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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, Aug 29 2018 09:27PM

Dave Stewart’s keyboard playing has graced a number of iconic and important albums in the progressive rock canon, from the proto-prog psychedelia of his early bands Uriel and Egg to the studio trio and one live recording from Bruford, releases fitting somewhere between progressive rock and jazz classifications, marking his time as an integral part of a band producing interesting music while the golden age of progressive rock faded into industry-influenced AOR. Looking back on his personal influences which included Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson, Cream and Mont Campbell, any leanings towards jazz within Hatfield and the North, National Health or Bruford came from his erstwhile bandmates and, by association, the Canterbury tag that seems to have been applied to his music.


The first Dave Stewart album I owned was a cut-price Caroline Records pressing of The Civil Surface by Egg, recorded and released two years after the demise of the group and after the Hatfield’s eponymous debut in 1974, when Stewart suggested an Egg reunion to Simon Draper of Virgin Records. I was influenced by the marketing, i.e. selling an album cheap, and by the fact they were a keyboard-trio, having started to listen to The Nice and ELP in 1972 but, in common with a number of people who have commented on a Progarchives thread, I didn’t really get it at the time and eventually sold it to a school friend who collected anything musically related to Bill Bruford; The Civil Surface also featured Barbara Gaskin as one of the Northettes along with Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal, who had provided some beautiful vocals on Hatfield and the North and I can safely say that I now get it!

The next time I came across Stewart’s work was in fact on Bruford’s Feels Good to Me (1978), a release my circle of friends had been looking forward to with fevered anticipation and one that didn’t disappoint. Bruford had worked with Stewart during the formative years of National Health and called on the keyboard player not only for his playing skills but also his ‘reasonably advanced harmonic advice’. Stewart would gain three co-writing credits on the album which was released one month before the debut from National Health, with the sophomore release Of Queues and Cures coming out ten months later in December 1978.



I began to retrospectively acquire National Health and Hatfield and the North LPs during my final year at university and even when I began to trade-in vinyl for CDs in the late 80s I hung on to them, eventually adding CD versions of selected titles to my collection when I found them in second-hand shops, or in the case of Of Queues and Cures, bought a new, re-released copy on Esoteric Records in 2009. One of my most treasured albums is a vinyl copy of DS al Coda, bought from an Our Price store in Charing Cross Road sometime, I now believe, having previously written that I bought it in the early 90s, that I added it to my collection in the mid-80s and strangely, possibly as a result of some temporal-fold effect, my copy of Hatfield and the North, bought in Virgin Records in 1982, is an Italian pressing!


Stewart quit National Health, his own band, after Of Queues and Cures because the majority of the other musicians were interested in pursuing a more improvised approach. Then when Bruford (the group) was effectively shut down by their management in July 1980, disclosing an £11000 deficit following what seemed to have been a successful tour of the US and suggesting that the drummer could work off the loss by joining a new band with Robert Fripp, Stewart formed a band called Rapid Eye Movement with close associates Pip Pyle, Rick Biddulph and Jakko Jakszyk. I distinctly remember the announcement about the formation of this group in the music press, but subsequently becoming very confused when attempting to research its history during the early days of the internet, only managing to find links to the American group REM. What little documentation has since emerged indicates that Rapid Eye Movement did play some live dates (according to Jakszyk, some poor quality recordings of French gigs survive) but they never recorded an album.


It came of something of a surprise that Stewart’s next move was into the world of pop though his discovery of the Prophet 5 while working with Bruford must have helped him to catch the early 80’s synthesizer pop zeitgeist; watching him perform on Top of the Pops in 1981 having arranged the Jimmy Ruffin soul classic What Becomes of the Brokenhearted for ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, sporting a Public Image Limited T-shirt while punk hair crossed in front of the camera might sound as though it would give your average prog fan nightmares but the arrangement actually features a fairly proggy middle section and there’s even some Canterbury-like organ work. Peaking at number 13 in the UK singles chart, the experiment obviously paid off and set the course for his future career: writing his unique brand of adult pop; arranging classics; and arranging strings for some very well known contemporary prog acts including a number of Steven Wilson projects and Anathema. Better still, the Stewart-Gaskin follow-up which was released in August 1981, a cover version of the Gluck-Gold-Weiner-Gottleib 1963 teen lament It's My Party, not only reached number 1 in the UK and Germany, it remained in the UK top spot for four weeks, preventing the novelty Birdie Song from topping the charts.

The one and only Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin album I own is The Big Idea. This was bought second-hand from Real Groovy in Christchurch, New Zealand for NZD 7.95 in 2009 but I was an early subscriber to the couple’s email newsletter making it possible to follow their artistic endeavours and which included interactive posts on their compositions and referenced Stewart’s writing for the US Keyboard magazine.



When I received the announcement that they were going to play somewhere in London, the venue being dependent on the response from the email subscribers, to coincide with the planned release of a new album I indicated that I was intending to attend, though the email was sent early in the year and I had absolutely no idea if I was going to be able to go. When t became obvious I was going to be in the country, wasn’t going to be on call and could easily access the venue, Bush Hall, I recruited a friend, Jim Knipe and signed up; after all, they don’t play very many concerts and I’m quite enamoured with Stewart’s music. I’ve only seen him play once before, with Bruford at The Venue on 5th May 1980, a double-header performance along with Brand X, which was excellent (and is now included in the Bruford CD box set Seems Like a Lifetime Ago.)


I may have not expected a prog gig but I was a little nonplussed by other members of the audience who, judging by their choice of T-shirts (Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House; Zappa’s Hot Rats; Larks’ Tongues in Aspic; Led Zepellin) were all prog aficionados. I guess I didn’t know quite what sort of audience to expect because the Stewart Gaskin newsletter quite clearly indicates that the group, augmented by stellar drummer and long-term associate Gavin Harrison plus emerging talent Beren Matthews on guitar, play pop. It also transpired that despite a penchant for prog-related clothing, a number of people preferred Jim’s Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead/Alive T-shirt so their openness to things other than prog was a positive sign.

The evening was split into two sets with a lengthy interval when we were encouraged to go and buy beer. Stewart acted as compere, eliciting details of the audience’s nationalities (Finland, Sweden, Spain were mentioned and I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese gentleman standing in front of us) while resetting patches on his keyboards. He’d asked his old school friend Anthony Vinall (co-author of Copious Notes, the story of Uriel and Egg) to perform lighting duties, but Vinall had suggested his son could sub for him which resulted in a terrible joke about lumiere et son. The music was more proggy than I’d imagined thanks to Stewart’s arrangements and choice of keyboard sounds. I only recognised two songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, a Billy Bragg song covered on The Big Idea, and Walking the Dog, a very brief excerpt of which is included on National Health’s Missing Pieces, but even though I wasn’t familiar with the other songs, I liked the continued saga of Henry and James (from the track of the same name on 1988’s Up from the Dark) called Wings on their Heels, which I assume is featured on the forthcoming release Star Clocks; another new track was inspired by their bathroom floor following a bout of illness! Star Clocks should have been available for the gig but Stewart hinted that the perfectionist in him had managed to delay its printing.




Barbara Gaskin still has an excellent voice although there were times when it was a little low in the mix. Stewart used keyboard patches to add Gaskin’s own backing vocals which were very effective, similar to sections of It’s My Party, and Matthews added some backing vocals. I found it quite difficult to work out Matthew’s guitar lines because he appeared to be strumming rhythm while impressive lead guitar sounds emanated from the keyboards but this provided a simple demonstration why Stewart and Gaskin were so much better than the thin synth-pop acts of the early 80s: Not only could Stewart actually play keyboards, his arrangements were brilliantly layered, giving a full, orchestrated sound. The one thing lacking, considering the pedigree of keyboard player and drummer, was something in an odd time signature.



Public transport had been dissolving in heavy early evening rain so we left early and missed any encores. It might not have been prog, but it was still worth the trip, even in heavy rain. The description of the duo on their website isn’t far off the mark: one of the UK’s most respected, innovative and intelligent pop acts; I’d like to add, and excellent hosts.





By ProgBlog, Oct 9 2016 08:29PM

Every so often I allow myself the odd hour or two when I fully relax, when I don’t want to listen to anything epic or watch anything that engages, when I watch a fairly mindless film just for fun. Suffering from a heavy cold at the beginning of September (which delayed this blog), I chose to watch the DVD of School of Rock (2003), starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman, directed by Richard Linklater. Though formulaic and predictable the film requires absolutely no thinking and is still moderately enjoyable. One of the great surprises is the chalk board feature of the history of rock which Dewey Finn (the Jack Black character) is teaching to his 10 year old pupils. This scene, lasting only a few seconds, manages to neatly encapsulate the relationship between (rock) musical genres, listing some of the major exponents of each. It must have taken someone some considerable thought to produce and, quite impressively, includes ‘Prog Rock’ with examples Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis (the) Residents and King Crimson. The aspiring keyboard player is given Fragile to listen to as homework, with the instruction to pay close attention to Wakeman’s work on Roundabout. The film wasn’t aimed at the age group featured but it still must have been the first exposure to progressive rock for many of the viewing public.


Watching the DVD coincided with the start of a new school year. As a youth at school, I used to get annoyed at the airing of TV adverts for back-to-school paraphernalia the moment the summer holidays started. (I was similarly dismayed by the start of the season for pushing summer holiday destinations, which started over Christmas…) I don’t know if this was a reaction to commercialisation, a chaotic lifestyle or merely innate laziness, but the bombardment from supermarkets flogging school clothing and stationery stores plugging pencil cases was a major turn-off, as though the six week break was already over when it had barely begun. And anyway, I had far better things to do than think of preparing for a new term.

The start of this school year was heralded by the government indicating that they wanted to reintroduce selective education. There are so many reasons for not returning to the grammar school system and none for the reinstatement of the 11+ but this crazy policy announcement has galvanised a broad range of teaching professionals, education experts and parents, becoming united in opposition to the plans. It’s not even popular with all Conservative MPs, though it does appeal to the more reactionary types. Social mobility has become something of a political mantra and it’s this notion that is behind Theresa May’s idea of the expansion of the grammar schools system, incorrectly attributing the academic success of less affluent pupils to a grammar school education. It’s been pointed out that most children will lose out in a selective system but it’s evident that dogma is at work because there has been next to no thought behind the proposals, just the in-vogue trashing and rejection of objections raised by experts. Not only was there no mention of children with special needs or disabilities, they hadn’t considered the effect on teacher recruitment. I don’t really need to reiterate that the comprehensive system showed it is possible to provide a high quality, inclusive education for all children because the statistics speak for themselves: 86% of state-funded schools are currently rated as good or outstanding. This figure will be at risk if there’s a return to selection. The evidence shows that the educational advantage received by those selected for grammars is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. I’m the product of the grammar school system, the child of teachers and someone who has a history of active trade unionism. I know that selection is unfair and that teachers, one of the most recognisable groups of public sector employees, while tasked with educating the nation’s children, are frequently placed in unpleasant positions by politicians.


The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.
The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.

Prog doesn’t really do songs about school, which tends to be straightforward rock subject matter (c.f. the film School of Rock.) I started to become interested in music in 1972 and one of the first songs I heard was Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) which captured the anarchic mood at the end of a summer term with its anthemic guitar-heavy structure and the immortal lines: School’s out for summer, school’s out for ever, school’s been blown to pieces. I recognised this as something I’d not heard before, a form of musical theatre (Cooper brandished a rapier during his performances on Top of the Pops) but it was not something that necessarily convinced me it was worth pursuing, as it was relatively simplistic. That particular single vies with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1979) for most memorable school-themed song and it’s not really surprising that I consider this offering as outside of the Floyd progressive period. When The Wall was released and both the album and single became successful, I was torn between celebrating that success (as a band I’d followed for eight years) and disappointed with the quality of the material; the single in particular calls to mind a disco beat, something I’d been decrying for the preceding two to three years. Equally theatrical, it has been misinterpreted as anti-education when it's really an attack on a particular form of educational system within the UK, based on Waters’ own school experience, which he described as detestable: "I hated every second of it, apart from games. The regime at school was a very oppressive one ... the same kids who are susceptible to bullying by other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers.” This comes across very clearly in the film of the album.


One partial exception to the rule appears on Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant, a concept album that follows three school friends through their subsequent, somewhat less than satisfying career choices back to their reunion as friends. Following the introductory Prologue school is referenced as the starting point of their friendship in Schooldays where, along with sound effects of a schoolyard which according to Ray Shulman are intended to invoke nostalgia, are suggestions of a care-free existence before the three protagonists begin to question how long they will remain friends. The concept is relatively simple but the album is a forgotten gem in the Giant canon.


Education is about releasing potential. The evidence suggests that high-quality support in a child’s early years improves educational outcomes, as an infant ’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, rising to 80% formed by the age of three and this is where gaps open up between children from different backgrounds. That’s why the argument about social mobility and selective education is spurious - children from poorer homes are already playing catch-up by the time they start nursery. If there’s going to be any form of government intervention in education it needs to concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, the home environment and parenting skills. Just say ‘no’ to more grammar schools.







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.



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