University challenges (part 2) (originally posted 25/8/13)

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 01:02PM

I got a room to myself in my second year at uni, overlooking a portion of the beer garden of the White Horse next door. In good weather I would open my windows and play Asbury Park from King Crimson’s USA really loud, posing with my bass strapped round my neck. I have no idea what the pub clientele thought of the noise, but I rather hope it annoyed them. I considered Courage, the beer at the pub, to be quite unpleasant and the bar staff had begun to charge me for soda water when I ordered a soda and blackcurrant. My Barrovian accent was quite alien to the Kent locals, and one evening I was served with a disgusting concoction of cider and blackcurrant.

After another summer of working at British Steel and with nothing major to spend the money on I felt more able to get out to gigs, including two I’m not particularly proud of: Slade at the Goldsmiths’ College Christmas Ball and UFO at the Hammersmith Odeon, but live music generates a good feeling even though it might not be one’s preferred style, as long as it’s well played. The UFO gig was recorded for BBC in Concert and has since become available on CD and as a download. On-line reviewer SJC Armstrong called the overall performance stunning and every bit the equal of UFO’s Strangers in the Night album. They were supported by a dreadful glam-metal band, Girl, so the evening was more painful than pleasurable.

The Slade gig was memorable for the student who got up on stage, stripped off her top and bra and then dived into the audience, landing on top of me. Slade by this time had renounced all pop overtones and were just a rock band that did exceptionally well from the college circuit. They played all their hits but also showed a degree of musicianship that never came across on Top of the Pops; bassist Jim Lea was a former Staffordshire Youth Orchestra violinist.

I did go to some gigs that I enjoyed. The academic year started with Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon. Tony was doing his elective at the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill which coincided with my return to Goldsmiths’ so we met up, checked the listings in Time Out and headed off to west London. Some might say that by this time Camel were in creative decline. I’d heard but not bought Breathless, the studio release after Rain Dances and was not particularly impressed because it had dropped any pretence of being a conceptual whole and was more a collection of songs of varying quality and style. Breathless ran the gamut from classic progressive rock (Echoes) to the whimsical early Caravanesque Down On the Farm via funk (Wing and a Prayer; Summer Lightning). This mixture of styles detracted from the overall quality of the album but was obviously a result of the creative tensions between Peter Bardens and Andrew Latimer; Bardens would leave the band once the album was finished to be replaced for the ensuing tour by two ex-Caravan keyboard players, Jan Schelhaas and Dave Sinclair.

I’d not heard I Can See Your House from Here, Camel’s next effort because the album wasn’t due for release for another few days. This turned out to be unimportant because there was sufficient early classic Camel material to make it a good gig, but I was left with the impression that this was Camel without any balance: Andy Latimer playing leader of the ship and taking on the persona of guitar hero.

Dave Brubeck made a rare appearance in London 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 on the outside, but with an auditorium renowned for its excellent acoustics. I was equally in awe of the clientele that patronised the RFH, regarding it as a citadel of high culture, so it was somewhat surprising that Jim, Amanda Lait (Jim’s girlfriend at the time) and I managed to get tickets without much difficulty. 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.

From the fully seated concert hall to the cabaret style double-heading bill of Bruford and Brand X at the Venue, I was choosing my gigs fairly carefully. This 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 set list (in running order) comprised of Hell's Bells; Sample & Hold; Land's End; Joe Frazier; Gothic 17; Palewell Park; Age of Information; and 5G. The music produced by Bruford is difficult to categorise, ranging from jazz rock to progressive. Brand X on the other hand were once called the ‘British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, and though less fiery than the avatars of fusion, they easily fitted within the jazz rock umbrella. This was a really good evening despite the price of the drinks. I made one pint of bitter last the whole evening.

The jazz-themed gigs continued with a summer term outing to Dartford to see Barbara Thompson. I’d picked up her band’s first album in 1989 from somewhere, an impulse buy influenced by the presence of ex-Soft Machine Roy Babbington on bass. At the time I was unaware of Ms Thompson’s jazz pedigree but after one listen I was hooked. This was melodic electric jazz not a million miles from progressive rock.

Being based in London meant that I had access to a wide variety of live music, but there weren’t too many prog acts around, and consequently I’d deliberated over which bands to go and see. I’d done Genesis and Yes; King Crimson were in hiatus (though at the time we all believed that KC had ceased to exist) but there was one remaining major act that were still touring. The big event was scheduled for the summer of 1980; Pink Floyd had major success with The Wall at the tail end of 1979 and were going to be performing a limited number of shows in the UK. Though not fully enamoured with the album, believing their progressive days were far behind them, I’d heard positive things about live Floyd shows (school friend John Bull had seen them playing at the Bingley Hall in Stafford on the Animals tour), I managed to get tickets for myself and some friends from Infield Park. I have to admit that it was the greatest spectacle I’d ever seen.

At the start of the third year Jim and I went to see Barbara Thompson at the Tramshed and, to Jim’s surprise, he knew the violinist in the band, Pete Hartley, with whom he’d been to school in Birmingham. This proved to be an easy opening for a chat with Barbara Thompson herself during the interval. Next up were Jethro Tull at the Royal Albert Hall, which had sold out so quickly that the only tickets we could get were standing in the gods, reached by narrow, winding enclosed stairs. This was the tour to promote A, with Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards, including a mini-solo on the Hall’s organ. The A material was below-par Tull and from our perch on high the sound quality was dreadful. This was not the best of gigs, so it’s a good job that the tickets were only £1.75

The following week was a small stand-up affair at the London School of Economics, The League of Gentlemen, Robert Fripp’s pared-down New Wave band. According to the sleeve notes on their eponymous album the band played 77 gigs though only 71 are listed, the last one being the LSE show on November 29th 1980. The notes also reveal that the band’s commitment to work together ended on December 4th. Anyone going to see some form of reincarnation of Crimson would have been very disappointed. This sound was angular and immediate, dance music for a new decade. Or it would have been if it could get going. Fripp’s famous pedal board that allowed him to produce ‘Frippertronics’ effects (the precursor to Fripp’s soundscapes) and guitar sounds that could strip the paint off walls, decided not to function, however much the road crew coaxed and cajoled it. The crowd were getting restless but I can only imagine that Fripp himself was less than happy with this piece of defunct electronics. I think that eventually one or more of the components were by-passed and the show eventually went ahead. Fripp’s next venture would feature the more reliable Roland guitar synthesizer.

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