Byzantium – They exist on CD, but only in reissue of their third album, from 1974, together with some earlier tracks, notably “Something You Said – A Trilogy” from their second album. The third, essentially a private pressing, is fine, but by no means representative. Consisting of a live side and a studio side, it was recorded after the band’s contract with A&M expired, and it lacks the refined production that characterizes the two albums for that label. Those earlier discs deserve reissue in their integrity, especially since a precursor band, named Ora, responsible for a very rare LP, is available on CD with extensive bonus tracks, all in an eclectic soft rock mode. The personnel situation between the two bands was fluid, with some Ora personnel returning in the later stages of Byzantium. The first album under the Byzantium name is profoundly eclectic and more difficult to appreciate than the feathery Ora, at least on casual acquaintance. The second Byzantium, Seasons Changing (1973), suffers less from those disadvantages. The brace of five songs comprising the first side is nicely balanced, and in the trilogy occupying the entirety of the second side the band competes easily with the Camels, Pink Floyds and Supertramps of that period.
Carmen – Though experimenting sometimes with rather ordinary sounds, they succeed throughout because you the listener get put in the frame in the very opening bars. The beginning of Fandangos In Space (1973) is in all likelihood the most exciting and frenzied passage in the entire corpus of rock’n’roll. Ahora! – followed by flamenco dancing and clapping, synthesizer wailing over guitar, bass and drum rhythms, and a Spanish singer delivering life’s lesson: “Give a woman a gypsy lover, and I promise she’ll want no other.” Though this band was formed in England and was certainly based there, part of it seems to come from the west coast of America. In fact, their third and final album, The Gypsies, was released only in the States after a tour across the country, which suggests that Carmen never found a genuine following anywhere. It is time to make up for that deficiency.
Catapilla – They formed in 1970 with Jo Meek as vocalist, got to play for someone who was signing up bands to the prog label Vertigo, and went straight into the studio. But instead of Jo Meek, it was her sister Anna Meek who ended up singing on this as well as the second Catapilla album. Jo Meek, Anna Meek, it makes no difference to me, I can live with either. But I’m guessing that Jo Meek got this idea how it would be interesting to do an album with Julian Jay Savarin while getting the little sister into the music business, all in one fell blow. The Catapilla chronology gets strange after that. The band goes on tour, then it jumps into the studio for another album, but with very different personnel. The band experience revolved around wild vocals and long instrumental jams.
Cressida – The first of their two discs for Vertigo is merely an adumbration of what was to come. It was strictly song-oriented, and there was little in its design to excite the imagination. The second, however, is one of the best designed progressive rock albums of all. Entitled Asylum, originally it came in a cover that when opened out showed a mirror image of the front on the back. (I have an LP copy, but unfortunately it is a later printing that reverses the front on the back without the centerfold.) Divided into five distinct tracks, side one is no less progressive than the three-track side two. Functioning as an interlude, the prophetic “Goodbye Post Office Tower Goodbye” concerns a disgruntled applicant whose presentation is somehow lost in the mail, failing to arrive by the deadline and thus costing him the job on which his hopes depend. His next mailing is therefore timed to detonate precisely as it passes inside the Post Office tower (a new and, by the standards of that time, obscenely tall building in London). Kicking off the second side, a possible high point is “Lisa,” concerning the deleterious influence of peer pressure.
Darryl Way’s Wolf – Known simply as Wolf in America, where a single LP compiled selections from the first two British releases, this was a virtuoso band formed by violinist Darryl Way when he left Curved Air in 1972. Of their three British LPs, the second and third both are obscure masterpieces. The original four-piece band included guitarist John Etheridge, who divided composition duties with Way. Most of the tracks were instrumental, but occasional lead vocals were handled creditably by bassist Dek Messacar. For the third album a lead vocalist was added, John Hodkinson from the well-known jazz-rock band If. While his addition did not signal an improvement, in no way did it lower standards. The third album is the most interesting and serious of the three, but the second album remains the perfect realization of Wolf’s group ethos.
Fantasy – Beyond The Beyond, the second Fantasy album, was recorded in 1974, but was rejected by the record company and never saw light of day until many years later. It takes the unique atmosphere of their first album – something like Dickens’ Great Expectations – and weaves it into a grand progressive design. I assume we have the album in its originally intended order, meaning that the nine-minute “Alanderie” would have been the culmination of side one, although I am aware of at least one divergent CD edition. “Alanderie” seems to have a fairyland theme, but for some reason I associate it with ocean liners sinking, in particular what happens after their disappearance from the surface of the water, their plummet to the ocean floor, and the remains of their once-proud spirit, never to be surrendered entirely. Haunting music.
Fuchsia – Taking their name from the Mervyn Peake heroine, together with a large dollop of the bleak atmosphere of that literary monument, Fuchsia marked out a crossroads that remains unique. So acoustic that it might be folk, reliant on progressive rock organization, experimental enough to be avant-garde, yet the string instruments are integrated so as to produce chamber music – musica riservata by any reckoning. Fuchsia ply waters on the serious side of Incredible String Band (while Dr. Strangely Strange lies hard ashore on the whimsical side). The year 1971 saw some noteworthy releases, and there is no reason to omit this one even from a roster striving for brevity.
Help Yourself – Built around the singer-songwriter talents of Malcolm Morley, this band is sometimes associated (unjustly) with pub rock and sometimes (justly) with Welsh progressive psych. Four albums came out on the United Artists label, including the stunning Strange Affair (1972). The fourth is another particularly good one. Its title, The Return of Ken Whaley, reflects the vicissitudes of the band’s personnel. Originally it was packaged together with an LP by a band called Happy Days, a Help Yourself offshoot/successor. This was a deluxe package consisting of two LPs and an extra cover to hold them, possibly a unique concept for LP cover artwork. Meanwhile Help Yourself, believed to be defunct, was summoned back into existence to make a fifth LP, and production was fairly advanced when the plug was pulled. The now available CD of 5 (as it is entitled) is great, but it does not reveal what the finished LP would have looked like, except that it was going to be a worthy complement to those that preceded.
Julian Jay Savarin – A science fiction writer from Dominica who put together a group called Julian’s Treatment to record a musical adaptation of part of a trilogy he was writing. Entitled A Time Before This, that initial record came out in 1970, and an Australian named Cathy Pruden was the vocalist. I guess they weren’t very successful – the music is kind of wild and exciting – which is maybe why another LP, Waiters On The Dance, is credited just to Savarin. The reprint of that LP says it was recorded in 1969 and issued in 1973. That doesn’t make sense, and I don’t believe it. I’m guessing it came out halfway between, in 1971, because it seems just a little bit more refined than A Time Before This, so it cannot have preceded it. Moreover, the vocalist here was Lady Jo Meek, and it does not look like she was working after 1971 (see Catapilla).
Pete Brown & Piblokto! – After being sacked by the Battered Ornaments on the eve of a Hyde Park gig headlined by the Rolling Stones, Cream lyricist Pete Brown decided to form a new and better band, dubbing it Piblokto in recognition of the Eskimo feminine malady. The first LP, titled Things May Come and Things May Go, But the Art School Dance Goes on Forever (1970), finds Roger Bunn aboard playing fretless electric bass in a stellar performance. This is possibly the finest of all British progressive rock albums, but few have heard it and even fewer have been hooked. Of the original wave of discs put out on EMI‘s Harvest label, it is simply the best. The second LP, the less notable Thousands on a Raft, is also worthwhile. On these records Pete Brown was responsible for a significant part of the musical composition, not just the lyrics. In ensuing years he undertook further ventures, most of them abortive, but usually generating something of real value fit for compilation and repackaging.
Public Foot The Roman – The name derives from one half of a pedestrian sign, and the album cover – featuring a small collection of civilians standing on the playing field of a floodlit soccer stadium – is no more relevant than the band name first appears. Astoundingly, the solitary Public Foot The Roman LP has yet to enjoy reissue on CD, despite being among the most interesting progressive efforts of the early 70s and worthy of the attention of anyone interested in that period. The closest approximations among better known bands are perhaps Man and Wishbone Ash, but the compositions and performances are generally more intricate than what we find by either of those. Eventually the band changed its name, orientation, and to some extent personnel, becoming The Movies, playing FM rock about the same distance from their former vibe as the one name was from the other.
Samurai – A latecomer to the psychedelic boom, The Web recorded two fairly mainstream and derivative albums for Deram before adding a certain David Lawson on keyboards and lead vocals, changing their name to Web, and moving to Polydor for a great outing entitled I Spider. With almost no change in personnel this outfit then changed its name to Samurai (apparently reflecting the peculiar impact of their vibraphonist on the overall sound) and recorded one of the outstanding progressive masterpieces, on a minor label in 1971. The obscurity of this record is part of the reason for its enjoyment. This is jazz-influenced rock along the lines of Manfred Mann Chapter Three, but with a rockier foundation and a more direct jazz infusion. Lawson continued his antics in the band Greenslade, but Samurai is where he exercised personal control of the musical direction and hence where the music benefited most from his genius.
Spring – Opinions on their eponymous album of 1970 remain fairly mixed. Some reviewers rave, others just don’t get it. There seems to be some question as to whether it is really prog. Some think it must be prog since it is laced with mellotron. But others don’t find take-offs on classical music and such, and they dismiss it on the grounds that it fails reasonable tests for classification, in the end sounding more like watered-down psychedelia. But the point is that Spring takes a moral high ground in terms of providing listenable and sensory music with philosophical content. Spring recorded another album the next year, but the deal fell through. The demos are now available and they sound close to professional production quality, great horn parts included. A fine disc but not a ranking one, so only those who fall hard for the first Spring need concern themselves.