Barnes, has spoken to countless musicians who were there at prog’s coal face plus, just as important, are the recollections of fans
Melody Maker writer Chris Welch is generally acknowledged to have coined the phrase ‘progressive rock’ back in 1967 when he was enthusing about the efforts of Cream super trio Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
By the turn of the decade, the term progressive was already replacing the heading ‘underground’ on album racks in UK record shops to sum up some increasingly popular but still off-mainstream sounds.
A better description, no doubt, than ‘British ethnic rock music’ which, although not without merit, failed to stick!
Whatever the tag, this genre ultimately found itself out of fashion and much-derided by the masses with the late 70s arrival of DIY-driven punk rock – itself a reaction to some of the overblown antics of ‘serious’ musicians who were by now failing to hold any interest for those younger ‘spitting and pogoing’ hordes.
In his book, A New Day Yesterday (its title taken from a 1969 Jethro Tull album track), Mike Barnes offers up an epic overview of the UK progressive rock scene, ensuring that no-one could pigeonhole his handiwork as merely some kind of rock heritage nostalgia trip.
Across 616 pages, there is more than enough name-checking to satisfy both curious newcomers and those who actually lived and breathed the music and its patchouli-scented lifestyle the first time around. Many of the latter will no doubt have done it all again, firstly via CD reissues and, more recently, through the revival of vinyl LPs in all their gatefold sleeve glory.
Barnes says: ‘The heyday of progressive rock was a heady time of artistic freedom and accelerated creativity unique in rock music’s history. At best it found groups fearlessly breaking into new areas and initiating new musical forms.’
And at worst? The author readily acknowledges: ‘It saw them exhibiting delusions of grandeur, over-reaching themselves and getting lost in the maze of possibilities in which they had been allowed to roam free.’
Nowadays you can find just about anything on the internet: the good, the bad and, yes, the downright dodgy elements (and there were plenty of those too!) of 70s prog are ready when you are.
Back in the early part of that decade, when British TV consisted of only three channels, if you were a fan then the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test offered just about the only chance to see any progressive rock on the box. Even so, there wasn’t a great deal of it.
With its album-tracks-only remit, Whistle Test is retrospectively thought of as having been a prog rock show. But, in a telling interview with Barnes, presenter Bob Harris says: ‘It wasn’t, however, like there was a massive catalogue of prog rock bands available at that time.
‘Bands like Jethro Tull, ELP and Yes were the staple diet, but then once you’d gone through Barclay James Harvest, Trapeze, possibly The Moody Blues, Caravan and Camel, it’s not like there were many prog rock bands selling millions of albums.’
Much of the book’s attention is given over to the first half of the decade, a brief journey through the psychedelic noodlings of the late 60s served up as an ideal scene setter, for that is where prog’s roots lie.
Many prog tunes were bathed in the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical instrument developed in Birmingham in 1963, and, as Barnes tells readers, its first use as an integral instrument dates back to just two years after that in the capable hands of Graham Bond who was considered a founding father of the English rhythm and blues boom.
It was certainly embraced by numerous bands, not least Barclay James Harvest, whose use of the Mellotron saw them referred to in one music paper review as ‘the poor man’s Moody Blues. Intended as a put-down, it prompted BJH guitarist John Lees to reply in song. His title: Poor Man’s Moody Blues!
If that description irked those combined Harvesters, then spare a thought for 60s chart pop group Simon Dupree and the Big Sound who, having morphed into the more serious mysterious Gentle Giant, found themselves unceremoniously rebranded as Genital Gnat by New Musical Express.
Barnes, who has written for Mojo, The Wire and Prog magazine, has spoken to countless musicians who were there at prog’s coal face. Heavyweights such as King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Yes and Genesis are covered in some depth while others – Henry Cow, Van der Graaf Generator, Egg, Third Ear Band, Matching Mole, Strawbs, Gracious and Gryphon to name a few – also get more than just a worthy mention.
In the mix, too, are the radio DJs, record company people and journalists who championed the various ‘scenes.’
Yet just as important to Barnes are the recollections of fans… those inevitably long-haired kids who bought and enjoyed the music, attended the gigs and the range of festivals that showcased their heroes, including Reading, Isle of Wight, the fledgling Glastonbury in 1971 and the following year’s infamous Bickershaw Festival, staged on a poorly-drained site near Wigan.
(Omnibus Press, paperback, £20)