Magnum’s debut album ‘Kingdom of Madness’ had a long and somewhat difficult birth. An album had been completed by the end of 1976, but for reasons best known to themselves, the Jet Records label sat on the tapes. Magnum continued to write new material and gig constantly, and subsequently, the album was given an overhaul. A few older tracks were sidelined for newer songs and a rejigged long-player eventually appeared on record shop shelves in August 1978. This possibly didn’t help the album’s fortunes in the short term; instead of being released at a time when the record’s prog and pomp styles were still in vogue, Magnum were left with a fantasy themed album drifting in the unsure waters of punk and new wave bands. It only scraped the UK album chart’s top 60.
Having gained mass popularity from their 1967 debut single ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, Procol Harum’s career started with such force, it seemed they’d have nowhere to go but down. In the late 60s and early 70s, of course, bands weren’t always expected to follow their success – or even achieve success – instantly and that kind of open minded thinking really worked to Procol’s advantage. Across a series of varied but enjoyable albums released between 1967-1970, Gary Brooker, Robin Trower and company were given plenty of room to experiment. With the quirky pop of ‘She Wandered Through The Garden Fence’ (1967), they showed they could hold their own in the psychedelic world; with huge suites (‘In Held ‘Twas In I’, 1969) and an assortment of themed tracks on ‘Home’ (1970) they more than entertained the hardened prog fans; occasional Vaudevillian tendencies showed they also had a sense of fun and with various classically infused tracks they showed themselves as a cut above most musicians of the era. Prog, rock, pomp and even straight blues – for Procol Harum, nothing seemed off limits and yet their early works all still had a genuine coherency that some of their peers lacked.
The first Styx album (self-titled, 1972) is an overlooked slab of pomp rock. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but any band wishing to open their debut long player with a thirteen minute epic fusing hard rock with flourishes of Aaron Copland and what sounds like a conversation with a New York cabbie must have something, right? With that track, ‘Movement For The Common Man’, Styx announced their arrival in a typically grand style. The rest of the album, while nowhere near as complete sounding as 1977’s ‘Grand Illusion’ or as obviously song oriented as any of the albums from then onward, still makes for interesting listening decades after its original release. 1973’s ‘Styx II’, by contrast, is a more sedate affair – sedate in the world of early Styx means still very much still pompous and overblown – but, naturally, a bigger input from vocalist/pianist Dennis DeYoung, brought with it a much stronger element of musical theatre.
With these two records as a solid grounding, the band went all out for their next long player ‘The Serpent Is Rising’. Released in October 1973 – the third Styx LP to hit the shelves in just eighteen months – it has to be said, it has less of a focus than its predecessors. It doesn’t sound as if Styx had been tempted to use up leftover material though, rather more that this time out, the gloves were truly off. Coming from the days when bands were allowed to spend record company money (no matter how meagre a budget) while still very much on a learning curve, it sounds as if Styx intended to throw everything at this recording bar the kitchen sink to find out, once and for all, what styles worked for them…and which ones really didn’t.
Although by the late 80s they had blossomed into one of Britain’s best loved AOR/melodic rock bands, Magnum’s career had somewhat shaky beginnings as a pub rock/covers band. While popular around the local haunts in Birmingham, playing covers was never likely to break them into the big leagues, but surprisingly, they gained the attention of CBS Records who released a cover version of ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ in 1975. The single flopped; Magnum and the label soon parted ways.