There’s a seeming tradition in the Netherlands, beginning with the original Dutch export Ekseption, of souping-up classical music themes into a rock format. Focus ventured onto this path, but borrowed more from the Baroque and Renaissance eras; and more importantly, used those influences to create something of their own. Keyboardist and flautist Thijs van Leer formed the group in 1969 as the pit band for the Dutch production of Hair. At the end of the year, guitarist Jan Akkerman was recruited from another Dutch rock band, Brainbox. Their debut album, In And Out Of Focus, was a substantial hit across Europe, owing much to the Jethro Tull-clone single “House of The King” b/w “Black Beauty” (oddly omitted from the US release). The remainder of the album is just as solid: Akkerman’s guitar is fierce, even when the surrounding compositions seem lightweight. But then Focus broke up. Subsequently Akkerman teamed up with countrymen Cyril Havermans and former Brainbox drummer Pierre van der Linden, before inviting Van Leer and the name Focus back. Thus reconstituted, they recorded Moving Waves in London, with Mike Vernon producing. The wild guitar playing of Jan Akkerman and the are-you-serious yodeling of van Leer open the album on the gimmick track “Hocus Pocus.” It would yield them a Top 10 single in the UK and in the US, albeit some 18 months later (pundits, check out the “fast version” on the flip side). The jazzier pace of “Focus II” and the elegance of “Janis” sound more familiar. But the second side’s “Eruption” represents the step in the progressive direction and also validates the album as classic. On the completely instrumental track which spans the album’s side, the different movements showcase the band’s musical faculty, though Akkerman’s blistering guitar on “Tommy” is the standout. While the album failed to chart upon release, it would eventually earn gold status on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gong had now solidified from a loose amalgamation of Paris fringe musicians to a relatively stable touring unit. Daevid Allen, accompanied by partner Gilli Smyth and saxophonist Didier Malherbe, added Pip Pyle on drums and Christian Tritsch on bass; and the band completed their first return to England with a performance at the Glastonbury Festival in June 1971. Kevin Ayers also served a six-month tour duty around this time, leaving a John Peel Session as his recorded legacy with the band. Gong recorded three albums in 1971. Dashiell Hedayat’s Obsolete for the Shandar label was a very loose recording, while the soundtrack for the Jérôme Laperrousaz film Continental Circus was a gem, best evidenced in the motorik-like beat of “Blues for Findlay.” But the third album, Camembert Electrique, is the real introduction to what Allen had in store for the band. Gong’s music is truly unique, combining vocal lunacy with musical anarchy into what could be described as the first rock cabaret. Yet the band consistently supported a strong rhythm section for soloists Allen and Malherbe to accentuate. The album contains some classic Gong repertoire: The raging riff of “You Can’t Kill Me” is Allen’s testimony to the events in Paris during the May 1968 student uprisings, and the merger of Smyth’s space whisper and unique feminism are introduced on “Dynamite: I Am your Animal.” “Fohat Digs Holes in Space,” though, is key. The track first showcases the quintessential Gong groove, complete with Syd Barrett-inspired glissando guitar. But behind the bizarre aliases and musical anarchy, as Allen explained, Gong is “about things much too serious to be serious about.” It may not say much about a person if they do like Gong, but it certainly says more about them if they do not. The album was re-released on Caroline Records in 1974, selling for the price of a single-play record (49p).
Hawkwind quickly earned a reputation as “the people’s band” from playing free concerts in and around London, and from the counter-culture (Friends magazine, drugs) associated with those events. One of Hawkwind’s most notable free gigs was in late August 1970, at Canvas City, an inflatable “bubble” tent outside the gates of the Isle of Wight Festival. With Thomas Crimble on bass, the band played for hours, but the experience proved too much for Huw Lloyd-Langton, who suffered an unsuspected spike of acid. Dick Taylor briefly subbed on guitar for the band, while Del Dettmar joined the band on electronics. Their inauspicious debut album behind them, In Search Of Space got down to serious business. Bassist Dave Anderson was recruited fresh from the über-German Amon Düül II, providing another sonic clue to the Hawk’s music: It had as much to do with the psychedelia of krautrock as it did with that of London’s underground rock. The album’s first side motors through “You Shouldn’t Do That” before crash-landing on the tripped-out psychedelia of Dave Brock’s “You Know You’re Only Dreaming.” Side two begins with Hawkwind’s first classic, “Master of the Universe,” which centers on a main riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Black Sabbath song. The balance of the side treads more tentative ground, however, with a couple of acoustic numbers and the excellent “Adjust Me.” The album jacket itself is a lavish affair, complete with a die-cut cover and elaborate comic The Hawkwind Log from Robert “Bob” Calvert and Barney Bubbles, marking their first contributions to the group. The album sold well in the UK, breaking into the Top 20 at No. 18.
Pawn Hearts would be the final statement of Van der Graaf Generator’s “first generation,” and they ended it with a masterpiece. The album’s first side contains “Lemmings (Including COG)” and “Man-Erg,” the latter being the only number that was previously road tested before the recording session. Both are full of VdGG mechanics: the relative calm of “Man-Erg” pierced by Hugh Banton’s hammering organ, while “Lemmings” plunges into even darker imagery, both lyrically and sonically. Initial plans for the album called for a double, with a live side and solo numbers written by Banton, David Jackson and Guy Evans (some of this was recorded and left in the vaults) to offset Peter Hammill’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” which encompasses the entire second side. Per Hammill, it was written primarily “on the back of the tour bus,” and offers the epic life-struggle saga. Dense and thematic, the composition cruises along like a ship through unknown waters: one moment peaceful, the next in a sonic maelstrom. The band is in top form throughout, with Banton adding ARP and Mellotron to his armory. VdGG never sounded better on record. It’s also a prime example of what could be achieved in a recording studio and with a razor blade, as the piece was recorded minutes at a time. The spry “Theme One,” title music written by George Martin for the BBC, was included on the US release of the album. Again, despite constant touring, the album failed to chart in the UK. But in 1972 VdGG would tour Italy three times, where the album would reach No. 1. Still, by the end of the year, frictions with Charisma came to a head; and the band, penniless, called it a day. Hammill would embark on a solo career; he quickly recorded three solo albums, most with contributions from the other VdGG members, before eventually reforming the band in late 1974.
Perhaps the most easily recognizable “trademark of quality” from the era, Vertigo Records delivered a wide range of music during the late 60s and early 70s. A few of their acts, like Black Sabbath and Rod Stewart, went on to superstardom; while most others would have to be content in releasing what would become some of the most collectible records of the era. Beggars Opera was a band of the latter set. Formed in Glasgow in 1969, the band consisted of vocalist Martin Griffiths, keyboardist Alan Park, drummer Raymond Wilson and guitarist Ricky Gardiner. Their first album, Act One, was released in early 1971, and amounted to a predictably good mixture of underground sounds with classical overtones. Adding Gordon Sellar on bass and Gardiner’s wife Virginia Scott on Mellotron, the band released Waters Of Change later in the year. Scott had previously co-written some numbers for the band, and her contribution here is unique: She’s one of the few female musicians in the timeline. Underneath a grinding organ, the classic “Time Machine” unfolds with washes of Mellotron alongside its tight groove. The bouncy “I’ve No Idea” follows with similar progressive verisimilitude; it’s also a showcase of Park’s considerable talent. The second side’s “Festival” presents a typically stately melody for the band, and one that augments the formality of Griffith’s voice. “Silver Peacock” flourishes in the band’s arrangement, while “The Fox” closes with more of the band’s quasi-classical music and one electric finale. The album was best received in Germany, where the band would hence concentrate their efforts. Another album, Pathfinder, followed in 1972; but after that, the band suffered some changes, including the loss of both Griffiths and musical direction (check out the languishing cover of “MacArthur Park”). Following one final album for Vertigo, they effectively broke up. In 1974, Gardiner, with Scott and ex-Savoy Brown vocalist Pete Scott, recorded two albums as Beggars Opera for a German label. He found more success as a guitarist on David Bowie’s Low album, which eventually led him to Iggy Pop’s band. Beggars Opera would record a final album in 1981.
Hailing from Stuttgart, Germany, Eiliff were formed in 1970 by pianist Rainer Brüninghaus, saxophonist Herbert Kalveram, guitarist Houschäng Nejadépour and a rhythm section of drummer Detlev Landmann and bassist Bill Brown. The Berlin-born Nejadépour had momentarily been a member of Kraftwerk, but his guitar style was deemed unsuitable. Eiliff’s first recording was the single “Ride on Big Brother” b/w “Day of Sun.” The two psychedelic tunes are unmemorable, save for the electrifying pyrotechnics of Brüninghaus on the A side, and Nejadépour on the flip. Their debut, however, was a completely different matter. Titled Eiliff, it was recorded in Hamburg with Conny Plank and released on the Philips label in 1971. After the short introductory number, “Byrd - Night of the Seventh Day” illustrates the band’s adept take on jazz-rock: out of the box, Eiliff is fully formed and richly conceived, with music on equal footing with the British greats from the era. “Gammeloni” stretches out to give room for Kalveram’s lengthy solo. “Uzzek of Rigel IV” is a vocal number with a brooding riff, recalling the dark prog of Van der Graaf Generator. It yields to a slow groove, on which Nejadépour’s guitar shines. The second side comprises the 20-minute “Suite.” It’s another aggressive and awesome display of the band’s fusion of rock and jazz, interspersed with a sitar break before again launching into an organ-led jam. A second album Girlrls! was recorded with Philips producer Rainer Goltermann in 1972. Another mostly instrumental affair, it leans more on the jazz side of jazz-rock, but also with a couple of vocal numbers, lest we not forget the band’s psychedelic edge. However, the band split, as Brüninghaus accepted an offer to work with Volker Kriegel. Nejadépour would join Guru Guru in 1973 for an album, while Brüninghaus joined Eberhard Weber’s Colours before a long career as a session musician. Brown was a founding member of the punk/new wave band Fred Banana Combo.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s first major performance was at the Isle of Wight festival on August 29th, 1970, where they offered their rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It was a grand show, complete with cannon fire and Keith Emerson’s organ-flinging antics, and even filmed for posterity. (Their actual debut was six days earlier at the Plymouth Guildhall.) The album Pictures At An Exhibition, however, was recorded live in March of 1971 at the Newcastle City Hall. It follows Emerson’s “Nice” tradition of adapting classical compositions into a rock context. First written by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky for piano, it was Frenchman Maurice Ravel’s exhaustedly orchestrated version that became best known. The work’s main theme and 10 movements may render it suited for rock interpretation; but whether it needed interpretation, let alone a blues variation and lyrics, is, of course, the question that ELP (and indeed prog rock) would have to answer. As a live performance, it’s a bold statement; Emerson’s Hammond and Moog dominate the powerful, rousing themes. On record, though, it’s a qualified success. “The Sage,” Greg Lake’s acoustic digression, is tepid at best; while the encore of Kim Fowley’s “Nutrocker” is pure folly, perhaps a self-deprecating attempt to deflate the entire proceeding. At over 40 minutes in length, the album seems to go on forever, which is perhaps the album’s greatest sin; ELP would tackle classical interpretations on ensuing albums in far more economical manners. Released mere months after Tarkus, ELP capitalized on the band’s current stature: the album, again adorned by William Neal, rose to No. 3 in the UK while also reaching the US Top 10. ELP would continue to revisit the piece (thankfully, in truncated form) as part of their live repertoire for years to come.
After the upheaval that followed their last album, the core members of Genesis-Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford-forged ahead, adding two members who would be crucial to their future. Drummer Phil Collins, previously in Flaming Youth, was recruited at the recommendation of Charisma boss Tony Stratton-Smith. The band then spent a brief period as a four piece before the bearded and bespectacled guitarist Steve Hackett arrived, virtually without audition, from a Melody Maker advert. After six months on the road, including the Charisma “Six Bob” tour, the recording of Nursery Cryme commenced in the summer of 1971 at Tony Stratton-Smith’s Luxford House. Most of the songs had been written while Anthony Phillips was still in the band, and certainly “Seven Stones” would not have been out of place on the previous Trespass album. The contrast of light and dark on “The Musical Box” kicks off the album and is a triumph. The band exhibits a harder edge here than they had previously exploited on record, and one more indicative of their live potential. “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” an odd tale about killer foliage, is typical of Gabriel’s storytelling from the era, while Banks’s keyboards add significant punch; just witness the Mellotron on the mammoth finale. Hackett’s guitar also favors the new edge. In particular, his solo in “The Fountain of Salmacis” highlights his emerging style. Collins is effective throughout, even taking a lead vocal on the gentle “For Absent Friends.” The album—and to a lesser extent its successor—offer a peculiar production and mix; which, along with their highly idiomatic song structure, add to their enduring charm. Paul Whitehead, Charisma’s resident artist, illustrated the album’s cover. Like labelmate Van der Graaf Generator, Genesis spent the bulk of 1972 touring throughout Europe. The album did particularly well in the Italian charts, rising to No. 4.
Led Zeppelin was already a household name by 1971, due in part to Jimmy Page’s huge guitar riffs and singer Robert Plant’s voice and good looks. Their first two albums were mostly hard rock rip-offs of blues standards-albeit excellent hard rock rip-offs of blues standards. Their third album, however, stretched out musically, particularly with British folk influences; that’s further exploited here on “The Battle of Evermore,” a vocal duet with Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. But whether called IV, Untitled, ZoSo or The Runes Album, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album will always be their best known, and for one reason: “Stairway to Heaven.” Page’s guitar work is classic, erupting into one of his most blistering solos; but Plant’s lyrics, very much of the era, offer the hook that caught the world’s attention. Of course, Led Zeppelin were still a heavy rocking blues band, and the hard riffing of “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” remain just as essential. Subsequent albums would introduce further musical diversity as the songwriting of Page matured, but none of their recordings would be better known, and no record collection at the time would have been complete without this album. As with all other Zeppelin albums after their first, it topped the UK charts; but this album would only reach No. 2 in the US.
After the critical (and self-critical) reaction to their previous album Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd spent a great deal of time on their follow-up, Meddle. The album is often mistakenly called “Echoes,” as the track of the same name encompasses the record’s entire second side. Except for a break to compile Relics, the band spent the better part of six months on the track, which they first played live under the name “Return of the Son of Nothing” in April 1971. Using Morgan, AIR (with 16-track capabilities) and Abbey Road Studios, the band finally finished the track in July. The wait was worth it. Rising from Rick Wright’s patented sonar ping, the central melody is mature; it shows exactly where the band’s next album would draw from. The following extended instrumental workout confirms the band could still flex their muscle and that David Gilmour is one helluva guitarist. The obligatory drift of the middle section is a clichéd throwback; but thankfully, the band reprises the central melody again, closing the track in a similar way to how it began. (Be sure to check out the live version on Live At Pompeii, filmed in October 1971.) As a composition, “Echoes” was a major success for the band, picking up and progressing from where “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” left off. Unfortunately, the first side of the album wasn’t as successful; recorded quickly in July and August, most of the tracks are throwaways. The exception, “One of These Days,” centers on Roger Waters’s echoed bass line and Gilmour’s lap steel guitar, fading nicely into the gentle “A Pillow of Winds.” The guitar riff of “Fearless” is Zeppelin-esque—fine enough, but not essential. The album hit No. 3 in the UK, but surprisingly only reached No. 70 in the US. A quadraphonic mix of the album was completed in September 1971 at Command Studios; however, it remains unreleased. The group photo on the inside of the gatefold speaks a thousand words of the era.
Though originating from Mönchengladbach, Germany, Wallenstein sported an international lineup: Keyboardist Jürgen Dollase and drummer Harald Grosskopf aided American Bill Barone on guitar and Dutchman Jerry Berkers on bass and vocals. Their debut album Blitzkrieg shared the band’s original name; their choice of using a term associated with Nazi Germany was controversial for the time. Released on the Pilz label, the album was produced by Dieter Dierks. Written by Dollase, Wallenstein’s symphonic styling is based on his classically-trained piano playing. The lead-off track “Lunetic” (sic) attests. With phase-drumming and wah-wah guitar contrasting with Dollase’s harpsichord, a frenetic, almost claustrophobic arrangement ploughs forward; it’s very different from any other prog rock, British or otherwise. “The Theme” continues, this time with Mellotron and piano dominating the relatively straightforward composition. The near 14-minute “Manhatten Project” (sic) offers a few minutes of respite before the band breaks into an extended jam with Barone’s guitar taking center stage. Finally, the more plaintive and conventional “Audiences” closes, with the extended middle section showcasing the band’s skills. Their next album, Mother Universe, followed in 1972 and charted a similar path. An excellent drummer, Grosskopf’s services would be sought by many others, including Ash Ra Tempel and Klaus Schulze. Both Dollase and Grosskopf then participated in the ultra-psychedelic Cosmic Jokers sessions for Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser of Ohr/Pilz fame. Along with Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching, and with engineer Dieter Dierks at the helm, Kaiser released three albums of unauthorized music from the ensuing sessions, most of it exemplary space-rock. Yet years later, legal proceedings over the records would collapse Kaiser’s empire.
Beginning on April 12th, 1971, at the Zoom Club in Frankfurt, Germany, King Crimson returned to live performance with a lineup comprised of Robert Fripp, Mel Collins and newcomers Ian Wallace (ex-The Warriors) on drums and Boz Burrell on vocals, with Pete Sinfield back-of-the-house on VCS3 synthesizer and lights. Per legend, auditions for bassists proved so unsuccessful that Fripp eventually taught Burrell how to play the instrument. The band toured extensively, breaking only to record their fourth album, Islands. King Crimson’s stage repertoire mainly consisted of selections from their first two albums, but live documents include the band’s rendition of Pharaoh Sanders’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Prone to digress into jam, this King Crimson was known as the “blowing” band. Listening to the album, though, you might not get that connection. “Formentera Lady,” the album’s opener, is representative: After a colorful string bass introduction, the relatively sparse arrangement floats over a metronome-like bass line, with Collins’s sax adding the most color. In fact, only “Sailor’s Tale” contains the guitar fury of previous Crim work, but what a racket Fripp conjures. Here the band finally finds their footing. “Ladies of the Road” is a bawdy classic, with Collins’s sax and Burrell’s bass line emanating poignancy to match Sinfield’s tale of life on the road. “Prelude: Song of the Gulls” and the title track set the balance of the album with equal equanimity: The former employs a string quartet, while the latter traverses beneath a humble harmonium, offering a kind of chamber music. More spacious than the previous Lizard, the album is just as rewarding. The band’s last act was a tour of the US in the spring of 1972, after which Fripp threw in the towel and fired the lot (they all went on to Alexis Korner’s Snape). A posthumous live album Earthbound was released in 1972, but its poor audio quality kept it import-only in the US. More significantly, this would be the last album on which Fripp and Sinfield would collaborate. From here, Crimson would begin and end with Robert Fripp, though don’t tell him that.
Amazing musicianship already given, for the band’s second album, Hold Your Fire, Patto pulled out some of their best songwriting. The lead-off and title track “Hold Your Fire” is the post-hippie anthem, complete with some of Ollie Halsall’s slickest guitar work at the fade. Note the release date; this is some of the earliest “shredding” on record. “You, You Point Your Finger” cops a somber mood, with more of Mike Patto’s poignant lyrics about the counter-culture vs. the establishment; again, Halsall’s emotive lead toward the end just kills it. “Give It All Away” has a nice hook, and more of Halsall’s guitar histrionics swinging underneath the potent rhythm section of Clive Griffiths and John Halsey. “Air Raid Shelter,” however, is the album’s paragon. Much like the previous “Money Bag,” it owes more to jazz than to rock, and is simply unparalleled by any contemporaneous group. Yet even a high-profile tour supporting Ten Years After didn’t change Patto’s fortunes: The album did not chart. In early 1972, Halsall recorded the lost Blue Traffs album with John Halsey and Gary Windo; Robert Fripp produced. Patto’s Roll ‘Em Smoke ‘Em Put Another Line Out was released on Island Records in October 1972 and then the band went off on a world tour supporting Joe Cocker. A fourth and final album was recorded, but Halsall quit before it was finished. After that, Patto split, with Halsall joining Tempest and Mike Patto briefly working with Spooky Tooth (appearing on the excellent album The Mirror). With Keith Ellis and ex-May Blitz drummer Tony Newman, Patto and Halsall reunited in 1975 as Boxer, recording a pair of (more or less) mainstream rock albums over the next two years. Griffiths and Halsey kept busy as session musicians; the latter was part of Eric Idle and Neil Innes’s Beatles 1978 spoof, The Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash. Halsall would also participate in the film and soundtrack, yet despite his supplying the voice of the Paul McCartney character, Dirk McQuickly, he was relegated to just a brief cameo as the fifth Rutle, Leppo, in the film. Sadly, Mike Patto would succumb to throat cancer in 1979, while Griffiths would never physically recover from a road accident in 1983.
After their triumphant return, Traffic assembled a live unit with two members from Ginger Baker’s Airforce, bassist Ric Grech and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah. Drummer Jim Gordon came in to allow Jim Capaldi to concentrate on vocals. Even Dave Mason returned for a few gigs in mid-1971, as documented on the interim live album, Welcome To The Canteen. However, the oddly titled The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys was another masterpiece for the band. The album’s bookends, “Hidden Treasure” and “Rainmaker,” offer subtle folk flavorings; while the Capaldi-sung “Rock & Roll Stew” (a Grech/Gordon composition) and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” rock in fine tradition. The gem of the album though is the head-nod rhythm of the title track—the slow-motion syncopation of Kwaku Baah and Gordon is simply exquisite as is the track’s slow fade-out. The album broke the US Top 10, rising to No. 7; but strangely, it didn’t chart in the UK. Winwood suffered some health problems that delayed Traffic’s next album, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, until February of 1972, by which time Capaldi had brought in the Muscle Shoals (Alabama) rhythm section of David Hood and Roger Hawkins (replacing Grech and Gordon). In 1973 they added Barry Becket on keyboards and recorded the excellent live double-album On The Road, although Live At Santa Monica, a video of a concert recorded in 1972, would become more essential viewing (it first saw release in 1987). Their final album, the excellent When The Eagle Flies, was released in 1974 with bassist Rosko Gee augmenting the original trio. Despite reaching No. 9 in the US and breaking the UK Top 30, the band called it quits shortly thereafter. Capaldi released his first solo album, Oh How We Danced, in 1972, his first of many. Following a stint in Stomu Yamash’ta’s Go, Winwood would slowly gear up for mammoth solo success in the 80s.
Prior to recording their fourth album, Yes went through yet another personnel change: Tony Kaye was given the axe in favor of London's hottest keyboard player at the time. Rick Wakeman, who had just finished a musically unceremonious stretch with the Strawbs, was a Royal College of Music dropout, best known inside the studios (and pubs) of London. Yes offered him the opportunity to flaunt his talent, on the pretext that an infusion of more diverse keyboard sounds would further their music. It did indeed. With its rich vocal harmonies and catchy chorus, the album's opener "Roundabout" stands out as the quintessential prog rock tune; its crowning achievement, though, is one of the coolest bass lines since The Beatles' "Rain." It was an AM radio hit in edited form and an FM radio staple, both of which helped to propel the song to No. 13 in the US singles chart. "South Side of the Sky" displays the band's hand at heavy rock (courtesy of Steve Howe's angular guitar line), albeit with a gorgeous piano break thrown in the middle. But the second side's "Long Distance Runaround/The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)" and "Heart of the Sunrise" are some of Yes' greatest moments on record. The seemingly innocuous choice of sounds committed to tape—whether it's Bill Bruford's distinct snare, Chris Squire's trebly Rickenbacker bass or one of Wakeman's many keyboards—are sonic perfection; within the prog context, it's perhaps the ultimate recording of the era's analog tones. In contrast to the rest of their catalog, Yes did more with less on Fragile. The musical ideas are by no means simple; they're exceptional. Yet the technical dexterity doesn't become lost in itself, as the deceivingly effortless execution and Spartan production create the band's most organic sounding output. One could even excuse the near-fatal inclusion of individual "ideas" (solo tracks from each member) for not destroying the continuity of the album as a whole. The album reached No. 7 in the UK, while it rose to No. 4 in the US in early 1972. It was also the first Yes album to feature Roger Dean's iconic artwork, on both the cover and the enclosed booklet. [US release date]
Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were first introduced to each other when they joined Kraftwerk in 1971. Rother had spent the past six years in another Düsseldorf group, the covers band Spirits of Sound. As Neu!, Dinger and Rother were indeed attempting something "new," something they would call "fast-forward" music—known to the rest of the world as the "motorik beat." Their debut album, housed in a white cover with the title Neu! spray-painted on it, was produced by Conny Plank for Brain Records. "Hallogallo" bursts open and what a beat! It offers a simple 4/4 rhythm, but one that never hesitates, never turns and never slows down; it simply carries on, hurling over a sonic smorgasbord of backwards guitars and electronic effects. The statement made, the remainder of the album showcases the pair's penchant for experimentation and originality, leaving a musical legacy that was truly "neu." The album also was successful, selling a reputed 30,000 copies. The duo recorded a follow up in 1973, Neu! 2, and notoriously used recordings of their single "Super" b/w "Neuschnee" at various speeds to fill the second side after they ran out of studio time. However, Rother's other projects would keep the pair apart until their 1975 album, Neu! 75. That album would also see release on Capitol Records in the US. After that, their partnership ended. Rother would launch a solo career, while Dinger would form La Düsseldorf with his brother Thomas and Hans Lampe, both of whom appeared on the final Neu! album. An unfinished collaboration between Rother and Dinger in the mid-80s would be a source of much acrimony for the duo once it saw release in 1995 on Captain Trip.
English progressive rock was hugely popular in Italy during the early 70s, so it was only a matter of time before the Italians themselves decided to create progressive music as well. Premiata Forneria Marconi ("Award Winning Marconi Bakery") were at the forefront of this movement. Originally the beat group I Quelli, the members had enjoyed relative success in Italy as both a support band for others and as session musicians. But by the end of 1970, drummer Franz Di Cioccio, guitarist Franco Mussida, bassist Giorgio Piazza and keyboardist Flavio Premoli had formed PFM, named after the shop above their rehearsal space, and gone progressive. Multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani joined shortly thereafter, adding flute and violin. Their early shows were often in support of UK groups (Yes, Deep Purple) and their set included King Crimson and Jethro Tull covers. Their first album, Storia Di Un Minuto, is a brilliant statement. Although some English influences are within (most notably King Crimson), the album is uniquely Italian and PFM. The opener "Impressioni di Settembre" displays a detail quite unlike their British contemporaries. The tarantella of "È' Festa!" (my wife likes to call it "circus prog") is both lively and loopy, a testament to both their virtuosity and lightheartedness. The compositions on the second side combine many styles, but the spirited performance keeps the album as fresh as it is unique, in particular on the dramatic "Grazie Davvero." Though the album is sung in Italian, the language has a lyrical feel rendering it perhaps more familiar than foreign. Prog rock turned out to be a significant movement in Italy, as droves of Italian men began producing their own unique twists on the genre. However, few musicians—Italian, British or otherwise—would surpass the excellence of PFM.
The Strawberry Hill Boys were a bluegrass trio founded by Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman in 1967. Sandy Denny briefly passed through the band, recording an unreleased album (1973's All Our Own Work) before joining Fairport Convention. In 1969 the band shortened their name and landed a recording contract with A&M. The Strawbs recorded two early albums with production heavyweights Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti, respectively. In 1970, Chesterman left, and Cousins and Hooper added the rhythm section of John Ford and Richard Hudson. Session-keyboard wiz Rick Wakeman, recently extricated from the Royal Academy of Music, was next to join. His debut, Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios, was recorded live at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, though his role on it was really just that of a soloist. Producer Visconti then urged the electric side of Cousins's songwriting and the resulting From The Witchwood, though still reflecting the band's folk roots, again put the band in the UK Top 40. By the time of Grave New World, Blue Weaver had replaced Wakeman. More importantly though, Cousins's songwriting had now gone progressive; it's best demonstrated here on "Tomorrow" and "New World." The album ranges from the acoustic of "On Growing Older" to the more eclectic rock of "Queen of Dreams." Cousins is a unique vocalist, his raspy voice not unlike a Peter Gabriel or Roger Chapman. The album became the band's best-selling to date, reaching No. 11 in the UK. However, boosted by the single "Part of the Union" b/w "Tomorrow" at year's end, Strawbs' next album, Bursting At The Seams, proved to be their commercial peak. Weathering some personnel changes, the Strawbs would continue with varying success until their eventual demise in 1978.
Ex-Yes guitarist Peter Banks was enlisted for a (very) short stint in Blodwyn Pig before forming Flash. True to their name, Flash appeared quickly, released three albums for Capitol Records and vanished. Banks recruited vocalist Colin Carter, bassist Ray Bennett and drummer Mike Hough, with ex-Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye filling in on their debut. The album offers exactly what you'd expect: middleweight prog rock reminiscent of the first two Yes albums; just check out "Children of the Universe." Still, Banks is a gifted guitarist and "Dreams of Heaven" showcases his considerable talent. Carter too is an original enough vocalist, though the vocal harmonies on the album are overplayed; the acoustic "Morning Haze" features Bennett on vocals. Their debut record, as well as the edited single "Small Beginnings" b/w "Morning Haze," had some chart action in the US, both reaching the Top 30. Kaye then joined Badger, with ex-Warriors bassist David Foster. Banks recorded two more albums with Flash. In The Can appeared later the same year, while Out Of Our Hands was released in late 1973. They offered neither more nor less than their debut; in fact, they may be just as well known for their "flashy" gatefold jackets from Hipgnosis. So, despite a more than capable band, Flash's songwriting would prove to be their Achilles' heel. In September 1973, Banks released his solo album, Two Sides Of Peter Banks. Largely instrumental, the album features somewhat of a prog rock who's who (with members of Genesis, Focus and Flash); but in reality, it was mostly a duet with ace guitarist Jan Akkerman of Focus. Their dueling guitar work on "Knights" and "Battles" are the standouts, in addition to the spontaneous jam "Stop That!" Flash broke up in early 1974, with Banks relocating to the US to secure a deal for his next group, the sub-par Empire.
In protest over the misconception of Aqualung (he claimed it wasn't a concept album), Ian Anderson delivered what might be the mother of all concept albums: the wryly-titled Thick As A Brick. Based on a "poem written by eight-year-old Gerald Bostock and set to musical accompaniment by rock group Jethro Tull," the album contains a single "song" spanning both sides of the vinyl. So much for the approach pioneered on Aqualung! This isn't a bunch of discrete sections strung together either; the work has considerable continuity and consistency over its sides—certainly a credit to Anderson's compositional ability-and the arrangement skill and precise ensemble playing of the band. Though former Blackpool mate Barriemore Barlow was the newcomer on drums, the album presents a core of musicians who had coalesced into a band. John Evan shines through on the Hammond organ; it's not an instrument that immediately comes to mind with the band, but no other screams "prog" louder. Of course, all the other stock Tull sounds appear, with no shortage of flute and acoustic passages. Just as important, Anderson's penchant for writing a memorable melody doesn't get lost in the massive composition: The main theme (Edit #1), with its killer hook and wry lyric, is an instant classic. The album's gatefold sported a tabloid newspaper, The St. Cleve Chronicle, which arguably remains the most elaborate record sleeve ever printed. The album immediately rose to No. 5 in the UK and No. 1 in the US. Regardless of its intent or delivery, the response to the album was extraordinary and certainly a testament to the times in which it was created. Imagine, one 40-minute-plus piece of music topping the charts. TAAB was and remains a rock milestone.