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Rock in the Name of Progress (Part VI -"Thelonius Punk")

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. (Webster’s Dictionary)

The 1970s seemed to be the true growth period for Progressive rock. After the end of the loving sixties (somewhere around the beatings at Altamount and the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin) and before the arrival of punk and new wave, there was a brief little window of progressive popularity in America. The wave was led by the symphonic rock compositions of Kansas, Styx and Supertramp. These bands achieved massive popularity as their music penetrated the mainstream audiences through strong radio airplay and bombastic stadium shows. Underneath these big guns, there were also some lesser-known acts such as Pere Ubu and Happy The Man who each provided their own brand of American progressive rock. Thirsty Ear Recordings (212-889-9595) and One Way Records (PO Box 6429, Albany, New York 12206) have dug in the vaults to give us the avant-garde/jazz/punk of Cleveland’s Pere Ubu, the symphonic rock of Styx and the Genesis/King Crimson influenced instrumentals of Washington D.C.’s Happy The Man.

 

Styx

Long before Styx’s "Mr. Roboto" was the feature for Volkswagen commercials, Chicago’s Styx was considered one of America’s finest representatives in progressive rock. The band’s style of prog rock was known as "pomp rock" as their sound (as well as Kansas and Supertramp) was ambitious and bold. Their sound featured several movements with complexly arranged guitar and keyboard instrumental performances. Named after the underground river in the mythical underworld of Hades, Styx first came together in 1964 but did not achieve the steady lineup until 1972. The band lineup during these albums consisted of singer/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, guitarist James Young, guitarist John Curulewski, bassist Chuck Panozzo and drummer John Panozzo.

Their first two albums Styx I and Styx II received limited airplay, although Styx II’s "Lady" would attain nationwide popularity years later. The Serpent is Rising and Man of Miracles (One Way Records PO Box 6429, Albany, New York 12206) represent a harder edge to the Styx sound that has touches of Alice Copper or Uriah Heep more than anything else. The songs on these two albums are shorter in length and actually represent the rockier side of the band. Imagine the keyboards and harmonies of Yes with Peter Frampton on guitar. Both albums show evidence of the power ballads and concept albums that the band was to achieve in albums such as The Grand Illusion, Paradise Theater and Equinox

Happy The Man

Happy the Man found its name from passages in books like the Bible and Goethe’s Faust where one could read phrases like "Happy the man who…". The band consisted of Stanley Whittaker (6 and 12 String Guitars), Frank Wyatt (pianos, harpsichord, saxophone, flute), Kit Watkins( pianos, harpsichord, Moog, Clavinet, B-3 Organ), Rick Kennell(bass) and Ron Riddle (drums, percussion). Unrelated to the fact the band shares the same name as a Genesis tune, Happy the Man’s earliest claims to fame is that they jammed with Peter Gabriel when he left Genesis in 1975. Gabriel was looking for a new band to play with and he had heard Happy the Man’s sound and was immediately interested in them. The two musical forces spent a day playing together, but Happy The Man was not willing to become a "back up band" so they each went their own way.

The music on these two albums can be classified as progressive fusion. Happy the Man incorporates the sounds of English progressive bands like Genesis and King Crimson and mixes it with the jazz-fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report. The band first came together at Madison College in Harrisburg, Virginia in the mid-1970s and quickly established themselves as one of America’s best, yet relatively unknown, Progressive rock bands. Through Happy the Man’s sound featured odd meters, fantasy-lyrics, hard driving rhythms, jazzy chord progressions and symphonic compositions structure, the band rose from the underground in the Washington D.C. area and disappeared as quickly as the appeared. By 1979, the band was no more and the musicians went their own way. Some, like Kit Watkins have continued to pursue music while others, like Frank Wyatt have chosen to change gears and become a carpenter.

Along with England’s Camel, Happy the Man was one of the last bands to receive a record contract in the late-1970s before the all out demise of progressive rock. Somehow, the band signed with Arista Records, which was a label not known for signing non-mainstream acts. For this reason alone, the first two albums drifted into obscurity due to a poor marketing strategy. Coupled with the fact that Happy the Man played brilliant and cerebral jazz-rock instrumentals in the age of Donna Summer and the Sex Pistols, Happy The Man immediately was thrown into the status of being a cult band. Thankfully, Albany’s One Way Records purchased the rights to their first two albums – Happy The Man and Crafty Hands(One Way Records PO Box 6429, Albany, New York 12206). Up to this point, these two albums have only been recently available through poorly engineered Japanese imports. Like finding a hidden treasure, the early pre disco sounds of Happy the Man are here for all to enjoy. Happy the Family’s sound is 100% original, but they did draw on many influences. "Stumpy Meets The Firecracker in Stencil Forest" sounds a bit Adrian Belew-era King Crimson but in reality, the tune predates that particular era of King Crimson. The Genesis influence is felt through tunes like "Morning Sun" whose 12 String guitar is reminiscent of Genesis’s "Supper’s Ready" while the lyrics and vocal passion of "Wind Up Doll Day Wind" reflects Trick of the Tail era Genesis. "Open Book" harks to the flute laden tunes of Jethro Tull while "Ibby It Is" sounds like a jam session featuring Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Tony Banks. In all of the Happy the Family tunes, the band maintains the melody lines that of Yes as both bands did not try to achieve their complexity through dissonance but rather through catchy, intelligent tunes. Both Happy the Family albums denote the band’s essence to capture technical expertise, complex yet accessible compositions and melody in one fell swoop. In addition, both the albums were originally produced by Ken Scott, who was responsible for producing the works of other progressive bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, David Bowie and Supertramp, and they have now re-mastered by founder Kit Watkins. Between the production expertise of yesterday and today, Happy The Man and Crafty Hands are must finds for any music fan that simultaneously enjoys adept displays of virtuosity and composition.

These guys are prime candidates for a "Where Are They Now?" episode on VH-1, but unfortunately, minimal people knew who they were then. Happy the Man appears to be another great casualty of the media’s ability to suppress the best music out around. It is a travesty is to think that the Village People were able sell albums in 1977 and Happy the Man were left in obscurity. Fortunately, there are a few rumors concerning a Happy the Man reunion so keep your ears and eyes open.

 

Pere Ubu and David Thomas

Pere Ubu belongs on the edge of the American progressive rock movement. During the late 1970s, it was the rise of punk that was primarily responsible for the death of progressive rock. There was an underlying desire to return rock and roll music. After years of grandiose stadium shows, excessive themes and a general sense of overindulgence, punk introduced a bare bones approach to making music that was reminiscent of the early Rolling Stones or Pretty Things. Cleveland’s Pere Ubu was one of the few bands that was able to combine elements of progressive and punk rock as well as psychedelia. In the 1990s, Pere Ubu’s lead singer, David Thomas continues with a distinctive sound with his Pale Orchestra. Thanks to Thirsty Ear Recordings, both the recordings of Pere Ubu and the Pale Orchestra are available for us to hear.

Pere Ubu first came together 1975 when two part time rock critics, David Thomas and Peter Laughner wanted to create their own distinct sound of music. Dave Thomas, who was previously in a band called Rocket from the Tombs, was the distinctive leader of the band for the next 25 years. The band’s first gig was a New Year’s Party at a downtown Cleveland bar where the supplemented their limited originals with covers of Velvet Underground and Stooges tunes. Besides the avant-garde rock of the Velvets and the glam-punk of the Stooges, Pere Ubu looked to the "mutated blues" of Captain Beefheart and the Texas psychedelia of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators as primary sources of inspiration. Especially, the Elevator’s Tommy Hall who played an amplified jug that created the most bizarre and dissonant of sounds. Years later, it would be this same use of random noise that would typify the Pere Ubu sound.

Using these influences as a foundation and then adding their own distinctive flare, Pere Ubu became the guardians of the avant-garage movement, which is a blend of blues/jazz/punk/new wave/noise/distortion and progressive. Think Henry Cow meets the Sex Pistols. The American punk movement was dominated by the raunchy sounds such as Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers and Pere Ubu represented the intelligent side of the punk movement. In albums such as Dub Housing and New Picnic Time(Thirsty Ear Recordings; (212)-889-9595), Pere Ubu moved from hard rocking tunes like "Caligari’s Mirror" to John Cage influenced noise pieces like "Thriller!"

Besides the random EML synthesizer and guitar effects, Dave Thomas’ falsetto, scratchy and shrieky voice was one of the defining characteristics of the band went by the stage name of "Crocus Behemoth". The title was rather apropos for his voice "croaked" and Thomas’ disposition was on the heavy side. In reality Thomas was representing the band’s namesake, Pere Ubu, who was the monstrous character in a series of plays by French writer Alfred Jarry . The works of Jarry permutated throughout the progressive rock circles. It was Jarry’s same play that the members of Soft Machine accompanied in a multi-media music/theatre event at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in the late 1960s. In addition, one time Hawkwind singer, Robert Calvert, found his inspiration for the popular Hawkwind tune, "Silver Machine", from the Jarry essay "How to Construct a Time Machine.".

Pere Ubu’s released their first two singles, "30 Seconds over Tokyo" and "Final Solution" on their own record label, Hearthen. These tunes reflected the dark undertones that the band would possess throughout its entire career. The band would come to represent many things: the hard grit of American’s heartland; the angst caused Cleveland’s fall from industrial prestige and grace and the overall disillusionment created by Cold War politics. Even more important, the release of these singles on their own label signified the advent of the Indie Rock and the whole DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos that would continue on and reach a peak in the early 1990s. To date, the band has recorded 35 albums with numerous different variations of the lineup, but with Dave Thomas always as the lead. The members of the Pere Ubu family for Dub Housing and New Picnic Time recording was David Thomas (vocals, keyboard, musette) Tom Herman (guitar, bass), Allen Ravenstine (EML synthesizers, saxophone), Tony Maimone (bass, guitar, keyboards) and Scott Krauss (drums). After these two albums, the band broke up for a short period of time. The band would reform in 1980, then break up in 1982 once again and eventually reform in 1987.

Since the mid 1980s, Dave Thomas has been a resident of Britain, where he has reformed Pere Ubu here and there but his latest endeavor has been the Pale Orchestra. The Pale Orchestra, which does not follow the hard bit of Pere Ubu but does continue with its American commentary, recently released an album called Mirror Man, which was recorded in England in the winter of 1998. The members of the Pale Orchestra are: Bob Holman (poet), Linda Thompson (singer), Robert Kidney (singer), Jackie Leven (singer), Daved Hild (singer), Jane Bom-Bane (singer), Keith Moliné (guitar), Andy Diagram (trumpet), Peter Hammill (guitar, keyboards, harmonium), Jack Kidney (harp, tenor sax), and Chris Cutler (drums). English progressive rock is represented by Peter Hammill, who fronted the popular English band, Van Der Graf Generator and Chris Cutler, who has played in Rock in Opposition (RIO)bands like Henry Cow and the Art Bears.

The Mirror Man performance was a unique combination of beatnik poetry, avant-garde instrumentation and visual effects. The stage was covered with refrigerators, shopping carts, traffic cones and others example of American materialism. The musicians sat in semi-circle at the center stage in which they would step forward for each of their individual musings/poetics/solos/croons. The Mirror Man was an example of spoken word jazz for the 1990s. In 1950s, poetry was set to the background of jazz, which became symbolic of the Beat movement. Mirror Man is a logical extension of that medium, simply set at a larger, more grandiose scale.

The Mirror Man concert was subtitled: Act One: Jack and the General. This title refers to Jack Kerouac and General/President Eisenhower who were the two biggest icons in the United States during the first half of the 20th Century. Eisenhower built the American Interstate system while Kerouac told the stories of man traveling the system. Kerouac represented alienation with American society while Eisenhower stood for the affluence of the society. The Pale Orchestra made endless references to driving, vacations, cars and highways that in turn related the typical American biography. This was not a biography about the individual American but rather the collective American.

The poetry/singing narration ranged from the evils of rising gas prices, Disney World, animal testing to the memories of more innocent times like family vacations in Florida. These spewing dialogs resemble a combination of Spaulding Gray, Jack Kerouac, Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs. Musically is was Willy Nelson meets Sun Volt meets the Velvet Underground with Delta Blues and Polka undertones. There are no stops in the album – Zappa-esque multilayered vocals, statements and phrases that segue into little country western melodies, all out cacophonous blasts and accordion shuffles.

Through its atmosphere of sounds and stores, the Pale Orchestra evokes feelings of alienation, homesickness, disillusionment and deception – all in one continuos segue. The performance brings forth the Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde of the hobo spirit – there is the adventure but also the alienation. In the case of the Mirror Man, the hobo is not the lone traveler, but the average person living the average life. Pere Ubu was known for its album covers portraying images of a decaying United States. Pale Orchestra provided the narrative/musical manifestation of this imagery.

As we have seen, American progressive rock covered quite the gamut in the 1970s. Through three bands – Styx, Happy the Man and Pere Ubu- the American progressive rock scene was represented by the highly arranged and indulgent, the underground virtuosity and the effects of punk and new wave on the music scene. It is the final band, Pere Ubu, that is perhaps the most significant as the band represented the effects of the invading punk movement. Since Pere Ubu appealed to the alternative crowds, it was able to continue through the 1970s and to the 1980s. As for progressive music across the board, this period was considered the dark ages of progressive rock. In the next issue, we will visit the bands that represent the 1980s-1990s resurgence in progressive rock.

Go to Part V

Go to Part VII