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What does it say on the label?

Getting into music in 1972 meant that I may have missed out on records released on some of the early, innovative imprints like Decca’s Nova label which lasted for a year between 1969 and 1970, where you’d find the first Egg album, but the paper sleeves protecting the first records I bought gave some indication that the sort of music that I liked wasn’t representative of the output of the parent record company. It wasn’t until I began to think about the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, at a time which coincided with Robert Fripp’s bitter, intelligent sleeve notes printed in the booklets of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to; during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and weren’t over-worried by signing a new act that didn’t prove so successful because the risk to the company was reduced by the big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

Roger Dean's Harvest logo on Obscured by Clouds is replaced by Hipgnosis' contribution to The Dark Side of the Moon gesamtkunstwerk

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc, than whether the imprint might give some indication of the quality of the music; the corporate green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s miniaturised cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974) and Yesterdays (1975) and subsequently to (non-Dean) versions of the cover illustrations for Yes members’ solo albums Fish Out Of Water (1975) and Olias Of Sunhillow (1976). The green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, represented the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake graphic and Animals (1977) has fish eye lens images of a dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the UFO-like spacecraft as a replacement for the Vertigo swirl and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white along with closely related image for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline.

Roger Dean's mk. 1 and mk. 2 logo for Virgin Records

My Vertigo vinyl records are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spacecraft design but I own a range of differently labelled Virgin Records albums, best illustrated by my Mike Oldfield collection which includes a first edition Tubular Bells (1973) with a black and white Roger Dean design, Hergest Ridge (1974) which has the same logo, coloured in, Ommadawn (1975) with its stylised photo of the mirror girl and no dragon, interpretations of the cover artwork for Incantations (1978), Platinum (1979), QE2 (1980) and Crises (1983) along with a small Virgin ‘scrawl’ logo designed in 1978, and the red slash on green background/green slash on red background with a large Virgin scrawl on The Killing Fields OST (1984). While the change of logo from the dragon girl to the ubiquitous brand scrawl represents the change from the former hippie image to corporate heavyweight, I think that it also reflects a shift in the value placed on the music by Richard Branson, from valid, often exploratory art to mere product.

Roger Dean's Vertigo logo on Gentle Giant's Octopus

I soon recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Santana and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull, a label founded by Monty Babson, the co-founder of Morgan Sound studios, along with David Howells, who founded Gull Graphics with John Pasche, and Derek Everett. Gull releases were distributed by Pye and Decca and covered a wide range of acts; prog was represented by If and Seventh Wave but the most famous of their groups was Judas Priest.

The Gull Records logo

Of all the labels, the only one that came anywhere close to indicating that all their bands were worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo but my Five Bridges, bought more recently, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost all the other vinyl I have on the label features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith who, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward.

The Famous Charisma Label logos

At one stage almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own Threshold label as a division of Decca in 1969); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA had Neon, a short-lived specialist label which only ever released 11 albums, all under the guidance of Olav Wyper in 1971. These included the Keith Tippett-organised Centipede with the Robert Fripp-produced Septober Energy and a couple of now sought-after originals; the self-titled album by Tonton Macoute which is very much on the jazzier side of prog and the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring.

Pye's progressive imprint Dawn

One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but who were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (BMS) to UK and US attention, following in the footsteps of The Moody Blues with Threshold Records; Manticore Records, named after the mythological chimera that features on the sleeve of Tarkus, pre-dated rock giants Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.

Tarkus and PFM's Photos of Ghosts on ELP's Manticore label

Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House (1973) but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.

King Crimson was signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via independent distributor Island Records and subsequently by Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke, a long-standing company founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, which included albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp pointed out as being unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.

King Crimson's Lizard on Island Records

There may be only three majors now after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts for the best-selling artists but the progressive rock community has ploughed its own way, utilising a range of innovative ways to release records, from the fan-sourced funding pioneered by The Enid, the crowd-sourced financing of Marillion to the founding of an increasing number of progressive rock-specific labels with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music, including K-Scope, Inside Out, Bad Elephant, Karisma, Moon June, Lizard, Mellow, BTF, and Black Widow.

You should always read the label.

The now-lost blog ‘Reading the label’ was originally posted on 5th June 2016, relatively early in the history of ProgBlog

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