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By ProgBlog, Feb 25 2019 09:36PM

My first visit to Amsterdam was as a 20 year old, the first stop on a month-long journey around western Europe by train with university friend Nick Hodgetts, where we attempted to find examples of the cactus Lophophora williamsii on the barges tied up along the canals – archetypal botany student behaviour or an unconscious nod towards Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from the Focus debut album In and Out of Focus – botanical gardens frequently featured in our itinerary as though we were in some sort of competition to tick off the most jardin botanique in a short time. Perhaps the most striking memory is being caught up in a housing riot, a tale related to a family friend on my second visit to the city earlier this month. What Nick and I witnessed was a flare-up of the Vondelstraat Riots which began on 29th February 1980 and lasted for four days, prompted by the eviction of large numbers of squatters from a building on the corner of Vondelstraat and Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat. A second episode of violent street protest coincided with the coronation of Queen Beatrix on 30 April and other, smaller outbreaks occurred in August, September and December and into 1981 and 1982. What we saw, quite close up, was a running battle between riot police and youths wearing crash helmets for both disguise and protection from tear gas armed with baseball bats; the police had a strategic advantage as they manoeuvred their barge-mounted water cannon along the canals, so Nick and I retired to an area of safety.


Amsterdam, August 1980
Amsterdam, August 1980

The 24 hours spent in the city in 1980 was perhaps not as much of an eye-opener as you might imagine, even though the basic hotel where we stayed (the Schreierstoren Hotel, named after the 15th century tower which formed part of the medieval city walls, but apparently no longer present at least under that name) was in the middle of the red light district; the area in front of Amsterdam Centraal involved numerous approaches from individuals enquiring if we’d like to buy drugs but my first day in central London as a fresher a couple of years before was no different and, unlike the seedier Soho, Amsterdam’s Walletjes didn’t really have a threatening atmosphere, possibly because it was bright and sunny, appearing more open-to-all touristy.


The opportunity to return, long overdue after an almost 39 year absence, came about as a consequence of FOMO. My wife had visited the city with friends just before Christmas and based on her description of the architecture and various cultural attractions, together with my belief that there was a rich seam of Dutch progressive rock to be found in Amsterdam’s legendary vinyl record shop scene, I signed up for a two-night exploratory weekday visit, with Susan entrusted to act as some form of guide.

Amsterdam isn’t a big city so we didn’t need to be based in a particular location. We chose the museum quarter where there was a suitably comfortable NH hotel in easy reach of Centraal station by a number 24 tram, and because I’d expressed a desire to visit the Rijksmuseum, specifically for its King Crimson connection. Travelling by Eurostar meant there would be no restriction on baggage allowance so I did some forward planning, cross-referencing reviews of prog bands from the Netherlands, compiled a wish list, and packed two canvas bags for vinyl purchases.



Though we had an early start (the 08.16 from St Pancras International, a direct service to Amsterdam) we encountered a problem somewhere between Belgium and Holland and had to be diverted onto a local service route, reaching Amsterdam Centraal 83 minutes late and desperate for a coffee. Despite the delay, we met up with the family friend at a bar near the Opera House at the scheduled rendezvous time and had a pretty awful coffee. Fortunately, our hotel bordered the Pijp district, a bohemian area characterised by Middle Eastern eateries, artisanal craft shops, old school pubs and cafés where, after checking in to the NH and dropping off our luggage, we came across the exceptionally good Locals Coffee on our way to the first of the record shop stops.

Situated on a corner plot, Locals Coffee has a double aspect through large windows, making it bright and airy. The interior was clean and unfussy with contemporary decor; the counter, channelling Rem Koolhaas’ Fondazione Prada in Milano, is a thing of beauty! Even before stepping inside I was attracted by the sign in the door 'baristas wanted', suggesting that they were serious about coffee. It's really not easy to find a decent espresso-based coffee in mainland Europe outside of Italy but the friendly and helpful staff were all trained to a high standard and produced consistent high quality espressos and cappuccinos. They use Italian roasted beans (Buscaglione of Rome), and their model of espresso machine was the one I was trained on. We made it our local coffee shop, stopping in a couple of times each day, taking time to sample the cakes (excellent) and the pancakes (ditto!)



The local record store, Record Mania (Ferdinand Bolstraat 30) turned out to be another great find where, over two visits I ticked off the top two albums on my hit-list, Glory of the Inner Force (1975) and Beyond Expression (1976) by Finch along with more from my list: Marks (Alquin, 1972); At the Rainbow (Focus, 1973); Royal Bed Bouncer (Kayak, 1975); To the Highest Bidder (Supersister, 1971); plus a couple not on my list which I couldn’t resist, Introspection 2 by Thijs van Leer (1975) because it was in perfect condition, in the €2 bin, and In a Glass House by Gentle Giant (1973), which I’ve wanted on vinyl for some time. This really is a must-visit for anyone into music; well-stocked, friendly and helpful.

There wasn’t much time to seek out other stores before closing time but I did manage to rootle through the bins in Record Palace (Weteringschans 33A) as the owner was bringing in his stock from the pavement for the night. Opened in 1988 and considered to be the vinyl shop of Amsterdam, the Netherlands rock section was quite small but there was a section dedicated to progressivo Italiano which contained a few albums I was tempted by. Feeling a little under pressure as the clock edged towards 6pm, I came out empty-handed, the Supersister compilation being in too poor condition to warrant purchase.


Record Mania, Amsterdam
Record Mania, Amsterdam

As with all our family city breaks, the trip had to include activities for everyone so the next morning, following a hotel buffet breakfast and a coffee at Locals, we made our way towards Anne Frank House starting from the south-westerly edge of the Museumplein with another King Crimson reference, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, past the modern art Stedelijk museum and the Van Gogh museum (saved for another trip), past the Rijksmuseum (saved for later), and past the not-yet-open Second Life Music (Prinsengracht 366). Tickets for Anne Frank House are timed and are only obtained online, though this wasn’t clear from our 2019 guidebook or leaflets from the I Amsterdam tourist information; we had (incorrectly) assumed that getting tickets on the door for a pre-lunchtime visit on a Tuesday in early February was going to be simple and straightforward, so our plan for the day was adapted according to circumstance. Watery sunlight had begun to break through the cloud so we took the opportunity to be real tourists, crossing the IJ by ferry and ascending the A’DAM tower to the Lookout and the Over the Edge swing. This formed one of the a modern architecture sessions of the visit – the former Toren Overhoeks was a modernist icon designed by Arthur Staal (completed in 1971) and the regeneration of the Overhoeks district now includes the angular EYE Film Institute (Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, 2012), a building that rather fittingly appears to be in motion.



We were attempting to take in as much of the city as possible by foot, and as I didn’t have any recollection of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in the early 13th century, I considered it a must-see. It’s located in the red light district which, thanks to the efforts of the city council who direct visitors to museums and bars and other attractions, appeared quite sanitised. With time getting on and the Begijnhof, the next stop on the agenda beckoning, I skipped Redlight Records (Oudekerksplein 26) but found Records and Books (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 371), a shop that had been on my list, closed. To compensate I was allowed to visit Waxwell Records (Gasthuismolensteeg 8) which I’d also singled out as a potential cornucopia for prog, and it was. I came out with another Dutch classic Mountain Queen (Alquin, 1973) and added to my UK-centric vinyl collection with Free Hand (Gentle Giant, 1975); Out in the Sun (Patrick Moraz, 1977); Sorcerer OST (Tangerine Dream, 1977); and World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976). I’d recommend it for its range of stock and the helpfulness of the staff.



I made a lightning visit to the Rijksmuseum on Wednesday morning, arriving not long after opening and beating the crowds. The building, originally designed by Pierre Cuypers in the late 19th century underwent modern but sympathetic redevelopment by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz alongside French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and restoration architect Van Hoogevest, between 2003 and 2013. With an ‘All the Rembrandts’ exhibition opening two days later, the museum was in the final stages of preparation but the painting I’d gone to see, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), was accessible. It's rightly a world-famous canvas but most importantly from a prog point of view, a track from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black, originally recorded in the Concertgebouw but largely over-dubbed because of a malfunction with David Cross’ Mellotron during the live performance.



Day three was also a modern architecture day, specifically featuring Renzo Piano’s NEMO Science Museum (opened 1997) which provided panoramas of the city from its rooftop. The return to the hotel to pick up our luggage was planned to include some gift shopping and, on the same canal-side street, Second Life Music. This was too cluttered for my liking and though there was a section for Netherlands rock, most categories were randomly scattered and, due to the piles of records, sometimes inaccessible. It would be nice to recommend the shop but the two members of staff behind the counter were both deep in conversation with a customer or friend so that it was difficult to speak to them or get served. I took a punt on Ton Scherpenzeel’s Le Carnaval des Animaux (1978), in perfect condition, for €7.


And so our rather successful Amsterdam trip ended. While in Waxwell discussing the remarkable number of record shops in the city, I was informed that the population of Amsterdam is a little over 820000 people, with numbers swelled by tourists (6.7 million foreign hotel-booked tourists in 2017) and that there might be some people who would say there were too many record shops... Not me. I’ve still got the early Kayak albums to look out for and, if it ever resurfaces, Present from Nancy by Supersister. I’ll be back.







By ProgBlog, Nov 1 2015 10:16PM

I went to a The Guardian Masterclass event a couple of weeks ago, How to self release your own music, hosted by Ian Ramage and Ann Harrison, to get some information and inspiration for putting out my own CDs. These events, mostly held in The Guardian offices in Kings Place, part of the regenerated King’s Cross area, are well organised and well attended by individuals with a range of interests relating to the topic, and sensibly priced. The first Masterclass I attended, in an attempt to broaden the reach of this blog, was How to write a successful blog. There were 100 delegates with a spectrum of abilities from those with little understanding of blogging to those who were interested in more efficiently monetising their efforts, with me somewhere in the middle; I learned enough to start a Twitter account and since then ProgBlog appears to have gone from strength to strength. Though not as popular, the audience for How to self release your own music was comprised mostly of musicians but there was at least one person who ran a recording studio; the presenters seemed a little surprised that there was no one from the music industry. Apart from being a music fan, Ramage’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music had been built up from rising through the ranks and working at a number of companies including Polydor, Warners, EMI, and Sony. Harrison was there to cover the legal aspects; a qualified lawyer, she has worked with household names and has her own legal consultancy, Harrisons Entertainment Law Limited and is the author of Music, The Business (Virgin Books) that was plugged on a number of occasions. The two speakers had a good rapport and overall, I was very pleased I’d attended. After discussing performing rights it became very clear why the Yes Union tour was such a nightmare for the musicians – I recall it wasn’t too bad for those of us the audience and I enjoyed most of the music played by the two versions of Yes although some band politics were still evident.

Another topic that was touched upon was the role of the producer who could be someone who booked the studio or had some degree of creative input. This came to mind when my last Walkman ceased to function, playing Tormato. Wakeman’s keyboards have no substance, lacking both bass and sparkle and White’s snare drum tone has no snap, as though the final production stages were rushed or the band was not given any control over the final sound, even though Yes are credited as producers – Brian Lane has a credit for ‘executive producer’ and I find it hard to believe, after the excellent sound and mix on their previous albums, that they can have been happy with the dull, compressed finished product. The sleeve design by Hipgnosis was certainly contentious; originally intended to be called Yes Tor, fitting in with some of the material on the record, the title was changed following dissatisfaction with the artwork which prompted someone, either Wakeman or Aubrey Powell, to throw a tomato at the cover. Steve Howe, who came up with the Yes Tor idea has been described as unhappy by this turn of events and I side with him. There’s something cosmic about divining (even though I think it’s nonsense) and Yes ideas were indisputably cosmic; linking the second highest point in Devon to a possible beacon for UFOs seemed a reasonable concept (even if it too was unscientific and beyond reason), not fully realised. My least favourite track is Release Release which features some double tracking on the drums to give them a fuller sound and the noise of a crowd. No. Bad idea.

Eddy Offord had worked with the band on some of the original ideas for Tormato but is not credited. Having been the recording engineer for Time and a Word (1970), an album produced by Tony Colton, Offord and the group co-produced the sequence of albums from The Yes Album (1971) to Relayer (1974), a sequence that many consider to epitomise not only the best of Yes but a considerable proportion of the golden era of progressive rock. The clarity of instrumentation on Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) are testament to an incredible working relationship. Offord was also hired as a recording engineer for the early Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums, their eponymous debut from 1970, Tarkus (1971), the live Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) and Trilogy (1972), where production duties were in the hands of Greg Lake. Offord did not help out on Brain Salad Surgery (1973) where are I find the sound clear but biased towards the treble. Chris Kimsey (who was famous for his work with the Rolling Stones) and Geoff Young shared engineering duties on Brain Salad; Offord was immortalised in the song Are You Ready Eddy? which appears on Tarkus, a track I tend to skip..; Yes put Offord's photo on the back cover of Close to the Edge. A quick check through my albums reveals that Offord changed from 'Eddie' to 'Eddy' some time in 1971, between Tarkus and Pictures at an Exhibition and between The Yes Album and Fragile.

If the classic Yes sound is partly due to input from Offord, what about other bands from that period? King Crimson were self-produced because they weren’t happy with Moody Blues collaborator Tony Clarke, (Giles Giles and Fripp released The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp on Decca’s Deram label in 1968, the Moody’s pre-Threshold stable), one of the reasons why Lake went on to produce ELP. In the early years Charisma Records label mates Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator (and Rare Bird and Lindisfarne) were produced by John Anthony. This wasn’t an act of control by the label, which generally ceded all creative control to the bands themselves, it was a collaborative approach where the ideals of producer Anthony fitted in with both Stratton-Smith’s sensibilities and the ideology of the groups. The compositions of both Van der Graaf and Genesis matured rapidly under this guidance, until VdGG split in 1972 and self-produced when they reformed with a trilogy of sonically well balanced albums, Godbluff (1975), Still Life (1976) and World Record (1976.) Foxtrot (1972) was produced by David Hitchcock and demonstrated a harder edge than Nursery Cryme (1971.) Hitchcock had worked extensively with Caravan and would go on to produce Camel’s Mirage (1974) and Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975.) Genesis would utilise the experience of John Burns for subsequent releases Selling England by the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) and then form a creative relationship with David Hentschel for post-Gabriel albums A Trick of the Tail (1976) to Duke (1980.) The jazzy Camel albums Moonmadness (1976) and Rain Dances (1977) were co-produced with Rhett Davies.

I’m a big fan of Mike Vernon’s work with Focus, another producer who demonstrates that collaborative working gives the best results. Like Yes in the Eddy Offord years, there’s a particular quality that demonstrates the care taken over the music but also reveals a distinct sonic signature. When Yes changed their sound and image for 90125 (1983), it was to fit in with a more commercial music industry; the business had changed and self-production was frowned upon because it represented a loss of control by the record label. I think that the forced abandonment of cooperative principles, shared ideas and ideals was part of the grand design of the industry; record deals were harder to come by and relinquishing control of at least part of the process was a price that almost all bands had to pay. Pink Floyd were one exception; having self produced since More (1969), albeit with executive production by Norman Smith until Meddle (1971), they had enough clout to continue to call the shots. I believe the leverage applied by the record label was in most cases a destructive force, stifling creativity and narrowing the types of music that were available to listen to. Thankfully, the new wave of prog has managed to break free of the rule of the majors and though new acts aren’t likely to get rich without compromising their principles, there’s a strong relationship between the musicians and producers that mimics the ethos of 70s prog.



By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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