Monday, November 07, 2011

The Return Of The Giant Hogweed and other tales from 1971

There are two musical misconceptions that need to be cleared up, if I may, and this is the week to do so. Firstly, that 1967 - the year of my birth - was the golden year of musical creativity, and that secondly, punk was invented specifically to kill off progressive rock.

To the first question: it's true that 1967 gave the world Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, not to mention Are You Experienced?, the seminal Velvet Underground & Nico and The Doors' eponymous debut. But it was only the year that catalysed a period of experiment and creativity that wouldn't reach its true zenith for another four years.

The second misconception is somewhat more straight-forward to address. When The Ramones set out to offer, in 1973, "some pure, stripped down, no-bullshit rock 'n' roll", it wasn't the culture of prog rock - with its tendency towards lengthy songs, complex time signatures and Tolkienesque mythology - that punk sought to banish. No, it was the bloating of rock music. This was exemplified by the bombastic incorporation of the biggest bands of the day, writhing about in cocaine excesses on the diametric opposite side of the country to where New York's CBGB club spawned deliberate revolt.

Pink Floyd were one of the many bands to draw the ire of punk's angry young men. However, it wasn't that long beforehand that they were being hailed as the vanguard of a new movement. Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, their debut album in - guess what? - 1967, was championed for its psychedelic invention fused with co-founder Syd Barrett's pastoral English sound.

The bloating of rock music, at which punk aimed its richest phlegm, was what gradually unravelled Pink Floyd, as Roger Waters' gradual alienation from his audience reached its nadir with The Wall, preceeded by an ironically punk-like spitting episode during the tour for the Animals album.

Dark Side of the Moon established Pink Floyd as global superstars in 1973. It was their Sgt. Pepper, their Joshua Tree, their Born To Run. It was also, maintains Waters, the beginning of their end. The follow-up - Wish You Were Here (re-released today as part of the band's programme of releasing newly remastered 'experience' packages from their back catalogue) focused on the themes of absence and a creeping cynicsm by Waters towards the music industry and fame.

Wish You Were Here remains today my favourite Floyd album. It is hard to truly explain why, however. Perhaps it's because it was the first Floyd album I heard, but more likely because of it marked the maturity of a band that was still trying to find its voice, despite the success of its predecessor. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-5, introduced me, paradoxically, to blues guitar, thanks to David Gilmour's hypnotic two-note Stratocaster motif which unlocks the haunting 'dawn of time' chords - played on wine glasses - which open the album, and continues with the famous 'clang-clang-clang-clang' guitar riff, dripping in reverb, delay and flange.

Shine On is also famous for the story about Syd Barrett. Sacked some years before for his increasingly erratic, LSD-addled behaviour, he appeared unannounced at Abbey Road Studios during the Shine On sessions, much to the surprise of the band who had no idea who the obese figure with shaved head and shaved eyebrows was, clutching a plastic carrier bag.

Although Shine On wasn't written by Waters specifically about Barrett, his appearance brought a spooky poignancy to the song. Likewise, the album's title track, which opines of separation and alienation ("we're like two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year"). For a band supposedly on its uppers, the jadedness that Waters would take to an extreme with The Wall, was already evident with this 1975 release, and tracks like Welcome To The Machine and Have A Cigar.

The extended blues jam that fills up much of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 6-9 was typical of the sort of wigouts that Floyd had been indulging in during their live concerts for many years, and first found itself on a Pink Floyd record in 1971 with Echoes, on the album Meddle, which brings me back to the original misconception I addressed in this post.

1971 was the year where 1967's fertility really bore fruit. By the end of it, record collections had been augmented by a sizeable number of albums which are now to be considered classics of the form: the Rolling Stones brought out Sticky Fingers, Bowie gave us Hunky Dory, The Doors shut theirs with LA. Woman, and George Harrison and friends provided the prototype for Live Aid and its brethren with the legendary Concert For Bangladesh. Rock and roll clearly was very alive and kicking, but it was progressive rock - with its obscure lyrics, instrumental virtuosity and intriguing sleeve art - that, through coincidence or intent, set the years musical undercurrent.

The hallmark of many of the albums that spun on turntables in 1971 was that they aimed to tell a longer story: Marvin Gaye released what is today one of the best albums ever made - and one of the shortest - What's Going On, his earnest reflection of a world in trouble, embracing in its arc social inequality, environmentalism (hardly a fashionable cause 40 years ago) and the Vietnam War. Though not apparent, Who's Next - The Who's finest moment and another 1971 release - was another concept, rescued from Pete Townshend's aborted Lifehouse project, but inventing the Internet in the process, as well as giving the world the exhilarating Baba O'Reilly and Won't Get Fooled Again.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of two albums which became part of a series of events and releases which marked 1971 apart. On November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin released their untitled fourth album, known initially as the 'Four Symbols" album (and now, simply, as IV).

Containing Stairway To Heaven, along with Rock And Roll, the Tolkien-influenced Battle of Evermore, the hippyish Going To California and an adaptation of the Delta Blues original When the Levee Breaks (with its now much-sampled drum intro), it has since become the third best-selling album of all time in the United States.

Four days later, on November 12, 1971, a very different band, but with similar literary interests, released their third album. Nursery Cryme by Genesis marked the debut of what has become regarded as the band's "classic" line-up - Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and then new recruits Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett on guitar.

The album has also become regarded as an exemplary addition to the prog oeuvre, opening with a tale of Victorian sexual deviancy, Musical Box, and including a mix of period whimsy and literary nods with The Return Of The Giant Hogweed, Seven Stones (which bears more than a hint of Coleridge) and the Greek mythology-founded Fountain Of Salmacis nodding more towards the classical public school education enjoyed by Gabriel, Banks and Rutherford at their alma mata, Charterhouse.

Amid the frock-coated yarns, Mellotrons and Hackett's inventive electric guitar work, Nursery Cryme gave a foretaste of the Genesis to come with For Absent Friends.

For a band which became known for its long, complex pieces, For Absent Friends is a short - just under two minutes-long - 12-string guitar-based folk song about remembrance, and is notable for marking Collins' lead vocal debut with the group.

Another short song, Harold The Barrel, nods to Pythonesque humour, recounting the story of a Bognor restaurant owner who goes on the run after serving his own toes up for tea. 24 years later, Blur entered similar territory with Ernold Same on The Great Escape, demonstrating that the art of prototypically English story-songs was alive and well.

Earlier this year Nursery Cryme was voted overwhelmingly the No.1 prog rock album of 1971 by readers of the UK's Classic Rock magazine. It shares prestigious company, including The Yes Album and the same band's Fragile, King Crimson's Islands, ELP's Pictures At An Exhibition, Meddle and Aqualung, the epic concept album by Jethro Tull.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Aqualung is being rereleased as a newly remixed album courtesy of my recently reacquainted friend Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree.

Wilson, who has also been retouching King Crimson's back catalogue, says that the key to the purple patch that 1971 appeared to represent is that the record industry had been forced into recognising that rock music was an art form and allowed  - if it was allowed to be so. "There seems to be something leading up to 1971," Wilson told Classic Rock earlier this year, "which is when record labels started to get interested. That's usually when scenes start to die, but I think you can see 1971 as the zenith of creative expression for experimental music. The records were still very ambitious after that, but there's something about the spirit of '71 that was special and the peak of that whole thing."

Although it would be another two years before Pink Floyd would release Dark Side Of The Moon and another three before Genesis would release The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - two of prog rock's undisputed masterpieces - the congregation of so many legendary albums of the prog rock genre in 1971 can certainly not be attributed to record company conformity.

This was the era of bands releasing albums on a six-monthly basis, touring relentlessly and building their following through hard graft and musicianship. It's unlikely that any of them would be allowed to flourish today. It took Genesis until their 1978 tour before they even broke even as a band, despite almost ten years of critical acclaim and success in Europe and in the US.

They, and all the bands around them, probably have The Beatles - more than anyone else - to thank. Sgt. Pepper had paved the way for albums to be more than just compendia of pop songs. Which, if you think about it, is an immense irony, given that the early Beatle singles averaged at around two minutes in length...

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