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Recently returned from the 2018 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa, where ProgBlog met up with last year's star turn Melting Clock, and discussion turned to the artwork for their forthcoming album which is due to begin recording in the next couple of weeks...

By ProgBlog, Mar 6 2018 03:20PM

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) that appeared in January didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and, just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe). Why nine albums? Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? How should we define significant?


There were appearances of this question in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I suggest that it fits in with the New Year resolution phenomenon; a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. It’s all part of the challenge!

There don't appear to be any specific rules so I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life. I got into prog fairly early so the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums.


These are my personal choices:



Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be fair to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.



The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

Likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world but this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.



Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.



Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced on rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.




Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the groundbreaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that I bought myself a bass guitar on my 18th birthday.



Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.



Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.




UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. At the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass, and ELP produced Love Beach.


Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and, tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up, production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, that I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and, in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.



I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, and that includes life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have more to do with life events than mine but also reflects a constant evolution, partly spurred by the discovery of music through Shazam: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Private Eyes by Hall and Oates, Dare by The Human League, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.


I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog that was nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions; there’s no evidence that they’ve taken part in the challenge before and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses, and an attempt at some analysis, will be published in the next blog...



By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM

It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.


I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.


The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.



One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.


Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.


King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.


It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...







By ProgBlog, Nov 22 2015 09:33PM

My daily commute now involves taking the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line) from Norwood Junction to Whitechapel. Whereas the journey to London Bridge for Guy’s Hospital involved a 19 minute walk, a five minute wait in a carefully worked-out spot so that I’d get a seat on the 08.05 on a journey that took a minimum of 18 minutes, I now have an 18 minute walk through more pleasant surroundings (Brickfields Meadow in Woodside) and a theoretical 4 minute wait for the train, standing as close as fellow travellers allow to the position of the last doors of coach four when the carriage pulls to a halt. This is important. The East London Line service, which opened in 2010, was designed for four coach trains, i.e. the platform length of the new, dedicated Overground stations was equivalent to the length of a four coach train. This wonderful piece of prescience must have been an attempt to save money but such were the demands on the service that they added an extra car to each train and the doors of the last coach don’t open at the stations between New Cross Gate and Dalston Junction; the exit steps at Whitechapel are at the end of the train. I think I’ve managed to bag a seat only twice on outward journeys in the two months that I’ve been working at the Royal London, such is the inadequate provision of seats on these trains; I embark at the second station on the route. The boast ‘5 car train’ at the front of each service is a twisted joke - I’ve seen toy trains that have been longer.

I read my Guardian until capacity is reached, normally by Sydenham, when I’m no longer able to turn the pages; this depends on how the entire service is running and though I check BBC travel before I set off to the station, the situation is liable to change drastically by the time I step into Norwood Junction for reasons that the service operator seem unable to divulge. The result is that the train can be overcrowded before it has left and in these situations the mp3 player is essential.

The journey is timetabled to take 33 minutes but rarely achieves this so theoretically I could listen to a full, short album but choose to stow the Walkman before I pull into Whitechapel to facilitate a rapid exit; I seriously think I have some form of claustrophobia. On Friday I was listening to Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and it struck me that though this is hailed as one of the fusion greats it stylistically leans much more towards the side of rock. That incarnation of the band seems to possess a remarkable musical understanding though the recording demonstrates urgency and, surprisingly, a fairly raw sound that I’d not really noticed before. With compositions primarily riff-based, the sheer power and attack of McLaughlin’s electric guitar reminds me of Cream but it’s when at least two of the lead instruments are playing the same lines where this aggressiveness is most evident. From a jazz perspective, there are solo spots for guitar, Jerry Goodman’s violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboards, however I find the band most thrilling when the musicians play call and response lines at breakneck speed. McLaughlin may be credited as composer on all tracks on Birds of Fire (and The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971) but I’ve noticed that when played on my PC there are other credits, to young keyboard player Jean-Philippe Rykiel, who had shared the stage with Miles Davis, for the track Hope; and to trombonist/pianist Bob Brookmeyer for Open Country Joy, two tracks where the writing is sympathetic to Goodman. I’ve just looked at my LP, bought in 1975 and there’s no indication that anyone else had a hand in writing the tunes; my remastered CD is currently out of reach, boxed away waiting for the new CD racks to appear.


I don’t remember quite why I got into the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s possible that Tony heard either The Inner Mounting Flame or Birds of Fire on Derek Jewell’s radio show, but when I saw the Ashok Chris Poisson cover on the latter I was intrigued; the Miles Davis connection was a bonus because I quite liked our father’s Miles records. Bill Burford bought The Inner Mounting Flame and I got Birds of Fire which, until recently, I’d always preferred out of the two; the earlier album occasionally veered too much towards Country music for my taste. My favourite album is Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) which I also bought in 1975, because the three coherent long-form tracks make it the closest the band came to prog; I love the dynamics and the playing is of such a remarkable standard you’d never guess that internal tensions were about to bring a close to that particular chapter. Jan Hammer, possibly most famous in non-musical circles for Crockett’s Theme (from Miami Vice) or the recent Mars Bar advert where a dog plays the tune on pan pipes, gets a full song writing credit for Sister Andrea but it’s undeniably Mahavishnu material. The studio version of these pieces, released as The Lost Trident Sessions (1999) also includes tracks by Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird. It would be remiss of me not to mention the rhythm section; Laird was very solid and unflash and Billy Cobham was stunning throughout, an undeniably super-talented musician who inspired a generation of jazz rock drummers. The live performance was remarkably true to the tracks laid down on The Lost Trident Sessions.

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.



By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 08:37PM

There’s an almost unspoken agreement that jazz-rock fusion comes under the prog canon. This relationship, forged in the late 60s and early 70s by the alumni of Miles Davis, lasted until the end of the golden era of prog and was based on a shared heritage of instrumental virtuosity. In the beginning it tended to be jazzers wanting to expand their vocabulary in a rock context – rock music at the time was not only reaching an ever wider audience but was also open to experimentation – but soon had rock musicians adopting a jazz-rock style; Symphinity by the continuation of Australian band Sebastian Hardie, Windchase (1977) and Relayer by Yes (1974) are prime examples and there’s even a continuation of this theme in On the Silent Wings of Freedom from Yes’ Tormato (1978). Camel shifted towards jazz-rock for Moonmadness (1976) and continued with that style after recruiting Richard Sinclair on bass for Rain Dances (1977). Emergency! by Tony Williams’ Lifetime (1969) is widely regarded as the first of the fusion albums.

I bought the brilliant Birds of Fire in 1975 and I regard this as the gold-standard though Between Nothingness and Eternity does come close; it’s the guitar/keyboard/violin interplay, stunning, fast and furious that marks this period of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as stand-out. The second incarnation was good, but tended towards the symphonic and though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it wasn’t what Mark I was about. In fact, Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever, one of the foremost fusion bands, is really a piece of symphonic prog and is really quite dazzling. It may be the array of keyboards used by Chick Corea that gives it a symphonic prog feel – the straightforward jazz-rock sound tends to rely on electric piano with the synthesizer as a lead instrument. I started listening to Santana in the early 70s and I’d also consider them to be a jazz-rock outfit, though the jazz here is very Latin – and the keyboard sound is predominantly organ.

In the UK it was Soft Machine who led the charge, embracing the British jazz scene of the time. Their move from pop-psychedelia to jazz was catalysed by the replacement of bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers with Hugh Hopper (who had been the group’s tour manager) that allowed Mike Ratledge to exert a greater compositional influence. The subsequent recording, Volume Two, can be best described as an early experiment in jazz fusion. Soft Machine experimented by adding a quartet of horn players from Keith Tippett’s band. Saxophonist Elton Dean became a new full-time member and, exhibiting ever greater instrumental finesse, the Softs headed towards free-improvisation. Robert Wyatt departed in 1971 and an effort to introduce more structure to their music by Hopper and Ratledge, together with the recruitment of ex-Nucleus drummer John Marshall, precipitated the departure of Elton Dean in 1972 and the appearance of his replacement, Karl Jenkins. Hopper left in 1973 after recording Six, leaving the band to beat a path towards more conventional jazz-rock. The introduction of a guitarist for the first time since 1968, the highly-rated Allan Holdsworth fresh from Jon Hiseman’s jazz/blues rock band Tempest, solidified a style that epitomised melodic British jazz-rock. Though he only graced one ‘official’ Soft Machine album (Bundles) before decamping to work with the man who started the whole fusion trend, Tony Williams, Holdsworth’s distinctive style totally changed the sound of the Softs, though the compositional influence of Jenkins was becoming clearer and Ratledge seemed to become less involved. “Softs”, is a continuation very much in the same vein. John Etheridge took over guitar duties, recommended to the band by Holdsworth and having previously played in Darryl Way’s Wolf which was a natural progression from Curved Air. I’d managed to see Etheridge on a couple of occasions, once at the Seven Dials Jazz Club in Earlham Street, Covent Garden (17/11/1984) where I was guided in by the sounds of The Tale of Taliesin from Softs emanating from the open door, and a few years later in a pub in the Old Kent Road where brother Richard and I chatted to him as he was setting up his equipment. On the first occasion, his trio was supported by the Gary Boyle Trio and Brian Auger made a guest appearance.

Isotope was in fact the second band from this genre that I got into, seduced by the cover photography, Steve Lake’s sleeve notes and the geekiness of the band’s name (I was a Biology, Chemistry, Physics student at school and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve stood on top of the nuclear reactor at Sellafield). I’d also seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test and, fortunately, the music lived up to expectations. Having Jeff Clyne on board might have helped but Gary Boyle’s guitar playing and the crisp drumming of Nigel Morris was quite a revelation. Though the compositional credits were for the most part awarded to keyboard player Brian Miller, it always seemed like Boyle’s band to me – possibly in retrospect because he and Nigel Morris were the only two constants throughout the band’s lifetime. The sound on the eponymous first album is fairly rough and ready but well balanced. I originally owned this on cassette until the Esoteric records CD was released in 2011 but I own vinyl copies of both Illusion and Deep End (bought in 1977 and 1978 respectively.) As the band matured the sound became slicker but the material seemed drained of emotional content; in retrospect, this form of jazz-rock had become a little sterile by 1976, the year following the release of Deep End. Though Soft Machine’s Bundles and Softs have some exceptional moments, some material hints at an almost soul-less or mechanical ‘going through the motions’ and this seems to me to have been the prelude to Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus recordings. These may have sold millions but were well suited to the all-style-and-no-substance advertising campaigns of faceless multinationals. There’s a Canterbury connection to Isotope that comes via Hugh Hopper, who played bass on Illusion and on the track Fonebone from their last album. Producer Robin Lumley links Isotope to Brand X, for whom he played keyboards.

Brand X were a different kettle of fish. Originally formed in 1975, by the following year they had become firmly stylistically set in the jazz-rock camp; inventive and sonically varied. The band had a kind of revolving line-up which somehow worked to keep the material fresh and relevant. Sometimes addressed as ‘Phil Collins’ other band’ or ‘the British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, their initial success may have been helped by opening up jazz-rock to a generation of Genesis fans but it would be really unfair to the rest of Brand X to solely pin their success on Collins. I got to see one of the incarnations of Brand X (sans Collins) in a double-headlining gig with Bruford at the Venue in 1980 and it was an exceptionally good evening.

A number of artists still operate in this field - Pat Metheny, for instance. My brother Richard headed his own jazz-rock band Absolute Proof and though their performances were given rave reviews it was difficult to attract a substantial audience in our native Cumbria.

The key to survival is adaptation. Were Bruford jazz-rock or were they prog? It really doesn’t matter – together with National Health, I believe they epitomise the link between prog and jazz-rock. Perhaps Weather Report, another one of the three great fusion bands, best represent the link between jazz-rock and funk and I think bands like Paraphernalia and the short-lived Major Surgery are the foremost examples of bands that link jazz-rock and jazz. In my opinion, all these bands form a spectrum of crossover music. Some bands may have been jazzier, some bands more prog but wherever a band fitted into this spectrum, the results of absorbing other influences was a fundamental part of the prog ethos.


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