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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

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, Dec 6 2015 09:34PM

I’ve now set up my new Rega RP3 and have started to put on vinyl in preference to my somewhat larger collection of CDs. My first record deck, bought from Comet within days of finishing work at Barrow’s Steelworks during the annual two-week shutdown in the summer of 1978 (when the UK still had a sizeable steel industry) was a Pioneer PL-514. This solid piece of kit had a heavy aluminium platter and a thick rubber mat and I really liked it. I wasn’t too fussed by the tone arm lifting at the end of an LP but it had a fairly basic design and I thought it sounded pretty good – I paired it with an Ortofon OM20 and though I passed this on to my brother-in-law in the mid 80s, I still have the original Pioneer screwdriver for attaching the cartridge.


The new Rega Planar 3
The new Rega Planar 3

When I was choosing my hi-fi I believed it important to stick to basics; there was a NAD turntable that came out shortly afterwards that could be played vertically but I thought that was rather gimmicky. The speed change on the Pioneer was a choice between 33 rpm and 45 rpm whereas the record player that I had been using, a sprung turntable in a walnut-finished stereogram, include 78 rpm and may even have had a 16 rpm selection. Neither of the two Regas I’ve owned have had speed selector and you have to manually move the drive belt if you want to switch between single and album formats; the default position is 33 rpm.

One of the defining features of progressive rock is that the music expanded beyond the constraints of the sub-3 minute single, allowing for development of ideas and sonic experimentation. It’s no coincidence that the time of progressive rock was also a golden period for album sales where the gatefold sleeve was a gateway to other worlds, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in intricate artwork and song words imbued with meaning.

I don’t believe I ever played a single on my old RP2 and I can’t play any on my RP3 because I don’t own any. I have bought singles in the past, the first of which was probably Solsbury Hill (1977) by Peter Gabriel, bought in lieu of his first album to see if I liked the material enough to warrant going to see him on his first solo tour. I did. My friend Bill Burford also dabbled in singles, though his first, And You and I, with Roundabout on the B side (1973) was played at 33 rpm. I seem to recall he later went on to buy Don’t Kill the Whale (1978) as a single because I was unimpressed with the B side, Abilene; it reached no. 36 in the UK charts. His next was Rock n Roll Star (1977) by Barclay James Harvest, from Octoberon, released the previous year. We’d been to Lancaster to see BJH during their Time Honoured Ghosts tour but Octoberon, like many releases by progressive rock bands at this time, had a more commercial sound than the earlier material. Rock n Roll Star reached no.49 in the UK single charts and earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops; though Wonderous Stories wasn’t really overtly commercial it was single-length and when Yes released that in 1977 it peaked at no.7 in the UK charts and appeared on Top of the Pops on more than one occasion but I had no need to buy the single because I already owned the album. There was also no need to rush out to buy Camel’s Highways of the Sun, the single released from Rain Dances (1977). This radio-friendly number was somewhat at odds with the jazzier and experimental tracks on the album but it still didn’t manage to climb into the Top 50. It was undeniably Camel at their most melodic and was only as concise as the other material yet, though the sleeve notes for the 1991 CD reissue suggest otherwise, it does seem to possess a commercial or accessible quality that’s not present on the other songs. What I did buy was the Genesis Spot the Pigeon EP, left-over material from Wind and Wuthering (1976) that reached no. 14 in the singles charts in 1977. The two tracks on side A are very throwaway, especially Pigeons. Match of the Day is slightly better and it’s these two songs that give rise to the title of the EP, a play on the ‘spot the ball’ football competitions. Side B is a very different kettle of fish, where Inside and Out, the only one of the three songs to feature Steve Hackett in the song writing credits, hints at early Genesis and includes enough changes of mood to warrant its inclusion on Wind and Wuthering in place of the uninspiring, insipid Your Own Special Way, a track that even more than Afterglow signposts the direction that Genesis would take following the departure of Hackett.

I bought Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (1979) from Elpees in Bexley when I was a first year student on the same day that I bought a Deutsche Grammophon release of Handel’s Water Music. I have claimed that I bought it for the use of the syndrum but I think that I had to get it because I’d threatened to buy it and friends Jim Knipe and Mark Franchetti probably didn’t believe me; I also attended an Ash Wednesday mass because I said I’d go as a joke and Mark didn’t believe me. I didn’t play Ring My Bell very often and it’s long since been despatched to a charity shop, though I can still sing along when I hear it on the radio...

I lived at various addresses in Streatham during my final undergraduate year and for the first couple of years as an employee of the National Blood Transfusion Service and picked up singles by The Enid and Marillion from the bargain bin an independent record store.



Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single
Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single

These were picture sleeve editions of Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean (from 1980) and Garden Party b/w Margaret (from 1983) respectively. Marillion managed to get to no. 16 but the humorous 665 The Great Bean, containing the lyrics “the discos in heaven all shut at eleven and they only serve pop in the bar, sir. I’ll put you at ease with some good Lebanese, a blue film and two or three jars, sir” and sung to the tune from The Devil (from In the Region of the Summer Stars) failed to trouble the singles chart compilers. Though not over-impressed by the live recording of Margaret I did rather like the attack on elitism in Garden Party, the lyrical content in general and some great musicianship. I could see where the accusations of imitating Genesis came from but that was really only a small part of the music; I loved Pete Trewavas’ trebly, staccato bass lines. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that it took me so long to buy any of their albums. Also in the bargain bin were copies of UK’s Nothing to Lose and I did feel that perhaps I ought to have supported the band by buying a copy, even though I already owned Danger Money (1979) and Night After Night (1979).

Throughout my youth I resisted the urge to by the odd prog single that I didn’t own on album, unable to reconcile their value and cost; I did splash out on two Asia 12” singles, at £0.99 each from the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1984 or 1985 that I gave to two girlfriends. They were the last singles I ever bought and one remains in my household; one went to my wife-to-be Susan. I think she might like Asia’s music more than me...


Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain
Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain




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