It was 45 years ago today…

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

EPISODE 1:  The 1970s

 

It actually was – 45 years ago TODAY, literally – today – May 28, 2018 – or for me. in this first of a number of upcoming concert reminiscences – it was actually, May 28, 1973 – and as my first blog of 2018 (finally!) and the first in a series of blogs about live music, concerts, tickets stubs, setlist.fm, and associated items – this one kicks off with a doozy:

The mighty Led Zeppelin – performing live at the San Diego Sports Arena !

Sports Arena

San Diego Sports Arena

The first real ROCK CONCERT I ever went to – I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Grossmont High School, in La Mesa, California – an incredibly gawky, awkward teenage boy with long, straight hair half-way down my back, six foot six of far-too-skinny raging metabolism…and there I was.  Standing up there in the CRUSH at the foot of the stage of the San Diego Sports Arena, waiting for Led Zeppelin, my favourite band – to walk onto the stage.

It was all new to me.  I’d never been in a crowd that large before – never.  I’d never smelled that much…herbal scented smoke before.  I’d never seen the sight that became commonplace for me over the next several years – at the Sports Arena in particular – the sight of dozens of Frisbees flying back and forth, criss-crossing across the length and breadth of the place – and the wonderful haze created by that same scented smoke that cast a mysterious fog over the entire proceedings.   And quite possibly, over my state of mind.

Sports Arena - Seating Chart

San Diego Sports Arena – Seating Chart

People playing, talking excitedly, yelling – cheering – bouncing giant beach balls back and forth, mixed in with the endless frisbees…and all the other fun stuff that people do to pass the time while they wait for their favourite band to come on.  This is one of those experiences that you look back on, and you can quite clearly recall the real sense of excitement that was in that place on that day – this wasn’t just any concert – it was Led Zeppelin – all the way from Britain – to play for San Diego!

 

During the show, I saw a few MORE things I had never seen before – like an attractive girl sat on her boyfriend’s shoulders, proudly displaying both of her bare breasts so that Led Zeppelin, presumably, could have a look at them – along with the other 35,000 people in the audience, of course.  This was a girl – who was NOT shy.  Another first for me.

 

For a 15 year old boy, a boy who was already a guitarist, already trying to be the “NEXT Jimmy Page“, already learning Zeppelin songs and riffs – many of which, I still play to this date – 45 years later – I kept trying to “be” Jimmy Page for a number of years, when I finally decided it might be better to try to be myself on the guitar rather than copy someone else – even someone as talented as Jimmy Page.

 

But as a formative influence – along with Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp, and others – you can’t beat a bit of Mr. Page – a very interesting and very capable guitarist, musician and writer.  If you think too, about the development of Led Zeppelin, just as one example, from the relatively simple chord patterns of  the songs from Led Zeppelin I, say, something like “Communication Breakdown” to the incredibly complex guitar parts that make up the opening track on the band’s fifth album “Houses of the Holy” – the truly remarkable “The Song Remains The Same” – still a personal favourite of mine even after all of those years.

Meanwhile…back in 1973 – there was the long build-up to the show, the endless waiting outside which, eventually and suddenly, became a mad sprint to try to get as close to the stage as possible before everyone else did – once let into the Arena (reserved seating at rock concerts being more a thing of the future, back in 1973) – and then, finally settled in your “spot” inside, the noise and the tension, the sound of the crowd mounting with each passing moment…

 

HousesOfTheHoly-AlbumCoverIt was all incredibly exciting…and finally, when the band did hit the stage – it was another first for me – the first time I had ever heard a real rock band, a PROPER rock band, mind you – the mighty Led Zeppelin no less, in their prime, in the year 1973, touring behind their just-in-the-shops fifth album “Houses Of The Holy” – I’d never heard a proper rock band play rock music AT VOLUME.  And it was…LOUD.  To this day, 45 years later exactly…I am not sure I’ve heard a louder band.

 

Except perhaps – for Led Zeppelin themselves when I saw them again – twice – in 1975!!

Each year, the PA stacks at the Sports Arena seemed to grow ever larger. the number of and the size and power of the speakers increasing each time, the power behind the systems getting to be more and more each year – so it seemed to me, that if anything, that bands got LOUDER as the 70s went on – until the PA systems sort of began to plateau as Super Huge Size – where they all pretty much sound the same – from a distance, anyway.

 

Led Zeppelin IV-Album Cover

But – intense volume aside – I was hooked.  Seeing this show – set me up for a lifetime of concert going – and what a way to start!  Seeing my favourite band, playing amazing live versions of the songs that I loved – was such a positive experience for me – and after seeing Zep, I embarked on a journey that now, when I look back on it over the long, long span of time – 45 years ago today – when it all began – I just feel so, so thankful, fortunate – even lucky – to have had those concert experiences.

 

 

This series of blogs then, of which this is the first – will attempt to document my concert-going experiences decade by decade, until such time as I reach the present day.  Having the analytical and basic set list / concert listing tools available via setlist.fm has been so incredibly useful when it comes to bringing these memories alive, I would encourage you to go and have a look at the list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm to see the full list of concerts attended not only in the 1970s, but from 1973 to the present day – an invaluable resource to me throughout the process of preparing and formulating this series of music blogs.

Earlier this year, I had my 60th birthday, and for some unknown reason, during that week, I started looking into just what concerts I HAD been to, and what they were, when they were and where they were.  I had no idea that this vague thought I had had – “I wonder how many concerts I’ve actually been to over the years…” would lead to the experience that it has – which has been extremely eye-opening for me in so many ways.  This “thought” eventually culminated in the completion of my list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm as well as the completion of cataloguing and photographing my quite substantial collection of concert ticket stubs, which will be presented photographically along with these live concert experience blogs.

So while it started in 1973 – it still hasn’t ended, and later this year (2018), it will be more shows from the incredibly powerful King Crimson live, one of the most remarkable progressive rock groups spawned originally during the 1960s – when Led Zeppelin was also born (1968 was a good year to start a band).   I am very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Crimson again – each year, they come up with more and more “unlikely early repertoire”,  not to mention some pretty credible new repertoire – to absolutely amaze and delight me and the other long time fans of the band.

So – the act of listening has moved forward through time with me, I continue to engage with artists old and new whose music I respect or revere even, and I am all the richer for it – there is nothing on earth, for me, as exhilarating as a quality live performance by musicians who are committed fully to their craft.

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – there is always someone that I missed out seeing “back in the day” or newer artists that I want to check out live – there is always something going on.  I feel very fortunate indeed that I have been able to see so many great concerts.  Moving to Britain was also a hugely fortunate thing in terms of me being able to see bands performing live that did not regularly play in far-off San Diego, California (where I lived for the first half of my life) and so many bands that I never got the chance to see when I lived in California, I have not only seen but in some cases, I have been able to see performing live several times.

This includes bands or artists such as:

…and the like – all bands or artists that I never did see when I lived in the United States – and I spent the majority of my adult live, utterly convinced that I would never, ever get the chance to see some of these remarkable musicians and performers – and yet, somehow – it has happened!  Much to my ever-lasting astonishment and delight.  So I’ve managed to make up for a lot of gaps in my musical education just by merit of living in Central Scotland!

Building Up The List Of Concerts Attended

Thanks to some modern / technological innovations, even the act of “figuring out” what shows I have attended over the years, is supported and made possible – in the main instance, I began, that same week of my 60th birthday, to use a tool with which many of you may be familiar – the website known as “setlist.fm”.

setlist.fm is, simply put, a remarkable web site dedicated to preserving the memory of musical performances, but doing so in such a way that each user – that’s you and me – anyone – everyone – can easily find the concerts they attended, and “add them” to the list of shows that they have personally attended.  It also allows for setlists to be built, too, so that the songs that were played at each gig, if they are known – can be input, stored, and then viewed by subsequent users.

It also gives us the opportunity to rectify errors that have been made historically, or clarify points about a performance or performances or artists or any number of details about an event.  So with this kind of capability, I find that setlist.fm is really the ideal tool for building up your own personal history of concert-going, which is also then of course. possible to share with others, too – since each profile is public.

It also gives you a lot of insight into your own experiences of concert-going, that you would not have been aware of.  For example – this blog, is focusing on the 1970s – when I first began attending live concerts – and in the seven years of the 1970s that I was actively going to concerts (1973 – 1979), I am able to determine from setlist.fm that I attended at least 55 concerts in that first seven year period (I only began going to live concerts in 1973, so of course I have zero concerts for the years 1970, 71, and 72).  You can also view programmed statistics that can tell you a lot about your own experiences – and, the experiences of others, too.

The featured image (see below) for this blog is a photograph of the surviving concert ticket stubs – my own personal collection – of at least some of the ticket stubs that I managed to save out of the approximately 55 shows I attended during the 1970s.   I wish now that I had kept all 55, but if you think about it – it’s a small miracle that even the handful of survivors DID make it across 45 years, a continent, and an ocean – to be then collected and photographed as part of the preparation of this series of blogs.  Each decade brings a different set of bands, and a different set of ticket stubs from my own personal collection to accompany the blog for each specific decade.

As one example of how that can turn out to be interesting – when I was busy working on my own list of attended concerts at setlist.fm I began to notice something – that a certain other user, with an initially unfamiliar username – seemed to always be shown as someone who had attended many, many – an unnaturally large number of – the exact same San Diego and surrounding area concerts that I had attended.  I mean – this person was ALWAYS in the list.

I began to wonder if this was someone I knew, perhaps someone who I had gone to school with or even had been in a band with, perhaps – or any number of possibilities. After about a week or so of continually seeing this person’s username, every single time I entered another concert I had attended in or near San Diego, California – that I sent them a message, explaining who I was and asking them whether I knew them, since they had so obviously been at so very many of the same live shows that I had been to.  Curiously, a day or so after I wrote to them, I found that they had actually written to me a day or two before I contacted them – but I had not noticed the email for some unknown reason.

UK-TrioAs it turned out, I didn’t previously know this person, but as we corresponded, and started talking about some of our shared concert experiences via email – including some truly and memorable events, such as the day we were both at Licorice Pizza records in San Diego, where we met the band U.K. – on one of those “in-store” appearances, on the day of their concert that night – where they were actually opening for the mighty Jethro Tull.

 

For people like my new friend (who still lives in the San Diego area to this day) and myself – it was a rare chance to meet and interact with some of the musicians who we admired.  And it did seem strange to me, to have shared so many extraordinary experiences with someone that I have never “met” – but in fact, I pretty much feel like we’ve been friends for years – possibly because of those vintage, shared memories – who can say?

JohnWetton

For me personally, getting the chance to meet a former member of King Crimson, the late John Wetton – certainly one of the most innovative and remarkable musicians of our time,  an amazing bass player with a unique and very beautiful voice – speaking with John Wetton was a very interesting and enlightening experience for a young, hopeful musician such as myself.

 

 

So one of the stranger “side-effects” of the setlist.fm experience, in my case was the strange but rather interesting fact that I had spent time with my new pal, in the same room, talking to the same people – even, in the same conversations – and yet, we did not know each other!  And to meet someone now, anyone, who attended some of these same unique gigs that I had been to, after a forty-five year period where there was no such person with whom I shared these experiences to speak to about them – it’s truly remarkable.

 

Unique Musical Events In The 1970s – and at no other time

We have gone on to discuss the long-forgotten details of events such as Robert Fripp‘s amazing appearance at a small Tower Records store (on El Cajon Blvd – now long gone – but – another strange memory – it was right next to the North Star Motel – which is not in itself remarkable, but, “North Star” is one of the standout songs from Fripp’s album of that time, “Exposure” – and that amazing live introduction to Frippertronics, is what set me on a long journey to become a looper, and later, a looping ambient guitarist – I fell in love with the process of looping electric guitar that day – a truly memorable event – and now, I have a new friend with whom I can share the detailed memories of these very special events.

So from a list of concerts on a special web page – you can learn and experience a lot more than what you would think a list of concerts might do.  It was an immensely satisfying task, and I probably did the bulk of the list over a three to four week period, after that, I continued to add just the odd show here or there – ones newly remembered, or ones where I had been missing details – until I finally reached my current total – and it has stayed somewhere around that total (currently as of May 28, 2018 – 209 concerts by 129 different artists!).  That in itself was a surprisingly large number – I had really not expected it to be that large.

 

TheBeatlesIn this blog, I want to touch briefly then, on some of the highlights of the 54 or 55 shows that I attended during the 1970s, which were mostly a mix of rock and progressive rock – I was heavily into and heavily influenced by prog, as it is known, and I was so, so fortunate to live in the times that I have lived – I was born at the end of the 50s, and grew up in the 1960s with the music of the Beatles as the soundtrack to both my childhood and my adolescence.  As the 1970s approached, I broadened my previously-held view that the Beatles were the only band worth listening to, and I began to hear other kinds of music being made, by a whole new kind of musicians – many of whom, were extremely was too young to go and see the Beatles live,influenced by the Beatles themselves !!!

 

 

 

HendrixI was too young to go and see the Beatles live,and just a bit too young to go and see Jimi Hendrix, both of whom played San Diego back in the day, those two bands being my very favourite two bands of the 1960s/70s – a real shame, but – I could NOT have been more perfectly placed on the timeline of my life, to experience fully and enjoy thoroughly, the music of the next generation of rock – the Led Zeppelins, the earliest and best of the proggers, Yes and Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and the like.

 

 

That unique gathering of incredibly diverse and powerful progressive rock titans, was a once in a century event, and I was the perfect age (15) to begin enjoying these amazing rock and progressive rock as they made their way around the world, stopping at San Diego often, and therefore entertaining me with often, repeat performances year after year.  Starting out with Yes, then moving rapidly upwards and onwards through Genesis (with and later, without Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, Strawbs, Roxy Music, E.L.P., U.K. , and Utopia.

What an incredible time to be young and to be able to go and see these amazing progressive rock acts performing – all in the same seven year period – and then, also, onwards through time in the 80s and 90s, too – adding King Crimson to the mix in 1981 – 1984, and again, in the 1990s; and then finally, fast forward to the present day where I was able to see Van Der Graaf Generator multiple times (in both quartet, and in trio format) as well as the absolutely astonishing Thijs Van Leer performing with his band Focus – a band I loved dearly in the 1970s, but did not get to see until much, much later.

I did in fact, manage to almost make up for not seeing the Beatles, by embarking on a side plan of trying to see all four Beatles playing solo concerts – so at least I could hear my biggest musical heroes of all time, singing and playing their instruments live.  I was not disappointed, starting out with my first ever trip to Los Angeles (first time I drove to LA myself) to see the great George Harrison, who put on an absolutely amazing show, that began with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra (my introduction to live Indian music – another great love of mine that I have continued to pursue whenever it was possible) and continued with getting to see and hear George playing a fantastic selection of both his own solo records and songs previously played by the Beatles.

Then, next up, in 1976, I was able to catch Mr. McCartney, on the famed “Wings Over America” tour – which was another totally memorable experience, and the selection of solo numbers and Beatles songs that Paul chose to play, were unique; quite different to George’s choices, and wonderful to experience.

Then followed a long, long gap until I did eventually manage to see my third and final Beatle – the remarkable Ringo Starr.  Again – a performance of solo songs and selected Beatles songs – but truly enjoyable, and the concept of the “All-Starr Band” worked brilliantly – Zak Starkey was the main drummer, with Ringo sometimes joining him on double-drums when the singing duties allowed him to – and with a guitarist of the calibre of Todd Rundgren on hand, no less – well, it was a great night of fun, exciting Ringo and Beatle music.  I will cover these events more specifically when I reach their performing decades (which turns out to be from 1989 thru 2018 – as the “All Starr band”) – but with the sad, sad exception of John Lennon – when in 1980, events took away everyone’s chance of seeing John play live – forever – I did, in time, get to experience first hand, the music of three fourths of the greatest rock band of all time – the boys from Liverpool – the amazing Beatles!

 

The Journey Continues…

However – returning to my journey through the featured decade of the 1970s – I truly feel now that I was indeed, very, very fortunate, the whole decade was so perfectly timed for me – in hindsight, I would not change a thing about it – and although I have always regretted not seeing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the live stage – in another sense, I don’t regret it – because by being too young to go and see those bands – that made me land at the perfect age for that absolutely unique and wonderful decade of true Progressive Rock – from 1967 to 1976.  That was the golden era, the sweet spot, where the impossible-to-exist thing that Prog was, existed in spite of that truth – and I landed nicely near the tail end of that era – beginning my own “concert journey” in May 1973 – exactly 45 years ago today.

Now – at the beginning of this episode, I spoke a bit about my experience at my very first concert, the Led Zeppelin show at the San Diego Sports Arena held on May 28, 1973.  That was however, only the first in a long, long string of shows that I went to – all of them in San Diego I think with one exception which was the George Harrison concert I mentioned earlier – held at the Forum in Los Angeles.

But it was not just limited to Rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Prog bands like Yes and Genesis – there were other experiences, and right off the mark, I went to see one of the finest “southern rock” bands that ever existed – the absolutely brilliant “Allman Brothers“.  Little did I realise, that just a few years later, I would be performing one of their best songs, the lovely “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” with my own band, Slipstream – and that was one of the songs that the Allmans played that night at the Sports Arena.

 

Diversity In 70s Rock:

Actually, when I look at the full list of concerts attended, I actually started out with an incredibly diverse set of bands – they were NOT all of the same genre at all – and I think that is a contributing factor to me liking so many different kinds of music over time.  Those first few shows looked like this:

May 73 – Led Zeppelin (what can I say – it ROCKED!)

September 73 – Boz Scaggs / The Allman Brothers (white soul followed by the precision jamming of the remarkable Allmans – sadly, sans Duane – but they were still incredibly powerful live at this point in time)

March 74 – Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans tour – quadraphonic sound – classic line up Rick Wakeman still in the band)

June 74 – Steely Dan (with, weirdly, Kiki Dee opening – what a strange combination) – this remains, to date, one of the most astonishing musical performances I have ever seen or am ever likely to see – the sheer musicality of this gig was absolutely mind boggling – including two amazing guitarists in Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter – not to mention the insanely talented Donald Fagen on grand piano and – gasp – a synthesizer!

November 74 – Ravi Shankar / George Harrison – please see my comments above.  A mind blowing introduction to live Indian music, followed by my favourite Beatle on lead guitar, slide guitar, and beautifully hoarse vocals – which did not bother me a bit – because I was hearing my favourite Beatle playing slide guitar – and I feel that in some ways – George was the master of the slide – in his own style and in his own way – not in the “Duane Allman” super technical slide playing way – but in a beautiful, careful, lovely way that set George apart from all other slide players.  I loved seeing George and I loved seeing Ravi – a brilliant day!)

January 75 – Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway Tour with Peter Gabriel) – Part of me still can hardly believe that I got to witness this unique musical event – a full four album sides performed without a break – and this then-brand new work was stunning both musically and visually – I had thought that Yes were amazing live, but Genesis were very diverse in their approach to songwriting and quite different – Yes does not have any tunes quite like “Broadway Melody of 1974” or “The Waiting Room” or “Anyway” or “The Light Dies Down On Broadway” – and it was an eye-opening experience for me – realising that there was more to Prog than just the music of the mighty Yes – much, much more, I found out later on…

So from this half-dozen standout shows that I saw in the first couple years of concert going, when I was 15, 16, maybe 17 years old – absorbing musical ideas like a giant sponge – I learned an awful lot from watching rock and prog guitarists play – and solo extensively sometimes – and it was the best possible “music school” I could have gone to – of these half dozen first shows, the diversity of type of music is nothing short of remarkable:

Heavy Rock (Zeppelin)

White Soul (Scaggs) / Southern Rock (Allmans)

Progressive Rock (Yes)

Intelligent Pop (Steely Dan)

Classic Rock (George Harrison)

Progressive Rock / Unusual (Genesis with Peter Gabriel)

Then, if you continue on looking at how my 1970s concert experiences progressed, the musical diversity just goes off scale – taking in many different and unique artists; witnessing live concerts by the amazing Frank Zappa (with Captain Beefheart opening)  or the amazing German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (with British folk-rock legends Strawbs opening – and that was actually, who I was there to see!) or progressive rock giant Todd Rundgren‘s Utopia (the RA tour) or from Britain, Be-Bop Deluxe (featuring guitarist Bill Nelson) or 10cc (featuring guitarist Eric Stewart) or Peter Gabriel (formerly of Genesis) or 60s classic rock greats The Kinks or new wave artists Blondie or the art-rock genius of Roxy Music (featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera) and onto the truly unique musical events such as the aforementioned Robert Fripp at Tower Records “Frippertronics” demonstration – Robert Fripp of King Crimson, playing his guitar through a pedalboard, into two Revox reel-to-reel tape decks, and demonstrating the tape-loop technique introduced to him by Brian Eno back in the UK.

You want diversity – musical diversity – genre diversity – then the experience of those seven years, from 1973 through 1979 – included enough eye-opening musical, technical and performance diversity that for me, well, I do not believe that I could have HAD a better musical education, and as you may notice, the single recurring theme in the artists mentioned in this blog, in particular, in the set of bullet points just above, and in the previous paragraph – and that is – bands with amazing, technically and musically proficient guitarists.

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

I was a guitarist then, and I am still a guitarist now;  so it’s only natural that I would follow and enjoy music by the world’s most talented and capable guitarists – and the list of guitarists, contained just in the bullets above and that paragraph of diverse artists – is staggering in itself:

It’s interesting to consider what an effect seeing that many astonishingly talented and brilliant musicians, witnessing the different musical approaches and technical prowess of these amazing players – had on me, as a guitarist – I think that I absorbed a lot, and it was only years later that the eventual effect of this was felt – I became an amalgam of my own influences, when I listen to myself play guitar now, I can hear the influence of many of the guitarists in the list above – and those influences will stay with me forever, because I absorbed them, mostly, during my teenage years (I turned 20 in 1978 – near the end of my 7-year 1970s concert experiences) when my brain was still pliable enough to do so.

But even years later, I will recall things that I witnessed certain guitarists doing back in the 70s or really, at any time I’ve seen a great guitarist – and I will bring back whatever I can from that memory, into my current performance.  It’s extremely beneficial to have these particular experiences – because seeing these guitarists, in these intensely creative bands – has had a profound effect on both me personally (in terms of the awe and respect in which I hold many of these artists) as well as on my guitar playing – I aspired for many years, to learn and adapt and modify these incredibly diverse guitar influences, into my own playing – and eventually – my own style began to emerge – but, it’s still based on those early experiences.

If I had not spent many, many hours wearing out the vinyl of my copy of Led Zeppelin III, or any other classic 70s album that I loved, studied and tried to learn to play – including songs from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” by King Crimson – and over on the piano, too, I was learning and absorbing music by Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill, Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel – so there was an entire second side of influence, through piano-based songs – I even learned Tony Banks songs (such as “Anyway” for example) – with the help of my best friend Ted Holding, may he rest in peace – songs and bits of Keith Emerson and so on – anything to enrich the pool of musical ideas that I could then draw from for the rest of my life.  Mostly on the guitar, but – a significant amount of time was invested in learning piano and keyboard based songs – which I think helps to round me out as a musician – I am not “just” a guitarist (thankfully!!).

I had an absolute blast in the 70s, and if there is anything to regret, it would simply be that I did not go to MORE concerts during the 70s (and 80s and 90s for that matter) – my experiences would then just be all the richer for it.   I am not complaining by any means – I could not ask for a richer experience than this one – I am just greedy, I loved seeing these bands and artists playing their music, and I simply want more – there can never be enough good music in one’s life.  Never!

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 70s were an absolutely unique and utterly amazing time, when I got to see some of my very, very favourite players and bands – from the mighty Led Zeppelin to the amazing Steve Howe of Yes (the man who could jump from guitar-to-guitar-to-pedal-steel-guitar-and-back-to-guitar-again mid-song, mind you – mid-song!) to having my mind permanently opened by the power and mystery of Steve Hackett‘s amazing guitar parts for Genesis“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to seeing Frank Zappa play in his unique, groundbreaking guitar style – there is nothing on earth like Frank Zappa, there was only one, they absolutely broke the mould that time.

Moving from the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, on up eventually, to the end of the 70s with Blondie and the emergence of New Wave, it was an amazing musical journey – I learned a lot, but I also had an enormous amount of fun – and I realise now that for me, that my idea of “fun” is quite different from that of most people – I have a lot more fun when I am watching and listening to an incredibly talented lead guitarist, playing as part of an incredibly talented band that has worked out an amazing repertoire of impossibly beautiful, and possibly technically demanding songs – now – that’s MY idea of fun!

Until next time then –

 

 

Dave Stafford

May 28, 2018 – 45 years to the day from the day of my very first concert experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live at the San Diego Sports Arena – it now seems, that in some ways, that it all just happened yesterday…

 

 

Next time on Decade By Decade – The Live Concert Experience / Overview:

The Dreaded 80s – Not as bad as we remember

 

1970s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)
Dave Stafford - Concert Ticket Stubs - 1970s

Concert Ticket Stubs – 1970s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

what we’re listening to – “focus live at the BBC”, early 1973, with bob harris

to say that this is my favourite concert of all time is not really an exaggeration.  I taped this off the radio soon after it was broadcast, I had it on a kodak cassette for more than 30 years…later, I got other copies of it from tape traders, later still, “new” copies from the internet – and no matter what version I am listening to – this concert has a quality like no other.

I would also say, straight away, that I feel it’s far better than the official live focus album from the day, “focus live at the rainbow” – which is a nice record, but, it’s from later in their career, and it’s my contention that they reached the height of their quality performances in late 1972/early 1973, when “focus III” was the “new” focus album.

I’d come to focus almost accidentally, I had bought the album “moving waves (also known as “focus II”) like so many other teenage boys, for the bad reason that it had “that” song on it, “hocus pocus” but what I understood pretty quickly was, “that” song was a bit of a one-off, a bit of a gimmick, and if you ask me, it’s the worst song on the album (well, not that there are ANY bad songs on “moving waves” or “focus III” – two more perfectly-formed prog masterpieces you could not ask for), and the rest of the tracks are so good, that you can skip “hocus pocus” and still have a fantastic listening experience – especially since it ends with the remarkable “eruption”.

at some point, I would love to talk through the first three focus albums in detail, to discuss their relative merits, that is “in and out of focus” (also known as “focus plays focus”), “moving waves” (also known as “focus II”) and “focus III” but for now I want to restrict myself to this mystical live concert.  first of all, this concert has no definitive “date”.  some think it’s actually from december 1972, others are just as certain it’s january 1973, from what bob harris says during the introduction, it’s pretty certain that it’s in the new year of 1973…but beyond that – the BBC records aren’t clear, the last focus broadcast they mention is from the end of 1972, so that’s no help…

the show starts with one of the toughest pieces from “focus III”, “anonymous two” – a 20-minute-plus prog/jazz workout that is something that I wouldn’t try “cold” – but they just dive in, and it’s amazing – the speed, the skill, the solos – each member takes a solo – but to me, it’s the ending, when suddenly, after all that improvising and jamming, they all four hit that theme, hard, and in a slowed-down, endless-ritard way, with jan akkerman’s incredibly fluid, melodic guitar working so beautifully with the glorious, classically themed hammond organ of thijs van leer…sheer sonic beauty, but also, precision jobs – and the snap/cold/dead ending of “anonymous two” here is a thing of beauty.

I don’t know why akkerman left the band, but now, I really wish he had stayed forever.  to me, this was the best focus lineup – bert reuter on bass, pierre van der linden on drums, van leer on organ and flute, and akkerman on lead guitar – this lineup, that produces a few of the classic, and best, focus albums – starting with moving waves, then focus III, then hamburger concerto (a terrible album name, but the last great studio album from the band – although, in my opinion, not as good as focus III).

they follow the loud, brash, jazzy “anonymous two” with something very delicate and beautiful and melodic (and this is my favourite piece from the entire focus canon) – a shortened, concise version of “focus I” from the first album – this is the best arrangement, and the best performance, of this song, anywhere, any time, and to me, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and akkerman’s sensitive, careful, beautiful guitar lead really just blows me away, it’s so simple, so purely about melody, and van leer so seriously underplays his part – very clean, very clear, very simple hammond chords, while the rhythm section just purrs along – it’s three minutes of classical pop heaven, and I absolutely love it – I find the original studio version tedious, with it’s extended end section, this short, to the point, live, clean reading of a great song is the best – I love this arrangement!

after the almost religious experience of pure, simple, beauty that is “focus I” has passed, the band moves back into prog territory, this time with the very flash title track to the “new album”, “focus III” – starting with a mysterious hammond, but soon, progressing to a full on prog-workout, that gives all the band members plenty to do…this track then seques into another really, really long track from “focus III”, “answers! questions? questions! answers?” – which is again, very jazzy, very fast, with odd dissonant sections that are weird enough to have come from a king crimson song but are played instead with hammond and guitar – and it’s that organ and guitar combo that keeps me coming back for more, they slam, they speed, they twist, they turn, they shred, then – suddenly, a beautiful organ solo, with single notes, and a gently speeding up and slowing down leslie speaker, suddenly, akkerman comping on chords with little guitar solos in between as van leer takes over – a drum and bass interlude leads into a van leer flute solo – this song is so complex, and twists and turns through so many sections and solos, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t in their live repertoire for that long – it’s can’t have been easy to remember, much less play!

but they do a stupendous job – it’s better than the album version, by far better – and I can hear it’s influence on me when I hear tapes of myself jamming from a couple of years after this came out – I kinda learned how to play lead guitar from listening to this tape far, far too many times – and you couldn’t have a better teacher, akkerman was all about taste, knowing what to do when, knowing when to push hard, but totally being able to be supportive too, working as a team…what a great band this was in 1972 and 1973!  it’s great too, to hear the musicians stretch out and play for so, so long – I love the long view, and they think nothing of playing music in 15, 20, 25 minute chunks – but not just jamming, a lot of it is planned, arranged, set up – but whether it’s carefully arranged prog, or crazy, abandoned jamming – it’s simply brilliant!

the musicality of van leer and his prowess on the hammond is surpassed perhaps only by hugh banton (of van der graaf generator) but he is also an absolutely amazing flute player (if you’ve seen the official focus DVD, you will have seen and heard his flute solo there – the best flute solo in modern music that I have ever heard – it is astonishing!) – and I love the melodic and classical music influences he brings to the table.  his hammond organ is the harmonic foundation upon which akkerman adds the melodic information that makes this such an amazing team – it just works!

I do not mean to short-sell the contributions of bert reuter on bass and pierre van der linden on drums, they are critical to the success of the two soloists, and they are so constant, so supportive, but, also, totally able to come up to par when it’s required that they go beyond the ordinary – they come through with flying colours – in fact, bert even plays a nice solo in “anonymous two” as does van der linden – both extremely good players, if perhaps slightly overshadowed by the powerful presence of akkerman and van leer – but who wouldn’t be intimidated by two such amazing players?

without stopping, they move into a third song, another melodic, thematic one, this time from “moving waves” – the beautiful, beautiful “focus II” – this piece has some really great rhythmic breaks, and van der linden is especially good on this, I love his drum arrangement, and the stops and starts, slow downs and speeds up, the dynamics are all over the place, and he plays almost effortlessly, but so, so carefully, too – his popping snare leading the way at some points – there are a large number of “bits” where it’s just pierre – and I think he rules this piece – the last section especially…and then…the hush, quiet organ chords, a suddenly subdued, melodic akkerman – and pierre just sits on the bell of his ride cymbal while harmonic and melodic magic occurs around him, reuter supporting on melodic mccartney-style bass – what a song, and, another dynamic build up, with distorted, leslie-speaker organ winding down with that amazing lead guitar…

to play these three songs in sequence, without stopping, ending up well over 20 minutes in total, as if it were nothing – these guys sound like they could play all night (and when I saw them play, they tried to) – this is a fantastic live medley, and a great part of a great concert.

finally, because they have to, they play their big hit, and of course, they have messed with the arrangement to make it even weirder (as if it were not weird enough on the album), with it’s proto metal chord sequence, but with…yodelling…as the vocal, van leer is famous for his strange vocalisations, and his work on this track is no mean feat – he demonstrates not just his yodelling ability, but also the enormous range of his voice – all the while playing a very complex chord sequence as he yodels and sings.  the star here though in my mind is akkerman, who has to play at breakneck speed, however, he makes it sound easy, and it’s back to those famous chords…

van der linden also gets some little solos of his own, in between whatever vocal weirdness van leer is injecting at any time – this is not my favourite song, but they do rock on it – and the drum part is amazing! so it’s worth it being here, so we can here them being quasi-proto-kinda-metal – in a very dutch and strange way !  I mean, the idea of a massive hit song having…yodelling as it’s lead vocal, that’s an odd, odd hit – but, it got them noticed, despite the fact that it’s the weakest song on that album (“moving waves”).  with this bizarre and strange rendition of “hocus pocus” by focus, the concert ends.

for me, the gem here is the shortest, apparently most inconsequential song, the 3 minute arrangement of “focus I” – I absolutely love that tune, and it represents a special kind of prog to me – a kind of prog that only camel and focus, really, and maybe sometimes nektar, every played – very simple, very classical, very melodic music – and “focus I” has such a hauntingly beautiful guitar line, that plain, clean note, rings in my brain, akkerman expressing van leer’s melody the best way possible – simply.

I was quite disappointed then, when the official live album (“at the rainbow“) came out, and it didn’t contain this material, it was missing a lot of the great songs played here, so really, even though it’s now 2012, I would give anything for van leer to go back and make the RIGHT live 1973 album – this one, or a better one, if there is such a thing.  this band was so good at this point, I really think that “focus live at the rainbow” disappoints, because it was made too late, when akkerman had lost interest (and his playing is NOTHING as good on “rainbow” as it is in this concert – believe me) so it would be my dream come true if van leer could find the master tape of this awesome BBC concert (or even the best quality BOOTLEG tape, just so I can have an official, clean recording), and give us a deluxe CD release of the real 1973 live focus album that never was.

if only.  it makes me wonder too, what the tapes of this band in rehearsal sound like, what other concerts recorded right around this time might yield – and if van leer or anyone has those tapes – they could make a fortune off of people like me – because I want two or three or four “new” live focus albums from 72/73 – twist my arm.  what a great, jamming, melodic, powerful, instrumental band – a huge influence on me (I can hear myself imitating akkerman in tapes from the late 70s), and I would be proud if any of the rock music I make ends up half as good as any piece from this remarkable concert.

thijs van leer – if you are out there – can we have an “offical” CD release of this concert please?  PLEASE?????????????