When you think about it, all mainstream trends in music and elsewhere must have had small beginnings – each journey starts with a single step, as they say. It’s strange to think that the ‘70s megastars of rock and prog, bands like Yes, Genesis, Deep Purple and Procol Harum, were considered ‘underground’ when they emerged. It’s also a shock (for me at least), to find out how much of this explosion of creativity occurred in the single year of 1969, which also saw new labels such as Charisma, Vertigo and Harvest emerge to distribute the new sounds. I have been educated out of this ignorance by receipt of new boxed set from the Cherry Red stable’s Esoteric label, entitled Banquet – Underground Sounds Of 1969. Compiler Mark Powell has gathered 52 tracks from that year into a monumental 3 CD set comprising close to four hours of considered, cerebral and highly entertaining remastered recordings. It concentrates on prog, as well it might, because virtually all musical exploration of the era fell broadly under that banner, but the genre is stretched in each direction, presenting concept pieces alongside hard rockers, folk explorations and pseudo-classical musings, and it really is an extraordinary and brilliant collection.
The first disc opens with the aptly-named pieces Beyond And Before by Yes, In The Beginning by Genesis and the brilliant and mature Afterwards by Van Der Graaf Generator – but then we’re into the more obscure stuff: the complex but tentative Northern Hemisphere by East Of Eden; All Night Drinker by Fat Mattress, with its flute and noodling Spanish guitar in the background. There is plenty of contemplative navel-gazing going on of course, but the tongue-in-cheek brigade are also ably represented by guitar hero Alvin Lee with Ten Years After, whose Bad Scene would be pure punk were it not for the tempo changes, and also by Billy The Monster by The Deviants.
It looks as if Cherry Red hit the copyright motherlode for disc 2, with Jack Bruce, Free, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Procol Harum and Barclay James Harvest all represented in quick succession, most with relatively obscure numbers, although Tull’s A New Day Yesterday will be familiar to most fans of the period. This CD starts with Walking In The Park by the excellent Colosseum, who are immediately upstaged by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac performing Oh Well (Part 1), a blues classic with its acoustic guitar rock riff, Green’s daring ‘When I talk to God’ lyrics, and an abrupt drop in intensity for the ambient last minute.
Fairport Convention are granted no less than eleven minutes for their haunting, nautical nouveau-folk epic A Sailor’s Life, but this disc’s laurel leaves should probably go to Jody Grind for their superb take on The Stones’ Paint It Black, which I took to be early Deep Purple – Ivan Zagni’s prominent guitar is pure Blackmore, Tim Hinkley’s Hammond could certainly be Jon Lord (although in restrained mood with no soloing), and the final drum showpiece from Barry Wilson could hardly be more Ian Paice if it tried. Nevertheless, Jody Grind hardly register on the public heard-of-o-meter.
The set just gets better and better with CD 3. The Edgar Broughton Band kicks off proceedings with an ominous laugh – their punky, heavy rock number Evil is sung with relish and with a wicked smirk. The Lady Rachel by Kevin Ayers though, tackles real, genuine evil in a dirge concerning child abuse, way ahead of its time. Then we have the actual mk.1 Deep Purple with Chasing Shadows; a relatively hard rocker with extra helpings of percussion, breaking down into a full-on drum and percussion solo for the last minute or so. Kings And Queens, an 11-minute epic from Renaissance, is a real highlight of this set – the verses are fairly ordinary, but this one is all about John Hawken’s classical piano and the almost telepathically sympathetic virtuoso bass work of Louis Cennamo – there is even some timpani work in there; it’s a real treat. By complete contrast, Stone Circle by The Third Ear Band is a full-on medieval instrumental, consisting of nothing but a deep tambourine beat and two oboes improvising over each other. I’d be surprised if that many people followed the band with its highly niche sound, but on a collection such as this, it’s pure gold.
Massive kudos also to Quintessence for their ode to the hippie lifestyle, Notting Hill Gate, which starts with a recording of someone drawing heavily on a spliff, and includes the memorable lyric “We’re getting it straight in Notting Hill Gate – we all sit around and meditate.” The whole collection ends with the brilliant and familiar Survival by Yes, which will have many listeners shouting out for more groovy nostalgia. OK, I have to make this admission – 1969 is over 50 years past, and technology has come on a long way since then. The production is often lacking, the guitars are often scratchy and primitive, the vocals sometimes too low in the mix, the bands loose by today’s standards, and their performances lacking in-your-face immediacy, which can’t all be erased by the remastering process. Once you get your ear in though, these things seem like minor gripes, simply artefacts of the time in which they were recorded – until you hear the Climax Blues Band. Their jazz-fusion instrumental Flight, at nearly eight minutes, puts the entire industry to shame, with some incredibly tight stops and a fluent, articulate guitar solo featuring a great, modern sound. The rhythm guitar is rock-solid, with an interesting rhythmic timbre underpinning the alto sax solo. It’s just so modern-sounding, with perfect production; one of the few that can hold up in today’s company.
As always with Cherry Red’s clamshell boxed sets, the package features an incredibly in-depth and informative 48-page booklet; in this case it treats the acts alphabetically, featuring a potted biography of each band. If your memories reach far enough into the past to get what it’s all about, and you’d like to explore prog’s early days, you should really consider investing in this tremendous compilation. Actually no, tell you what, just go out and buy it anyway. Tell them I said so.