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Lean years for prog (part 1)

University challenges

I arrived at university with the best hi-fi system in my hall of residence. I’d worked at the steel mill in Barrow over the summer between school and university and invested my hard-earned cash in separate components: a Pioneer PL-512 turntable, an Amstrad 30 watt amplifier and Celestion DL-6 speakers. It wasn’t too long before I discovered that Amstrad was a sub-standard brand and at the end of my first year I sold the amp to a friend and bought a Technics SA-200 receiver from one of the many electronic shops along Tottenham Court Road.

My hall was a grade II listed building, the country home of the Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh between 1811 and 1822, who committed suicide in the house by cutting his throat with a penknife. When it was bought by Goldsmiths’ in 1939 they changed the name from Wollet Hall to Loring Hall. Students were expected to take their entire belongings home with them between terms to allow the hall to be used by visiting groups but it was genuinely impractical to move a hi-fi, my record collection, a bass guitar, a guitar amp plus clothes and books from Kent to Barrow and back again three times a year. The solution was to stash my possessions in a little-known cupboard under the eaves, accessed from a little-used bathroom. My bass and amp travelled back and forward with me. In the late 70s and early 80s it was not uncommon to have to share a room, especially in purpose built halls. My original room-mate turned out to be pretty obnoxious but we both realised that the arrangement wasn’t going to work and within a week he decamped to share with someone else. Jim, my replacement room-mate remains a very good friend and we continue to share prog-related adventures. My portion of the room was decorated with Dark Side of the Moon posters, the poster from Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water, plus some Tolkien drawings from an old calendar.

Loring Hall in 2003

Bexley was the nearest town, a ten minute walk north east along the North Cray Road. Retail outlets of interest were a photography shop, a newsagent (for The Guardian), the International supermarket, a small but well-stocked book shop, and Elpees, a small independent record store. Elpees was brilliant. They stocked current vinyl and also had a range of ‘cut-outs’ - reduced price albums that had a small hole or slot punched through the outer sleeve. These were poor- or slow-selling records returned to the record company by a retailer, then subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. Elpees seemed to have a deal with Polydor Records because my copy of King Crimson’s USA bought there in 1979 has a single hole punched just off centre so that it goes through the cover, the inner sleeve and the Polydor label on the vinyl itself and Bruford’s Feels Good to Me, also bought there in 1979, has two small punch holes just off centre, but it’s hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling during the late 70s and that they ended up as cut outs.

Bruford's Feels Good To Me - cut-out bought in Bexley in 1979

I didn’t actually buy many records. Living on a grant made money really tight and though I’d pop into the Lewisham Our Price and make a weekly trip up to the West End where I’d flick through the racks of vinyl in Virgin, HMV, Our Price or Simons Records, I was still reluctant to try something outside my comfort zone. The first Virgin store I’d been to was in 1975 or ‘76 in Leeds and it had the feel of an independent store with staff who cared about music. When the Virgin Megastore opened on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in 1979 there were some good deals such as Livestock by Brand X, a cut out bought for £2.49 in August 1981, most of the stock was getting on for full price and the emphasis seemed to have shifted from music to selling.

Most of my forays into culture involved the theatre because I was eligible for a student discount on tickets which allowed me to see a fair amount of cut-price Shakespeare, Stoppard and Brecht. The demise of progressive rock meant that I didn’t go to many concerts, though my first gig in London was Yes at Wembley Arena in October 1978, one of the best I’ve ever attended. The band played on their revolving stage in the centre of the Arena and my seat, bought from a ticket agency in Shaftesbury Avenue, could hardly have been better, just off-centre and close to the front of the upper tier on the south side. The only other gig I managed in my first year was UK at Imperial College in March 1979, a performance discussed in my review of UK at Under the Bridge in 2012

My second academic year started with a performance by Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon, accompanied by my brother Tony who was doing his elective at the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill. I distinctly remember thinking that the new material from I Can See Your House from Here, in particular the epic Ice, came across as Andy Latimer taking on the persona of a guitar hero, whereas the early classic Camel music had a better balance between guitar and keyboards.

Dave Brubeck made a rare appearance at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in November 1979. I was quite in awe of the venue, something of a brutalist behemoth with an auditorium renowned for being a citadel of high culture and excellent acoustics. Throughout his career Brubeck had upset jazz purists for making the genre too accessible, for using odd time signatures and for playing with electric instruments. It was this ‘outsider’ persona that I found intriguing. Keith Emerson had adapted Blue Rondo a la Turk for The Nice (changing it from 9/8 to 4/4 in the process) and I’ve always liked Take Five. Piano-led jazz is my favourite form of jazz and consequently I really enjoyed the concert.

The following two gigs were more of a joke and I’m not particularly proud of attending either: Slade at the Goldsmiths’ College Christmas Ball, and UFO at the Hammersmith Odeon. By 1979 Slade had renounced all pop overtones and were just a rock band that did exceptionally well from the college circuit. They played all their hits and displayed a degree of musicianship that never came across on Top of the Pops, but then bassist Jim Lea was a former Staffordshire Youth Orchestra violinist.

One of the freshers at Loring may have thought that the length of my hair indicated I was a fan of NWOBHM and asked if I was interested in going to see UFO, my first gig of the 80s. This was recorded for the BBC and has since become available on CD and as a download as UFO - BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert which gets some really good reviews. The support act was a dreadful glam-metal band, Girl, so the evening was more painful than pleasurable.

I went to The Venue for a cabaret-style double bill of Bruford and Brand X for a break from studying for my end-of-year exams, where the Bruford set was also recorded and would later appear in the Seems Like A Lifetime Ago 1977 – 1980 box set. It was the first time I’d seen a band with Bruford occupying the drum stool; the man who had played with the three greats of progressive rock: Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. I like to watch all musicians who are masters of their craft, and Bill Bruford has the incredible ability to make complex drumming seem effortless. The music is difficult to categorise, falling somewhere on the spectrum between jazz-rock and progressive. Brand X was once hailed as the ‘British Mahavishnu Orchestra’ though I always thought they were much less fiery but displayed more variety than Mahavishnu. It was a really good evening despite the price of the drinks – I’d never been to a club before and had to make one pint of bitter last the whole evening.

Revision was on hold for another gig that May. I’d picked up the first Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia album in 1979, an impulse buy influenced by the presence of ex-Soft Machine Roy Babbington on bass, and headed off to the Tramshed in Dartford to see the band, Dartford being a few stops away by train. The venue was good but the music, melodic electric jazz not a million miles from progressive rock, was superb.

I was hardly over-enamoured with The Wall when it was released towards the end of 1979 but the chance to see Pink Floyd, who were going to be performing a limited number of shows at Earls Court over the summer was a distinct draw. I somehow managed to get tickets for myself and some friends from Barrow and we drove down to London, encamping on the library floor at Loring overnight after the show and after some negotiation with the academic head of hall who lived in the gatehouse. It may not have been progressive music but I have to admit that it was the greatest spectacle I’d ever seen.

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