VARIOUS ARTISTS – Breakthrough: The Underground Sounds Of 1971

According to music historian and author David Hepworth, 1971 is “rock’s most exciting year”. There are a lot of music fans of a certain age who would agree with that: those keen record buyers who still treasure well worn copies of Uriah Heep’s ‘Salisbury’, Caravan’s ‘In The Land of Grey & Pink’, Hawkwind’s ‘In Search of Space’ and Rory Gallagher’s ‘Deuce’; people who’d hit their early twenties in time to hear Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s ‘Tarkus’ with fresh ears when the sounds of those hugely indulgent arrangements sounded like the future; and certainly not forgetting those for whom the first three Black Sabbath albums heralded the arrival of a whole new genre, but arguably hit perfection in ’71. There’s a lot of further weight to be added to the argument that 1971 is musically significant, with lesser known albums by Samurai and Jade Warrior propping up the art-rock scene, The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone delivering an absolutely killer solo debut with ‘One Year’ and Phil Collins making his first major appearance with Genesis. All of that barely scratches the surface, of course, but it’s fair to say there was always far more to 1971 than Led Zeppelin’s monolithic fourth platter and ‘Who’s Next’.

This second volume in Esoteric Records’ ‘Underground Sounds’ series (released in October 2021) shines a light upon a few of the year’s more experimental rockers and burgeoning prog stars via four discs’ worth of album cuts as they reach their half century. Much like the previous set (‘Taking Some Time On: The Underground Sounds of 1970’), it isn’t especially aimed at the connoisseur or rock fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the era’s prog and hard rock, but as a listening experience in its own right it plays very well, and is curated in a way that always aims to be accessible.

There are a clutch of famous names featured, but – thankfully – the bigger stars hardly ever represented by anything you’d find on a bog standard compilation. There are only really two or three selections that could be legitimately called unadventurous: Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘10538 Overture’ was a top 40 hit upon release and a beloved staple on oldies radio stations over the years that followed, so possibly doesn’t need refreshing in the minds of the target audience. In keeping with the proggier aspects of this collection, though, at least listeners are treated to the full length version, complete with Roy Wood’s thundering cello strokes and the cacophonous orchestral elements replicating The Beatles coming off the rails. The other uninspired choices come in the shape of two well loved Yes tunes. ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ will have a strong nostalgic element for regular listeners of Fluff Freeman’s Saturday Rock Show on Radio 1, but fantastic as it is, most interested parties will own it at least four times over. It’s fair to say it would be remiss for any decent prog-centric collection covering 1971 not to include ‘Heart of The Sunrise’, though. Decades after the fact, the track still has the ability to amaze: Chris Squire’s busy bass runs are absolutely terrific and the contrast between the rhythm section’s jazz influences and Jon Anderson’s new age melodies create a fantastic push and pull throughout, making it the ultimate Yes showpiece in so many ways. [Stop grumbling at the back; they could’ve just lumped ‘Roundabout’ on here (again)…]

Other more familiar contributors are Uriah Heep with ‘July Morning’, a blend of prog rock and stage-worthy melodies shows how the hard rockers were far more daring and far from the second rate Deep Purple some believed them to be and the still young Status Quo, whose ‘Someone’s Learning’ finds them forging ahead and looking for their signature sound. The repetitious nature has been hit upon, but without the aid of a boogie, Francis Rossi and company tap into an excellent heavy groove that’s sort of a proto stoner rock; heavy on the guitar, even heavier on the ability to drive a blues-edged riff through your skull in an almost obliterating fashion. The opportunity to revisit the self-titled Thin Lizzy debut is always very welcome, and ‘Eire’ paints the still new band as thoughtful, wandering spirits whose paean to their homeland blends soft lead bass sounds with reverbed guitar lines, owing far more some of the darker psych of ’69 than the expected hard rock. It’s a hauntingly beautiful arrangement, which really helps the narrative vocal concerning the arrival of Vikings to Eireann appear far more poetic. A double whammy of Jethro Tull numbers arguably shows the band at their early peak, with ‘Mother Goose’ demonstrating the folkier strains of one of the prog scene’s finest acts, and the stand-alone single ‘Life Is A Long Song’ proving Ian Anderson’s merit as a whimsical and lyrical man of words. Unlike so many 70s prog bands who took themselves way too seriously, the early Tull catalogue from 1968-71 is both melodic and accessible, yet carries enough of an experimental streak to suggest a band without boundaries. The choices made for this set are perfect in so many ways: retro sounding, but never stale; almost the sound of archetypal Tull, but just enough off the beaten track to often avoid inclusion on an average “best of”. Cream’s Jack Bruce appears with ‘Folk Song’ (taken from his third solo LP ‘Harmony Row’) and although it’s arguably not as strong as the bulk of the material on 1969’s ‘Songs For A Tailor’, those even vaguely familiar with Bruce’s work will immediately be drawn in by his strong vocal presence, even before the arrangement’s floating piano and weirdly baroque quirks make even the vaguest of impacts. In showing Bruce to be an experimental soul with a schooling in jazz and the avant garde, it’s an important recording. It isn’t, however, always the most tuneful. Given how this anthology seems aimed more at the casual buyer, the bombastic yet buoyant ‘Escape To The Royal Wood (On Ice)’ – a piece that celebrates a proggy flair with plenty of layers and featured on the same album – would’ve seemed a much safer choice.

Digging slightly deeper, Curved Air’s ‘Single Mother’ is an excellent track, rich in heavy keyboard lines, with distorted bursts of guitar and a general disregard for the linear. It jumps from an obviously hoary prog rock intro, into jerky rhythms over which vocalist Sonja Kristina cries at full volume as she adds melodies that blend musical theatre with folk tradition, before everything heads for an instrumental break where futuristic keys and a floating violin predate Hawkwind’s similar sounding ‘Wind of Change’. It’s the kind of track that needs a long time to embed itself, but once it does, it will eventually become a favourite. A true stand-out from this box set, Procol Harum’s ‘Simple Sister’ carries a lot of weight in helping the band shift from music geared towards a prog and psych audience into something that would have pricked up the ears of the early 70s hard rock fan. It’s a really cheeky number, in the truest sense: parts of Gary Brooker’s piano melody borrow heavily from the old 60s pop hit ‘Cool Jerk’, while Robin Trower’s heavy, descending guitar work takes a very obvious influence from a few things – Cream, Mountain et al – but also unwittingly inspires the coda from Iron Maiden’s 1981 album cut ‘Innocent Exile’. By the time both elements blend together in the track’s second half, the grandness of the sound is absolutely marvellous and that’s before the world of orchestral overdubs kick in. Yes, it’s grandiose – almost too self-important for its own good – but, man, it’s one of the best things you’ve (n)ever heard. It sounds like five guys who just can’t wait to leave ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ further in the past…and it’s definitely not “prog” by the same definition as clung onto by most fans, but truly progressive.

Hawkwind’s ‘Master of The Universe’ supplies six minutes’ worth of head expanding, repetitive grooves where a dominant guitar drives a lax vocal and weird atonal jazz sax in a more positive direction. It is unlikely to win over the Hawksceptics, but it’s a real pleasure to explore a rock comp and not hear ‘Silver Machine’ for the billionth time. Traffic’s ‘Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’, meanwhile, should be required listening for all 70s rock fans. a prog rock/jazz rock masterpiece that stretches out to almost twelve minutes. Opening with a slow blues/jazz groove, the hazy melody pushes the bass to the fore as it underpins some very sedate piano work from Steve Winwood, who adds an appropriately mournful vocal. Moving into a faster section, stabbed piano notes call back to Steve’s R&B roots, lending the tune a massively unexpected hook – something that sounds even stronger when it hits a second a second time – but the tune’s true magic slowly unravels across its second half when the slow rhythmic haze underscores a wheezy brass courtesy of Chris Wood and bluesy organ sounds, before Winwood launches into a heartfelt jazz piano solo. In terms of crossover sounds, few did this kind of thing as well as Traffic, and Traffic arguably hit their peak here. For those who’ve somehow written off the band as a psychedelic novelty thanks to ‘Hole In My Shoe’, or whimsical, slightly stoned hippies (‘You Can All Join In’), this later recording will certainly be a real eye-opener.

Two tracks from Family (‘Spanish Tide’ and ‘Burning Bridges’) show off some fine music, especially in the case of the latter’s spooky mix of jazzy guitar and ominous bass grooves, but are unlikely to win over new fans due to Roger Chapman’s bleating vocal style, and Lindisfarne’s ‘City Song’ brings a fine slice of folk rock that, in many ways, sounds like one of the year’s true cornerstones with its strong melodies and rootsy warmth. It’s proof enough that they had so many better songs than the overplayed ‘Lady Eleanor’ and absolutely wretched ‘Fog On The Tyne’. Emerson, Lake & Palmer fly the prog flag in typically obtuse style on ‘Bitches Crystal’, a number centring around Carl Palmer rattling out an insane drum part whilst Keith Emerson seemingly plays a hundred tack piano notes at random. As with so much ELP, there are great moments here – and Carl’s drumming is never short of bloody marvellous – but if you aren’t in the mood, it’ll be hard work. In a change of mood, The Pink Fairies drop in with some raucous garage rock noise on ‘Do It’, as angry a motivational performance as you’re likely to find. Atop a fuzzed out guitar intercut with howling lead sounds, Twink does little more than shout the title repeatedly for the bulk of the track, but yet the sheer balls of the performance is enough to draw you in. From an instrumental standpoint, there’s an angry guitar solo blending the garage aspects with a few fierce blues howls and a dirty groove to bow out, which makes it more than valid from a muso angle, assuming you don’t expect all of your “underground sounds” to resemble lengthy Yes cast-offs. [For those looking for an even more exciting take on this track, The Rollins Band cover from ’88 takes the song and really gives it the necessary oomph.]

Looking at a few of the deeper cuts, there are some great choices included here. Samurai – a band that evolved from (The) Web and existed but briefly before Dave Lawson joined Greenslade – are among 1971’s true cult heroes and their ‘Saving It Up For So Long’ is a prime example of the band’s brilliant jazz fusion/prog crossover sound. From a pumping bass used effectively as a rhythm, fuzzy blues guitars rise and a sturdy drum part evokes the kind of Alan Hawkshaw piece that might later be used to underscore a scene in The Sweeney. This would be enough to entertain those who love solid blues rooted sounds, but Samurai take things to the next level by shifting into a chorus where the vocals become more grandiose, while saxes and vibraphones busy themselves as if adding a jazz core to an old psych side. Moving into the instrumental break, the rock edge subsides in favour of pure fusion, as a fantastic sax and heavily percussive jam falls somewhere between prime Colosseum and the more melodic end of Jack Bruce’s ‘Things We Like’ LP. …And more impressively, all of this is condensed into a little under four minutes – a giant two fingers to the bands and listeners who insist that “progressive” has to mean drawn out over twice that length. It’s the kind of workout that has the power to thrill right from first listen.

Taken from their ‘Asylum’ LP, Cressida’s ‘Munich’ gives this anthology one of its most interesting deep cuts. Throughout a sprawling nine minutes, Hammond organ sounds and rich orchestration back a vocal that sounds like a distant relation to Richard Sinclair on its quiet passages, rises to Cliff Bennett’s Toe Fat era bombast on the louder moments, giving Cressida a broad scope. The featured guitar solos are equally cool, fusing blues with something a little more theatrical and at the point you think you’ve got the tune pegged, it switches into a busy prog jazz hybrid where Peter Jennings (organ) and drummer Iain Clark (drums, soon to join Uriah Heep for their ‘Look At Yourself’ LP) go into battle. Via a return of the slower movement, the track eventually reaches a huge, theatrical crescendo that veers dangerously close to being ‘Chim Cher-ee’ from Mary Poppins. This ‘Asylum’ is many things, but despite its lengthy playing time, it’s never dull. Also aiming for big things Beggars Opera’s delivers grandiose rock across eight minutes, with their ‘Time Machine’ centring around a droning mellotron and retro organ sounds. The core of the track sounds like an off centre hybrid of Deep Purple circa 1969 and a vintage Heep from ’73, meaning that years down the line, it sounds rather more generic than it once did, but for fans of the style, there might just be enough appeal within the music, even if Ricky Gardiner’s bombast – a second rate David Byron at best – might seem a little trying. Often overlooked on the prog rock map, Welsh band Man present themselves in typically eclectic style when dreary harmony vocals befitting of a weird space rock band are interspersed with sharp edged rock ‘n’ roll riffs, creating a really unstable core – its push and pull never allowing the listener to settle – before dropping in a lengthy keyboard solo that draws far more from the indulgent vibe associated with the era. Its seven minutes sound like three or four ideas gaffer taped together and a restless band at work, but there are glimmers of goodness. If nothing else, it’s more interesting than Patto channelling Wishbone Ash on ‘You, You Point Your Finger’(from their second long player ‘Hold Your Fire’), which boasts a really subtle, jazzy guitar part floating in and out of quiet prog backdrop and often ends up sounding like it has nowhere to go. It’s pleasant enough, but never aims for big thrills.

Colin Scot’s ‘Nite People’ is an interesting tune, blending singer songwriter and folk elements via a shimmering guitar on its verses, before shifting to a heavy fuzz guitar on the chorus, as if he’s constantly walking a musical tightrope between Al Stewart and the early Mott The Hoople. This carefree approach is so striking, it makes it much easier to overlook Scot’s average vocal abilities, and certainly provides enough of a motivation for people to check out his untitled LP. Unexpectedly noisy, rhe brilliant Linda Hoyle (previously of Affinity) sounds great on ‘Pieces of Me’, reaching for the big notes in the manner of a blues screamer who could match the then young Elkie Brooks. You’d think with a voice that big, she’d be the dominant feature on the track in question, but no, the lead guitars (supplied by future top 40 botherer and John Cale/David Essex sideman Chris Spedding) whip up a really distorted storm of excitement. Heavy garage rock sounds more in keeping with the noisy end of MC5 and Pink Fairies should be at odds with Hoyle’s broad sound, but it really works. A band whose name often seems more famous than their work, Audience are represented with the fine ‘The House On The Hill’, a moody prog rocker mixing deep bass grooves with odd sax breaks worthy of one of the Canterbury bands. Linking the two musical strands, you’ll find a moody vocal that carries a trace of Pete Brown, but takes a more theatrical stance and a quiet flute interlude that’s the equal of peak Ian Anderson. In terms of arty prog, Audience show themselves to be kings of the 1971 underground here; if this compilation gets their work into a few more ears, then it’s been worthwhile.

For the more hardened prog rock fan, this set digs up a few genuine obscurities, too. The best of these comes from Big Sleep, whose ‘Bluebell Wood’ provides a more interesting slant on sounds most associated with Family. You’ll find some great upfront bass sounds driving an arrangement that teeters between light prog rock adventurousness and the darker edges of blues rock; huge passages of deep European sounding psych rock worthy of the Danish subset, and a warbling vocal that isn’t quite as striking/annoying (delete as appropriate) as Roger Chapman, but certainly falls within the same ballpark. In terms of taking the better part of twelve minutes and putting it to good use, Big Sleep could show a couple of the bigger bands a thing or three: this is inventive without over-indulgence; pleasantly strange without wandering too far into the atonal, and just melodic enough to work on a broader scale.

Paladin’s ‘The Fakir’ bridges a gap between solid 70s prog ambition and world music in bringing together Arabic sounding passages with jazz funk rhythms and a sound somewhere between early Uriah Heep and Colosseum. It’s worth hearing just experience a fantastic rhythm section at work. A hugely welcome inclusion comes from Spring, and ‘Golden Fleece’ sounds like an unholy collision between The Moody Blues and an old Scott Walker narrative. Between a superb vocal that sounds like a late 60s overhang, some understated brass and swathes of organ, the track has a grandness without a grandiosity. With enough invention for the proggers to lose themselves yet retaining a strong melodic undercurrent, it’s the kind of track that that sounds better with each play. Far more marginal, BB Blunder’s ‘Seed’ presents clattering drum lines, dirgy mellotron sounds and equally dirgy guitar parts against a fairly testing vocal. Very much the sort of 70s prog that’ll appeal to completists only, this recording values density and layers over actual melody. However, if you can tune in, some of the lead guitar work is great and a few of the high pitched soaring notes take influence from David Gilmour circa 1969-71. As a side project from Blossom Toes (makers of one of the rarest albums of the late 60s psych scene) it has some historical value, but it would be fair to say it isn’t essential listening. Much better all round, Help Yourself’s ‘Running Down Deep’ conveys a fantastic early 70s groove, drawing from blues rock, pop and light jazz in equal measure. It may not be entirely representative of their whole output, but this track makes an interesting companion to material from Affinity with its light fusion, working around a superb guitar sound and very easy going vocal. Proof that you shouldn’t have to try too hard to create something arty, the Blossom Toes lads should have been taking notes…

Rounding out an already pleasing collection, tracks by Sandy Denny, Van Der Graaff Generator, Atomic Rooster, Caravan, Arthur Brown and Barclay James Harvest are on hand to paint a fuller picture of the year’s diverse musical canvas. In the main, most of these are great collection fillers for those who don’t have them, especially Caravan, whose perky ‘Love To Love You’ (And Pigs Might Fly)’ delivers more cowbell than Blue Oyster Cult whilst thrilling the audience with a quirky vocal and flute solos, resulting in one of the year’s most uplifting prog tunes. Even the omnipresent Edgar Broughton offers something a little better than usual. A 70s compilation staple, Edgar and his band rarely seem to rise above bog standard proto-hard rock or a noisy blues ramble with bad vocals, but ‘Evening Over Rooftops’ is one of their few enjoyable efforts, mixing acoustic guitars with moody rock sounds and slightly stoned vocal with commendable results. Its main point of interest is the core melody, since it appears to pre-figure Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ by several years, and that alone makes it worth hearing.

For the curious rock fan, this four disc collection should be very enjoyable. There’s enough variety and deviation from the norm to make it more interesting than your average set, and anything that champions Samurai, Cressida and (the slightly later works of) Traffic certainly has a lot of merit. Listeners who’ve spent years exploring the darker and dustier corners of 1971 will certainly feel there are gaps here – there’s nothing from Ginhouse, Tear Gas, Toad, Egg, or Comus, all of whom would make worthy contributions to a collection such as this – but it would be impossible to please everyone without it being a fifteen disc set. In terms of giving an overview of some of the more interesting bits that helped shape one of rock’s greatest years, ‘Breakthrough: The Underground Sounds of 1971’ has enough retro gold to pull in an appreciative crowd.

September/October 2021

1 thought on “VARIOUS ARTISTS – Breakthrough: The Underground Sounds Of 1971

  1. Lovely to see some of the less well known bands of the era getting a run around the paddock on this excellent box set. As you say, there are some gaps, but 1971 was such a diverse and fertile year, that even a generously filled four-CD set was never going to cover all the ground. There’s almost certainly enough outstanding tracks for a second volume at some point. (He said hopefully!) A terrific, in-depth review of this fine box set.

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