People who like progressive rock tend to like it a lot and hence become collectors. Not all of ’em, but many. Therefore, you, gentle reader, may peruse this list and scoff: “Those aren’t lesser-known, you tosser!” However, be gentle, for there are those who have yet to plumb the depths of the vinyl crate, my friends, and these gems may be new to them. Don’t spoil it.
Not much explanation is needed here, really. The early seventies was the most creative time in the history of rock music. You can disagree if you like, but I’m not listening. That’s right, Bert, I have a banana in my ear. Never before in history (or since) has there been a time when the A, B, C, D tiers of rock success all produced gems, works of stunning genius or crazy ambition, flights of drug- or meditation-addled fancy that can still amaze us today. King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, ELP, Tull — those guys may have been the ones dining well, but that doesn’t mean the incredibly widespread artistry of the British progressive rock (or “art rock”) scene started and ended with them.
Read on and click on the links to learn about some less recognized works from this era. And a couple from the time when people with piercings were rioting at the gates of prog, but some longhairs remained undaunted!
Nektar’s career is interesting — a UK band that, basically ignored at home, became quite successful in Germany, then on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. This is probably the band’s best-known album. Nektar was at the Floydian end of prog, driven by the languid, bluesy and highly reverbed guitar stylings and fine, strong tenor vocals of Roye Albrighton, one of seventies rock’s least recognized great talents. Their blend of psych and prog won plenty of converts via such albums as Down to Earth and A Tab in the Ocean, and this totally odd concept album is the jewel in their crown. Ready for this? OK, a blind boy communicates with an extra-terrestrial being named Bluebird (!?), who shows him a bunch of visions that are supposed to help the boy help humanity be nice and compassionate instead of what we are. I think. Weeeird. Anyway, each side is big suite of linked songs that chug along on a bed of Hammond with Albrighton’s guitar dancing overtop. Some of the songs are actually very lovely and show off Albrighton’s vocal skills quite well. “Wheel of Time” sends the chills up me spine, so it does, and there are many more fine melodic moments on the album.
Highlight: “Images of the Past/Wheel of Time”
Beggars Opera was a Scottish band that made a few albums in the early seventies, the highest esteemed of which (and most “prog rock”) is 1971’s Waters of Change, mainly for its nice keyboard bits. But this album is much more interesting. It’s questionable how prog this is — if anything, by this point Beggars Opera was a full-on pomp band, grandiose enough to make later bands like Queen or Styx blush (OK, maybe not quite that pomp). I mean, there’s a cover of “MacArthur Park” on here that’s MORE melodramatic than the original, harpsichords a-blazin’! You have to hear it to believe it — someone left the cake out in the rain!! Vocalist Martin Griffiths is no stranger to plummy melodrama, making the two numbers that attempt to be frightening and eeeeevil, “Witch” and “Madame Doubtfire”, with their overblown Gothic lyrics and campy shrieking, a ton of fun. A couple of bizarre Scottish folk/prog fusions, “From Shark to Haggis” and “Pathfinder”, make things even weirder. This relic is a blast and worth seeking out for fans of eccentric pomp.
Highlights: “Madame Doubtfire”
“MacArthur Park” (!!)
Henry Cow is not particularly obscure, sure, at least not with fans of the avant-garde. Possibly the most challenging band to come out of the British progressive rock scene, HC mixed rock instrumentation with modern classical, jazz, avant-garde, whatever they felt like — but with very serious left-wing ideological underpinnings. Commercial success was plainly not their goal, and I assume they were rewarded by not experiencing much of it. But they left behind quite a legacy of totally outlandish, amazingly creative music. This, their last album, takes the avant-garde tendencies and ramps them up to 11, focusing on Fred Frith’s jagged guitar and Lindsay Cooper’s Bartokian reeds. The whole thing is kind of a musical excoriation of capitalism, so you wouldn’t call the music pleasant. King Crimson fans should imagine an even more dissonant but far more disciplined version of Starless and Bible Black. The only place where things get even slightly pleasant is on “Half the Sky”, which at least has a nice droning base over which the dissonance is fluttering. Only for the most adventurous, but a classic of avant-garde rock music.
Illusion is basically the remnants of the original version of Renaissance. OK, follow this: Keith and Jane Relf formed a band named Renaissance, but after a couple of albums they left it and the entire lineup was replaced. Yep, same name, same basic style (an unabashedly precious classical/rock/folk fusion), different people. Renaissance then went on to great commercial success on the wings of Annie Haslam’s vocals and a series of stellar albums. However, in the late seventies some original members of Renaissance, Jane Relf, über-bassist Louis Cennamo (more on him below), ex-Yardbird Jim McCarty, and keysman John Hawken (who spent the mid seventies in the Strawbs), got back together. The result is a couple of albums of very pretty, adult folk-pop with classical overtones, but not as overt as in Renaissance, and with added electric guitar, which Haslam’s Renaissance rarely employed. McCarty and Relf sing very prettily together on the melodic and dramatic “Isadora”, and other pastoral highlights include the lush “Beautiful Country” and “Face of Yesterday”. A punk-rocker’s worst nightmare, this album should definitely be of interest to fans of symphonic, melodic progressive rock and artsy folk.
Now this is a crazy album. Steamhammer was a fairly innocuous blues-rock band that slowly developed some progressive inclinations. Its last gasp was this barely heard monstrosity of an album. The lineup was talented axeman Martin Pugh, Mick Bradley on drums, and über-bassist Louis Cennamo. What’s an über-bassist? Well, he can play busily without wanking, based on the Entwistle template. A bassist so supreme that we have no choice but to bow down to his dexterity. Cennamo was just such a cat. Either my CD was mastered poorly or this is one of the worst productions in music history, muffled and horrible, but that don’t matter. The 22-minute “Penumbra” is NUTS. It starts off with a bowed bass solo and vocalise. Then it goes into frenetic hard-rock riffing (later recycled for Pugh’s supergroup Armaggedon‘s album), then into a thumpy melodramatic song with apocalyptic lyrics and bellowed stentorian background vocals, some psych jamming and an abstract and pretty guitar/bass duet before petering out with some more end-of-days crazy jamming. It’s all covered in this ominous, cavernous reverb. What a track! “Telegram” is just as weird, a combo of jamming, weird echoey guitar and bass parts and strangely inserted bits of vocal harmonies. Out of gas, they end the album with a ten-minute drum solo. Of course.
The seventies were so great that even throwaway one-offs could occasionally reveal moments of bizarre genius, which is why pointy-headed music geeks continue to dig through crates of vinyl in search of greatness. Psych-prog band Janus made one album, but what an album. Well, what a title track, anyway. The rest is not so great, though “Red Sun” is a decent, chugging psych-rock number. However, oh what a title track! Basically, this cheerful 20-minute number tells the story of some unfortunate dying on a beach, and Death is there to take the poor bugger away (the titular “Gravedigger”). The song is based on a sorrowful melody, chiming, mournful electric and nylon-string guitar and an oft-repeated chorus, which goes, well, “Gravedigger’s on his way for you.” Sad choral vocals ring out, and there are even strings! In the middle of the piece, inexplicably, the axeman shows us his knowledge of the classical guitar repertoire for several minutes before we wend to the mournful conclusion. Now that’s a great way to spend twenty minutes!
Cousins is the lead singer/songwriter of renowned Brit folk-rock/prog rock combo Strawbs, who brought us such delightful albums as Hero and Heroine and Grave New World. So he’s hardly an unknown. But perhaps even some casual Strawbs fans are not aware of his solo album, which was wedged between Strawbs monoliths. This really isn’t a prog-rock album, more a varied combination of delicate folksongs (“October to May”), glam rock (“The Actor”), and psychedelia (the title track), all embellished by Cousin’s superb lyrical talents and very distinctive, reedy voice. However, this album is of interest to proggers because of “Blue Angel”, a true beast of a track which is two songs in one, the first an example of pure pomp melodrama (“Treat me kind lady Blue Angel, deepest colour of the night, be merciful, be gentle, for I have no strength to fight”). Cousins was never shy about channelling his inner Donne… anyway, there’s some very aggressive guitar soloing as well. Then the song suddenly changes to an inspirational, very pretty midtempo folk-rock song that really grooves on the outro. A nifty, very creative album by one of rock’s all-time greatest talents.
Highlight: “Blue Angel”
Matching Mole was a short-lived Canterbury supergroup, the music of which sounds basically like some supremely talented, eccentric, stoned guys messing around and having a good time — which I presume is exactly what happened. This album is really whimsical, despite being comprised largely of jazzy jams. The musicians are the cream of the crop, pre-accident Robert Wyatt on vocals and drums, and Caravan alumni David Sinclair (keys) and Phil Miller (guitar), as well as bassist Bill MacCormick, who would later help mold post-punk with Random Hold. So you can imagine there’s lots of fuzzy organ, happening guitar solos and light-hearted in-jokes, such as the lyrics of “Signed Curtain”, which are about which part of the song they’re currently in, and nothing else (ie “This is the chorus” is the chorus). However, the album’s worth the price just for the lovely ballad “O Caroline”, featuring some of pre-all-politics-all-the-time Wyatt’s nicest, cutest, most heartfelt lyrics (“If you call this sentimental crap you’ll make me mad/’Cause you know that I would not sing about some passing fad).
Highlights: “O Caroline”
Bassist Hopper was a giant of the jazzy Canterbury scene that sprouted out of pop band The Wilde Flowers and split in twain to result in the storied groups Caravan and the Soft Machine, of which Hopper was a member. Hopper was really interested in “new” music and in modern jazz, and the first solo result was this instrumental album based on the Orwell book. This is some pretty out-there stuff but if you give it a chance it’s actually got a great, almost ambient, atmosphere such as you’d find on some of Miles Davis’s albums of the period (In a Silent Way). Opener “Miniluv” is a spacy, sparse bass excursion, while “Minipax” is a pretty funky jazz jam, again worthy of Miles (On the Corner). The 17-minute “Miniplenty” is the tour de force, mixing weird synth sounds with rattly percussion in a way that actually presages much of the dark ambient music I hear today. A very daring modern jazz/avant-garde fusion with, I admit, not a heck of a lot of rock involved, but hey, he was a prog-rock musician, so I consider it relevant.
Highlight: “Minluv” (reprise)
Gracious! put out a couple of albums in the early seventies and is best known for having a rather obvious mellotron fetish. No offence, but this is basically copycat “we want to be King Crimson” prog. The 21-minute “Super Nova” features all kinds of different ‘tron settings, a spooky blues/hard-rock melody and setting, and an attempt at scary treated vocals à la “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Two thirds of the way through it turns into a rather nice ballad with strummy acoustics and orchestral ‘tron, then ends with some well-put-together wordless harmonies. Decent prog indeed. The rest of the album is more mellotron-infused groovy melodic psych-prog, the highlight of which is easily “Once on a Windy Day”, which sounds like a fusion of the Moody Blues and the exquisite arrangements of the Bee Gees’ Odessa. Though the album is derivative, it’s a very pleasant listen with lots of lovely moments to offer.
Highlights: “Once on a Windy Day”