Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Mike Barnes’ “A New Day Yesterday”; Part Two

My overall feeling about Mike Barnes’ massive book on soi-disant ‘progressive music’ from the (very) late 60s and the first few years of the 70s is that, while its contents are exhaustively well-researched and informative, it spends far too much time documenting the lives/deaths and discographies of some of the most successful bands (King Crimson, Pink Floyd, The Nice/ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator, Mike Oldfield, Henry Cow, The Moody Blues, Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, Caravan, Egg, Soft Machine, Camel, Gentle Giant, Curved Air, Gong). Even just writing out this list makes me feel tired, and, at times, I skipped chunks of the text, something I don’t usually like doing, especially with books about music.

These subjective longeurs, could perhaps have been better balanced by more discursive discussion chapters, which were the meat of the book, in my opinion - there are relatively brief sections on socio-cultural aspects of the era, such as drugs, fashion and the ‘youthquake’, rock journalism, festivals, politics and suchlike. I would have like to have seen more of this sort of material, which might have led to an even better sense of the time, rather than over-extended descriptions of the bands itemised above. Inevitably, opinions will vary about which individuals and groups have been left out and which are dwelt on for too long in the book - for example, I think that Curved Air and Egg get too much air time. Overall, for me, there was also in general too much ‘album review’ space given over (although certain albums obviously deserve extended coverage, In the Court of the Crimson King being one indisputable example, both for its contents and influence). 

A few more thoughts follow, in no particular order of importance:

* Yes may well be the quintessential progressive band? Their infamous Tales of the Topographic Ocean remains a non-pareil, from its size (the then highly unusual triple album format) to it’s Roger Dean cover picture. However divisive reactions to this work may be, it somehow signifies the sheer ambition and heft of the genre, whatever listeners feel about its product quality.

* The NME headline concerning the 1971 ELP album Tarkus brought a smile to my lips - “Tarkus - Tripe or Greatness” (quoted on page 125), which seems emblematic of this whole “new kind of rock music” (page 162), and reminded me of another great NME headline from a few years later, this time regarding Freddie Mercury”, i.e. “Is  this man a prat?” Cruel, but fair?

* I would like to have heard about gender issues within the genre’s musicians and within its audience. In particular, the reactions of women towards a music which is often blatantly sexist, with women often stereotyped as either goddesses or groupies. Robert Fripp’s well-documented fascination at the time (like another egghead ‘great’, Frank Zappa) with the latter stereotype, is summarised in King Crimson’s ‘Ladies of the Road’ (from 1971′s Islands, although the lyrics were actually penned by Pete Sinfield). This is surely one of the most ludicrous ‘rock’ tracks of all time, only equalled by some of Zappa’s equally offensive numbers. ‘A different era’, as some will inevitably reply.

* To conclude, I was taken by a quote from Steve Howe, one of the most articulate and thoughtful musicians (along with Bill Bruford), regarding the origins of this music: “In the seventies, everything had to do with Psychedelia. It may have quit as a fashion in 1968, but I was still a psychedelic guitarist in my mind. I would not play blues cliches for love nor money” (page 167). Howe’s short-lived (1967-8) band Tomorrow, with their one single album, mostly forgotten since its release in 1968 (with psychedelia already mutating, as Howe suggests) remains, for me, one of the great transitional acts of the early years of progressive rock music.

Some thoughts on Mike Barnes’ new book on early- 70s ‘’Progressive Music’: Part One

I got an early copy of Mike Barnes’ no doubt soon-to-be-essential A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock and the 1970′s a week or so ago, and have just finished it, so feel the need to reflect on this huge tome, a work that has been long in the waiting. My own immersion in this music lasted from around 1970 to 1972, but Barnes sites it from, essentially, 1969 to 1974. It’s a shame that the author doesn’t make this more clear in the book’s title, as single years marked significant developments and changes in this period, By 1975 and thereon, the seeming fluidity of the early years had ossified somewhat into what became known as ‘Prog Rock’, ‘Jazz Rock’, ‘Art Rock’, ‘Free Folk’ and other fanciful terms, contemporary and retrospective, often proving to be unhelpful and reductive.

First of all, this book is massively researched by an experienced journalist, who has produced what is, so far, the definitive biography of Captain Beefheart, Its factual and descriptive heft is considerable, and it is unreservedly recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject. It coincides with my crucial teenage years, from 14 to 19, and it is wonderful to read a work that should really have been written decades ago. There have been a few books on ‘Prog’ and ‘Fusion’, but none, as far as I can ascertain, on the so-called ‘underground’ British scene that followed on from psychedelia and the more baroque pop music of the late 60s (1966-69). 1966-1979 was arguable the years of the most accelerated developments in popular music since the arrival of Elvis in 1955 (also the year of my birth). Crucially, the music started taking itself seriously, for good and bad, and becoming at the same time ambitious in the extreme at certain points in the story.

If I were to write my own version, I would differ from Barnes in several respects, and these variations, having given the book a more than enthusiastic thumbs-up from the get go, take up the rest of these blogs about the book. Firstly, I feel that there were several precursors, in the 1966-69 period, that deserve fuller exploration and acknowledgment than they get in Barnes. Certainly. at the time, these bands/individuals were seen as critical, subversive (’underground’) facilitators of these forward-thinking (’progressive’) sounds.  This list of these below is far from exclusive, some are now mostly forgotten, but most have places in the rock Hall of Fame:

Led Zeppelin: now seen as Heavy Metal in excelsis, but their early albums were a real smorgasbord of invention and risk-taking, most famously the middle passage of Whole Lotta Love, which ‘blew the minds’ of ‘heads’ everywhere in 1969.

The Nice: it’s great to see this important ‘transitional’ band getting full attention in the book. Emerson’s Hendrix-influenced Hammond organ mayhem was a signature live experience at the time.

Guitar mayhem was another thing, and the following three bands featured it abundantly, and all had ‘progressive’ aspects to their studio and live presentation.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience/The Who/Deep Purple - in the frilly-shirted figures of Hendrix himself, Pete Townsend and Richie Blackmore. The late 60s was a great time for Marshall amp providers/repairers (auto-destruction dated as far back as 1967 with the first two). Even a cursory look (not enough room here for further examination!) at the end-of-decade works of these three bands demonstrates their spirit of adventurousness and willingness to move beyond the norms of conventional, three-minute pop tracks.

Cream: should have featured much more in Barnes’ narrative, as they were crucial both to the burgeoning ’heaviosity’ of the new rock, and the co-writing of exceptional baroque pop songs (Badge being just one example).

Black Sabbath: ‘Heavy Metal’ came years later. In 1970, the shtick of their first album, with its occult suggestiveness and cover, put them up there in Aleister Crowley territory (along with the likes of Jimmy Page, Kenneth Anger and Dennis Wheatley).

Ten Years After: now a footnote in history, this band, basically a blues outfit, became briefly a major player, after the Woodstock Festival of 1969. The 1970 album Cricklewood Green features 50,00 Miles Beneath My Brain, a space-rock invocation worthy of Sun Ra. The ‘mind-manifesting’ properties of LSD affected even the most plodding 12-bar exponents.

Chris Welsh was allegedly the first journalist to use the term ‘progressive rock’, in 1967, but said “we didn’t use the term all the time - it was just “current bands”. I have a feeling the phrase was used rather more later” (page 364). It’s almost comparable to, fifty-odd years later, the multi-faceted dance music scene loosely agreeing on the tongue-tripping term ‘Electronic Dance Music’ (EDM) to yoke its disparate elements together.

Dominic Lash and his 40th. Birthday Bash

We had an immersive experience last night at Cafe Oto, one that involved two sets led, nominally, by double bassist Dominic Lash (whose fortieth birthday we were all celebrating), one involving a quartet and the other a twenty-odd large band ‘orchestra’. Both were superb, and reflected how experimental ‘free music’ is still strong and vital, at least here in the Brexit Britain’s capital city.

The quartet of Lash, John Butcher, Mark Sanders and John Russell was, for me, a wonderful example of so-called ‘pointillistic’ or ‘atomistic’ free improv, this being the micro-genre that was pioneered by John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) from the years 1966 to 1994, the year of the drummer’s far too early death. Of course, Butcher was a member of the final edition of the SME, and both Russell and Sanders were long-term members of Evan Parker’s various ‘English Trios’, so they are no strangers to this philosophy of ‘group music’. Cafe Oto and The Vortex continue to regularly feature small group combinations of highly experienced free improv masters, and last night’s was yet one more addition to this series. Their forty minute set of ‘minute particulars’ would have been more than enough compensation for the eight pound entry fee (how these guys make a living with this sort of amount remains a mystery to me), but we didn’t expect the overwhelming experience of Lash’s big band in the second set, which left us shell-shocked and me searching for superlatives and comparisons.

The set was an ‘ascension’ of sorts (in Coltrane-ian terms), a gradual build up, from ‘pointillistic’ beginnings to a more ‘laminar’ drone halfway in and thereafter.  One of my companions suggested Gorecki’s Third Symphony or Terry Riley’s In C as immediate comparisons. For me, I was thinking of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No, 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (a most appropriate title), AMM’s The Crypt (in particular), Dave Burrell’s Echoes, Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra, and (inevitably) some Sun Ra. Add to these (again, inevitably) some ‘Japanoise’ such as Fuchitsusha and Merzbow. All these allusions aside, Lash’s ensemble (I didn’t catch a name) was in and of itself, but it did inhabit that zone where one began to hear sounds in the overall racket that were entirely subjective, arising as they did from the mulch of a huge orchestra producing multiple overtones and indeterminate sounds. There was no indication that this was a Lash-led ‘conduction’ (a la The London Improvisers Orchestra) or that it had any charts, graphic or otherwise. A ‘Cathedral of Noise’ just about summed it up, and we felt that the whole experience was, ultimately. perhaps best enjoyed without trying to excessively pick apart its architectonics.

In the end, I was left with a less jaundiced view of large-group improv than I might have had earlier. I’ve never been a huge fan of free jazz ‘orchestras’, but this was something different. It was certainly ‘beyond jazz’, entering probably into the world of ‘contemporary composition’ (whatever that may imply). There’s a lot of this out there (William Basinski, for example), but it was still somewhat puzzling to see this genre-crossing music being presented in a space where the band seemed to outnumber the audience, but maybe that’s just a refection of my own love of small venues and big ideas. I still don’t know how they put bread on the table though!! Hardly a new proposition, however, and I wish Dominic Lash well. He, and his contemporaries such as Alexander Hawkins, Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings are the torch carriers for ‘jazz’.

In Memoriam - Jak Kilby

I want to write a short piece on the recently departed photographer Jak Kilby, who, among his many other achievements, was one of the very first lens artists to capture the burgeoning free improvisation scene in London across the late sixties and the seventies. This is why I first got in contact with him, back in 2015,

I was aware of his work as far back as the early seventies, as his pictures featured (along with the cartoons of the late Mal Dean) in the Melody Maker, the only ‘inkie’ that had articles covering the free improv scene at the time. Richard Williams wrote many and various features on the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM, etc, etc., often accompanied by Kilby’s eye-catching photographs. Very few other photographers could be bothered with this obscure micro-scene, so when I decided to write about this ‘other little world’, he was one of the first people that I approached. Even though he was based in Malaysia, having also converted to Islam, he proved very responsive and we worked out a mutually beneficial deal on the use of several of his works in my two books on the subject. He had also lived in Crouch End in the seventies, which proved to be another link between us.

I met Jak on only four occasions. He came to our house in Crouch End twice and stayed for several hours both times. We had a quick photo session, and poured over his incredibly extensive portfolio. He also sold me his copy of the original  Elektra AMMusic 1966 for a very reasonable price, and I will always treasure this autographed copy. We first met at The Welcome Institute Cafe on Euston Road and attended The Wire Xmas Party at Cafe Oto together in 2017, where I could witness first hand the amount of old and more recent friends the guy had. Jak was one of the most voluble people that I have ever met, and seemed to have an endless variety of shaggy dog stories and anecdotes to share with me. I encouraged him to put them in some sort of book form (just as I had encouraged John Jack, another doyen of the jazz scene who has passed recently). Unfortunately, he seemed far too busy in the ‘real world’ to find the time to sit down for the length of time this sort of venture would have needed.

I knew that one of the reasons he came back to England was to attend appointments at the Royal Free Hospital, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when I found out today that he had passed on, but it has still left me appropriately sad and reflective, glad to have had the opportunity to meet him and to discuss his life and projects with him, and especially pleased that my books are a couple of showcases for the latter. R.I.P, big guy.

A Prayer Answered - Thank Mike Barnes for a  Hopefully Decent Book about Early Seventies Rock Music

A few months back, I blogged about a book on the band Henry Cow, a quintessential seventies band. Towards the beginning of this particular communication, I said “I’m always up for a good read about music, and feel that the early seventies is a rather neglected period for leftfield recordings…so I’m always interested in those that explore that time in a positive frame of mind”. By ‘positive’, I meant a move away from characterising these years as entirely dominated by ‘prog rock’ and ‘jazz rock’, two rock music ‘diluents’ that are generally spoken about in disparaging terms, at least in accepted rock and jazz ‘histories’. Just as I was surprised, when researching for my books on the subject, about how little critics had written (in book form at least) about UK Free Improv, so I noticed how little they have approached so-called (at that particular time) ‘progressive music’, between the years of, say, 1968-1975. I also wrote about the Harvest label box set a short while ago, so was delighted to hear that Mike Barnes has taken on this mammoth task of delineation, in a book that is scheduled for a February release, entitled ” A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock in the 1970s”.

‘A New Day Yesterday” is, of course, is the first track on Jethro Tull’s sophomore album Stand Up, which does indeed ‘stand up’ to modern scrutiny (as did the original cover for the vinyl release, if we remember!), despite Tull’s rep as somehow representing the worst of seventies prog rock excesses (guitarist Martin Barre is my first cousin, so I have to declare some partiality here). It’s a great choice for a book title, as the contradictions of the period can have few more apposite signifiers than this band (for the record, I remain in love with both Stand Up and its successor Benefit, but threw in the towel thereafter). Author Mike Barnes is the brain behind what is still the definitive Captain Beefheart biography, so this subject should be in good hands (coincidently, my cousin and Tull hung out on tour with The Magic Band in the mid-seventies, and apparently got on extremely well. So there)

 JT were a progressive (’underground’ was the other trope)  rock band who gradually morphed (according to rock critics at least) into a ‘prog rock’ band. And herein lies the difference. I was there at the time, 15 years old in 1970, and witnessed what a motley crew the major record labels gathered together to present to us as some sort of unified front of hairy non-conformity. ‘Underground’ became ‘overground’ very quickly from what I remember, but the sheer variety of music on display has rarely been equalled (the last couple of years of that decade, 1978-80, perhaps?). This is one of the many themes that I trust Barnes will tease out in his forthcoming book, which will be available in early January through the Wire bookshop, apparently.

Luckily, I have the perfect companion for this read, in the form of Vernon Joynson’s classic 1995 encyclopaedia “The Tapestry of Delights” (there is an American cousin called “Fuzz, Acid and Flowers”). Joynson’s Alexandrian tome is subtitled “The Comprehensive Guide to British Music of the Beat, R & B, Psychedelic and Progressive Eras 1963-1975″. It’s a bit of a push to describe these 12 short years as being able to be parsed into ‘eras’, I feel, but the second half of ‘Tapestry’ should dovetail with Barnes’ material, and what an ‘era’ it was! There have indeed been significant literary milestones discussing jazz-rock (Stuart Nicholson) and prog-rock (Paul Stump), but here is the first book that really promises to take apart and forensically examine this most fascinating of times. Several prominent writers have, of course, touched upon the ‘British’ strain of psychedelia and its offshoots (Simon Reynolds and Rob Young, in particular) but this is the chance for Mike Barnes to contribute a groundbreaking study of rock music’s ‘dark ages’, an era deliberately buried over by punk and a revivified pop/dance scene from the late seventies onward.

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