The Always Evolving Concepts of Tones, Instruments, and Styles
THE YEAR WAS 1975, the place London. In the small clubs, pub rock was a placeholder for what was to come while Be Bop Deluxe, Roxy Music, and David Bowie were milking the charts with funk-tinged rock. Motown still dominated the mainstream, punctuated by the inevitable British novelty records, but the progressive scene was struggling to adapt. As the storm gathered, there were those who steadfastly hung on to the overblown prog style as the new punk tsunami washed away its viability. “They can’t even bloody play,” they complained. Others—like me—jumped onboard the first ship and rode the wave. Of course, along with everyone else, it was necessary to re-evaluate my record collection. A lot of the over-indulgent albums were exposed as characterless drivel, yet what survived the cut was beloved. The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett; the first two Curved Air albums; Soft Machine’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth;Yeti period Amon Düül, the French prog-rock band Magma, and so on.
The new wave was a return to basics all right. I recall the early days at London’s seminal Roxy and Vortex clubs. There, more than one string on the bass guitar was considered optional. The guitars of choice were often—and proudly—the cheapest. At first, I hung on to what I had been using, a legacy of the first progressive movement— mostly a Strat, but also a Les Paul Black Beauty. By 1978, I was using the lighter Gibson SG, before downsizing further to the mainstay British punk guitar—the Gordon- Smith GS1.
What became a boon for the Telecaster and Les Paul Jr. turned into a period of hibernation for flagship guitars of progressive rock. Most of the instruments on Steve Howe’s stage rack didn’t get a look in— casualties of the war. Yet how quickly the new wave failed. Within a few years, all guitars were buzz saws and everyone was angry. Small wonder the formative bands are still the most interesting. It wasn’t all water under the bridge, though. After all, the movement birthed Wire and This Heat. I’m just saying ...
Pioneering British prog-rock group, Curved Air.
Today, things are changing again, and prog, Krautrock, and Space-rock are back. It might be time to remember what a guitar sounds like without distortion, and once again embrace the distinctive tones of the classic instruments. Perhaps even the Cry Baby wah, or the twin-neck guitar can enjoy a place in today’s musical truce. After all, whether it was prog or punk, both styles always stood in opposition to the manufactured corporate beat, and, trust me, in 1970, we were just as disinterested in most of the mainstream music as we were in 1977.
The progressive reboot is a great opportunity to refocus. This time, we can mix and match, pick and choose like never before—thanks to the Internet. Perhaps out there someone is collaborating on the next Pawn Hearts, Finnforest (S/T), or Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh. Let’s hope that, this time, we can heed the lessons of the punk movement, because, for the most part, the only person who wants to hear you shredding is you.
Nicky Garratt is the guitarist for the UK Subs, founder of the New Red Archives label, a vegetarian chef, and a lecturer on science advocacy topics.