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Rock in the Name of Progress (Part III – "Mainstream Prog?" )

By Brian L. Knight

progressive \Pro*gress"ive\, a. [Cf. F. progressif.] 1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; -- opposed to retrograde. (Websters Dictionary)

In the last issue, we went through a brief overview of progressive rock as well as a quick examination of space rock pioneers such as Hawkwind and Gong and the space rockers of the 1990s – Melting Euphoria and Mushroom. In our continuing tour of progressive music, we cannot forget the big names that put the style on the map in the first place. Without bands such as Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the lesser know bands would have even less ground to stand on today. Some of the bands of yore have disbanded or have lost their progressive edge while some of have continued to go strong. Yes is one group that has not lost its appeal and there have been countless releases in the late 1990s that celebrate the band and its members while King Crimson is continually redefining itself even after the band goes on thirty years old.

In addition, we will also look at some of the lesser-known groups who grew up along side the big guns. We will examine bands that did not receive as much media attention but drew equal critical praise. We will look at one label, Chicago’s East Side Digital, who re-release catalog covers everything from the Rock in Opposition (RIO) pioneers Henry Cow, the Canterbury super group National Health and drifting progressive troubadours Mont Campbell and Peter Blevgad.

Rick Wakeman

The most synonymous band with the progressive music movement would have to be England’s Yes. With epic compositions like "Close To the Edge", "Heart of the Sunrise" and "Starship Trooper", Yes combined the structure of traditional classical music with hard driving rock and roll. Through the years of Yes existence, the band experienced many different lineup changes. One such member who was in and out of the band was keyboards master Rick Wakeman. Wakeman, like so many of his peers, began his musical career playing England’s version of American blues and being an "in high-demand" session player in which he played on albums by Lou Reed, David Bowie and Elton John. In the early 1970s, Wakeman replaced Tony Kaye as Yes’s architect of the keys and remained with the band for their classic Fragile, Close to the Edge and Relayer. After these recordings, Wakeman became disillusioned with the songs that Yes was composing (a la Tales of Topographic Oceans), so he left the band. During his solo career, Wakeman’s most famous works were the fantasy epic tales like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. All three of these recordings were 100% instrumental and displayed Wakeman’s mastery of the organ, piano, Moog, synthesizers and keyboards.

In addition to these lengthy pieces, Wakeman recorded many "more accessible" albums that were shorter in length and some actually contained lyrics. During this period, Wakeman also returned to Yes to record Going For the One, Tormato and the highly regarded Yes "reunion albums" of Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford and Howe and Union. In 1999, Cleopatra Records released Rick Wakeman: The Masters, which is a 2-disc compilation of Wakeman’s less epic recordings. These cuts were taken from Wakeman’s solo efforts during the 1980s – from 1982’s Rock and Roll Prophet to 1998’s Themes. The latter consisted of soundtracks to films and video games and are very ambient and moody in nature. There are also two cuts from his 1985 Live at the Hammersmith which features selected and condensed pieces from Wakeman’s epic early 1970s works. The highlight of the recordings arrives with "Meglomania" which is a 1993 keyboard duet with his son Adam.

 

The Strawbs/Concert Classics

Before Rick Wakeman became an international superstar, he played keyboards for the folk-inclined progressive group, The Strawbs. The band, which first came together in 1967, found its roots in Bluegrass and traditional folk tunes which was a much different then the jazz or classical music influenced sounds that were occurring in the Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and Yes. Rick Wakeman joined the group for three years (between 1969 and 1971) in which he contributed to three albums. By 1971 arrived, Wakeman was whisked off to Yes but the Strawbs kept on going strong as their sound became more rock orientated – most notable cause of this transition was the disappearance of the acoustic guitar and the introduction of the Mellotron. Renaissance Record’s Concert Classics  is a compilation of live recordings taken from the Strawb’s mid 1970s performances. The disc may be Wakeman-less, but it is a great collection of tunes written by longtime singer/guitarist Dave Cousins. Most of the tunes on this live album hark to a post-Wakeman Strawbs lineup, like "Hero and Heroine", "Out in the Cold", and "Round and Round" which hail to the band’s popular 1973 album Hero and Heroine. Despite no Wakeman, the Strawbs were a significant contributor, along with other bands like Fairport Convention, Gryphon and Renaissance, to the folk rock progressive genre.

 

Wakeman: A Glam Connection to Progressive?

In his autobiography, Rick Wakeman focuses quite a bit on his time as a session player and he pays a lot of respect to the Glam rocking David Bowie. "The most memorable (session) was to be that of the recording of the Hunky Dory album by David Bowie……He then proceeded to play the finest selection of songs I have ever heard in one sitting in my entire life. I doubt whether anybody will ever experience such a wonderfully exhilarating unique evening as I had the pleasure of that night." These are impressive words from a guy who has had the honor of hearing Fragile and Close to the Edge. Bowie obviously felt the same respect for Wakeman. As Bowie was slowly transforming into Ziggy Stardust, "the guy with the screwed down hairdo" needed a keyboard player for his new band, the Spiders from Mars and he extended an offer to Wakeman. After giving Wakeman a few days to think about the offer, Bowie probably wished that he made Wakeman decide instantly for within a few hours of Bowie’s offer, Chris Squire from Yes made a similar proposal. As a result, Wakeman embarked on a career of playing classically influenced progressive rock rather than hard rocking Glam. Despite the differences between the two, the music of Yes and Bowie did possess one unique similarity – their mutual fascination with the cosmos. If Wakeman played with Bowie, he would have taken celestial voyages in songs like "Moonage Daydream", "Starman" and "Space Oddity". In Yes, Wakeman contributed to one of the all time best space related tunes – "Starship Trooper. In addition, both Bowie and Yes preformed their own interpretations of a the future – Bowie performed a musical version of Orwell’s 1984 while Yes envisioned a post apocalyptic world in "Yours is no Disgrace." Bowie’s music, as well as the music of fellow art rockers T-Rex and Roxy Music, belongs on the outer edges of the progressive music genre. Through their art-rock, these artists did not follow the formula of progressive rock by playing long songs that were either jazz or classically influenced, but through their compelling songs, use of theater ideas and elaborate stage productions, their music was definitely reached far above the accepted mainstream.

Billy Sherwood

The keyboard position was not the only instrument that saw multiple players during Yes’s long career (In fact bassist Chris Squire has been the only mainstay). Over the years, the textured guitar playing style of Steve Howe dominated the band but in the early 1980s, the soloing Trevor Rabin assumed the role for a brief period. The most recent addition to the band has been Billy Sherwood who has joined the band to augment the sound of Howe. Sherwood joined the band in 1997’s Open Your Eyes and the subsequent tour but was only allowed to show his skill on a limited level. In 1999, Sherwood recorded his own The Big Peace (Cleopatra Records) which gives Sherwood an opportunity to shine at keyboards, guitar, bass and vocals. The album consists of eight Sherwood originals ranging from the slow bluesy two minute "One Day" to the 15-minute epic title track which jumps back and forth between various themes with little fluidity. The album is an example of keyboard/guitar based progressive rock in the 1990s as it attempts the spirit of the instrumentals of the 1970s yet tries to add a touch of pop appeal.

 

Starcastle

During Yes’ peak of popularity as their albums like The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge skyrocketed to popularity, there were new bands that emulated the approach of Yes. One such band was Starcastle who released four studio albums between 1976 and 1978. Just like Yes, Starcastle contained tight epic instrumentation with the somewhat dreamy and fantasy lyrics/singing of Terry Luttrell. The band also consisted of bassist Gary Strater, drummer Stephan Tassler, organist Herb Schildt, guitarist Matthew Stewart and guitarist Stephen Hagler. In 1999, Renaissance Records  released a live recording of Starcastle from 1978 as part of the label’s Concert Classics series. The show captured the best of Starcastles’s albums including "The Lady of the Lake" and "Fountain of Light" which were considered to be the band’s best output. Although pigeonholed as a copy cat band, one cannot forget that like Yes, the members of Starcastle were absolute perfectionists when it came to musicianship. There may be similarities in format and sound, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty; the music of Starcastle was original in terms of composition lyrics and performance.

 

King Crimson

On of the most enduring bands to come out the 1960s was King Crimson. Led by the technically gifted guitarist Robert Fripp, King Crimson has been steadily evolving since 1969 without ever compromising its creative integrity. While their fellow progressive bands like Genesis transformed their sound to a mainstream appeal, King Crimson never abandoned their progressive inclinations. This fact is best exemplified by their latest release Cirkus (Astralwerks) which is a compendium of the band’s live work from 1969 to 1997. During the course of this thirty-year span, the band experienced several lineup changes (with Fripp at the core) but always remained innovative. There are samplings of the present day King Crimson (the absolutely slaughtering lineup of Fripp, guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Bill Bruford) as well as cuts from the band’s early days at the Fillmore West. From the 1984’s world beat, Talking Heads-like rhythm of "Thela Hun Ginjeet" to the menacing sounds of 1996’s "Thrak" and "VROOM VROOM" to the complexities of 1974’s "Starless" to the punishing jazz-psychedelia of 1969’s "A Man A City", King Crimson has and always will provide instrumental virtuosity. It is also good to hear the present incarnation of King Crimson take stabs at the band’s older material. For instance, the 1996 lineup does a wonderful rendition of 1974’s "Larks Tongue in Aspic (Part II)" while the 1972 lineup tackles "21st Century Schizoid Man" with perfection. Cirkus is a perfect look at the King Crimson of old and the King Crimson of the future. After a listen of all of the 1990s tracks, you will undoubtedly want to check the band out their next time around.

Yes and King Crimson may be two of the most influential bands in progressive rock, or it may simply appear that way. Chicago’s East Side Digital has recently released the influential works of National Health and Henry Cow as well as the individual works of these bands’ members. Although these bands and musicians did not gain the spotlight their impact was felt elsewhere.

Henry Cow

If using American jazz as a point of reference, then the band Henry Cow was the Albert Ayler/Cecil Taylor of progressive rock. While bands like Yes and Genesis were capitalizing on catchy melodies, complex compositions and fantasy lyrics, Henry Cow was bearing down their tunes to a bare minimum. Their songs ranged from slow tempo spaceiness to all out saxophone/guitar dueling romps. Henry Cow first came together in 1968 and consisted of flautist/saxophonist Geoff Leigh, organist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson, bassist John Greaves, guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Chris Cutler. In 1973, after much persistence from Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Henry Cow signed with Richard Branson’s Virgin label and their debut album was Legend, which is now available from East Side Digital.  The album title was a pun taken from the album cover which was a painting of a sock (Leg End=Legend, get it?). This album cover design was used on many instances throughout the band’s career. In 1974, Henry Cow recorded Unrest (with the same album cover design). For this stage of Henry Cow, Geoff Leigh was replaced by oboist Lindsay Cooper whose classical influences contributed to the "chamber music’ aura to Unrest.

Both Legend and Unrest contain a mix of tightly structured and complex rhythms ( a la King Crimson) and full blown, free-for all improvisations (a la Ornette Coleman). In the case of the latter half of Unrest, the album consists of multiple recording of free improvisation layered upon each other. The end of result is all out cacophony that would leave the Art Ensemble of Chicago confused from the sounds. If you are creating a list of the world’s most underrated guitarists, please place Fred Frith at the top of the list. His guitar work cuts through all of Henry Cow’s albums like John McLaughlin at his most intense moments. In recent years, one can find the explosive solos of Frith with noted 1990s avant-gardists such as John Zorn, Henry Kaiser and Bill Laswell. What Henry Cow did was provide an alternative to the feel good sounds of Yes or the space rock of Pink Floyd. In a tradition similar to the Soft Machine’s early 1970s work, Henry Cow’s work was an unconventional blend of American jazz and English progressivism. In the United States, there was fusion occurring with Miles Davis and Santana but no of that stuff would be remotely as far out as the sounds of Henry Cow.

 

Peter Blegvad

In the early 1970s, New York City musician Peter Blegvad formed Slapp Happy with pianist Anthony Moore. Together, they made music that was in the vein of Pink Floyd and in 1974, Slapp Happy merged with Henry Cow to release the albums Desperate Straights and In Praise Of Learning. After these two albums, Blegvad and Moore left the band for they could not handle the complexities of the Henry Cow sound and lyricism. In an interview with Calyx, an internet progressive rock magazine, Blegvad spoke of his time with Henry Cow, "And in the course of that, it was discovered - not to my surprise - that I actually couldn't play Henry Cow music. The chords and the time signatures were too complicated. And... just generally, Anthony and I felt kinda lost." After his departure from Henry Cow, Blegvad engaged in many solo and side projects that kept him occupied up to the recording of 1989’s Downtime.

In the 1980s, Blegvad was also a member of the Golden Palominos whose ranks also included Michael Stipe, Anton Fier and Jack Bruce. Between 1986 and 1989, Blegvad went into the studio on many instances to record the tunes on Downtime. In comparison to the avant-garde, far out sounds of Unrest and Legend, Downtime consist of simpler, acoustic guitar based folk tinged compositions. Gone are the intense compositions and near headache inducing solos and in were simple melodies. For this recording, he was joined by longtime collaborationist Anthony Moore as well as fellow ex-Henry Cow members Chris Cutler and John Greaves. Jakko Jakszyk, who has played with Dave Stewart and Pip Pyle of Caravan and Hatfield and the North fame, supplies guitar throughout the album. The songs on Downtime are pared down, simplistic ballads that contain pieces that are sardonic as well as heartfelt.

 

National Health

Rock and Roll loves its supergroups – Blind Faith, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Free, the Firm, the Powerstation, Temple of the Dog are just a few to have come and gone over the years. One super group that was denied much fanfare was England’s National Health. Named after the British free health service, the first lineup of National Health consisted of Dave Stewart (keyboards), Alan Gowen(keyboards), Phil Miller (guitar), Phil Lee (guitar), Mont Campbell (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums). Phil Miller and Dave Stewart were both veterans of Hatfield and the North while Stewart along with Mont Campbell had also played for Egg. Lee and Gowen came from Gilgamesh. In retrospect, Bill Bruford was the biggest star as he played behind the kit for progressive big wigs Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and U.K. Additional contributors over the years would be singer Amanda Parsons (of Hatfield and the North), Peter Blegvad, Lindsay Cooper and John Greaves (formerly of Henry Cow), Richard Sinclair and Jimmy Hastings(of Caravan), Elton Dean (of Soft Machine) and Steve Hillage (of Gong). With all of these English progressive band vets thrown into one band, one could only imagine the high quality of their creative output.

National Health played in a style that was characterized by extended compositions with many time changes and immaculate instrumentation. Similar to their American jazz-fusion counterparts Return to Forever , National Health masterful blended jazz and rock and roll with intelligent extended solos. If the sound of Henry Cow compared Ornette Coleman, then National Health was Wayne Shorter. Coleman and Henry Cow provided the free dissonance while Shorter and National Health provided complex compositions and excellent instrumentation. The East Side Digital release Missing Pieces consists mainly of early BBC recording sessions and demos while the compilation, Complete, is a veritable greatest hit packages which covers every stage and just about every musician who passed through the ranks of the band. All three albums from National Health’s years together, National Health, Of Queues and Cures, and D.S. Al Coda, make up the Complete album as well as some bonus tracks. National Health had a short career (they disbanded in 1979) but during their brief time together, England’s finest ( and unheralded in the United States) musicians came together to creative some astonishing music and East Side Digital has released it all for us to enjoy.

 

Mont Campbell

One of the many superstars to make up National health was bassist Mont Campbell. Born in Egypt and raised in England, Campbell grew up with fellow progressives Dave Stewart and Steve Hillage. In 1972, Stewart, Hillage and Campbell formed Egg together, which is often compared to the sounds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or the Nice, until he gave up all of his music endeavors to become a plumber. In 1977. Stewart called upon Campbell again to join National Health. During his years with National Health, Campbell contributed some the band’s most complex tunes such as Complete’s opening number "Paracelsus" and Missing Pieces’ "Starlight on Seaweed" and ‘Agrippa". After a their tour of 1976, Campbell left music once again, only to return in 1997 with Music from a Round Tower (under the name Dirk Campbell) which was produced by Dave Stewart. This recording is ambitious piece of 20 individual compositions that range from a few seconds in time to over five minutes. These tunes segue in and out of each other to create one unified album length tune. On the recording, Campbell plays a varieties of woodwinds from countries such as Scotland, Egypt, Greece and Japan which have name like ney flute, kaval, reedpipes, bansri, gaida, tulum, and daoul. Campbell also plays quite a bit of the keyboard, and it his experiments with electronics, such as the MIDI, that make the album really stand out. In the liner notes, Campbell described his intentions: "The nature of the piece is an exploration, like moving through a landscape of constantly varying and surprising topographical features. I wanted the piece to never to settle into a comfortable sense of the familiar, but wanted it to be enjoyable nonetheless. Its got most of the elements that give me pleasure: minimalist, middle eastern, African tribal, weird synth sounds, Russian period Stravinsky and a lot that I must blushingly admit comes from me. There is a broad formal design though: there is a movement from a restless state to a resting state, from a seeking to a finding….."

Go back to Part II

Go to Part IV