1970, part 2: Progressive Music

In part 1 of this article series we covered albums released in 1970 by a number of well-known progressive rock bands, all of them in the early stages of their careers. In part 2 here we continue with the genre and additional progressive music by British acts released that year.

The soundtrack to the film Zabriskie Point, featuring Pink Floyd

We start with a bang and two albums featuring the music of Pink Floyd. The first is the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point, released in February 1970. Many scenes from the film were shot in Death Valley, California, one of the hottest places in the world. The film had a large budget, backed by MGM who were planning to capitalize on the counterculture youth market. $7m went into the making of the film, a huge amount at the time, and five times the budget that went into Antonioni’s previous film, Blow Up. It proved to be a financial disaster, bringing in less than $1m.

Zabriskie Point soundtrack album

The music selected for the film’s soundtrack featured pieces by The Grateful Dead, John Fahey, and most notably Pink Floyd. The band spent a month in the studio, recording material that was mostly rejected by the director and left unused in the final film. Roger Waters Remembers: “We could have finished the whole thing in about five days, but Antonioni would listen and go ‘eets very beautiful, but eet’s too sad’, or ‘eet’s too strong’.” The band made good use of the rejected tracks, which found their way into future Pink Floyd albums. A good example is the music that was originally planned for the ending explosion scene, then named ‘The Violent Sequence’, which became Us and Them on Dark Side of the Moon.

Pink Floyd, 1970

The track that did make the cut for that explosion scene was Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up, a re-working of Careful with That Axe, Eugene. The track was first released in 1968 as a B-side single and then on the band’s 1969 double-album Ummagumma. It fits perfectly as a powerful ending to the film, accompanying the slow motion explosion:

Atom Heart Mother, by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd’s bona fide album of 1970 was released in October of that year, featuring one of the band’s most ambitious projects to date: a multi-part, side-long instrumental piece alongside a brass orchestra and a choir. For the orchestration work the band, none of its members able to read music, was assisted by Ron Geesin. Later that year Geesin would collaborate with Roger Waters on the soundtrack to the film The Body. Atom Heart Mother, in its early stages named “The Amazing Pudding”, was performed at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in June 1970, with the band accompanied by the John Alldis Choir and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. It marked the first appearance of David Gilmour with the 1969 Fender Stratocaster that gave their future albums that fantastic tone and color.

Atom Heart Mother front cover

Let’s focus on a less-covered aspect of the album and take a look at that cow.

The band asked for something plain on the cover and got a picture of the lovely Lulubelle III, the first cow Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis saw at a farm in Essex. “The Floyd were deep in experimental mode. The band had no title, no definite theme, no great concept so I wanted to design a non-cover – not shocking, just unexpected.” No band name, no album title, just a pasture. And a cow. What an iconic album cover. The album name came from a headline in a newspaper that Roger Waters noticed, titled “Atom Heart Mother Named”, about a woman with a nuclear powered pacemaker.

Some of the instrumental pieces in the epic title track took their name after that cover, including “Breast Milky” and “Funky Dung”.

Atom Heart Mother back cover

A favorite song from the album is Summer ’68, composed and sang by keyboard player Richard Wright. This was the last time he solely wrote lyrics to a Pink Floyd song. It was released as a single in Japan.

Credits on the album:

Roger Waters – bass guitar, classical guitar, lead vocals, tape effects, tape collages

David Gilmour – electric guitar, slide guitar, steel guitar, acoustic guitar, classical guitar, bass guitar, lead vocals

Richard Wright – Hammond organ, piano, Farfisa organ, Mellotron, lead vocals

Nick Mason – drums, percussion, tape effects, tape collages

Abbey Road Session Pops Orchestra

The Madcap Laughs, by Syd Barrett

A previous member and a founder of Pink Floyd released two solo albums in 1970. They would become the only solo albums he would ever release. We are talking of course about Syd Barrett. On January 3 his debut album as a solo artist, The Madcap Laughs, was released on the Harvest label. Pink Floyd were also on the label’s roster, like many other fantastic artists. An article about 1970 albums released on that label is in the works.

The Madcap Laughs was a result of multiple recording phases with different producers, before it settled on Barrett’s former band mates Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Gilmour talked about the challenge of working with Syd Barrett on the album: “He had the songs written down on paper for some of them, not all of them. But he wouldn’t do them the same twice. He’d do take one, that would be one version, and take two would be different tempo, different time signature, the words would change. That obviously makes it impossible for one to rehearse it with musicians and perform it together.”

The Madcap Laughs front cover

A favorite song from the album is Octopus, originally titled Clowns and Jugglers. Early versions of it, which later appeared on the rarities compilation album Opel, were backed by Soft Machine members Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge. The song lyrics include the line “Well, the mad cat laughed at the man on the border…” which gave the album its title after being misheard by David Gilmour. The song was Syd Barrett’s only single.

Syd Barrett – vocals, acoustic and electric guitars

David Gilmour – bass guitar, drums

Hawkwind’s debut

If Pink Floyd is considered by some as a space-rock group, one of the first bands that come to mind when discussing the genre is the next group, who in 1970 was at the very beginning of its career. After forming in 1969 under the name Hawkwind Zoo, the group shortened its name to Hawkwind, enlisted ex-The Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor as producer, and entered Trident Studios in London to record their debut album. In a short period of time they recorded a full album worth of material, all captured live in the studio.


The album sleeve notes include some interesting introductions by the band members, a brief insight into the Hawkwind world at the time:

Well I’ve been busking for about ten years on and off. Still doing it (Dave Brock).

My background is jazz and dance bands (John A. Harrison).

Been trying to get the bread together for my own equipment for as long as I can remember (still am), worked as a salesman and on building sites for a while (Huw Lloyd-Langton).

My first job was working in a scrap yard, with ample opportunity for totting (Terry Ollis).

I just dig freaking about on saxophones (Nik Turner).

And my favorite:

I was just about to hit the road for India when I joined. I’ve got practically no musical knowledge but I figure if you let it become your whole trip, where your involvement is total, you can do anything you like and do it well (Dik Mik).

The beautiful front and back cover illustrations are by artist Arthur Rhodes. This is the only album cover featuring his art that I know of.

Hawkwind’s debut front cover

In their review of the album Melody Maker mentioned a favorite track: “Seeing It as You Really Are is a lesson in electronic music itself. Any group thinking of using weird sounds should listen to this album, it’s tremendous.”

Dave Brock – lead vocals, 6 and 12-string guitar, harmonica, percussion

Nik Turner – alto saxophone, vocals, percussion

Huw Lloyd-Langton – lead guitar

John A. Harrison – bass guitar

Terry Ollis – drums

Dik Mik (Michael Davies) – electronics

Benefit, by Jethro Tull

Compared to the haphazard way on which Hawkwind was operating in 1970, Jethro Tull was a mature organization with a steady cadence of albums releases and live shows. However they had the difficult task of following up on the band’s excellent second album Stand Up that topped the UK album chart the previous year. The band was touring hard in 1969, with three visits to the US and 170 shows that year across the UK, Europe and the US. Some of the songs that Ian Anderson wrote during that period ended up on their next album Benefit, and they captured his mindset at the time: “Some of these songs reflect a sense of alienation and a growing desire for a steady home base to which I might return after my travels.”

Benefit, which Anderson referred to as “the riff album”, is indeed one of the band’s most hard-rocking albums, with Anderson playing electric guitar on most tracks. He recalled working with guitarist Martin Barre on their guitar parts for the songs: “Martin and I were playing quite often in the studio together with double-up guitar riffs and harmony riffs and so on. That was possibly the only time that that really occurred.  There were definitely some Wishbone Ash moments in our playing these kind of simple harmony guitar riffs!”

Jethro Tull, 1970

The band released their third album Benefit in April of 1970. It is not generally considered one of their best, and only a few numbers from it were performed by the band live. But there are a number of favorite tracks on it and the highlight for me is To Cry You a Song, another riff song. Martin Barre sheds some light at its origin: “It was a response to Blind Faith’s ‘Had to Cry Today’, although you couldn’t compare the two; nothing was stolen … The riff crossed over the bar in a couple of places and Ian and I each played guitars on the backing tracks. It was more or less live in the studio with a couple of overdubs and a solo. A rifferama and a timeless one as well.”

Bass player Glenn Cornick, who left the band after a US tour following the release of the album, considers the song Ian Anderson’s second best hard rock song after A New Day Yesterday from the album Stand Up. It was intentionally selected to open side two of the LP, as he recalls: “You had to open side two with a bang or people might not bother to go to the second side.”

Benefit front cover

Ian Anderson – vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, flute

Martin Barre – electric guitar

Glenn Cornick – bass guitar

Clive Bunker – drums

John Evan – piano, organ

Air Conditioning, by Curved Air

1970 was a year of debut albums for many progressive music bands. One of them was unique for having a front woman, a rarity at the time within that niche of British music. Curved Air started in 1969 as Sisyphus and completed its lineup when singer Sonja Kristina joined the band. Named after the album A Rainbow in Curved Air by modern composer Terry Riley, the band benefited from the songwriting skills of keyboard and guitar player Francis Monkman and violinist Darryl Way. Their debut album Air Conditioning was released in November 1970 and included the single It Happened Today.

Air Conditioning front cover

A favorite track from the album is Vivaldi, quickly becoming a staple of their live performances. In a period when progressive rock bands loved performing the classical repertoire, this remains one of the wildest and best known arrangements of a classical piece. It is a showcase tune for Darryl Way, who said this about Vivaldi (the composer): “He was introduced to me when I was very young and I fell in love with his music – long before ‘The Four Seasons’ became as popular as it is today. ‘Vivaldi’ was my homage to him.”

Curved Air

Sonja Christina reminiscing about the time she realized Curved Air was a bona fide progressive rock band: “When we were rehearsing our set and Darryl played ‘Vivaldi’, it was exciting. I felt this music was important like I knew ‘Hair’ was groundbreaking theatre before the show opened in London and I was privileged to be part of it. I felt the same about this band.”

Sonja Kristina – lead vocals

Darryl Way – violin, backing vocals

Francis Monkman – guitars, keyboards

Rob Martin – bass

Florian Pilkington-Miksa – drums

Here is a live performance of the tune from 1972:

Gentle Giant’s Debut

One last album to review in this article, another debut from a band that would continue to produce some of the genre’s most interesting albums throughout the 1970s. Gentle Giant was formed when brothers Derek Shulman (vocals), Phil Shulman (vocals, saxophone, trumpet), and Ray Shulman (guitar, violin, trumpet, vocals) wanted out of the pop music market that trapped their band Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Although the band had hits, including the #8 UK single chart Kites in 1967, they did not represent the siblings’ aspirations to create more ambitious music not driven by radio plays and single sales. Their conviction was strong enough to decline an offer from Elton John to join the band and contribute songs that later became hits for him, Your Song being one of them.

Gentle Giant, 1972

Adding keyboardist Kerry Minnear, guitarist Gary Green and drummer Martin Smith, a new sextet was formed. They named themselves Gentle Giant after François Rabelais’s 16th-century pentalogy of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, a telling of the adventures of two giants. In 1970, with Tony Visconti in the producer’s seat, the band recorded their self-titled debut album.

In the best tradition of progressive music albums of the period, the album was adorned by a wonderful cover art, created by George Underwood. Over the next couple of years Underwood would create the iconic album covers for David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust.

Gentle Giant’s debut front cover

The album was released in November 1970. A standout track on it is Nothing At All. The vocal harmonies are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who were at their peak of popularity at the time. Derek Shulman: “The first album was the stage show, which is why there was a drum solo. You don’t do that on an album for the most part.” The beautiful piano melody in the middle of the drum solo is played by Kerry Minnear, a quote from ‘Liebestraum No. 3’ by Franz Liszt.

Gary Green – lead guitar, 12 string guitar

Kerry Minnear – keyboard, some bass, cello, lead vocals, backing vocals, some tuned percussion

Derek Shulman – lead vocals, backing vocals, some bass

Phil Shulman – sax, trumpet, recorder, lead vocals, backing vocals

Ray Shulman – most bass, violin, some guitar, percussion, backing vocals

Martin Smith – drums, percussion

Read the next article in the series, focusing on the Canterbury scene:

Categories: A Year in Music

Tagged as: , ,

5 replies »

  1. Hey, wonderful stuff, with thanks from a Prog head and fellow writer on musical themes. In my view Prog is one of the greatest musical genres ever created; quite possibly the only genre where literally anything goes. It doesn’t always work, but then that’s one of the risks inherent in any art form. Here’s a recent article I wrote about Uriah Heep’s album The Magician’s Birthday: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2020/11/30/the-magicians-birthday-rocks-romantic-classic/

Leave a Reply