The scene: Solid State University, A summer session for the Music Appreciation 101 Class.
Our professor with the long gray hair is wearing aviator sunglasses, a tank top and faded blue jeans that seem to be more patches than jeans. Everyone is sweating profusely as they file into the lecture hall.
I know the air conditioning isn't working, students; you'll have to bear with me. At least I'm not intending this lecture to be as involved as some of the earlier ones. Fred, could you open the window over there? Excellent!
Last time we talked quite a lot about various rock and orchestra collaborations. Oh, question over here Kenji? Why did I leave out the work of Renaissance from the rock and orchestra collaborations last time? Oh, I don't know, getting old I guess. Didn't think to include them. So did you catch a more recent tour in Japan by the modern Renaissance with Annie Haslam? Nice stuff, huh! Tell you what, I'll try to work them into today's lecture along with some of the history of The Strawbs that I promised. There are lots of other rock band and orchestra collaborations I might have included, even a fairly recent one by Metallica, but I can't cover everything. You might say we're playing Hayden-seek with the classical guys!
(The Professor smiles broadly into the room, meeting dead silence. His smile slowly drips off his face.)
Hooooo-kay, either too hot or too early for that one. Do me a favor, look up your classical composers and call me in the morning.
Let's move on. This time we're going back into the world of art rock bands and looking closely at the bands that got away, by that I mean bands that attracted a sizeable following and flirted the kind of success that Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd were able to achieve but somehow never quite got that winning formula. There's quite a few to talk about really but for the purpose of today's lecture we're going to focus in on several English Art Rock bands that started their career in that same explosion of hippie music that occurred in the latter half of the 60's: The Soft Machine, Gong, Caravan, The Strawbs, Renaissance, Hawkwind, and Nektar. Now perhaps T-Rex and 10CC could be included in this group somewhere too, and you can make a good case for including Traffic even, but this lecture is more about the bands that did not become household names, even though most of them had albums in the charts at one point or another.
Yes, a question, over here, Nancy? Shouldn't Nektar be included with the German art rockers? Well, a lot of people think they are German since they formed in Hamburg, however I'm putting them in this group because their members were all English. It's kind of like what the Beatles did in a way, English boys going to Germany to develop their chops. Besides they didn't sound all that German in spite of their name. But more on them later.
First, let's travel back in time to the music scene around 1963, and a town in England east of London called Canterbury. Mostly the First Wave of the English Invasion was composed of groups who were interested in the blues and early rock and roll, like the Beatles who covered Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven, and the Stones with Little Red Rooster. However, in Canterbury there started a group of musicians who would be a big influence on psychedelic music and the long art rock form that hadn't been invented yet. Many of them were involved in a single band that dealt in beat poetry and jazz, and they gave rise to three of the groups I mentioned at the start. As far as I'm aware they never got to the point of releasing an album. So now class, a kind of an extra credit question. What's the name of the group I'm talking about?
What's that Fred, Pink Floyd? Good guess, but the Floyd came together in Cambridge, which is on the western coast of Britain. Now, this group was certainly a contemporary of Pink Floyd and there's a lot of mutual influence they had, but no that's not who I'm looking for. Here's a clue, the central figure around which they first came together was Robert Wyatt, who was involved in quite a few artsy bands over the years. They used to meet at his mom's house in Canterbury. Need another clue? Kevin Ayers was also a member and his name for the band was a tribute to Oscar Wilde. Still no glimmers of enlightenment here? Well, I'm not surprised because they only recorded a few things even though they performed together for three or four years.
I'm talking about The Wilde Flowers, a band whose members later went on to form three of the most important early bands of Art Rock, The Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. In addition to Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, the central figures of The Wild Flowers included Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen. Other people who played in the band for a time include Hugh Hopper, his brother Brian, cousins Richard and David Sinclair, Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan.
These friends from Canterbury showed little interest in the early rock and pop music that was popular in England at the time, but they managed to gain a fair following playing experimental disjointed jams that owed more to John Coltrane and the blues. Indeed the original impetus for forming a band, legend has it, was playing an impromptu jam session on pots and pans. The music was fairly primitive by today's standards, but out of these performances eventually some serious Art Rock was born. The first incarnation of the Flowers formed around June of 1963 with Wyatt on drums, Hugh Hopper on bass, elder brother Brian on guitar and saxophone, Richard Sinclair on rhythm guitar and Ayers on vocals. It was only later that Ayers became a guitarist. Daevid Allen, originally from Australia, joined The Wilde Flowers by 1965 and became very good friends with Ayers. Then for a time both left the Wilde Flowers to go to Europe and several new people were added to the Flowers to replace them. Pye Hastings, who had been tutored by Ayers, became the lead guitarist. When Ayers and Allen returned in late 1966 they raided the Flowers for Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt and formed the nucleus of a new band that dealt exclusively in the in new form of music--psychedelic rock. This was the end of the Wilde Flowers.
Their new band was named The Soft Machine after a William Burroughs novel. Starting in early 1967 the band stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Pink Floyd as England's premiere purveyors of psychedelia. Early electronic instruments and free form guitar dominated the sound in both bands with the Machine pursuing a jazzier sound.
The English Hippies loved The Soft Machine, but early in their career Daevid Allen was forced out and ended up living in Paris where he began an even spacier psychedelic band, Gong. More on Gong later. Meanwhile The Soft Machine had landed their first recording contract. Their first album, simply titled Soft Machine on the Probe label, is a major collector's item, especially if you can find it with the rotating insert in the cover, a very fancy production touch for the time.
The recording wasn't that representative of the band however. In concert their songs would often have long spacey intros that led into a theme of some sort, which would be the launching point for improvisational jams that would go for long periods before eventually returning to the original theme. "We play hour-long sets," said Mike Ratledge on the liner notes, "developing a concert style. The compositions are spaced with improvisations for drum and organ and punctuated with songs. The light show diverts the mind to the bodily functions and soon the audience is up on its feet. As the dancers react to the organic rhythms, the regular steps modulate into free form and movement."
By the way the light show was a new and exciting innovation at concerts in 1967. The person responsible for most of their light shows was Mark Boyle and it also became important for other bands, as we will see. Bottom line, with the long jams and the wild lights and often no seating for the audience, these were the original raves.
Later albums would bring out their concert style more, especially by the time of Thirds in early 1970. Kevin Ayers left soon after the first album and another member of the Flowers, Hugh Hopper, was brought in to replace him. By the time Thirds came along The Machine had grown into as many as eight people with the addition of some sax, flute, even some violin. The vocals were less and less important and the overall sound had become very jazzy on some pieces, combined with long spacey electronic passages. To give you something to measure against, they were easily the equal of Frank Zappa in their jazz compositions and many would say they were overall better musicians than the Mothers of that time. Ratledge's electronic sounds were rather like the early experimentalists such as Terry Reilly and they still sound very modern today.
Kevin Ayers meanwhile started a solo career and also had several collaborations with Soft Machine members and Gong, even Syd Barrett of the original Pink Floyd during the 70's. He also was a tutor for Mike Oldfield who later created the classic Art Rock piece Tubular Bells in 1973. Ayers never liked the fame game that seems to go along with recording and performing however, and has kept a pretty low profile over the years. His solo albums contain some very witty and interesting music, like a tongue in cheek rendition of Marlena Dietrich's Falling In Love Again, but it's rather down-to-earth compared to his early days.
His friend Daevid Allen in France started another journey entirely. Starting in 1967 he formed several different bands, but by 1969 they had coalesced as Gong. Whereas the Soft Machine was always a musical journey, Gong was created to be a spiritual one. Allen created a whole Planet Gong mythology, especially the Radio Gnome trilogy that was told in songs across several albums in the early 70's. Also dealing in the long improvisational form, Gong was a total trippy-hippie experience; perhaps you could call them an English Grateful Dead like in the days of the Acid Tests. Each performance was a unique happening. Also like Soft Machine, they mounted light shows as an integral part of the performance. They played in Europe almost exclusively and most of their albums were available here only as imports. Again I think Allen's Gong is still important as one of the main progenitors of the electronic rave scene of today.
Out of their seeming anarchy Gong managed to give impressive performances, and along the way attracted a long roster of talented musicians, the most notable being Steve Hillage, a gifted guitarist who later in the 70's had several great solo albums. Others included the aforementioned Ayers and Robert Wyatt in 1971, also guitarist Alan Holdsworth and even drummer Bill Bruford were briefly members, in addition to a huge pantheon of greater and lesser lights on synthesizers and vocals. Between 1969 and 1975 Gong saw some great albums under Daevid Allen's leadership, most notably Camembert Electrique and Mystic Brother, but in 1974 he encountered what he called an "invisible curtain of force" before a performance and suddenly left the group to Hillage.
[Pictured: Daevid Allen in modern times.]
Question over here, Fred? Did his departure have anything to do with taking too many psychedelics? Well, who knows what life is really like on Planet Gong, but it sure sounds like it on the surface. I was never able to see a Gong performance for myself. Anyway Allen was able to get himself together in later years and participate in quite a few reformulations of Gong since that time. His stuff has always been very fun music and I can't fault him for seeking a higher spiritual plane.
Over here, Susan? So what became of the other Wilde Flowers? They became Caravan in 1968. Richard Sinclair on bass and Pye Hastings on guitar and vocals, Dave Sinclair on what passed for keyboards at the time plus Richard Coughlan on drums. Now we discussed Caravan a little bit in both earlier lectures so I'm not going to go into too great of detail on their material except to say that these were the Flowers who were more interested in classical music. They went away from the improvisational style that marked The Soft Machine and Gong and became much more structured in their approach to long form rock. In short they are much more the mainstream of Art Rock, with a sound somewhere between Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues.
They also had many lineup changes over the years, and I would say the original lineup hit their peak with the album In The Land of Grey and Pink, especially with a lovely long piece called "Nine Feet Underground," which was released in 1971. "Nine Feet" had keyboards in it that sound very much like that clarinetty sound of Mike Ratledge's organ in the Soft Machine, so even though the style is less jazzy and more structured, there seems to be a certain Canterbury sound to it. Later they added Geofferey Richardson on violin and the Sinclair cousins left the band to Pye Hastings who had become no small talent on guitar and composing. Other important works include "The Love In Your Eye" from Caravan and the New Symphonia and "Memory Lain, Hugh Headloss" from For Girls Who Grew Plump In The Night in 1975. They never had a true pop hit, which was a shame, but they were always a great concert ticket.
Briefly now I'm going to cover a couple of other true Art Rock bands from the same era who are worth checking out, The Strawbs and Renaissance. Try to hold down the cheering, Kenji.
The Strawbs were from Kent in England and were primarily the creation of guitarists David Cousins and Tony Hooper. They came together in 1968 and briefly had associations with people like Sandy Denny who went on to Fairport Convention. Their style of art rock featured great lyrics and vocals by Cousins and also excellent keyboard work from Rick Wakeman before he became a member of Yes in 1971. Also notable were Richard Hudson on drums and John Ford on bass, who left in the early 70's to form their own Hudson-Ford band, which had a much more commercial rock feel. There's a great live album called Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios from this Wakeman period but most Strawbs fans call From The Witchwood their best album. Personally I like the Hero And Heroine album from 1973. It features a fuller, more modern sound with synthesizer work by John Hawken, but also thematically it's a lot more cohesive. If the Strawbs did a rock opera this is it. For their time I would rate them the equal of early Genesis, though they did not have quite the stage production values that Peter Gabriel was known for in those days. Unfortunately the Strawbs also faltered for lack of a recognizable single that could chart, though they received regular play on FM radio in many US cities. They are still around by the way, you can find some recent material being promoted on their website.
Renaissance was another English band that began in late 1969. It came out of a completely different kind of music in that two of the founding members were from The Yardbirds. What's that in the back? Is it one of the three immortal Yardbirds guitarists? In a word, no. It was that other Yardbirds guitarist that no one remembers, Keith Relf, and drummer Jim McCarty who started Renaissance, a true dyed-in-the-wool Art Rock band. Did I mention John Hawken of the Strawbs a moment ago? He was the original keyboard player for Renaissance, too. Jane Relf, Keith's sister, was the original singer. What's interesting is that the most famous lineup of Renaissance about two years later has no people at all from the original Relf-McCarty lineup. Renaissance started being more successful after guitarist Michael Dunsford and pianist John Tout joined the band in 1970 and later brought Annie Haslam on board, a classically trained singer with a five-octave range. The Renaissance sound featured poetic lyrics set to a tight rock ensemble that had little or no electric guitar, plus the string arrangements were always well done with real musicians, not faked with mellotrons. It was a very appealing kind of sound, which could have lent itself to pop music easily but they stuck with a more challenging kind of music and poetic lyrics about things like "Mother Russia" rather than songs about girls and their boyfriends. I think they hit their high water mark in 1973 with the album Ashes Are Burning, but 1975's Live At Carnegie Hall double album shows them off really well too. This is the one I probably should have included last lecture, as they had teamed up with members of the New York Philharmonic for the performance.
Gee I wish had a fan in here other than Kenji. The kind that would move some air in this place! (More silence) You guys are tough today! Okay we're almost to the end here, but I wanted to mention two other English bands, that aren't very well known today but kind of fit with the rest of this group, in that they also got their start in the late 60's period, and they both built a sizeable following without ever having a hit single.
The first is the band Hawkwind. Hawkwind Zoo at first, the band originally consisted of Dave Brock on guitar, harmonica and vocals, Nik Turner on saxophone, Mick Slattery on lead guitar, John Harrison on bass, Terry Ollis on drums and Dik Mik on keyboards and electronics, and they began in 1969 in South London. Like Gong and Soft Machine they also traveled with a light show as an integral part of their band, and their light man was known as Liquid Len. They were early progenitors of what only can be described as Space Rock, a cousin of both Art Rock and what later came to be Heavy Metal. It was a kind of music that was best presented in a solution of acid, if you will, and the band made no secret of that.
Over the early 70's a string of albums was released and made successful by steady touring in England and the US. Among the best of these are Doremi Fasol Latido, In The Hall Of The Mountain Grill, Warrior On The Edge Of Time and probably their most famous, Space Ritual Alive. By Space Ritual the band's lineup consisted of Dave Brock, Nik Turner, Dik Mik, Del Dettmar, Lemmy on bass, Bob Calvert on vocals and Simon King. There was also a dancer named Stacia in addition to Liquid Len. In later years Bob Calvert came more to the fore with costumes and more elaborate staging.
The band made much of an association with sci-fi and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, and tried to have suitably grand schemes behind all their records and shows. Though they certainly had their moments of inspired flash and often displayed a flair for showmanship, musically they were never that inventive and they drifted into bombast. I think the scene in the movie Spinal Tap where the band has a tiny model of Stonehenge drop onto the stage is a direct lampoon of Hawkwind's Atomhenge show. Worse, as the 70's plodded on many members got into trouble with drugs and the law. The band still has their fans, but for me I think they are a symbol of the excesses of the times.
Nektar was similar to Hawkwind, in some respects a Spacey Art Rock Band with a light show, but their leader, guitarist Roye Albrighton, had much more of a gift for melody, and I like them much more. Englishmen Allan "Taff" Freeman on vocals and keyboards, Derek Moore on bass and Mellotron and Ron Howden on drums joined Roye in Germany in 1969 and released several albums in Europe on the Bellaphon label. Soon after they were joined by Mick Brockett who stayed with the band for most of its career as a "light musician." Their first US release was Remember The Future, a classic that rivals the work of the best Art Rock bands of the time, 1974, and went into Billboard's Top Twenty. The earlier albums, Journey to the Center of the Eye and A Tab In The Ocean, were released in the US after Remember's success. The next album, Down To Earth, featured a circus theme with Bob Calvert of Hawkwind as Emcee, but it took the wind out of their sales to some degree. Their crowning achievement, 1975's Recycled, which featured synthesizer work by American Larry Fast, who occasionally appeared on stage with the band, met with far less commercial success. Albrighton left the group soon after, taking most of the creative force with him. It's a shame because musically Recycled is as dense and adventurous as anything Yes ever did, and I still think it has an important message to convey about the environment. Nektar was never the same, though various combinations of the band reformed for tours over the years.
So there you have it, a quick tour of the English Art Rockers who were quite popular in their day, but without the benefit of any hit single. Again much of their work seems dated now, but I think their lasting legacy is more in the electronic rave area were you will still find their spirit of adventure and improvisation.
I think it's time to wind up this lecture and let you guys go, but pick up this set of URL's for these bands and check out their recordings; I think you'll find some very interesting listening there. Next time we'll probably go into some of the lesser known American Art Rockers and perhaps after that we'll do more closer looks at the more successful bands like Genesis and your favorite, Fred, King Crimson, Yes, and then maybe we'll wind up with a dissertation on the meaning of Pink Floyd.
Some good sites to explore for more on these bands