The Beatles did three things that changed the course of popular music: 1) they wrote their own songs; 2) they took control of the recording process; and 3) they gave us Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released at the height of the summer of 1967, the Beatles had been off the road for almost eighteen months and immersed at Abbey Road studios. That it is a conceptual album, and not just a collection of songs, makes Sgt. Pepper the landmark that it is. From the jacket photo, to the music on the vinyl, to even the cutout inserts inside, exercising their creativity was the Beatles end game, and here would it fully manifest. While others had attempted it, the Beatles delivered the object - a record album - that everyone wanted and would want to create. After the previous year's masterpiece Revolver, the first hint of the Beatles next move appeared on the "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever" single released in February. When Sgt. Pepper's arrived in June, it was their most intellectual statement yet, raising the bar for all of popular music. From the adult theme of "Getting Better" to the blatant psychedelia of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", the Beatles offer their most mature and cohesive effort, best encapsulated in the epic track "A Day In The Life". Equally important was the reception that their audience, indeed the world, had to the album. In addition to burgeoning awareness of psychedelia, the album coincided with the advent of stereo headphones, and was the first album to feature printed lyrics. All points connected: with Sgt. Pepper's, the Beatles and producer George Martin captured the minds and imaginations of an audience waiting to be captured. So enough has been written about this album and with good reason: British art rock starts here. This was the pretense under which most progressive rock was made.
In late 1966, London - ordained "swinging" by Time magazine - was undergoing a massive culture change. At the very heart of London's "underground" lay Barry Miles and Indica Books, the subject of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer". Along with John Hopkins, American Jim Haynes and others, Miles also launched the International Times, London's first newspaper dedicated to this new counter-culture. And it's roughly here that Peter Jenner and Andrew King, acting as the band's management, introduced the Pink Floyd Sound to that scene. The happenings of 1967 were genuinely novel, and the music would become much more than just the soundtrack. Built in large part upon their residencies at the Marquee and UFO clubs, Pink Floyd was the archetype of this new British psychedelic rock. Their live set, complete with light show, progressed from deconstructed R&B to extended instrumental freak-outs. The group composition "Interstellar Overdrive" documents the innovation of live Floyd; compared to anything from the era it's completely uncanny, just check out Peter Whitehead's film "Tonite Let's All Make Love In London" (its title taken from an Allen Ginsberg text). However, the album, The Piper at The Gates of Dawn, is pure Syd Barrett, as first previewed in singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play". His "Matilda Mother", taken in part from a children's book, best highlights he and his Cambridge bandmate's middle class aesthetic; highly literate and intelligent, the musical transcription is wonderfully inspired, and like "Bike", especially English. The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studio simultaneous to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, with their ex- engineer Norman Smith in the producer's chair. There's no cliché in calling the album a classic; creatively, it simply had no peer. It was also unique in that it offered no singles - they were separate from the album - in a tradition most progressive bands would follow. Produced by Joe Boyd, "Arnold Layne" rose to No. 20 in March despite being banned by "Wonderful" Radio London, while both "See Emily Play" and the album reached No. 6 in the summer. Unfortunately this would remain Barrett's only recorded testament with Pink Floyd. His psychological decline (precipitating an aborted US tour) led to his eventual eviction from the band and prompted his status as the preeminent poster child of the acid casualty.
The members of Procol Harum suffered most of the '60s as the Paramounts, whose minor claim to fame was a cover of “Poison Ivy” that hit the UK Top 40 in 1963. They finally broke up in 1966, yet by the following year had resurrected themselves as Procol Harum. Released in May, their first single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” shot immediately to No. 1 in the UK, selling over 4 million copies. Musically adapted from Bach's “Air On a G String”, Keith Reid's surreal lyrics were delivered by Gary Brooker's somber yet soulful voice over the swirl of Matthew Fisher's Hammond organ; in short, it brought a new sophistication to pop music and deservedly earned its fortune. Next, with guitarist Robin Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson, the band regrouped (more or less) to their Paramount's line up to record their debut album, also titled A Whiter Shade of Pale. Reid, the band's full time lyricist, and Brooker wrote most of the first album, though Fisher did contribute the excellent instrumental “Repent Walpurgis”. While none of the album could match the impact of the single, it did contain some great songs: “Ceredes (Outside the Gates of)” is quite ballsy, punctuated by Trower's lead guitar, while the splendid (and splendidly titled) “She Wandered Through The Garden Fence” featured more of Fisher's great Hammond organ runs. Procol Harum delivered mature R&B, not far from Traffic on the map, yet always 100% original. The album failed to chart in the UK, but did break into the US Top 50.
Originally named the Ingoes and inspired by the Yardbirds, guitarist Brian Godding and bassist Brian Belshaw left their day jobs to start the band in 1964. Signing with Giorgio Gomelsky in 1965, he promptly sent them to Paris to hone their trade. They recorded a few singles, and an EP, adding guitarist Jim Cregan along the way, before returning to the UK in 1967 to record their first album. By that time Kevin Westlake had joined on drums, and flower power was in full swing. Gomelsky fashioned the band as a “cross between the Beatles and the BeeGees” and rechristened the band as the Blossom Toes. However, Polydor usurped control of the sessions, bringing in orchestrator David Whittaker and a host of session musicians to reshape the Toes’ music. That said, We Are So Clean is still something of a classic flower power record. When the album is on, it stands as some of the best music of the era; “Look At Me I’m You” kicks off, the psychedelia in full regalia, while the melodic popsike of “I’ll Be Late For Tea” is utterly infectious.
As the hooks of “Telegram Tuesday” attest, Godding shines as a songwriter. His “What On Earth” is the album’s gemstone, and the production couldn’t be a better fit. Certainly a few tracks are a little too clever or contrived, and easily identified by their titles (and written by Westlake): “The Remarkable Saga of The Frozen Dog”, “People of the Royal Parks”, etc. But great album or not, the band were unhappy with the sessions, and Westlake promptly left the band. John “Poli” Palmer, previously in Deep Feeling, joined on percussion and vibes, but his term was short-lived. Unable to play the album live, their disastrous live gigs ordered a rethink and a new direction was soon to be in order. The album sunk with little trace, but has become a cult-classic in the ensuing decades.
The Moody Blues were originally an R&B-inspired group who scored a No. 1 hit in 1964 with "Go Now". A few years later they recruited John Lodge and Justin Hayward, but it took a change to the Deram label and a purchase of a Mellotron before they'd find success again. To quote the liner notes from the album, "The Moody Blues have at last done what many others have dreamed of and talked about: they have extended the range of pop music ...where it becomes one with the world of the classics." Okay, whatever, rich cinematic productions were already a studio treatment du jour. Yet the Moody Blues were attempting something more: symphonic rock. A dubious distinction, but it reflects another tenant that would weigh heavy on prog rock: the attempt at musical respectability. Dropping the needle, the record plays out: lush orchestral accompaniments provide segue between songs, while a god-like voice recites poetry. Pretentious, of course, but one thing is certain, this isn't really rock-n-roll. Ultimately the Moody Blues wrote marginally psychedelic pop tunes, thoroughly rooted in the '60s. The second side cranks up the Mellotron and fares better, culminating in the classic "Nights In White Satin". It's a great song, and along with "Tuesday Afternoon", both rightly became FM radio staples. Moreover, the album's immaculate production is impressive for any era. So whatever the content, the right accoutrements would mean everything when speaking progressive. The album sold well, reaching No. 23 in the UK and No. 3 in the US. The Moody Blues would repeat this formula to continual success over the ensuing years, before taking a rest in 1973, only to return at the end of the decade for even more success.
Taking their name from Steve Marriott's (of The Small Faces) euphemism for being high, The Nice originally formed as a back-up band for Immediate label soul singer, P.P. Arnold. But the group's infatuation with Hendrix-like stage antics, in particular Keith Emerson's keyboard histrionics, led them quickly away and into London's limelight. Guitar heroes had been around for years already, but Emerson lashed out as England's first keyboard showman. Their first single "Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack" flopped, though the flip side "Azrial (Angel Of Death)" proved more inviting. Their debut album, Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, is atypical psychedelia: "Dawn" stretches out beyond pop, while "The Cry of Eugene" contains that prototypical melody that Emerson would come back to again and again. The lengthy "Rondo" took its theme from "Blue Rondo à la Turk" by jazz composer Dave Brubeck (without credit), and gives a better taste for what The Nice could offer. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison are a competent, if unnoticed, rhythm section, much like Hendrix's Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. In 1968, the Nice joined the Move, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix Experience on a tour of the UK, further cementing their reputation as a premier live act. Guitarist David O'List departed after the tour, and the band remained a trio thereafter, giving Emerson ample room to flaunt his considerable talent. Though the album didn't chart, its impact was not diminished: the keyboard would become the distinguishing trademark of prog rock, and Keith Emerson its first superstar.
Steve Winwood was known for his blue-eyed soul with the Spencer Davis Group, and songs such as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" were the last in a string of hits from the R&B inspired group. By 1967, Winwood was now solo, recruiting some friends from his native Birmingham for Traffic. They retired to the proverbial "cottage in the country" and created the first of two records that, along with Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, would best characterize Britain's answer to America's acid rock - psychedelic rock. Their debut album, Mr. Fantasy, takes the Beatles' approach for great pop songs and adorns it with a palette straight from the era: Mellotron, sitar, lots of acoustic guitar, children's voices, etc. But into all of that, the band infuses a wide spectrum of influences; whether the raucous honky-tonk of "Berkshire Poppies" or the bluesy jazz of "Giving It To You", Traffic is highly original and above all, rock-n-roll. Yet Winwood never loses sight of his R&B roots: just witness "Colored Rain" and "Smiling Phases". The title track is perhaps the highlight, a preview of what the band could (and eventually would) deliver. Drummer Jim Capaldi and flautist/saxophonist Chris Wood provide ample support throughout; however, Dave Mason would prove to be a foil to the progressive experiments. The album made the UK Top 10, as did the singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe" earlier during London's summer of love. 1968 saw the whole trip repeated with the band's self-titled second album, Traffic. Although the album included two of Mason's finest compositions, "You Can All Join In" and "Feelin' Alright", no singles were issued. However, the album would again reach the UK Top 10 and even breach the US Top 20. But by 1969, Winwood disbanded Traffic to join the super group Blind Faith with Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.
Originally together in the In Crowd, bassist John "Junior" Wood and singer Keith West had middling success, but after teaming with guitarist Steve Howe and drummer John "Twink" Alder, they ditched the R&B slant and launched straight into psychedelia. Highly regarded as a live act, Tomorrow was part of the original scene of London's underground. They missed out as the house band in Michelangelo Antonioni's cult film "Blow Up" (the Yardbirds got it instead), but ended up signed to EMI. Released the previous May, their classic single "My White Bicycle" (and the great flip "Claremont Lake") stalled on the charts, leaving a tenuous relation with EMI as they headed into Abbey Road to record their debut record. A second single, "Revolution" fared no better, and the 1968 release of their debut left Tomorrow out of the short-lived boom of the previous year. It's unfortunate because the album is quite solid. West (née Hopkins) and friend Ken Burgess composed most the album, although it also contained a spirited cover of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields". "Now Your Time Has Come" gives an early clue to Howe's talent, unique more for referencing the influence of Chet Atkins than the then-typical blues roots of most British guitarists. Meanwhile, West scored a No. 2 single with EMI producer Mark Wirtz's "Excerpts from a Teenage Opera" the previous July. His solo success put unreasonable pressure on the band, and shortly after their appearance at the Christmas On Earth Continued concert in December at London's Roundhouse, the band broke up. Howe would meander with Bodast for the next year, before redefining prog rock guitar with Yes.
Formed in 1962 in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, The Zombies’ combined the talents of keyboardist Rod Argent, vocalist Colin Blunstone, bassist Chris White, guitarist Paul Atkinson, and drummer Hugh Grundy. Like most bands of the British Invasion, they combined equal parts soul and beat, but The Zombies had that something extra: incredible musicality. Released in July 1964, “She’s Not There” b/w “You Make Me Feel Good” was to be their only chart hit in the UK, reaching No 12. But it eventually rose to No 2. in the US in December, quickly followed by “Tell Her No” b/w “ What More Can I Do”, which rose to No. 6. However, further singles faltered, and their 1965 album Begin Here (titled The Zombies in the US) managed only to reach No. 39 in the US. In 1967, the band signed with Columbia and entered EMI’s Abbey Road studios to record the classic Odessey and Oracle. Awashed in Mellotron, “Care Of Cell 44” tells the tale of an incarcerated girlfriend, while “A Rose For Emily” is based on the story of the same name by James Faulkner. “Beechwood Park” is both delicate and beautiful, with a haunting vocal from Blunstone, while “Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)” ambles under Argent’s harmonium. Throughout the album, the songwriting of Argent and White is unparalleled, building on the influence of the Beach Boys and the sophistication of the Beatles, while the execution from the band is perfectly captured on record. But the pressure of self-financing a required stereo mix broke the Zombies’ will, and well before the album’s release in 1968 the group had split up. Only after being re-released as a single in February 1969, did their "Time Of The Season" b/w “Friends Of Mine” reach No. 3 in the US, and the album eventually enter the US Top 100. However there would be no afterlife for The Zombies.
Another stanchion of the London underground scene, Arthur Brown had huge success with the single "Fire". Released in June, it rose to the top of the UK charts, while reaching No. 2 in the US that September. Like Procol Harum's debut, the single was a tough act to follow, perhaps even overshadowing the rest of his career. But let's not sell the man short; Brown's real contribution to rock music was theatre: his on-stage antics - from fire helmet to crucifixion - set the standard for most everyone to follow. Plus, Brown's musical partner, Vincent Crane, was nothing short of genius. The Who's Pete Townsend and Kit Lambert produced their debut album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. As covers of Screamin' Jay Hawkins and James Brown songs attest, the R&B influence is obvious, but the album's highlight is the five-song "opera" that comprises the first side of the record. Alternating from swinging pop to psychedelia, Crane's swirling virtuoso organ playing - and songwriting - is perfect counterpoint to Brown's distinct voice. Crane was no flash either: having a formal education from Trinity College, his arrangements are first rate. There's sophistication on "Child of My Kingdom" that transcends his age at the time, and his performance certainly rivals any contemporary as well. The album was extremely successful, reaching No. 2 in the UK and No. 7 in the US. A young Carl Palmer replaced original drummer Drachen Theaker shortly after the album's release, yet after a second US tour, the band broke up with Palmer and Crane moving on to form Atomic Rooster. Brown's attempt to form another band failed, but he would soon catch (very suitably) the progressive bandwagon with Kingdom Come.
Fairport Convention got its start in the same London underground as their more psychedelic counterparts and eventually became England's first (and finest) electric folk-rock band. Fairport too was absorbing their influences, considerably West Coast (The Byrds) with the requisite Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell covers. Their debut is a pleasant and gentle affair that showcased the talents of guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol. In particular, "Sun Shade" and "The Lobster" portend the King Crimson debut in some respects - except of course, Mellotron. Underneath the subdued recording, the compositions have more dynamics than one may expect; the guitar work is simply sublime. Judy Dyble would leave the band after the album's release. However, this seemingly innocuous event would turn quite serendipitous to the timeline. Working with Ian McDonald, she enlisted the services of Giles, Giles and Fripp, and in doing so, in fact sowed the seeds for King Crimson's rise. As for Fairport, her replacement, Sandy Denny, was previously in the Strawbs. Denny would impart significant momentum into the direction Fairport Convention would follow. Just as prog rock attempted with classical music, Fairport would take cues from traditional British music and within a few albums set a new standard for folk rock. Over the next few years, that scene would experience a musical renaissance in England, one that was certainly progressive in its own right. Along with Pentangle and Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention would enjoy a long career and international success.
With Syd Barrett's unpredictability on stage reaching the point of embarrassment for the band, Pink Floyd forged ahead into 1968 with fellow Cambridge guitarist and friend David Gilmour in tow. Driven by pressure from EMI for another hit, they first released a single, "It Would Be So Nice" b/w "Julia Dream" in April, but it was mostly throwaway. The album, A Saucerful of Secrets, however fared much better. A few of the songs, including Rick Wright's "Remember a Day" and Barrett's "Jugband Blues", were recorded the previous year and, quite frankly, sound it. The remaining tracks illustrate the transition to the post-Barrett Floyd, and clearly it's Roger Waters who came in to deliver the goods; just check out the wicked opening bass riff of "Let There Be More Light", the first track recorded without any contribution from Barrett. Gilmour also steps up to the microphone on the track, revealing a voice that would soon become a signature for the band. Brooding and pulsing, the title track and "Set The Controls for the Heart Of The Sun" are propelled by Nick Mason's deft but never busy drumming. Pink Floyd take a step toward the progressive, relying on their execution and recording of the track, more so than Barrett's discreet compositions. The ride is still psychedelic, but now more similar to the chic avant-garde of their live set rather than anything summer of love. But the album isn't without some duds: Waters' attempt at Barrett- like song-craft, "Corporal Clegg", and Wright's second tune on the album, "See-Saw", both entirely miss the mark. Nevertheless, the record's marvel is that it existed at all. It was a definite success, breaking into the UK Top 10 at No. 9. The band released another single, "Point Me At the Sky" b/w "Careful With That Axe Eugene" in December, their last for almost a decade.
Family centered on the talents of guitarist Charlie Whitney and vocalist Roger Chapman, and found early acceptance in the London underground scene. The pair was originally in the Leicester-based Farinas, along with sax/flute player Jim King and bassist Rick Grech. American producer Kim Fowley gave them their name, a reference to their “mafia” appearance. Rob Townsend arrived on drums and after recording one single for the Liberty label they were signed by Reprise. Two singles failed to chart, but the band quickly gained a considerable reputation from their live act; legend has it that Jimi Hendrix would never follow the band on stage! Family’s debut album, Music In A Doll’s House, was produced by Traffic’s Dave Mason and Jimmy Miller, and had a predictably psychedelic, if not Traffic-esque, feel to it. Immediately, Chapman’s raspy vocal on “The Chase” establishes one of the band’s most recognizable signatures. But digging deeper, the album reveals sophistication few bands of the era would achieve. Their influences are wide. Both “Hey Mr. Policeman” and “The Breeze” hint at the blues, while “Voyage” with its roaring feedback and Mellotron breaks, is truly experimental. Inventively too the album reprises themes from its selections between tracks. But songwriting would remain Chapman and Whitney’s strong suit, and their debut has little shortage: “Mellowing Grey” and “Me And My Friend” begin their long tradition of uniquely original song craft, as does the closing track “3X Time” which - you guessed it - goes through three rhythmic changes. Well received, the album earned a No. 35 spot in the UK. No less than eight BBC appearances that year certainly helped the cause.
This was by no means a major release; these are, however, the first recordings from guitarist Robert Fripp, and as such of interest to the timeline. The band came to London from provincial Bournemouth, in the south coast of England. Brothers Peter and Michael Giles, bass and drums respectively, had spent the past seven years as a rhythm section together, performing mainly R&B covers. In London, they managed to secure a deal with Deram Records, who released two singles and the album, The Cheerful insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp. The album's highlight is unfortunately on the opening track: "North Meadow" reveals only a concise arrangement and the tight interplay of the Giles brothers. Otherwise, each album side presents a musical story as terminally dated as the other: Fripp's "The Saga of Rodney Toady" (something about a fat and ugly man), and on the second Michael Giles' "Just George". The closing track "Erudite Eyes" finally gets electric and eclectic, but good luck getting that far through the record. Lyricist and jack-of-all Peter Sinfield would later remark if one wondered what his contribution to King Crimson was they should simply listen to this album! But without getting too far ahead of things, the album's failure was in fact portentous: GG&F met up with Judy Dyble and Ian McDonald in response to an ad she had placed for a backing band. Dyble would only remain for a short while (an early version of "I Talk To The Wind" exists) before the men took over. A few months and a wealthy uncle later, King Crimson was born.
Caravan's history begins as half of The Wilde Flowers - the hotbed of musical proclivity that it was - that originated in Canterbury, Kent. (Soft Machine, of course, was the other half ). With its members drifting both in and out of the band and the continent (France was the popular destination), the Wilde Flowers ranks were constantly revolving. At some point, the reigns were left to guitarist Pye Hastings and drummer Richard Coughlan. Adding cousins Richard and Dave Sinclair, bass and keyboards respectively, they eventually transmogrified into Caravan in early 1968. Caravan music contained an uncompromisingly English character - a penchant for whimsy (if you will) - that is best exemplified by their lightheartedness and song-form. Yet in comparison to the Soft Machine, Caravan was far more psychedelic than jazzy, though much like Robert Wyatt, Hastings' vocals are undeniably accented. A particularly strong appearance at the Middle Earth led to a recording contract with MGM. Together with producer Tony Cox, they headed to Advision to record their somewhat underrated debut album. The opener, "A Place Of My Own" is classic Caravan: highly melodic, it intertwines deft instrumentality with melody into their own take on British psychedelia. Tracks like "Ride"" and "Love Song with Flute" (featuring Pye's brother Jimmy Hastings) are definitely of the era, while "Cecil Rons" is surely Pink Floyd inspired. Dave Sinclair's organ solo is a stand out on the trippy "Where But For Caravan Would I". Unfortunately, the album's echoey production is unfitting for the material. The album saw release in both the UK and US, and in both stereo and mono formats. However, in what would become another unfortunate Canterbury tradition, it failed to chart.
The Jethro Tull story begins with the John Evan Band in Blackpool during the mid-'60s. Like most other bands from the era, they played soul covers before moving on to the blues. The summer of 1967 brought Ian Anderson and Glenn Cornick to London. Adding Mick Abrahams on guitar and Clive Bunker on drums (both from McGregor's Engine), Jethro Tull - named after an 18th century agriculturist - was complete, although they gigged for several months under different names. They even had their first single released as "Jethro Toe" (typo if you can believe it). By 1968, the band had gained a residency at the Marquee Club, and national recognition, based partly on their Sunbury Jazz and Blues performance that summer. Having picked up his technique from jazzer Roland Kirk, flautist and vocalist Anderson was the obvious front man. Here the band is incredibly tight and raucous - just listen to "Dharma for One" or "Cat's Squirrel". Anderson's songwriting is strong and already developing into his own style, evidenced in particular on "A Song For Jeffrey". Their self-financed debut blows down a classic hybrid of hard blues with a jazzy edge that was an instant hit upon release. The album reached No. 10 in the UK charts, while earning a respectable No. 62 in the US. Such was the buzz on Jethro Tull that the Rolling Stones chose them (with an interim Tony Iommi miming on guitar) for their Rock-n-Roll Circus TV special over another freshman band - Led Zeppelin.
Procol Harum's second effort starts off predictably: Gary Brooker's monochromatic wail over Matthew Fisher's swirling Hammond chords on the title track offer elegance, while the pitter-patter of the following "Skip Softly (My Moonbeam)" gives way to something deeper. "Wish Me Well" even attempts some blues, obviously at guitarist Robin Trower's suggestion. Although the first side of the record could have easily come from their debut, the second side of the record, containing the epic "In Held Twas In I", is the real accomplishment here. Originally titled "Magnum Harum", it's a suite of intertwining songs, but serves as the blueprint for the most progressive of all accessories: the album-side long track. This idiomatic trait would remain the ultimate expression for the progressive artist: creating a composition with only the physical limitation of the vinyl record as a boundary. Opening with Keith Reid's ramblings about the Dalai Lama, the band breaks into some uncharacteristically hard and complex runs, in a theme it would return to over the piece's various transitions. The success is the landscape; the track shifts between seriousness and folly, each movement well integrated into the next, and all culminating with Trower's soaring guitar over the final refrain. No small achievement, the track combined the writing and arrangement talents of both Brooker and Fisher and the execution of the entire band. The album again charted in America, reaching No. 24, though like their debut, it would fail to chart in their native Britain. Procol Harum would weather some personnel changes, as their subsequent three albums continued on a similar musical path, eventually earning some recognition at home. But Shine On Brightly would remain their shining achievement, and a milestone for prog rock.
An original member of the proto-Rolling Stones, bassist Dick Taylor hooked up with singer guitarist Phil May at Sidcup Art College in 1963 to form The Pretty Things. Moving to London, their R&B influenced rock was an instant success. "Rosalyn" scored them a No. 4 hit in the UK in early 1964, and their self-titled debut album, released in early 1965, scored similarly well. A few years of crazy antics behind them, John Povey and Allen "Wally" Waller (both previously in The Fenmen) joined in 1967 for the lavishly produced (but disappointing) Emotions. Drummer Skip Alan then went on extended holiday with Twink Adler from Tomorrow lending a hand in the interim. The made the passage into flower power, the Pretties recording S.F. Sorrow at Abbey Road with Norman Smith at the controls, around the same time the Beatles were recording The White Album and the Floyd were filling their Saucer. Originally a short story penned by May, the album's place in history stands as the first rock opera or, more poignantly, an album that told a (rather oblique) story. Musically, it's a veritable psychedelic soundtrack; with the Beatles influence ("Private Sorrow" & "Trust") never too far. Yet the Pretties manage to create one of the most consistent and enduring albums of the era by avoiding the cliches of the era - no songs about bikes, no children's rhymes, just a poignant, even dark exposé on the human condition. Throughout, the well-written songs are sewn together with one of the Abbey Road's finest productions. "Baron Saturday" approaches the epic, while the riff from "Balloon Burning" riff is absolutely timeless. Yet, like Tomorrow, the album suffered a delayed release at the hand of EMI. Thus, it was a critical success, but quite criminally a commercial failure, failing to even secure a US release until the following year. The Who's Pete Townsend did take notice; his resulting Tommy would eclipse S.F. Sorrow's as "the" rock opera to remember. Sadly, Sorrow remains a largely forgotten gem of the era. [Mono version was released on CD in 1998, Snapper Music SMMCD 565].
Originally from the provincial town of Canterbury, the Soft Machine split off from The Wilde Flowers in 1966. And by the time the Softs got around to recording this album, they had already undergone substantial changes: Daevid Allen, St. Tropez and the London underground were well behind them. That version of the Soft Machine released one single "Love Makes Sweet Music" b/w "Feelin' Reelin' Squealin'", recorded some demos with Giorgio Gomelsky, and alongside Pink Floyd, had become one of the pillars of the London underground. Now a trio of Mike Ratledge on organ, Kevin Ayers on bass and guitar, and Robert Wyatt on drums, their debut album was recorded with Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson in New York, on the heels of a US tour backing the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Let's make no mistake: the Softs always had much more to do with jazz than rock. The continuity of the record - it plays like a performance - is certainly derived from jazz, yet the Softs never fail to rock out. Ratledge's fuzzed-out organ is over the top, and heavier than any guitar - just witness "Plus Belle Qu'une Poubelle". Unique among organists of the era (as was the Softs among bands), he never appropriated the classics; rather he relied on the intuition of a jazz musician to complement the rest of the band. Wyatt's drumming, whether the soloing on "So Boot If At All" or the precise groove of "We Did It Again", is also as original as is his voice. His distinct English accent and cadence lend a genuine innocence to the progressive proceedings. Tracks like "Why Am I So Short" and "Save Your Yourself " are throwbacks to the Allen era band, though none the worse for it. Ayers' sublime baritone voice matched his bass, and graced the album's closer "Why Are We Sleeping". All in all, The Soft Machine is one of the more unique and idiosyncratic albums of the era. It saw release in the US only.
With David O'List gone, Keith Emerson firmly took charge of The Nice. It should then be no surprise that their second effort finds the trio progressing deeper into classical music realm to further flaunt Emerson's keyboard histrionics. Their six-minute rendition of Leonard Bernstein's "America" (recorded while O'List was still with the band) was released as a single and nearly reached the UK Top 20 in July. Whether this was based on musical merit is another story; The Nice drew sharp criticism from the West Side Story composer after they burned an American flag during their Royal Albert Hall performance of the number. Bad taste was one of the band's unfortunate legacies; in fact the interminable "Daddy Where Do I Come From" actually attempts to explain the obvious! But the big switch in direction on the album is witnessed in Sibelius' "Intermezzo from Karelia Suite". It's this deconstruction of classical music that would become the band's enduring legacy, and heavily influence the legions of progressives, Italian and otherwise. The second side found Emerson and company extending Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3" into mammoth proportions. The first movement is interpreted with a drum solo from Brian Davison, while the second benefits from a contribution from a lingering O'List. The third section adds orchestration from Robert Stewart, while the fourth is dominated by Emerson's organ soloing. Ultimately the issue is interpretation or appropriation. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis translates to "Art is boundless, life is short". Whatever your verdict, here laid the foundation for much of prog rock.