Blowing Free: Underground and Progressive Sounds of 1972

    Recently released is an above-ordinary four CD compilation from Cherry Red, looking at underground and progressive sounds of 1972. In that pre-Punk era B.G. (Before Google, Before Grossly ludicrous band-names and omnipresent/potent technology) the focus was on quality not quantity, when singles were on radio and T.V. and vinyl albums fondled for their information, artwork and sound as a loved artefact. Unthought of was their lack of length. But this isn’t mere nostalgia, because 90% of these names went onto long careers, while those that didn’t hold an after-life for quality collectability to the present day.

    The content feels wider in its scope than its predecessor of the year before. Obviously access rights play a major role, though the label has wider access (if not the widest?) than most in this field. It’s a tad disappointing that their own Dandelion or pub rock files are absent—to be fair they have had Cherry Red boxsets anyway—but harder to understand is the absence of great innovators East of Eden, Budgie, hard giggers like Brinsley Schwarz and Groundhogs who paved the way for Punk, or Stone The Crows the year their Les Harvey was killed on stage, though his brother Alex is featured sounding Mott the Hoopleish. As there are two cap-feathers for outlier Matching Mole—named after a pun on the French spelling of Soft Machine and featuring their Robert Wyatt before his tragic accident—later produced by Robert Fripp, it’s surprising that Gnidrolog were missed in that year of their two classic LPs.

    That year’s breadth can be felt by Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon premiered live in Brighton, a year before pilfered without apology from Medicine Head’s LP title, Ziggy was unveiled in a pub abutting a crossroads in suburban Tolworth, among a debut album by Thin Lizzy (whose famous single is included) and tricky second by Z. Z. Top amid the ignoble self-publicity of ‘John & Yoko’. Some who became well-known are Al Stewart the same year as his blockbuster Year Of The Cat, Atomic Rooster at their punchy prog best, Family, Curved Air with a dreamy historical tale (Marie Antoinette) and harpsichord whimsy (Melinda More Or Less), Procol Harum, Free and Ten Years After with Midlander Alvin Lee show-casing his blistering guitar licks after instant fame at iconic festivals. His life was cut short like another absent ace Rory Gallagher after so-called routine surgery.

    So the label know their stuff (observing not criticizing notions of completism are silly pie in the sky in this regard) as true underground contemporary music is well represented: two entries each for Edgar Broughton Band at their lyrical height, Hawkwind (the classic version of Brainstorm with Lemmy) and Jade Warrior somnolent as where they ended up, even Skin Alley and legendary Khan guided by Steve Hillage with a uniquely rich tapestry from the time, plus stand-alones from Pink Fairies (Finks having fun while exorcising Farren with shattering chords: infamous for Uncle Harry’s Freakout this is nunc’s mistress in Walk Don’t Run), Van Der Graaf Generator, Man at their most playful (“Get your Rizlas out!”) where the era’s ethos oozes as anyone there at the time knows, and Help Yourself with a joyous 20 minute spread highlighting they weren’t just ace country rock jam masters, though a three-course serving from the Pretty Things’ Freeway Madness seems overabundant. But did those there really want to “breakthrough”, as it’s now fashionable to assume? What did it really mean back then? Sales (a means to pay for breaks from endless touring of course), miming on B.B.C. television to grinning teens, nocturnal radio play because the Beeb were obsessed with pop and “easy listening”. Also ignored is that many major labels were declining towards closure while focusing on back-catalogue compilations. Labels retreated from support (at best) to sinking into swamps via corporate control part-engineered via producers, and eventually the legal theft of streaming behind inane (not to say puerile) terms like “superstars”, “national treasures”, “royalty”, “gods” and other unthinking silliness reminiscent of media clichés such as “drug baron” reserved only for the homeland.

    Over to daytime radio (mostly) with a healthy tranche of singles (Thin Lizzy—Eric Bell Band souped up the original but this still definitive—Open Road, Family, Free, Hawkwind, Vinegar Joe, VDGG, even Barclay James Harvest and Nektar: it’s a measure of a well-curated selection that it’s hard to pick highlights from such a fruitful, diverse time. The booklet’s right to say that back then progressive and underground became interchangeable terms, but it’s not true to say that “stars” such as ELP, Yes and Tull were ever underground. Nor did Edgar Broughton “emerge from the veneer of flower power”, there was no flower power in Britain (Quintessence projected a religious not ‘hairy fairy’ ethos) because it was American. Counter-culture bands were called thus because of a lifestyle and attitude, supporting causes with benefits and free gigs, which those “stars” never did (when I was a manager, I knew who pretended to be ‘free’ while demanding large rider contracts instead; all of ’em you’d call stars and national whatsnames today). Counterculture artistes were “people’s band” and such like.

    The selection does what it says on the tin. This fickle pickler might crave a little more kipper than caviar—the less gourmet—perhaps even a little more heft and less waft, but still has a healthier-than-most balance between both tastes including surprises. There are two helpings of Dave Cousins from his first solo album with famous guests the same year as Strawbs’ acclaimed Grave New World midway among their charting albums. It’s still Strawbs at their choral languorous best in all but name before sundered by that hardy perennial, musical differences, as were the classically trained Curved Air who had a hit single and LPs after a first picture disc debut. With two tracks from their third LP, in contrast the double from Family (named by Kim Fowley, surprisingly, because they dressed like mafia goons!) includes a hit 7” from Bandstand. Another charting band is Free, the single Wishing Well from their last ill-fated LP. Procol Harum oblige with the live and orchestral Conquistador. Once a backing band for Sandie Shaw, they inspired many proggers though Conquistador manages to omit their subjects’ crimes against helpless indigenous people or indeed any truth or accuracy during the pomp and circumstance, a bit like Attenborough set to music.

    On the purer progressive front, there’s balance between the famous and now hoarded. Rare Bird were once in Billboard’s top 10 groups with a worldwide hit (#1 in Italy and France) as one of Charisma’s first releases yet none of their 5 LPs 1969-74 charted. Renaissance were ex-Yardbirds including Keith Relf (who later joined Medicine Head) but this caused problems for venues who expected hard rock not symphonic prog, though successful in America; both have title tracks here at their atmospherically idea-rich best with driving up-front drums. It’s refreshing to hear Mellow Candle again and discover Nektar who briefly borrowed Hawkwind’s Robert Calvert when Englishmen camped abroad.

    Talking of borrowing, a surprise is an A-side 45 from Donovan’s one-time backing band Open Road, but no Mick Softley whom Donovan ‘borrowed’ a couple of songs from, in this year of his superb CBS swansong LP Any Mother Doesn’t Grumble. Lindisfarne hit gold early with the classic Lady Eleanor from their 1970 debut but still toured often though seemingly unsupported by Pye or United Artists. Their good-time north eastern fun is from Dingley Dell.

    There are tracks from Uriah Heep at their heavy fuzzed-up apogee after evolving from Toe Fat, and a single of all things from the million-selling Van Der Graaf Generator as vehicle for the inspired Peter Hammill. Caravan in their Decca heyday at full range, and Gentle Giant ditto in a year of two Vertigo classics. Stablemates Jade Warrior (multi-talented duo like absent Tractor) who grew from legendary July weave wondrous places from Last Autumn’s Dream before a quartet of albums for Island. There’s Lost Tribe by Bond & Brown, stalwarts of the 60s poetry, theatre and jazz scenes. Pete Brown was the lyricist of Cream then Jack Bruce, and this piano-rocking for Chapter One Records was 18 months before the musician Graham Bond sadly suicided.

    Dawn Records is represented by the Australian-rooted, ill-fated Jonesy, who enjoyed a Marquee club residency and were briefly augmented by Alan Bown though sound like the excellent Juicy Lucy here. The mellotron-heavy band (from their debut) had their third platter voted album of the year at Montreux but split when the studio they were recording a follow-up at was broken into and the band’s equipment along with tapes stolen. Potential was also written all over Khan from their origins in the Canterbury scene’s Uriel who split into Egg, a well-reviewed Caravan tour too, but after one of the most memorable debuts of the whole decade Steve Hillage went onto an acclaimed solo career on Virgin Records. As well as the to-be-expected Barclay James Harvest—a B-side surprise unless one knows the incredible fecundity of their back catalogue—is another B-side from their brief incarnation as similar-sounding Bombadil when they (actually their management) had problems with the label after touring with a 48-piece orchestra, for which a mellotron partly replaced. Departure to Polydor resulted in charting albums, especially in Europe where they were always better known.

    Outside these genres to some extent are Wishbone Ash, here used as a defining (definitive?) track. They, and BJH were another, might never be encountered at that time even if a heyday, but if you did you were hooked: not on childish hero fetishes but original music. From ’69 the west countrymen unusually used twin guitars (consciously chosen instead of keyboards) and here leap from pastoral to strident duelling boogie at a ten-minute best. With Miles Copeland as their manager might explain an American recording label, MCA, it certainly opened doors there. Ash’s second LP hit #14 in the UK, then Argus in April ’72 at #3, all classic albums of the era who still record today. They were hard to place (or ignore) yet rarely discussed by that primeval internet then, the music press.

    Skin Alley’s first pair of albums on CBS (one produced by Dick Taylor) went quietly into the ether, but two tracks from the Transatlantic follow-up Two Quid Deal show that mistake. Recording in America, when produced by the renowned Don Nix, only ended their five-year career. Along with Ten Years After (actually English though fame due to Woodstock, Newport and IOW), Savoy Brown were also bigger in the states and at one time a bigger attraction than Rod Stewart with the Faces (some members even left to form Foghat there). Both bands had ace guitarists who built solid blues origins into organ-flecked driving rock. Savoy Brown in the back barroom pound their tour de force title track Hellbound Train.

    Blues was also in the melting pot of a couple of others on this boxset, albeit one ingredient in a well-cooked feast. Vinegar Joe, with a B-side and album track, had not one but two famous solo careerists later with their own hits. Fronted by joint lead vocalists Elkie Brooks (ex-Dada, a Stax-influenced 12-piece) and Robert Palmer (ex-Mandrake, Alan Bown Set) plus an experienced band gigged widely in the UK and Europe despite three Island LPs 1971-73 and T.V. but sales were disappointing. Alex Harvey had several dud 45s in the ’60s while on the recording of Hair. One night in ’72 he saw fellow-Scotsmen Tear Gas (two LPs of their own) and they joined camps to rock as The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB), with five of their six albums in four years charting in the top 20.

    Loud and crisp in matching slipcase-artwork, if you hear some of these 55 tracks for the first time since those Hillman Imp hazy daze, I guess the label can’t be responsible (alas) for any side effect from the evocative adrenaline rush. Treats or faves abound without getting one’s fingers grubby from crate-digging: you can almost catch whispering Bob Harris, Peel or Annie Nightingale intoning intimately on what’s revolving round the turntable. Aural bliss in a box that continues one of those unmissable series that we dare not get used to.

    Brian R Banks

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