In the early 70s, radio was a vital medium which began to play an increasingly important role in my interest in prog. Though BBC Radio 3 was primarily dedicated to classical music, the Sunday Times journalist Derek Jewell hosted a not to be missed programme called Sounds Interesting that featured jazz and progressive rock bands, but it was Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on Radio 1 which aired from 1973 until 1978 that provided the best introduction to new acts to buy into. We were allowed to use a large Grundig stereogram in the 'Big Room’ normally reserved for entertaining guests, probably to keep the noise to a minimum. This stereogram was more like a piece of furniture than a radio, but the speakers were of a decent quality and the walnut-finish wooden construction produced a warm tonal response. The sprung turntable was hardly at the cutting edge of hi-fi but it was certainly adequate. We cemented our claim on this piece of equipment by buying a new stylus, being unaware of its previous history, and prided ourselves on our careful handling of any vinyl. If we borrowed a record we would take great care of it, and if we lent one of ours to a friend, we expected that they would take as good care of it as we would ourselves. In reality our hopes were sometimes dashed: one friend left a borrowed copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth above a radiator, reducing it to something like a timepiece in Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory.
The Saturday afternoon radio sessions were often accompanied by a scouring of one of the UK’s weekly music papers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, or (less commonly) Sounds that we’d bought in town earlier that day. At the time progressive rock was big business and consequently these papers carried many column inches of information about acts we were interested in, and also acts that might potentially interest us. Melody Maker originally concentrated on jazz, and though at first rather dismissive of rock and roll, in the early 70s it became quite sympathetic to prog, particularly the writers Richard Williams and Chris Welch who raised the standard of writing on the subject of popular music. I always preferred the professionalism of MM and felt that NME journalists were rather fickle, likely to follow any trend in the hope of appearing ‘hip.’ The NME was more likely to champion straightforward rock acts and espouse the Dionysian values of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in the mid 70s it was quick to latch on to punk and new wave and embark upon some serious dinosaur bashing, advocating the view that exponents of progressive rock were class traitors with an unhealthy obsession for high culture. I have to admit to subscribing to the view that prog represented a link to high culture, whether it was the symphonic sound of Yes, the politically driven stridency of Henry Cow or the electronic musing of Tangerine Dream, acting as a gateway to something more thought-provoking or challenging, music aimed at the head and not the heart (or genitals.) I wasn’t interested in rock for its rebelliousness (which has since been shown to involve a great deal of hypocrisy as acts like the Rolling Stones are now firmly embedded within the Establishment); I was interested in the possibilities of the music. Henry Cow was anti-establishment and unashamedly complex and for me, the prog ethos reflected a philosophy of expanding an understanding of art, literature and science, not simply a ‘get your rocks off’ base instinct.
The inclusion of lengthy instrumental passages meant prog was increasingly able to be used as the soundtrack to documentary pieces on TV. In 1973 Jacob Bronowski included a short section of Echoes in the Generation Upon Generation episode of his seminal series The Ascent of Man on BBC television. The accompanying clip was of two stags fighting for the right to mate with a female and it seemed to me that it was a fitting piece of music for the subject. Pink Floyd was even credited at the end of the programme. My gut feeling was obviously not without basis as Will Romano has suggested that Echoes is as much as song about Darwinism and instinctual knowledge as about human connectedness. In 2010, Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine presented a television programme entitled My Father, The Bomb and Me in which she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. She had discovered that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and wondered how she could reconcile this piece of information with the loving father that she remembered. Whether by accident or design, she used Pink Floyd as incidental music.
In December 1976, imagining that I knew it all, I wrote to the editor of the daily television news programme, Nationwide, suggesting a number of prog instrumentals that could be used as music for their documentary features. I was a little disappointed to get a post card in reply with the stock phrase “Thank you for your recent letter to NATIONWIDE. The Team are always interested to hear from individual viewers in this way and are grateful to you for taking the trouble to write.” I don’t recall ever hearing any of my suggestions being played.
The record shop/family tree/radio show/friends formula worked fairly well, and from the record shop I’d picked up new bands such as Pulsar (dreamy French prog) and Isotope; from band family trees we picked up Rick Wakeman solo work (The Six Wives of Henry VIII was the second album we bought, by mail order from one of the music papers) and Refugee, the rhythm section of The Nice with Swiss keyboard player Patrick Moraz; from the radio I discovered Triumvirat (best described as a German ELP) and Tangerine Dream; friends introduced us to The Nice, Caravan, Gentle Giant and the Anglo-Hungarian Continuum. Autumn Grass by Continuum was released by RCA in 1971, a fusion of jazz, classical and rock. I can’t believe that we had access to the sleeve because it had been recorded by one of Tony’s friends onto reel-to-reel tape. We may have been present when he taped the album, because I instantly recognised the cover when I found a copy in Beanos many years later. At £20 I didn’t buy it immediately, but reflected on what I’d remembered of the music and took the plunge the next week, fearful that if I procrastinated it would be snatched up by some other prog fan. In 2006 I found a second copy in Memory Lane Music, another of Croydon’s second hand record stores, and bought it for Tony. I asked to listen to the record to check how well it had been kept before I handed over my cash and though the playing surface appeared scratch-free, like on my copy there was a fair amount of surface noise that I assume is associated with the pressing process. The second side of the album, entirely dedicated to the title track, is over 26 minutes long and it has been reported that this caused some problems due to compression. This track was written by the Yorkshire-born composer Patric Standford for the original Continuum line-up, and features some string passages that I suspect may have influenced David Cross (c.f. Providence by King Crimson.)
Continuum is a fairly obscure band that does not feature in either of Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files or Progressive Rock Handbook. However, there is a biography by Bob McBeath on the Progarchives website, written with the help of Yoel Schwarcz and his wife Brenda. I was fortunate to come across a remastered CD of the first eponymous Continuum album in Berlin in 2006 (Valhalla Legendary Progressives, 2004) and though it’s not truly progressive, falling more into the realm of classical-jazz fusion, it’s not without merit and is a consequently a valued part of my collection.
By the end of 1974 Tony and I had a combined collection of just over 20 albums. This may not seem very many but money was fairly tight. Apart from a badly-paid newspaper round and a research charity newsletter collection we had to wait for birthdays and Christmas for cash to buy music. Time and again we’d go into Blackshaw’s and think about buying something different. I’d held Aphrodite’s Child’s 666 in my hands many times without buying it, seduced both by a line-up that included Vangelis and the subject matter, but also from hearing the track The Four Horsemen on Alan Freeman’s radio show. We were reluctant to take a shot in the dark, demonstrating an innate unease with gambling. A shortage of ready funds made us very selective, or closed-minded – four of our twenty albums were by Yes, three by Pink Floyd and three by The Nice.
Contrary to the perception that prog fans were sad and lonely, but mainly to enable us to investigate the previously unknown, we actively engaged in temporary album swaps with friends to expand our horizons. Loaning out albums to school friends introduced me to early King Crimson. One, whose brother was in Tony’s year, lent me In the Court of the Crimson King. Up to that point we’d only heard Red and Starless and Bible Black, so this album with its stunning cover (and an assistant engineer called Tony Page!) and amazing music shifting between the manic horror-metal of 21st Century Schizoid Man and the gentle musings of I Talked to the Wind and Moonchild via the doom-laden mellotron chords of Epitaph and the title track was an eye-opener. It was my next purchase after returning the borrowed copy. As friends’ tastes changed it was possible to buy their unwanted records. One friend became more interested in the smooth jazz of George Benson, so I relieved him of his former favourites Voyage of the Acolyte and Pictures at an Exhibition for a reasonable price. He had conscientiously looked after his vinyl, so I was far from unhappy with the arrangement.