The late 60s saw the formation of a number of rock bands with classical music leanings. Nice, led by piano-extraordinaire Keith Emerson, was the best known. But there were others, including Focus with flautist Thijs van Leer and Renaissance. One of the most classical-savvy of them was Curved Air, a band that also took its name from a modern classical composition called Rainbow in Curved Air by minimalist composer Terry Riley. That composition influenced music explorers of the time not only by its name, but the organ loops at its center are embedded in the DNA of compositions such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Pete Townsend’s Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reily. Francis Monkman, Curved Air’s keyboard player, participated in the London premiere of Riley’s best known composition, In C. Together with Violin player Darryl Way he formed the short-lived band Sisyphus from which Curved Air was born. It could have been a run of the mill prog band, but in a stroke of genius they added to the roster a lead female singer with a folk background, a great voice and a theatrical stage presence. Her name is Sonja Kristina.
You could not name too many prog bands at the time with a front woman. Annie Haslam would join Renaissance in 1971, but she did not posses Kristina’s flair, acquired while participating in the London production of the musical Hair. That combination of musical prowess and theatrics was unique then.
Curved Air is best known for its classical-oriented rock pieces such as Vivaldi and Piece of Mind but they could also rock and produce memorable songs: It Happened Today and even a hit with Back Street Luv in 1971. Unfortunately the original band did not last long. Francis Monkman went on to form Sky, a band that truly combined classical and rock music. Darryl Way formed the more obscure Daryll Way’s Wolf. You can also hear him contributing great violin parts on Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses album, for example on Acres Wild.
Phantasmagoria, the band’s third album from 1972, is my favorite in their catalog. It was produced and engineered by Collin Caldwell who a year earlier produced The Time Has Come by Anne Briggs. The album was recorded at Advision studio, which was a mainstay for progressive rock artists, and where classics of the genre such as Yes’ Fragile and Close To The Edge and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery plus albums by Soft Machine, Gentle Giant and many others were recorded.
Melinda (more or less) from that album is unique in their catalog. Kristina’s folk roots have not surfaced yet within the band’s classical infused rock repertoire and were overshadowed by the output of the two main songwriters Monkman and Way. The song was first introduced to the band a couple of years earlier while they were auditioning Kristina. She wrote the song in 1967 when she was 18 and performing in small folk clubs. She was contributing lyrics to the band’s songs, but that song was the first composition that the band recorded.
The song gets a perfect treatment by the band. Francis Monkman plays beautiful harpsichord lines in the background and Darryl Way shines with his violin accompaniment and solo. One of the greatest parts of the song is the interplay between the violin and flute, played by one Annie Stewart who I could not dig any info on. And then of course there is Sonja Kristina’s acoustic guitar and voice. I can definitely hear this song being performed solo by her in a cavernous folk club.
Kristina revisited the song later in her solo album Songs From the Acid Folk from 1991, where it received a different arrangement with a more contemporary rhythmic feel. I prefer the original:
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Lovely lady reaching crying for the comfort of the day-glow
Melinda more or less, Melinda more or less, Melinda more or less in dreams
But if and when she wakes again, she knows it all begins again
Sleeping, waking, rising, falling,
dumb but calling out to deafened friends
That’s how it ends
For Melinda more or less in dreams
Melinda more or less, Melinda more or less in dreams
Fade Melinda, fade into fantasy
Tell them you won’t be played like any other instrument of fate
Fade Melinda, into your fantasy
Tell them you’re not prepared to wait for your dream of the end
Melinda more or less in dreams
Lovely lady falling laughing down the glory of the rainbow
Lovely lady reaching screaming for the comfort of the day-glow
Melinda more or less, Melinda more or less, Melinda more or less