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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.

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