VARIOUS ARTISTS – Round And Round: Progressive Sounds Of 1974

1973 was something of a banner year for progressive rock. That year, Pink Floyd released their billion selling ‘Dark Side of The Moon’; Genesis released a career best with ‘Selling England By The Pound’; a double whammy from Gong – ‘Flying Teapot’ and ‘Angels Egg’ – cemented their place in the psych-prog underground; both King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer released albums that would go on to become fan favourites, and Mike Oldfield became an instant national treasure with his ‘Tubular Bells’, despite his Piltdown Man scaring the shite out of a generation of small children.

Even just taking those few albums into consideration, it’s no wonder that 1974 seems to pale in comparison, with only ‘Relayer’ by Yes, and the Genesis double set ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ at the forefront of most peoples’ minds when flying that year’s prog flag. However, 1974 was no slouch when it came to inventiveness. It might’ve scored fewer long term classics but, despite that – or maybe even because of it – the year’s prog output was actually a little more interesting. A little more eclectic, certainly, and this set from Esoteric Records does a very good job of rounding up a few of the year’s highlights, heroes, and also-rans from the prog world.

Almost everything here is worth revisiting, or perhaps exploring for the first time, depending on your age, knowledge and musical tastes, but best of all are a pair of tracks from Gong’s fifth album, ‘You’. Key moments from the third part of their ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ trilogy, both ‘Master Builder’ and ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ are brilliant showcases for Steve Hillage’s distinctive guitar – a sound like no other – and with the former introducing listeners to something that became central to his show stopping ‘Glorious Om Riff’ set against some Eastern rhythms, wordless vocal sounds, jazz saxophones and other worldly synths, it’s immediately one of the Gong essentials. ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ isn’t quite as immediate, but offers plenty to love – even for the Gong novice – with a backdrop of futuristic, pulsing keys from Miquette Giraudy creating a blanket for wandering bass, other electronic drones and, latterly, a really tight jazz fusion rhythm, over which Hillage throws out some brilliant psychedlic blues licks. In a little over eight minutes, this shows both sides of the classic Gong line up – musicians who were not only adept at a fine prog/jazz fusion hybrid, but also paving the way for the future ambient and electronica of the 90s, which would effectively give Hillage and Giraudy a second career, first as moonlighters with The Orb, then as much-celebrated electronic act System 7.

It’s also especially pleasing to find the Renaissance album ‘Turn of The Cards’ celebrated here. Their 1974 disc is far superior to their best known ‘Ashes Are Burning’, and although its the epic ‘Running Hard’ that shows off the ’74 Renaissance’s talents in the best possible way, the duo of album picks chosen for this release are excellent, since they effectively capture the full range of the Renaissance musical scope. ‘Mother Russia’ – used to close the ‘Turn of The Cards’ LP – is really bombastic, and never shy of self-indulgence. The piano crawls in, hammering a slow piece in minor key, before a huge chord signifies the beginnings of something big. Bringing in strings and flutes, the orchestral elements opt for an unsurprising foreign bent, before a rolling piano and brass briefly evoke a score from a James Bond love scene. This is as fleeting as the opening motif; any hint of other-worldly romance is quickly swept away by swelling brass – more action than romance – quickly shifting again into the main musical thrust. Vocalist Annie Haslam pitches a booming yet sweet sound against the cinematic backdrop, and all elements pull together in a typically cock-sure way. With passages of quiet flute jostling against blustery orchestral strings and a haunting wordless voice, the band fill the middle of the tune with something that at first has the air of playing for time, but soon becomes apparent that this is the only natural way to shift back towards a grand piano climax. When the piano is joined by full orchestra and more wordless vocals, it seems as if the melodies have reached their peak, but with a brief reprise of the main vocal, the bombast increases until the nine-minute mark, at which time, the tune reaches a natural end, with all elements ebbing away, leaving a softly struck piano and oboe to close. In a stark contrast, ‘Black Flame’ is on hand to bring something swooning and relatively gentle. Again, Haslam’s booming delivery is one that will divide listeners, but sounding like a louder Maddy Prior, the Englishness in her approach is perfect for the material. Although her voice remains the most obvious musical centre, there’s some unexpected harpsichord that brings out a sadness in the performance, and the result – a kind of quasi-‘Scarborough Fair’ affair – still ranks as a particularly strong offering, despite being far less proggy than ‘Mother Russia’. If these tunes don’t make you more curious about Renaissance, very little else will.

A key figure in the Canterbury scene, Kevin Ayers had moved onto more commercial sounds by 1974, but there’s something very enjoyable about the pop/rock of ‘Didn’t Feel Lonely ’Til I Thought of You’ (taken from his ‘Confessions of Doctor Dream’ LP). It won’t necessarily strike a chord with those hoping for massive Yes influenced wig-outs, or the jazz/folk fusion of Renaissance, but this relatively radio friendly number is home to a cracking guitar solo (courtesy of future Rutles man Ollie Halsall) and a pleasingly hard groove from a backing band featuring ex-King Crimson man Michael Giles and Caravan’s John Perry. Caravan are heavily featured via a pair of numbers from their album with The New Symphonia, and although these will never be loved in the same way as the best bits of 1971’s ‘In The Land of Grey & Pink’, the chance to revisit the orchestral arrangements of ‘Mirror For The Day’ and ‘Virgin On The Ridiculous’ are a lovely reminder of the band’s less whimsical side. Hearing the prog-jazz grooves of the latter underscored by a wall of strings and brass creates a musical tour de force, and although Dave Sinclair’s organ sounds can sound a little ugly to the twenty-first century ear, on this recording, he evokes a bygone era like no other – perhaps only rivalled by Dave Greenslade, more of whom later…

Adjacent to Caravan were the band’s weirder offspring Hatfield & The North, and this comp hasn’t shied away from sharing their strange excesses. On the ten minute ‘Son of “There’s No Place Like Homerton”’ unsuspecting listeners will be thrown into a lengthy workout that takes from the jazz of Colosseum, splices that with guitar sounds worthy of Steve Hackett, and eventually wanders through high toned jazz vocal moments that are an obvious throwback to the earliest Caravan and Canterbury scene experiments. A little more commercial, their non-album single ‘Let’s Eat Real Soon’ takes the heart of the 1971 pop/prog/psych sounds of Caravan and melds them into a quasi-novelty piece of jazz pop that had no chance of being a hit. Other than John Peel, it’s unlikely to have been loved by any influential DJ’s, but decades on, there’s a loveable cheekiness in the wholly 70s melody, and much to love about Richard Sinclair’s fey vocal style. Hatfield will be forever one of those “Marmite bands”, so its to the compilers’ credit that they weren’t seen as being too marginal for inclusion here, given that this compilation isn’t really geared towards the hardened fan or prog collector.

Not mentioned as often as some of their peers, a couple of fine numbers from P.F.M. might be reaching new ears via this set, and although their work isn’t especially punchy, there’s plenty to like about the wavering, soft atmospheres of ‘Just Look Away’ and the vaguely Procol Harum-ish ‘The World Became The World’, whilst the more familiar Barclay James Harvest share a fusion of Floydish melodies and smooth vocals throughout ‘Negative Earth’. With the track working an easy yet strident groove that typifies a lot of the era’s great rock, it’s easy to hear why this remains a fan favourite. A look back at 1974 wouldn’t be complete without the mighty Camel, and although ‘Mirage’ isn’t as varied as the debut, the epic ‘Lady Fantasy’ took a great musical leap, and is arguably one of the tracks which paved out their immediate future with its huge mini moog solos and dramatic shifts between soft vocal sections and punchy rock grooves that supply a solid foundation for marvellous guitar work from Andy Latimer. ‘Freefall’ shows how tight they could be when it came to dropping jazz rhythms into rock, too. Despite some of the vocals on the track sounding like a sixties throwback and the marriage of keys and guitar tapping more into Colosseum than Genesis, there’s the true heart of some 70s prog giants beating strongly. Although Camel would record better material later, ‘Freefall’ is the sound of a confident band cutting loose. It never gets old.

Exploring some more “obscure sounds”, ‘Foothills’ by Keith Christmas plays more like a great piece of acid folk where a soft voice weaves in and out of light percussion, and a gentle melody worthy of Jefferson Airplane sounds as if it is being assaulted by Rick Wright’s farfisa organ, and Nektar’s ‘Fidgety Queen’ appears to fuse experimental hard rock crunchiness with the kind of brass more closely associated with glam rock. It would be remiss to call either track a classic, but they have an important role to play here in drawing the listener down a potentially unfamiliar rabbit hole. Peter Hamill, meanwhile, is his usual confronting and scary self on ‘Tapeworm’, a shouty prog rock tune that appears to pave the way for Hawkwind’s ‘Quark Strangeness & Charm’ period, despite some great music being throttled by a demonic weirdo. Thankfully, the underrated Stackridge are able to redress some balance on the gorgeous ‘God Speed and The Plough’ by blending prog rock textures into a soundtrack-like piece where flutes and violins dance gleefully above an epic sounding backdrop. Proof that there was so much more to the world of prog than Floyd, Genesis and the Canterbury crowd, it’s a shame that these guys have never had more attention.

Among a wealth of great stuff, this box set proudly shines a light on Greenslade, a band that – despite being hampered with an iffy singer – remain one of the era’s most interesting and overlooked prog bands. Taken from their ‘Spyglass Guest’ LP (arguably their masterpiece), the epic ‘Joie de Vivre’ is a brilliant example of what made them great. The eight minute workout begins in a very unassuming way, as a chord progression derived from Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ presents a fairly dull intro. Thankfully, the band then heads for a freakout in a very grand way, delving into Greenslade’s jazz fusion side, as echoes of Return To Forever are made more palatable a band who have closer roots with rock. A couple of minutes of tight fusion eventually gives way to a wonderful 70s pop rock melody that more often feels like an old Procol Harum number, with organs and electric piano sounds backed by a punchy bass and some harder drums. In keeping with Greenslade’s general sense of adventure, it’s never left to such a relatively basic arrangement and String Driven Thing’s Graham Smith does a fantastic turn as featured guest on electric violin. His presence alone is something that constantly draws the ear away from the more obvious 70s prog indulgences and further into folk, giving an already great tune a genuine lift. If you like this, then picking up a copy of ‘Spyglass Guest’ should be considered a priority – almost everything on it is enjoyable, and the bizarre ‘Little Red Fry Up’ captures the classic Spock’s Beard sound almost two decades earlier than the Morse Brothers indulged in such jazz/pop/prog oriented sounds.

On top of all of that, you’ll find a couple of relative hits from the ever reliable Jethro Tull (‘Bungle In The Jungle’, ‘Skating Away’), a decent jam from proto-hard rockers Budgie (‘Zoom Club’) and a duo of numbers from Hawkwind’s career best ‘Hall of The Mountain Grill’ (‘Psychedelic Warlords’ and ‘Paradox’), neither of which are likely to be unfamiliar to any prospective listeners. If that isn’t enough, Procol Harum’s ‘Drunk Again’ is a particularly upbeat number where strident drums and swirling organs occasionally feel like an audio inebriation on a rather clever arrangement that breathes a keen impishness into a slab of 70s rock, and a duo of very drawn out, jazz rock influenced tunes from Traffic show how Steve Winwood and friends had grown since their ‘Paper Sun’ hit-making days. For the prog fan, both tunes (‘Dream Gerard’ and ‘Graveyard People’) are loaded with superb electric piano sounds and feature the still young Winwood in fine voice. Their ‘Where The Eagle Flies’ is one of the era’s most underrated discs, so the love thrown its way here feels very important.

Like the previous ‘Progressive Sounds’ sets, this isn’t really concerned with trawling the archives to bring the hardened progger rarities and unreleased nuggets; its primary function is to provide a great musical overview, to remind people of cult heroes, and celebrate some of the second tier weirdos – and it’s a task that this fifty track anthology not only manages, but pretty much nails. With the only complaint being that the two Tull cuts can be found on even the most basic compilation (something like ‘Sealion’ or even the frankly bonkers 1974 outtake ‘Sealion II’ would have been more interesting), its a set that’ll suit almost everyone, from the nostalgia seeking prog fan to the curious listener who would’ve been there at the time, but never actually followed Barclay James Harvest or Caravan, or perhaps was a little too scared of Hatfield & The North. Whichever way you slice it, ‘Round & Round’ just…works. Recycled, repackaged it may be, but it’ll rekindle your love of a musical past if necessary.


April 2023