The story of progressive music in Britain during the early 1970s is in many ways a story of the labels that signed the artists and released the albums. In many cases these labels were small subsidiaries of the big names: Decca’s Deram, Phillips’ Vertigo, EMI’s Harvest. Others were independent: Island Records, Chrysalis Records, and one that will start off this article with a number of albums released in 1970: Charisma Records, or better known as The Famous Charisma Label.
Tony Stratton-Smith, or Strat to people who knew him well, was a sports writer, journalist, author and a horse racing fan before becoming a manager of musical acts including The Nice and Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. When he decided to start his own label, his business model was that of Berry Gordy’s Motown – bring management, agency and A&R all under one roof. Charisma’s booking agent Paul Conroy remembers: “Charisma was an amazing label. It was Strat’s vision and eclectic taste in artists, run by a bunch of talented people who all went on to do many other things. Strat was a very English eccentric – a one-off who gave people time and room to grow and make their mistakes.” Charisma’s first signing, and in part the reason to establish the label, was Van der Graaf Generator.
The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, by Van Del Graaf Generator
Stratton-Smith started managing the band 12 months before signing them to this label, unsuccessful in finding another label that would record them. He first released Peter Hammill from an awful contract as a solo act with Mercury, for which he recorded the album Aerosol Gray Machine with members of the band. Then he started Charisma in order to give them and other bands he managed a recording outlet on their own terms.
The band’s first album on the label, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, was recorded at Trident Studios and released in February 1970.
The album was produced by John Anthony, his first production job for Charisma, after which he became a house producer for the label. Reed player David Jackson remembers: “It was a revelation to work with a producer like John Anthony who actually made the music sound very different to that which we’d envisaged. I think we were very lucky to have John guide us through that record. He was very encouraging when it came to experimenting with overdubs.”
The album name is based on a quote by English artist and illustrator Francis John Minton: “We’re all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other.” In 1957, following mental issues and drug abuse, he committed suicide. Quite the inspiration, but this is VDGG after all.
Peter Hammill wrote in the original sleeve notes: “Don’t listen when you’re hustling, because it won’t get in your head. Don’t listen when you’re angry, because you’ll smash something. Don’t listen when you’re depressed, because you’ll get more so. Don’t listen with any preoccupations, because you’ll blow it. And if you’re a perpetually angry, depressed hustler with set ideas, don’t other, it wasn’t meant for you in the first place.” The band’s music is indeed an acquired taste for some listeners, but worthwhile if you endure.
A favorite track from this album is the excellent opener Darkness (11/11), composed by Hammill on November 11, 1968. The song features David Jackson playing two reed instruments at the same time: “As soon as I saw a picture of Roland Kirk using two saxophones I thought ‘I must have a go at that’, as I had both an alto and a tenor sax. As soon as I joined Van Der Graaf Generator it became easy to adapt this to Peter’s modal music.”
Melody Maker raved about this album on its release: “This is one of those rare and precious albums which occasionally knock you flat on your back and make you think really hard for once about music.”
Peter Hammill – acoustic guitar and lead vocals
David Jackson – tenor and alto saxophone, flute and backing vocals
Hugh Banton – Farfisa organ, piano and backing vocals
Nic Potter – bass guitar and electric guitar
Guy Evans – Drums and percussion
H to He, Who Am the Only One, by Van Del Graaf Generator
Following the release of The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, Van der Graaf Generator performed a number of a high profile shows, including a spot at the Tenth National Jazz and Blues Festival at Plumpton Race Track, sharing the day with Deep Purple, Yes, Colloseum, Caravan, Wishbone Ash and others. The hectic touring schedule proved too much to 19-year old bassist Nic Potter. After recording with the band in the early sessions for their next album, he left the band. It was decided not to replace him and rely on the pedal bass skills of keyboard player Hugh Benton.
In December of 1970 the band released the album H to He, Who Am the Only One, a complex, dark album. A standout track from it is The Emperor in His War Room. David Jackson tells a story about this track: “I was playing it to a girlfriend at the time. I wasn’t married to her, but she had small children, and the children came into the room and I rushed to the record deck. I lifted the needle off the vinyl, because I was so worried that the children would hear this music. I have to tell you that the music seemed so evil – and I had written it!”
The second part of the song features an unmistakable electric guitar solo by Robert Fripp on his first ever session as a guest musician. Fripp came into the studio, having never heard the track before, and played two takes. A mix of both takes ended up in the final song. Fripp would collaborate with the band again on their next album Pawn Hearts. Read on about two albums Fripp released in 1970 with his band King Crimson.
The cover art on the front of H to He, Who Am the Only One is by Paul Whitehead, the designer of the Charisma label’s logo. His best known works are those he contributed to album covers by label mates Genesis.
Credits on this track:
Peter Hammill – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
David Jackson – alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone and devices, flute, vocals
Hugh Banton – Hammond and Farfisa organs, piano, oscillator, vocals
Guy Evans – drums, tympani, percussion
Nic Potter – bass guitar
Five Bridges, by The Nice
We move on to another band managed by Tony Stratton-Smith and later signed to Charisma. The Nice moved rapidly in the previous three years from being a backing band to P.P. Arnold to a highly acclaimed symphonic rock group that featured virtuosic playing by all band members. They also saw chart success with singles including their interpretations to America from West Side Story and Tim Hardin’s Hang on to a Dream.
In 1969 the band was offered a commission by the Newcastle Arts Festival to work with an orchestra conducted by Joseph Eger. They composed The Five Bridges Suite, which was inspired by five bridges that span the River Tyne between Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead.
Keyboardist Keith Emerson wrote in the sleeve notes: “The natives of Newcastle will know that their high level bridge supports on the upper level the trains, and on the lower level the cars. Having seen this bridge it suggested to me, as it did Lee and Brian, a certain mechanical counterpoint which when expressed musically let me divide the trains and cars between my right and left hands.
The final bridge is basically the second which I scored for a quintet of saxes and brass involving Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler, John Warren, Pete King and Joe Harriott.”
The suite is a fantastic melding of classical music and rock. It premiered on October 10th 1969 and was recorded the following week at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, later to appear on the album Five Bridges in June 1970. Later that year the band toured the US, where they shared a bill with King Crimson. Keith Emerson met Greg Lake and the rest is history (Read on about the albums released by Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson in 1970).
Brian Davison – drums, percussion
Keith Emerson – Keyboards
Lee Jackson – vocals, bass guitar
The Sinfonia of London orchestra conducted by Joseph Eger
Trespass, by Genesis
One more band signed to Charisma proved to be one of their most successful acts as the 1970s saw them producing some of progressive rock’s most praised albums. We are talking, of course, about Genesis. After releasing their debut album From Genesis to Revelation in 1969, they replaced their drummer and signed a contract with Tony Stratton-Smith when he saw them performing to 12 people in the upstairs room at Ronnie Scott’s club. In 1979 Stratton-Smith said this about Genesis: “There are certain bands you see just once and they get so many areas of your mind stimulated. They had it all going that night. In a way, I think the timing of it was right. I was hungry for a band I could really be proud of and they were looking for a manager they could rely on. And they had some astonishing attitudes, foremost among them the belief that they would never make it as a live band. And here we are today, for the second year running, Genesis have been voted the best live band in the world by Melody Maker readers. Genesis really felt that they would be writers, spend as much time in a recording studio and remain a mystery beyond that.”
Retreating to the country, the band came up with music that was a complete departure from their debut, in part influenced by King Crimson’s milestone album In the Court of the Crimson King. Like other albums on Charisma, the album was produced by John Anthony, who provided an anecdote about the band in an interview with Melody Maker, December 1970: “Often I go down and sing with the bands in the studio. Like, with Genesis’ singer Peter Gabriel, who lacks confidence when he goes into the studio. It helps him to build confidence in his singing.” The things you learn about early beginnings.
The album cover is again by Paul Whitehead. It originally started as a pastoral image of a mountain to fit the style of the majority of the tunes on the album. But then the album closer The Knife was added, a complete shift of mood and style from the rest of the album. Whitehead was asked to re-design the cover, but was reluctant to do so, suggesting other ideas “such as spilling a bottle of ink over it, burning it, and doing different things to it that would corrupt the image.” He had a Eureka moment while visiting an art exhibition: “There was an Italian artist showing his work. His thing was slashing the canvas with a razor blade. ‘Bingo.’ I said to the band, ‘Why don’t we get a knife, the knife you’re talking about, and slash the canvas and take a photograph of that.’ They said, ‘You wouldn’t slash the canvas.’ I said, ‘You’re damn right I would.”
The album closer, The Knife, features one of the band’s most aggressive tracks and it quickly became a live performance highlight. It is a tour de force performance by all band members and especially for Peter Gabriel. Keyboard player Tony Banks on the tune: “Peter and I had written The Knife together. The organ sounds a bit more like The Nice, and the song was originally called ‘The Nice’.”
Shortly after the album release the band went through lineup changes. Here is an interview with Peter Gabriel in January 1971, describing an intermediate lineup: “Since the album was made we’ve lost percussionist John Mayhew and lead guitarist Anthony Phillips, who was one of the original four. We’ve had one or two drummers in the past, and we’ve now got Phil Collins, who actually played the part of the Artful Dodger in the West End production of Oliver Twist. Anthony was very good indeed but he was getting very depressed on the road, so Mick Barnard had replaced him on lead guitar.”
Peter Gabriel – lead vocals, flute, accordion, tambourine, bass drum
Anthony Phillips – acoustic 12-string guitar, lead electric guitar, dulcimer, vocals
Anthony Banks – Hammond organ, piano, Mellotron, acoustic 12-string guitar, vocals
Michael Rutherford – acoustic 12-string guitar, electric bass guitar, nylon guitar, cello, vocals
John Mayhew – drums, percussion, vocals
Time and a Word, by Yes
Another band soon to become a leading progressive rock act was Yes, who in July 1970 released their second album Time and a Word. It was a major step forward from their eponymous debut a year earlier. Taking inspiration from bands such as The Moody Blues, Deep Purple and The Nice, they decided to incorporate an orchestra in their music. They hired students from Royal College of Music and the services of arranger Tony Cox. In 1970 Cox also arranged and/or produced Tea and Symphony’s album Jo Sago and Trees’ excellent album On the Shore.
In 1982 Jon Anderson said about this development: “I had speakers at the bottom of my bed, blasting out classical music all the time. So in one ear there was rock, and in the other ear was the classics. I was interested in opening up the sound of the band, developing a string sound, and we talked about trying the mellotron, but we thought it only had a certain sound, and that it related to only a certain type of music. We did try it out a couple of times, then we decided to use real musicians, strings and brass and things like that.”
This was the last Yes album to include guitarist Peter Banks in the lineup and the first with Eddie Offord as sound engineer. During the following years Offord would produce the band’s masterpiece albums Fragile and Close to the Edge.
Ray Davis of the Kinks upon hearing the song Everydays from the album in a blindfold test in 1970: “Good – I like the strings at the beginning. It’s very hard to get that sound. Sounds like Cleo Laine – probably meant to sound like that chap from The Zombies. Is it a soundtrack?”
Drummer Bill Bruford was quite the oracle when he told Melody Maker in 1970: “The difference between the first and second LP is immense. Consequently I envisage a huge improvement between the second and third.” That third album was The Yes album, with Steve Howe in the lineup, a progressive rock classic.
Jon Anderson – lead vocals, percussion
Peter Banks – electric and acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Chris Squire – bass, backing vocals
Tony Kaye – Hammond organ, piano
Bill Bruford – drums, percussion
Here is a clip filmed for the song Then from 1970, with Steve Howe in the group, and an instrument switcheroo between Tony Kaye and Chris Squire:
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s debut
The progressive music scene in the British Isles at that period of time was quite incestuous. Many artists grew up together, bands shared stages in music festivals and played together during sound checks, and artists were hopping in and out of recording studios lending their talents to other bands. Attempting to draw a family tree for many of these bands proves to be a complex task that ends up looking like an M. C. Escher drawing. One fine example is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, one of the scene’s first super groups that drew its members from three different bands, two of them (The Nice and King Crimson) covered in this article. The story of how Keith Emerson and Greg Lake met and formed the group is told in detail in this article:
Emerson, Lake and Palmer created a buzz in Britain even before releasing their first album. Their performance at the Isle of Wight in August 1970 was one of the highlights of that festival, even though John Peel called it “A complete waste of time, talent and electricity.” At the time of that performance, the band was in the middle of recording their debut album, released later in the year and named simply Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
My favorite track from the album is Take a Pebble, one of the earliest compositions Emerson and Lake wrote together and rehearsed before Palmer joined the group. The piece was performed at the Isle of Wight and left the audience stunned. With all the pyro techniques that Keith Emerson demonstrates on the Moog and Hammond organ on this album, his piano playing as demonstrated on this piece is no less interesting and virtuosic. The instrumental interludes with the trio playing acoustic instruments proves that progressive rock is not about guitar and keyboard gizmos, but about the musicianship. The unique sound at the opening of the song is created by plucking the piano strings with a guitar pick.
In the Wake of Poseidon, by King Crimson
King Crimson’s sophomore album is directly tied to the circumstances that led to the formation of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The band faced a dire situation at the end of 1969. After releasing the milestone album In the Court of the Crimson King and touring the US three of the band members, including Greg Lake, let the band. More about the story of the band at that junction in its history is told here:
Band founder Robert Fripp had to cobble together various pieces of music left unfinished from the previous album, including tunes such as Pictures of a City and Cadence and Cascade. Perhaps the most ambitious piece of music on In the Wake of Poseidon is the title song, a mellotron staple with Fripp playing the instrument as well as a fantastic acoustic guitar accompaniment.
A number of musicians make an appearance on this album and will have a critical impact on the band’s next album, Lizard. Gordon Haskell contributes vocals, Mel Collins plays sax and flute and Keith Tippett plays piano. All three musicians add their talents to one of my favorite songs on the album, Cadence and Cascade.
Cadence and Cascade demonstrates the group’s ability to play a delicate ballad, similar to the role of I Talk to the Wind on the first album, only this time purely acoustic. Mel Collins plays a beautiful flute solo and Keith Tippett adds interesting piano flourishes. As usual Michael Giles plays his melodic phrases on the cymbals, a signature of his that he used so well on Moonchild from their debut.
The New Musical Express summarized the song well on their May 9th 1970 issue: “Cadence and Cascade is a tale of two groupies. A delicate, wispy song with a pretty melody that features Gordon Haskell’s vocal and the restrained and tasteful piano and flute work by Keith Tippett and Mel Collins.”
Lizard, by King Crimson
We close the article with my favorite album among all the fantastic albums covered here. The term progressive rock received a lot of criticism over the years, but if this is not truly progressive music set in a rock context I don’t know what progressive music is. The album includes some of the best instrumental passages captured on vinyl, and a large credit goes to pianist Keith Tippett who added modern-classical, jazz and avant-garde influences. Robert Fripp admired Tippett’s work so much that he offered the pianist an equal partnership in musically directing the band. Tippett remembers: “The terms would have been that I would have had musical input. He knew that I was a strong musical personality and I would have gone in and possibly taken it all in another way with his blessing because we would have been joint bandleaders.” However he decided to decline and focus on his solo career. His story is told in detail here:
The music is housed within a fantastically ornate album art spread over a gatefold cover. Virginia ‘Gini’ Barris, who was 24 at the time she worked on the drawing, captured the essence of Peter Sinfield’s enigmatic lyrics without listening to a single note from the album. A fresh graduate from art school, this was one of her first paid jobs and she spent three months meticulously creating the lettering and miniature scenes in the spirit of the album lyrics. Her inspirations included the Lindisfarne gospels and the medieval French Gothic Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Barris used gouache, a form of watercolor, on two separate drawings, the size of one and a half the actual album cover. The imagery around most of the letters depicts one of the songs on the album: ‘C’ is Cirkus, ‘R’ is Lady of the Dancing Water. ‘I’ was reserved for the Beatles, the subject of Happy Family. ‘S’ is Indoor Games, ‘K’ for The Battle of Glass Tears, ‘N’ for Prince Rupert Awakes. Also included are a fantasy super group with Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker and her boyfriend at the time. There are all kinds of grotesque tidbits here, a perfect visual accompaniment to this classic album.
In a fitting manner to an article summarizing a year in progressive music (don’t worry, more articles about 1970 are coming), we close it with an epic: Prince Rupert Awakes/Bolero/The Battle of Glass Tears/Big Top, the complete second side from the album.
Robert Fripp – guitar, Mellotron, EMS VCS 3, Hammond organ, devices
Peter Sinfield – lyrics, EMS VCS 3, pictures, sleeve conception
Mel Collins – saxophone, flute
Gordon Haskell – bass guitar, vocals
Andy McCulloch – drums
Keith Tippett – acoustic and electric pianos
Robin Miller – oboe, English horn
Mark Charig – cornet
Nick Evans – trombone
Jon Anderson – vocals
Read the next article in the series:
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Categories: A Year in Music
This is very much my music: some of the records discussed here accompany me today, 50 years after first hearing them! Sad to say that you missed crediting Guy Evans with drums on ‘Least we can do’.
Oops – Now I see that Guy appears on the same line as Nic Potter. Serves me right.
Incidentally, the quote from David Jackson about evil music is about the song ‘White Hammer’, not ‘Emperor’: the quote appears in the book “The Book”.
I’ve never seen before that specific picture with all five members of VdGG.