shared a basement flat in Colby Road, opposite Gipsy Hill railway station, with fellow Barrovian Eric Whitton; my friend Jim Knipe lived on the ground floor with his girlfriend Amanda. I’d shared a flat in Beechcroft Close, Streatham with Eric and Jim during my last year at university, so this was something of a reunion. From bass/guitar/reed organ/tin plate jam sessions in 1981, with the recruitment of Alistair Penny in 1984 we evolved into BCC2 and in 1985, augmented by vocalist Shirley Singh, became HTLVIII and played a fifteen minute set on each of three nights as part of a community revue. This fledgling outfit fell apart because Eric moved out to Clapham and my bass was stolen when the flat was burgled while I was on holiday in Tenerife.



HTLV III  in 1985
HTLV III in 1985

A further Crystal Palace - Barrow connection was future Hairy Biker Dave Myers, another Goldsmiths’ graduate who lived a short way up Gipsy Hill. The cost of renting Colby Road wasn’t too high in the overall scheme of things, but the facilities were challenging. The bedroom, at the back of the flat, was rarely blessed with sunlight and was consequently somewhat cold, though it was apparently ideally placed to receive a Sunday morning pirate radio show, Alice’s Restaurant, despite the transmitter being somewhere in ‘East London’. Alice’s Restaurant became London’s biggest rock station but at the time I discovered it, I was only interested in the two hours of progressive rock that I could pick up on my Technics SA-101 receiver on Sunday mornings, where I first heard Caravan’s Nine Feet Underground in full and promptly set off to buy the Caravan collection Canterbury Tales which included that particular masterpiece.

At the time, Upper Norwood was hardly the most salubrious of areas but it had all the right amenities. Gipsy Hill station was very convenient for trips into London and I could use it to get to work on the days I was too lazy to cycle (Gipsy Hill is long and steep!) and there were some good pubs selling good beer (the Two Towers at the bottom of the hill and the Railway Arms half way up were regular haunts); the library on Westow Hill was extremely useful; the Tesco supermarket where we’d donate food to the families of striking miners; some good restaurants (Joanna’s and The Penny Excursion, the latter frequently changing hands and cuisine after I left the area); and Crystal Palace Park, including the site of the former Crystal Palace with its poorly barricaded entrance to the undercroft of the former High Level Station, a hidden vaulted space of beautiful Victorian brickwork (Grade II listed) and, for fans of palaeontology, the dinosaurs on islands representing different geological eras on the lower reservoir, creating a snapshot of paleontological understanding in the mid 19th century.




Crystal Palace dinosaurs
Crystal Palace dinosaurs

My time at Colby Road drew to a close when the shower in the ground floor flat above leaked into the hall and my hot water pressure became so low it wasn’t practicable to run a bath. The landlord was an unpleasant individual who wasn’t interested in getting things fixed, so I eventually left in the middle of one night and stopped paying him any rent.

Crystal Palace Park was also home to the National Sports Centre and athletics track. A couple of my school friends had spent some time training there in the mid 70s and I became a member for the squash courts and still play there today, though I now better appreciate the brutalist architecture (Grade II* listed) and the concomitant egalitarian nature of the facility, bringing affordable leisure facilities to local residents; a new People’s Palace on the site of the old. The FA Cup used to be held on the football pitch which was where the athletics stadium now stands and Crystal Palace FC used to play there from when they were founded in 1905 until they were relocated due to WW I and moved to current ground Selhurst Park in 1924. I’ve been supporting them, through all their ups and downs, since 1995.

Crystal Palace Bowl was the venue for the Crystal Palace Garden Party between 1971 and 1980, originally a concrete semi-dome structure with a small lake in front, located in a natural amphitheatre at the northern end of the park. Pink Floyd played there in 1971, featuring a band-only version of Atom Heart Mother and famously killing off all the fish in the lake when they attempted to inflate a giant octopus, pumping smoke into the water. Yes performed there in 1972, which must have been one of the first gigs for Alan White, and Rick Wakeman performed Journey to the Centre of the Earth during the 1974 Garden Party, where he used inflatable dinosaurs during The Battle but more dramatically, was admitted to hospital the day after the gig having suffered three minor heart attacks. He had intended to perform there again in June 2012 headlining a one day rock festival, but there were structural concerns over the stage and the event was cancelled.



This neatly brings us to the present. Upper Norwood has undergone something of a renaissance since the opening of the East London Line of London Overground in 2010. This linked West Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south to Dalston Junction in the north, via Surrey Quays and Canada Water. The ease of the commute to the City meant that the area was a prime site for gentrification and property prices were relatively low in the down-at-heel suburb; the parallels with Shoreditch (the Overground stops at Shoreditch High Street) are quite remarkable and it’s evident that hipsters have marked their territory around the Crystal Palace Triangle and that some of the old businesses have adapted to meet their needs. There used to be a rambling flea market down from Westow Hill, where amongst other things I picked up a copy of the 1972 debut LP by Tempest, featuring the extraordinary talents of the recently departed Allan Holdsworth. On the site of this former bazaar is Crystal Palace Antiques, where my wife likes to pick out reasonably priced art-deco items and I like to ogle the modernist furniture, at unreasonable prices, on the lowest of the four floors. There had been a spate of pub closures in the area but there’s now an even better selection, covering a huge range of real and craft beers. There used to be an ‘open mic’ gig every week in the White Hart (on the corner of Westow Street and Church Road) to which a friend from squash, a Brazilian drummer, invited me and although I brought along a plectrum, I felt I was too rusty to participate and I knew very little of the music they played.

There are a multitude of cafés and bars where it’s easy to find a decent lunch and a good coffee but there are also a couple of excellent second-hand record stalls. One is in Hayes Lane Market, a well kept secret just off Westow Street. Hayes Lane is a narrow, mews-like street where the terraced houses are resplendent with blooms and the market is a genuine flea market where it’s easy to while away many hours; the other is in the less well developed Church Road in the basement of Bambinos. Bambinos is run by Andy Stem and has been around for over 20 years, perhaps most famous for its leather jackets (the photo of Kate Moss by Mario Testino for Vogue.) Best of all, downstairs from the eclectic mixture of items that spills out onto the street, is the vinyl basement, run by Mark Hill of the Crystal Palace-based electronica trio Metamono. My most recent visit yielded the first two Steve Hackett solo albums, Voyage of the Acolyte and Please Don’t Touch; Alan White’s solo debut Ramshackled; the first Sky album; Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and an early copy of Switched on Bach. Mark Hill commented on Phaedra, suggesting he had been interested in buying it himself, and the connection with the excellent sub-section for electronica became clear; the last time I was there, about a year ago, I bought a copy of Aqua by Edgar Froese from a consignment of vinyl that hadn’t made it downstairs to the basement

I retain an affection for Crystal Palace; the record shops, the sports centre, the remains of the former palace, the football team. A great deal has changed since I lived there but it’s a much better place to visit now, and much easier. The local history is fascinating but better still, there are some genuinely friendly people who feed into the vibe, whether they’ve recently arrived or have been around for some time. It’s an uplifting atmosphere, very prog. ...Must be the prevailing wind from the coast...












By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2016 07:52PM

I’ve just been in conversation with Fleur Elliott, one of the organisers of HRH Prog, who required a bit of feedback on last weekend’s festival, during which I tried to be as helpful as possible. The annual HRH Prog festival is held in the Haven holiday park, Hafan y Mor, Pwllheli, in North Wales. I attended this year’s bash (4) with friends Jim Knipe and Mike Chavez, and met up with my brother Richard who had travelled down from Cumbria with the drummer and keyboard player from his prog band Ravenwing, husband and wife team Paul and Rose East. The northern contingent was arriving on the Friday and staying off-site but Jim, Mike and I were accommodated in a freshly refurbished chalet within 50m of the Prog stage. The fittings were all new and the rooms were clean but never having camped in anything quite as permanent as this before (a succession of family camping holidays around Brittany saw us become relative experts at surviving in static mobile homes after a single year of sleeping in not just a tent but a Supertent, that somehow managed to survive an Atlantic storm that sent most other holidaymakers scurrying for local hotels.) The only drawback with the chalet was the nocturnal temperature which dropped close to freezing so that getting up in the morning was moderately uncomfortable; the walls were pretty thin and the windows were only single-glazed and it took some considerable time for the heater to warm up the living space.


Pwllheli is set in beautiful countryside such that the long drive up from Surrey via Stonehenge, Avebury and Bradford on Avon (to pick up Mike) was still enjoyable as we passed through impressive scenery making our way north through the middle of Wales. We arrived at the campsite a little late to take part in the quiz (I think we’d have made a formidable team) and to see Hammerhead and Oktopus (printed as Octopus in the official line-up) but entered the prog arena for Third Quadrant. Originally active in the golden era of neo-prog, the band reformed in 2012 and added to their 80s releases with a 2012 live recording and a series of three albums in 2013, the covers of which display a certain stylistic cohesiveness, with nice photography and a simple, distinctive font. The only song I remember from their set was from the album Deadstar but their sound was indistinct; it was impossible to work out what Clive Mollart on second keyboards was adding and the guitar was too high up in the mix. David Forster’s double neck bass may have been quite intriguing but the group left no lasting musical impression: a kind of space rock with poor vocals. Hawkwind were a space rock band but I’ve never really classed them as progressive rock.


This was the major fault with the festival, a succession of bands that were not really prog. I understand that the genre is wide-ranging and I’ve penned discourses on what is and is not prog, and why. Next on the bill was Arthur Brown and, aside from spawning some musicians that genuinely played a part in the genre, his theatrics never made him prog. We stayed for three songs before calling it a night, unimpressed by the material played by his band and disappointed with his vocals. Perhaps the dancer he featured was meant to take our minds off the music...

Friday began with a trip out to nearby Portmeirion, the Italianate village designed by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, eventually completed in 1975 that also featured in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. The freshly repainted plasterwork looked amazing in the spring sunshine and it proved to be a very worthwhile excursion, with a walk out onto the sands of Afon Dwyryd estuary in the footsteps of No. 6 and some impromptu conversations with locals. The return journey was broken with a trip to Cob Records in Porthmadog, an independent store that has been running since 1975. Mike had wondered out loud if the shop was still a viable proposition, having bought records from its mail order business in the 80s, and we happened to see it just off the main road out of the town on our way to Portmeirion. I bought vinyl copies of Seconds Out (1977) and Expresso II (1978) and Jim picked up a copy of McDonald and Giles (1971) on CD.


Generally described as ‘math rock’ or ‘post rock’ I’d wanted to see The Fierce and the Dead partly because of their Fripp-like guitar parts and a reputation that got them nominated in the Prog magazine reader’s poll Limelight category in 2013 but also because their first album was If it Carries on Like This We are Moving to Morecambe (2011); Morecambe lying south of Barrow across Morecambe Bay. We missed them, arriving back from our trip too late and we also skipped September Code and Abel Ganz because shopping and dinner took priority over a band that one reviewer had described as sounding like “late 80s Rush”, though I probably should have given the prog folk of Abel Ganz a listen.

We also declined to watch Edgar Broughton. Despite being on the Harvest label, the Edgar Broughton Band were heavy/psychedelic rockers with blues roots; Broughton’s vocals were gritty and well suited to the blues idiom. Richard, Paul and Rose had arrived in time to see this set and reported that he played a prog-free slot on acoustic guitar. We met up with them for Curved Air but when a woman took to the stage with a Gibson SG strung around her neck, it was Rosalie Cunningham with her psychedelic rock band Purson and not Sonja Kristina. Parachuted in at very short notice (the Purson website doesn’t list the gig and Curved Air remained on the official line-up) they played a competent set that bore no resemblance to progressive rock, despite Cunningham at one point introducing a song as being “more proggy” than their other material.

Caravan’s set was punctuated with too many new songs for my taste but at least they played Nine Feet Underground in its entirety. Though Pye Hastings is the only remaining original member, multi-instrumentalist and long-term stalwart Geoffrey Richardson and keyboard player Jan Schelhaas provide enough Canterbury history to get away with retaining the band’s moniker. Sadly, Hastings’ voice is no longer up to the classic material and they seem unwilling to transpose key to accommodate his new range. They remain crowd-pleasers and Golf Girl, played as an encore, featured Richardson performing an entertaining spoon solo.

The main event was the other founding Canterbury scene outfit, Soft Machine. Without any original members but with John Marshall, Roy Babbington and John Etheridge all having served in the band, augmented by Theo Travis who had been part of Soft Machine Legacy, it was as close as I’d ever get to one of the original progressive rock acts. The set was pretty challenging and covered a wide range of the Softs’ back catalogue, including Hugh Hopper’s Facelift (from Third, 1970), Hazard Profile (from Bundles, 1975) and Song of Aeolus (from Softs, 1976), plus some Soft Machine Legacy tracks.

None of this material was straightforward prog either, registering on the jazz side of jazz rock, but it was immensely enjoyable.


Saturday morning was devoted to a visit to Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century and now a World Heritage site (the third of the trip.) Grey and windy, it was hardly the best weather to visit Harlech though the sun began to break through in the early afternoon as we walked along the dune-flanked beach.

Back in Hafan y Mor, we shopped, cooked and ate and got to the main stage in time for The Enid only to be desperately disappointed. Festivals aren’t really the most appropriate occasions to reveal the entire new album and though the fan base is usually very forgiving, I wanted and was expecting some kind of ‘best of’ which is what I’d experienced when I last saw them at Balham’s Resonance Festival in 2014. When I reviewed that particular show I suggested that I might upset some readers with my opinion of Joe Payne but after last weekend my opinion has hardened. There’s still the hint of romantic classical music in their repertoire but the drama created by the music has been replaced with West End musical theatre, a surprising reversal of attitude for a band that in the late 70s never took itself too seriously as they played the Dam Busters March and God Save the Queen, while still producing grand, sweeping cinematic pieces of symphonic prog. The latest material is vocal heavy and though Payne does have a fine voice, the delivery is like Freddie Mercury appearing in Phantom of the Opera. When I returned home I played In the Region of the Summer Stars (1976) to remind myself how good The Enid used to be. This new phase of Enid music has eschewed fairies and Fand and it’s a crying shame.

Focus, on next, and Ian Anderson both played crowd-pleasing sets and both were very enjoyable. It’s clear that Focus don’t take themselves too seriously but Thijs van Leer is fully aware of the value of his back catalogue, delving into the first four albums and including complementary recent tracks, allowing him to plug Focus X (2012.) Ian Anderson’s set was promoted as ‘plays the best of Jethro Tull’ and only included one new song, Fruits of Frankenfield. Anderson’s voice is also not as strong as it once was but the music, and his flute in particular, were spot on.


Focus and Ian Anderson were undoubtedly the highlights of the evening. I survived one song and about four bars of another from the Von Hertzen Brothers before leaving; I got the impression that they weren’t going to play anything that I might class as prog.

On the way home on Sunday we discussed the weekend. It had been enjoyable with some good music, excellent location, countryside and scenery with some world-class attractions to fill the music-free hours, and pretty good accommodation. The organisation appeared a little haphazard; my arrival pack took a considerable time to track down, the non-show of Curved Air remained unexplained and there was no introduction of the acts. Yet somehow the groups seemed to stick close to their schedules. We didn’t visit and band merchandise stands but the vinyl and CDs on sale covered the gamut of rock and included some hard to find music, so someone was doing a decent job of organising, despite their apparent invisibility. Our major problem was that for an alleged prog festival, we didn’t detect a surfeit of prog! Jim pointed out that there are a handful of individuals in a family of art collectors, dealers and art scholars, the Wildensteins, who pronounce on whether or not a painting is genuine or fake. We’ve resolved to set up such a committee to invigilate on what constitutes progressive rock...










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