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.