October 21, 2023

Followers of these pages may be aware of Cherry Red Records’ ongoing history of prog, recorded in a series of lavishly-notated CD boxed sets. They are currently up to 1974, which is represented by this 4 CD set on the label’s Esoteric imprint, containing well over five hours’ worth of music from the veritable heyday of dinosaur rock.  As usual, the discs are accompanied by a truly extraordinary 48-page booklet written by Mark Powell, outlining the history of each band – and as usual, it’s a smorgasbord of little-known and barely-remembered master works. True, many of the big names from the prog and Canterbury scenes are represented, but generally not by their most loved and best remembered tunes.

Barclay James Harvest

Disc 1, in fact, fires the big guns right from the start, opening with Freefall by Camel, with distinct overtones of early Yes about it, Negative Earth by Barclay James Harvest, which is much more Pink Floyd-orientated, and the excellent Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day) from Jethro Tull. This number is a disc highlight, starting with 30 seconds of our protagonist humming a jolly tune to himself while making a cup of tea, before the familiar, folky acoustic guitar and vocals come in. After that everything gets thrown at the piece; congas and marimba, even a couple of accordions, as well as the obligatory flute. Then we are into lesser known works by Quicksand, Kevin Ayers and Darryl Way’s Wolf – Wolf was electric violinist Darryl Way’s side-project in between Curved Air breaking up and re-forming, and featured the superb guitar of John Etheridge, who would later join Soft Machine. Another highlight is provided by the excellently named Hatfield And The North, with the even more excellently named Son Of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’.

Jack Bruce and The Strawbs both make an appearance on this first disc, while the second CD opens with Nektar doing a spoken cod-German accent that was probably quite amusing in 1974. Greenslade provide the disc highlight with the 8½ minute Joie de Vivre, opening with crowd noises and a church organ before the main theme comes in after a minute and a half; Hatfield And The North once again lift the mood with the cheeky cockney-voiced Let’s Eat Real Soon. Disc 3 seems a little stodgy to these ears, although Gravy Train provide a bit of funk and Procul Harum some Kinks-like rock riffage; the real discovery from this disc for me though, is Refugee’s up-tempo prog-fusion number Ritt Mickley, which comes across astoundingly modern. Featuring the breathtaking talents of keyboard wizard Patrick Moraz, the instrumentation is vintage to be sure, but it wouldn’t sound amiss on some of today’s prog masterpieces from the likes of Neal Morse or Ayreon. The Neutrons present a beautifully-constructed piece named Living In The World Today, which is a bit of an angry rant to be fair, but with a guitar in each ear and some massed vocal harmonies, it comes across well under headphones. Bebop Deluxe bring the third disc to a close with the bucolically acoustic, waltz-time Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape, complete with a birdsong outro.

Refugee

Although it goes against the grain to say so, I’m starting to appreciate why the nay-sayers cast sideways glances at this era of prog, with its long, ponderous songs, self-indulgent jamming and po-faced, oh-so-serious poetry, and musical innovation and brilliance notwithstanding, I’m starting to wade against the current a bit until the whole set is redeemed by disc 4. I don’t know why, but it all seems to come together on this one, starting with a live rendition of the highly complex Utopia Theme from Todd Rundgren, resolving into a groovy, rolling tempo at a minute and a half, with a great synth solo, and some vocals at last after 7½ minutes.  Rundgren contributes a great guitar solo that can hardly help but recall Bat Out Of Hell, and the whole shebang lasts a very enjoyable quarter of an hour. In an almost complete turnaround, this is followed by Renaissance, with Annie Haslem’s beautifully clear, bell-like tones singing Black Flame.

Camel, Caravan and Hawkwind all present good numbers on this disc, but it’s still a joy to hear Robin Trower’s classic Bridge Of Sighs, with its panning tinging noises and lavishly layered guitars; let’s not forget the great James Dewar’s voice on this one too. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, while Alex was still in it, contribute the 8 minute proto-metal of Anthem, which is almost Phenomenon-era UFO, except for the hummed melody line and the concluding bagpipe solo! Another highlight is the noticeably Beatlesque ballad Just Look Away by PFM, complete with brass instruments, big bass drum and piccolo. But possibly the best, most complete and most satisfyingly entertaining number of the whole set is the final piece on disc 4, the excellent nine-minute epic A Sprinkling Of Clouds by Gong. Starting with restrained, squashy synth noises, with added springy tamba and bongos, it morphs into an up-tempo progger in 5/8 and 9/8, building until the whole band comes in hard at 5½ minutes. Pan pipes and a school bell feature in the final fizzle.

Nektar

As always with these Cherry Red compilations, the set is lovingly packaged and presented in a clamshell case, accompanied by exhaustively researched and superbly written notes on the bands in alphabetical order. It would be a mistake to take it as a comprehensive document of the prog scene in 1974 as Esoteric are of course working within the bounds of their catalogue, which is mostly (but not exclusively) UK-based; of course Yes released the seminal Relayer in this year and Genesis recorded The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, with neither band being represented in this set. Nevertheless, equally entertaining and educational, this is another great addition to the series.