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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, Feb 21 2016 08:11PM

For the past fifteen or so years, my wife has spent February half-term in New York which is fine by me. I can listen to lots of music at home without resorting to headphones and, if I’m lucky, she might find a bit of original US prog to bring back home. I’ve been to NYC three times, most recently in 2003; I ski in Europe later on in the season in lieu of a transatlantic shopping trip. Up until my first visit in 1998, my expectations had been modulated by film, TV and bits and pieces of music. I was quite taken by the steam vents that I’d heard described by Peter Gabriel around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), a system of heating, cooling, cleaning and powering businesses in Manhattan. About half of the steam is cogenerated and using this as an energy source dramatically increases the efficiency of fuels.

The first time I visited the country was for the 16th American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Century City, Los Angeles, in 1990. My original contract with Guy’s Hospital allowed me one international conference per year and I chose this one for its potential to provide an insight into the cutting edge of transplantation science. I may have been swayed by the fact that the Hipgnosis cover for Yes’ Going for the One (1977) features Century City. This was not a good time for progressive rock bands, or prog in general and it pre-dated my seeking out local record stores to explore music by local artists, so I didn’t buy anything by US groups on that trip.


Century City
Century City

In fact, all my trips to the States to cities other than New York have been for symposia or workshops. I was in Dallas in 1995 for another ASHI conference and as prog was beginning to resurface, when the band playing at the gala dinner suggested they’d take requests, I asked them to play some King Crimson but they played some Talking Heads instead. Both LA and Dallas are huge conurbations and some of the things I had bookmarked to see in LA were impossible. I stayed in a Holiday Inn on Wilshire Boulevard and it took about an hour to walk to the conference venue but there were decent views across to the Hollywood Hills; My hotel reservation in Dallas, the venue for the ASHI meeting itself, was thrown into chaos by a mid-flight engine failure on my aircraft, resulting in an unscheduled overnight stop over at the Hilton in Boston. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wished too loudly for an end to the improvised fleadh on the plane as passengers, off to a traditional music festival somewhere, took out fiddles and pipes and began to play. TWA kindly flew me first class from Boston to St Louis early the next morning for a flight on to Dallas. Unfortunately my room had been given away and I had to stay in a different but possibly more glamorous hotel around the corner for one night. The walk between the two buildings would have taken less than two minutes as the crow flies but, being on a busy freeway intersection with no footpath, it took a little longer and I had to cope with drivers abusing me for daring to walk. Apparently it was dangerous, so when I attended the evening entertainment I stuck to the transport provided.


Grassy knoll, Dallas
Grassy knoll, Dallas

Seattle was a different prospect. Verdant, compact and interesting, I was there for the 2002 International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference. The meeting was held in the Washington State Convention Center [sic] and my accommodation was a brief walk away at the Kings Inn motel, where I felt pretty insecure because the room opened out from the ill-fitting steel door, my first experience of this kind of hotel. I didn’t manage to buy any music but I did spend time at the rather good Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry-designed museum that had opened a couple of years earlier. Seattle has some high profile musician links such as Jimi Hendrix, Queensryche and Kurt Cobain but I was more interested in the Yes drummer Alan White connection; one of his kits was on display.


I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.
I’d picked up CDs in New York but these were by UK artists and were either far cheaper than I could have found at home or relatively obscure, for example Exiles (1997) by David Cross. The first US prog that I bought was Day for Night (1999) by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in 2003. I was in Miami twice that year, for a training course in April and presenting at the ASHI conference in October. The April trip was memorable because I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Nightwatch (1997) that I’d bought at the playback at the Intercontinental Hotel in London. On my return to the UK I emailed ET, the Crimson related forum and asked American contributors to look out for it. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Day for Night was bought on the autumn trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder (1999) by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can’t remember the store but you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album, which is why I bought it, rather than any other. I may have also been seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. Though there’s a range of styles on display I get the feeling that the band has taken 80s Yes as a template with a deliberate attempt at being radio friendly.

My first tastes of American rock music would have been on Alan Freeman’s radio show and one of Tony’s friends was quite heavily into the Doors. Tony had Mass in F Minor (1967), a concise psychedelic masterpiece by The Electric Prunes and we liked the early prog-era instrumental Zappa; I may have bought Hot Rats (1969) in New York. I was tuned into the United States of America by a chapter in Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson), The “American Metaphysical Circus.” Influenced by avant garde rather than 19th Century European composers, their 1968 eponymous debut has a distinct West Coast sound but there are plenty of melody lines that could almost be pop, were it not for the underlying electronics and manipulations and hints of radical politics. Susan got me a copy from New York in 2009.

I read a review of The Weirding (2009) by Astra before buying it. Progressive rock had become truly respectable again and bands were happy to reference Pink Floyd and King Crimson. This offering is slightly spacey and there’s a lack of polish in the playing which gives it a kind of authenticity, aided by a decent production. It’s ok, but it doesn’t really challenge.

Last year I requested some recent releases by Glass Hammer, should Susan happen to be passing any suitable record shops. I’d got Journey of the Dunadan (1993) for Christmas 2013 even though I’d read that it wasn’t anywhere close to their best album, which contains some very nice keyboard work but displays a sort of naivety; attempting to cover The Lord of the Rings on a single, debut album was simply over-ambitious. I’m still waiting for more Glass Hammer! A year later I was given Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall (1999) which is on the progressive side of jazz rock, like an American UK. Laura Martin’s vocals are clear and distinctive and the musicianship can’t be faulted, with uniform high quality writing. I think I can detect some Canterbury influences but it doesn’t really sound like anyone else. There’s more guitar than keyboards, some of which is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth.

Last year, in anticipation of a new deck, I bought Fireballet’s Night on Bald Mountain (1975) when I came across it by chance at a vinyl fair in Spittalfields Market. The stall holder had bought it new from East Side Music & Video in Toronto but didn’t know much about it. I’d just read about the album in Prog Rock FAQ by Will Romano and thought it looked an interesting proposition and, considering the efforts of other US bands during the golden era of prog, it proved to be way ahead of any of them. It may be derivative but the calibre of musicianship is high and it gets really good treatment from producer (ex-King Crimson) Ian McDonald; second track Centurion could be Trespass-era Genesis but album opener Les Cathèdrales utilises the uncredited Theme One by George Martin. This is the closest an American band would get to original prog.

Postscript: I had the first two Happy the Man CDs on my NY wish list. Didn’t get either!






By ProgBlog, Jan 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




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