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Meet the Father of Prog Rock

For some the question is Prog Rock—who’s to blame? But that’s more than a tad unfair. For at its heart Progressive Rock was about great musicianship—virtuoso players who played their instruments more like classical musicians than buskers. It may have been indulgent with endless noodling guitar solos, bass solos and eighteen-minute-long drum solos—but this should not detract from the high quality of musicianship which at the very least deserves tribute.

Most musical genres are born out the cross pollination of different musical styles. Usually there are one or two pioneers who can be credited with starting the whole thing off. In the case of Prog Rock that honor goes to one (not so very well known) Scot by the name of Billy Ritchie and his band 1-2-3.

Ritchie was born and raised in the small village of Forth—nestling midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Born the year of the D-Day landings, Ritchie started off his musical career playing harmonica as a boy. Coming from a working class family meant that owning a musical instrument was not one of life’s necessities. His talent as keyboard player may never have flourished had it not been for a neighbor throwing out an old piano. The piano was reclaimed and given a new home. Though in disrepair, Ritchie quickly taught himself to become a wizard on the ivories.

The facility with which he learned to play the piano made Ritchie think he was just an okay player. He didn’t fully appreciate his staggering musical talent as a pianist until he joined a band. While his fellow bandmates found it difficult to pick up on one of the more tricksy rock ‘n’ roll tracks—Ritchie could master the song—any song—after just one hearing.

He also had a great ability to improvise variations on any song—reinventing it as something altogether new. His talent for arrangement was to play a key part in the development of the Prog Rock gestalt. Another key was his choice of Hohner Clavinet as his preferred instrument. In the years of guitar bands no one played the organ and no one took the instrument seriously, but Billy Ritchie’s chosen keyboard (he later changed it to the Hammond organ) was another key influence in shaping the Prog Rock sound.
Ritchie played with various bands eventually joining The Satellites in the early 1960s. He then joined up with another group—The Premiers who become the Prog Rock pioneers 1-2-3 around 1966—and were later renamed Clouds in 1968.

In 2011, Prog Archives interviewed the band about their earliest beginnings:

When, where and by whom was Clouds started ? Did any of you, past and present Clouds members, play in any other bands before joining up in Clouds? Why did you choose that name?

In 1964, Ian (Ellis) and Harry (Hughes) were playing together in a group called ‘The Premiers.’ The line-up of the band was two guitars, bass, drums (Harry), and vocalist (Ian). The band decided to recruit an organist, and Billy (Ritchie) joined (1965). Billy had been playing in a band called ‘The Satellites.’ The organ was so obviously the leading instrument, it changed the dynamic of the band, the lead guitarist left, the band fragmented, leaving just Ian, Billy, and Harry, and we decided to start a new band together.

We wanted to do something different, and as there were only three of us, we decided to call the band 1-2-3, it seemed a hip name, and something different, like the band itself. It was only much later (the winter of 1967) that we became Clouds. The name was chosen by our new manager, Terry Ellis. He felt we needed a fresh start and a new name. We never liked the name, we preferred 1-2-3.

Usually keyboard players are situated to the side and back when a band perform live, but Ritchie rejected this formation. He wanted to play up front, center stage under the spotlight. He was also one of the first—if not the very first—to play keys standing up. Sure Jerry Lee Lewis played standing up but he alternated between standing and sitting and occasionally even jumping on the piano. Ritchie didn’t.

Back to the interview:

Not many people know this, but Clouds was one of the first bands who combined rock and classic music. If not the first band, that is. Other bands like The Nice, Genesis, Procol Harum, Yes and ELP followed suit. How did you get this idea and how did this idea really take off in Clouds?

1-2-3 was the earliest band to play that form of music. It was only later that this style became part of what would be called progressive rock. We were certainly the only band around the Marquee and London scene playing that form of music, though experimentation was beginning to take place in other ways. Cream, and Pink Floyd, are the other names that spring to mind, though all three of us were trying new music from different directions. It just so happens that our music seemed to find a branch of its own in progressive channels. The basic idea was rewritten versions of pop music songs, and it all sprang from Billy, who had a very radical approach to the arrangements. He took the view that anything was possible, and there were no barriers. The blueprint he used was the exact model that Yes used a year or so later.

Ritchie was taking songs by other artists—sometimes songs that had as yet not been recorded—and turned them into something different—something exciting. He took Paul Simon’s “America” before it was recorded in 1968 and rearranged it onto a jazz—rock—proto-Prog song. He did the same with David Bowie’s “I Dig Everything.”
More on the birth of Prog Rock with Billy Ritchie and 1-2-3, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Mystic Sister / Magick Brothers: Gong live at Montserrat, 1973
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Prog Rock

Moody, atmospheric live film of Gong onstage in a cathedral in Montserrat in 1973 with the classic line-up of Tim Blake on synth, the late, great Pierre Moerlen on drums, Mike Howlett on bass, Didier Malherbe on sax and flute, Steve Hillage on guitar, and, of course, Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth.

Interesting to note how many older people were in attendance. What did they make of THIS?

Taken from the Gong at Montserrat 1973 DVD, which I highly recommend (cough, cough).

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
King Crimson performing ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ live on German TV, 1972
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King Crimson
Prog Rock

Felted portrait of King Crimson circa 1972 by Wasawasawa

There’s not really all that much by way of film or video footage of the pre-80s incarnations of King Crimson. As in nearly none. Thankfully what does exist tends to be fantastic. Here’s an intense run-through of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” on Germany’s Beat Club TV show in 1972, with Robert Fripp, David Cross, John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir.

And speaking of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, at the end of October, the album will be re-released as a “40th Anniversary Box Set,” a mammoth package with 13 CDs (including studio sessions and the first take of each song as it was laid down in the studio and 8 CDs of live audio, restored bootlegs and soundboard recordings), 1 DVD-A of Steve Wilson’s new 5.1 multichannel mix of the album, 1 Blu-Ray disc and more than 30 minutes of footage of the band in the studio, all contained in 12” box with booklet and other memorabilia and with a limited production run of just 7,000 units worldwide.

The album will also come out as a CD/DVD-A combo package with a new stereo mix and the 5.1 new surround mix, alt mixes by WIlson and the video footage; and as a more modest- priced two CD set.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Deep Purple’s Jon Lord dead at 71

One time Deep Purple keyboardist, Jon Lord has died in London at the age of 71. In a band with such a continuously flucuating line-up, Lord was one of the heavy group’s few constant members, co-writing hits like “Smoke on the Water,” “Strange Kind of Woman” and “Black Night.” Lord played keyboards in Deep Purple from the band’s formation in 1968 through their first split in 1976 and when they reformed in 1984 until he retired from music in 2002.

The statement from his website reads:

It is with deep sadness we announce the passing of Jon Lord, who suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism today, Monday 16th July at the London Clinic, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Jon was surrounded by his loving family.

Jon Lord, the legendary keyboard player with Deep Purple co-wrote many of the bands legendary songs including Smoke On The Water and played with many bands and musicians throughout his career.

Best known for his Orchestral work Concerto for Group & Orchestra first performed at Royal Albert Hall with Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969 and conducted by the renowned Malcolm Arnold, a feat repeated in 1999 when it was again performed at the Royal Albert Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra and Deep Purple.

Jon’s solo work was universally acclaimed when he eventually retired from Deep Purple in 2002.

Jon passes from Darkness to Light.

Born in Leicester, June 9, 1941, Lord was a classically trained pianist, who originally planned a career as an actor. He attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, while keyboards (piano, Hammond organ) with various Jazz combos.

In 1960, he joined the jazz band the Bill Ashton Combo. He also worked a as session musician playing keyboards on The Kinks first hit “You Really Got Me”. During the mid-1960s, Lord formed and played with a variety of bands (including one with Ronnie Wood) before forming Deep Purple with Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice in 1968.

Deep Purple, along with Black Sabbath, pioneered Heavy Metal during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Purple had the edge through the Blackmore’s brilliant guitar-playing and Lord’s mastery of the keyboards (primarily the Hammond organ). Together they made Deep Purple one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Of particular merit was their ability to perform a classical album Concerto for Group and Orchestra, mainly under Lord’s influence, and one of Rock’s greatest albums Machine Head, mainly under Blackmore’s influence. It was this ability to try out each other’s musical ideas that made the band so successful. Or as Lord said in 1973:

‘We’re as valid as anything by Beethoven.’

After he left Deep Purple in 1976, Lord released a solo album Sarabande and then went on to join Whitesnake, remaining an integral part of the band until 1984.

Lord was a brilliant musician, whose talents went beyond his work in Rock and Heavy Metal. He wrote and released several classical music albums including The Gemini Suite , Windows and To Notice Such Things. He also had a fruitful collaboration with the singer Sam Brown on the albums, Before I Forget, the concept album, Picture Within and Beyond the Notes.

Jon Lord 9 June 1941 – 16 July 2012.

Bonus: Deep Purple in concert from New York, 1973, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Floating Anarchy: Gong, live on French TV, 1973

Considering how much I love the shit out of Daevid Allen and Gong, I’ve only posted about them once before on DM??? How can that be?

Well then, here’s to making up for that grievous oversight with something so fucking good it might cause you to have an out-of-body experience: Two insanely great live Gong performances from French television in 1973 on a show called Rockenstock.

First, the band do a ripping version of “I’ve Never Been Glid” that sounds extremely close to the studio version on Angels Egg except that Daevid Allen mischievously changes the song’s last line, “That’s another story, now it’s time to go and have a cup of tea see” to “That’s another story, now it’s time to go and smoke another roach.” (“Glidding” is how the Pot Head Pixes fly the teapots, if you are confused…)

I love the way that Allen’s trippy hippy dancing seems to “conduct” the group. Dig Steve Hillage’s “lewd guitar, Pierre Moerlen’s drums (the man was a god of rhythmic pounding, up there with Jaki Liebezeit), Tim Blake’s spacey VCS3 and synth-work,  the great Mike Howlett’s booming, tight, bass-lines and Didier Malherbe’s anarchic sax riffs. This is Gong at the height of their power and they absolutely crush it..

After the jump, “space whisperer” Gilli Smyth performs a mind-melting version of “Witch’s Song/I Am Your Pussy” from Flying Teapot.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Curved Air: Live on ‘Musikladen’ from 1971
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Curved Air
Prog Rock

British psychedelic prog. rockers Curved Air perform “Propositions” and “Vivaldi (With Canons)” on the classic German TV show Musikladen, March 1971.

This is the first incarnation of Curved Air, which consisted of Sonja Kristina - lead vocals; Rob Martin - bass; Francis Monkman - guitars, keyboards; Florian Pilkington-Miksa - drums; Darryl Way - violin, backing vocals. Their appearance on Musikladen came a few months after the release of their debut album Airconditioning, a pioneering work, which reached number 8 in the UK charts, but did little elsewhere. It was also the first picture disc, released in a limited edition of 100,000.

Their second album Second Album captured Curved Air’s unique mix of Progressive Rock and acoustic folk music, and netted the band their first hit single “Back Street Luv”. The band then went through various changes, including stints with Mike Wedgwood as bass guitarist, and Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. Wedgwood went onto fellow Prog Rockers, Caravan, while Jobson went on to Roxy Music.

Curved Air has continued under various line-ups and still play today, but this is them near the beginning, when they were considered “one of the most dramatically accomplished of all the bands”.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

British 70s Prog/Folk Rockers Curved Air

Bonus clip of Curved Air’s ‘Phantasmagoria’, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment