Published on 5th June 2022
Geoffrey Feakes – 1973: A Year in Progressive Rock / Richard Rees Jones – Peter Hammill On Track: Every Album, Every Song
Sonicbond’s series of books by amateur music enthusiasts continues with these two volumes, and before I go any further, I would simply say that the many and mostly, if not all, amateur enthusiasts, are all far more disciplined than me. I often think I should pitch in, but I am just far too lazy. So, all the credit in the universe for actually getting off your metaphorical arses!
Geoffrey Feakes – 1973: A Year in Progressive Rock
The Sonicbond main template is take a band, and dissect their discography track by track, in chronological order. Another template is to give the forensic treatment to one pivotal year in the history of a genre, and this is one of those. The premise for this tome is self explanatory, and many see 1973 as the summit year of what became known as Prog Rock, rising from the foothills of post-psychedelic music making in 1969, climbing the peak of 1973, only to fall away in a period of similar length thereafter. This immediately creates a problem for itself by restricting the timespan to a calendar year. As the author acknowledges, Close To the Edge is a benchmark prog album, but as it was released in 1972 it cannot be included, whereas the excessive and somewhat bloated (ha!) follow up can. I will concede that Tales From Topographic Oceans is certainly seen as a definitive slab of prog, but probably not entirely in a positive manner!
The twenty 1973 albums chosen for a chapter length dissection each include some odd choices and suffer some strange omissions, but these are the author’s choices, and the title is 1973 – A Year in Progressive Rock, and not The Most Important Progressive Rock Albums of 1973 after all. Therefore it is more a case of the author’s favourites rather than the most influential releases. The Big Six of prog, namely Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and ELP, are mostly all here, but leaving Dark Side of the Moon off the main menu because it “…has been documented in so many books… it’s almost impossible to be subjective (sic – made me LOL, that!) about progressive rock’s most famous recording” seems a bit odd to me. Especially when Selling England by the Pound, an album that has also had far too much said about it, IS given the microscopic analysis treatment. Tubular Bells is another one that is similarly left out in the rain.
The book begins with some background to the author’s relationship with prog, and being of an age, he got to see most if not all of the important bands in their prime, something I am four or five years too young to have done. There are a few introductory chapters going through the history of the equally loved and maligned genre, correctly citing In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) as the album that kick-started it all. Chapters on Italian and German progressive rock cover the very simple basics of those scenes, as both require books of their own. All in all, it is written in an easy to digest style, devoid of pretence. Given the genre, maybe an opportunity missed!
The twenty albums chosen are given the familiar Sonicbond track-by-track analysis, admittedly a reviewing style I find hard to read, and harder to write as it precludes any imaginative story arc, being almost scientific in its forensic style. Geoff seems to take to it like a duck to orange sauce, right down to specific timings for when the Mongolian Nose Flute solo starts and finishes. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.
Here are the twenty albums going under the critical scalpel…
– Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire
– Rick Wakeman – The Six Wives of Henry VIII
– Greenslade – Greenslade
– King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
– Gong – Flying Teapot
– Le Orme – Felona E Sorona
– Jethro Tull – A Passion Play
– Can – Future Days
– Kayak – See See the Sun
– Gentle Giant – In A Glass House
– PFM – Photos of Ghosts
– Renaissance – Ashes Are Burning
– Caravan – For Girls who Grow Plump in the Night
– Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
– ELP – Brain Salad Surgery
– Nektar – Remember the Future
– Manfred Mann’s Earthband – Solar Fire
– ELO – On the Third Day
– Magma – Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh
– Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans
Make of that what you will, I guess fewer than half of those would feature in my list. On a positive note, I will now go listen to that Le Orme album, as I’ve never heard it. And that is really the point of a subjective list, is it not?
Richard Rees Jones – Peter Hammill On Track: Every Album, Every Song
Let me start this review by wishing Peter Hammill a speedy recovery from whatever illness it was that recently caused the sudden mid-tour cancellation of Van der Graaf Generator’s European jaunt. That worrying news, along with hearing just now as I write of the sad passing of Alan White, reminds us all that our prog heroes are not getting any younger, so go to the gigs and buy the albums while you can.
This particular tome is billed in other reviews as “an invaluable companion to Van der Graaf Generator On Track”, which it no doubt is. Being very familiar with that band’s recorded works, I have not got around to reading the VdGG book yet, and Dan Coffey, who wrote that particular instalment in Sonicbond’s series, had a far easier task than Richard Rees Jones, as Peter Hammill’s band released probably less than half the number of albums than Hammill has so far as a solo artist.
With a discography standing at over 40 studio albums since Fool’s Mate in 1971, up to last year’s In Translation, writing this book is taking the term “labour of love”, which all these On Track books are by necessity, to its extremes. Luckily, Richard makes these track-by-track exposés highly readable, and he may be the best exponent of this difficult style I’ve come across. How he managed to write all this without becoming overly repetitive, or disappearing down the musical forensic dissection worm hole is anyone’s guess, but he has.
Richard is preaching to the converted here, as I consider that Hammill is easily the best lyricist, and probably the best songwriter of his peers in the original prog pond. As a solo artist, he has never been constrained by genre, and goes wherever his muse takes him, and that is to some very strange places indeed. However, the Thin Man is just as adept at a gushing three-minute love song such as My Favourite from my current favourite album of his, pH7, as he is an edgy avant prog mini epic like Mr X (Gets Tense)/Faculty X, which ends the same album. In fact, pH7 is the perfect distillation of the man’s talent as it covers all bases but manages the difficult trick of being a coherent whole. Richard knows this and puts it into words far better than I.
Among many other erudite insights, Richard, like me, is of the opinion that the fabulous Over is one of the most poignant break up albums out there, easily ranking with more famous offerings such as Blood On The Tracks. Over perfectly illustrates Hammill’s skills and scope as a songwriter.
Along with the analysis, there is plenty of context for each album, such that the book pulls the reader along through the unpredictable trajectory of Hammill’s career in an always entertaining manner.
Being a bit of a fan, I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in this book, as it introduced me to a fair few Hammill albums I’ve heard of but not yet heard. There can’t be many who own every Hammill album, such is the daunting size of his back catalogue, so if you’re a fan like me, Peter Hammill On Track is a great primer for those as yet undiscovered gems. A must read.