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The end of an era

One of my Record Store Day 2018 purchases, that is one of the limited editions specially produced for the occasion rather than one of the albums I happened to buy as I wandered through the stalls set out in Cremona’s Corso Campi on the day itself, was a 40th anniversary edition of UK by UK. My original vinyl pressing of this album is in perfectly good condition and I think it’s a well produced record but I was seduced by the promise of the booklet and intrigued by the idea of an Eddie Jobson re-mastering. I play both LPs and though I’m very fond of the original I think the individual instruments are more discernible on the new release – it has a nice clarity.

Sticker from the 40th anniversary release of UK's debut album


Eight years on from the birth of progressive rock in the form of In the Court of the Crimson King, the genre was getting a little tired and large numbers of the record-buying public were getting tired of prog. Not helped by self-imposed exile from the UK for tax reasons and almost certainly driven by some degree of creative burn-out, the hiatus between studio albums meant that the three really big players in the field slipped out of the music paper headlines and created a void to be exploited and filled by the standard-bearers for Punk, claiming that the excesses of prog indicated how out-of-touch these bands were.


It simply wasn’t enough to release a ‘best of’ (though Yesterdays, released in 1975 was really my introduction to the first two Yes albums and something I still like) and following the completion of the British leg of the Relayer tour in May 1975, bar an appearance at the Reading Festival in August that year there wasn’t another UK appearance by Yes until October 1977, though all five members of the group issued a solo album. ELP might be perceived as being the worst offenders, not playing on UK soil for a period of 18 years after their 1st May 1974 show in Liverpool and though they performed in Europe and the USA later in 1974, they were absent from the stage between 21st August 1974 and 24th May 1977 with only a Christmas single (I Believe in Father Christmas, Greg Lake, 1975) and a near-novelty single (Honky Tonk Train Blues, Keith Emerson, 1976) to satisfy their fans. Pink Floyd seemed to have managed fans’ expectations quite well, despite the length of time taken between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, then Wish You Were Here and Animals and the lack of live dates, especially in the UK. Between 14th December 1974 and the first Wall show in Los Angeles on February 7th 1980, they undertook a three month long North America tour and then played Knebworth in July 1975, toured Animals around mainland Europe in January and February 1977 with UK dates in London and Stafford in March, followed by a North America tour between April and July 1977 with no further live performances for over 29 months. During this time David Gilmour and Rick Wright released solo albums. David Gilmour came out in May 1978 and Wright’s Wet Dream was released in November 1978.

For my part, I was less satisfied with ELP’s Works Volume 1 and Pink Floyd’s Animals than I had been with their preceding records; Yes’ Going for the One was a radical departure from Relayer but I thought it was still high quality, with Awaken high up in the list of all-time great prog tracks though I’ve never been a fan of the Polymoog. In ELP’s case, I wasn’t over-impressed with the keyboard tones from the Yamaha GX-1 and Animals featured fewer keyboard textures than Wish You Were Here, marking the start of Pink Floyd’s move away from progressive rock-style complexity. By 1977, other acts like Camel, Caravan and Gentle Giant had stopped writing epics and both Caravan and Gentle Giant had begun to lose their appeal to core fans; Focus seemed to have disbanded, having released an uneven album of studio scraps the previous year; and Genesis may have released Seconds Out but this coincided with the departure of Steve Hackett. I thought that the future belonged to jazz rock and bought my first Isotope LP.

Post-hiatus albums from three of progressive rock's biggest names


Looking back, 1978 started on an exceptionally good note with the release of Feels Good to Me, Bill Bruford’s first LP as a band leader and the eponymous debut from National Health, both records containing examples where jazz sensibilities mixed with prog leanings resulted in complex, melodious albums. I think Feels Good to Me has a more experimental feel, thanks to Annette Peacock’s vocals and using flugelhorn in a (broadly) rock context; National Health is more intricate and following in the tradition of the band’s forerunner Hatfield and the North, didn’t take itself too seriously.

A healthy start to 1978 - National Health by National Health


Then came UK. Following the demise of the trio version of King Crimson in 1974 which took Robert Fripp away from music for a couple of years, Bill Bruford and John Wetton continued their musical education by rotating through a number of different bands. I thought Bruford’s involvement with Gong and National Health were interesting and it was definitely quite pleasing to find him sharing a drum stool with Phil Collins for Genesis’ Trick of the Tail tour, as he appeared to be helping out all the right bands. Wetton’s move to Roxy Music and then Uriah Heep impinged less on my consciousness; I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy and thought Uriah Heep’s music unadventurous. However, his touring arrangement with Roxy Music, a temporary measure which commenced before King Crimson officially ceased to exist, introduced him to Eddie Jobson. While the proposed collaboration between Wetton, Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing, its failure to get off the ground ultimately resulted in the formation of what was hailed as a ‘supergroup’: UK. Their eponymous debut is a slick progressive rock album with jazz rock styling thanks to Bruford and Holdsworth but the modern sound, courtesy of Jobson, made it seem quite different from both long-standing progressive acts and newer groups from that period such as symphonic prog band England. The song writing was mature, involving all the group members, leading to a truly coherent effort where equal weight was afforded to each individual. Holdsworth’s fluid guitar lines, the power and precision of the rhythm section, Jobson’s virtuosity on keyboards and violin and production that provided a contemporary feel without hiding the musicians’ links to the early progressive era made the record stand out as something with significance for the whole genre, much like In the Court of the Crimson King had done in 1969 and furthermore, the three-part In the Dead of Night is an indisputable prog classic.

A prog classic - the 1978 pressing of UK by UK


Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses was another release from April 1978. I really like this second offering in the ‘prog-folk’ trio of Tull albums, with an enhanced palette thanks to the guest violin of Darryl Way while maintaining a sense of continuity from Songs from the Wood. My copy of the LP, bought when I still lived in Barrow, was a swap for King Crimson’s Earthbound which I had bought that morning but was disappointed with much of the music and the rather rough recording. On reflection, it was very kind of the staff in the record store (Blackshaw’s) for sanctioning the exchange.

Steve Hackett released his second solo album Please Don’t Touch which was quite different to 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte, an album I rate higher than all post-Gabriel Genesis. I first got a copy of the album on cassette in 1981 or 1982 so I was also able to compare it to the excellent Spectral Mornings (1979). I find it a bit of a mixed bag and it’s that lack of consistency that marks it down. It’s not really UK progressive rock but it is a marker for the eclecticism that Hackett has displayed in his recent solo albums and I think it’s much better than his erstwhile bandmates’ 1978 LP ...And then there were Three..., an album acquired by a friend shortly after its release which I listened to a couple of times before giving it the thumbs down. The seeds sown by the second-rate Your Own Special Way in 1976 were bearing a bitter fruit and I realised Genesis were on a trajectory towards mediocrity and could no longer be classed as a progressive rock band.

Hackett’s other former colleague Peter Gabriel released the second of his self-titled albums which I don’t think can be called prog, either, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Rather, it was an example of art-rock or what me might today call post-rock, very much a successor of the first Gabriel solo album. With the track Exposure forming the high point, it’s something that would provide a reasonable alternative if prog was to wither away.

Steve Hackett's 'Please Don't Touch'


Van der Graaf Generator shed an organist, a saxophonist and the ‘Generator’ for 1977’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, becoming more urgent sounding and despite the excellent lyrics, more basic; it could even have been classed as prog-punk for sheer attitude. Bolstered with an appearance from David Jackson and with Charles Dickie on cello and synth, the group bade farewell (until the 2005 reunion) with the live album Vital. My brother went to see them in Leeds during this tour but it wasn’t until the reformation that I could really appreciate the intensity. My first experience of a solo Peter Hammill performance in 1984 could genuinely be described as ‘full-on’ but when I got to see the band in 2005, it was off the scale.

Camel managed to keep one foot firmly in the prog idiom with Echoes and The Sleeper from their ’78 album Breathless but however good the melodies on the other tracks and the bright production, the relative brevity of most tunes makes it seem almost pop-prog descending into funk on Summer Lightning and outright silliness on Down on the Farm. This was another album bought by a friend at the time of its release but I don’t remember listening to it very often. I don’t think we were surprised by Peter Bardens’ departure from the band. Whether or not we’d seen signs in articles in the music press there appeared to be a tension between chief song-writers Bardens and Andy Latimer, which in retrospect I think had been fuelled by an interfering record label causing a move away from the early, classic Camel sound.

The cracks had not yet appeared in Yes but the cover of Tormato was a hint that all was not well. I bought the album on the day of its release, shortly before heading off to university. I managed to get to see them for the first time that October at Wembley Arena on the Tormato tour. The album contains some great ideas but the heavy-handed production detracts from the quality of the writing and the lack of an over-arching concept makes it appear more disparate than it could be. Taken on its own it doesn’t indicate the end of the golden era of progressive rock but it did suggest that Yes needed to rethink their future plans. The end of progressive rock was most starkly illustrated by Emerson Lake and Palmer with Love Beach. If the image on Tormato was a poor excuse for an album sleeve, the band photo on Love Beach was the antithesis of prog and that, more than anything else, meant I avoided the album until 2017, and I only bought it because it was cheap and I was filling a gap in my record collection. Even taking the best moments of Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman into account, it’s a really poor affair, succinctly exposing the true meaning of ‘contractual obligation’.

Not the best album artwork, not the best music - ELP's 'Love Beach' and 'Tormato' by Yes


1978 ended with another National Health album with a subtly different line-up to the debut but equally as good and, if anything, even more adventurous: Of Queues and Cures. National Health may get lumped in with the rest of prog and while the music conformed to many of the prog tropes, the ease with which a substantial number of the musicians fitted into the British jazz and avant-garde scenes made them stand apart. Prog had withered without anyone to grasp the possibilities revealed by UK, whose 1979 follow-up Danger Money was a bit schizophrenic; reduced to a trio the material was a mixture of first-class retro-prog and verse-chorus-verse-chorus FM-friendly tunes played by progressive rock musicians. The unpleasant end of a golden era.

A great ending to 1978 - National Health's 'Of Queues and Cures'





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