A word of preamble is appropriate here, if you’ll allow it (and how exactly are you proposing to disallow it, anyway?) Although The Prog Consultant and I invariably enjoy each other’s company under optimal conditions these days, i.e. over tea (me) and coffee (him) in The Boot Room, while listening to and watching Prog… ’twas not always so. Oh no. We first made each other’s acquaintance during a mutually unfortunate stint in a… choke… day j*b. While our male colleagues enthused about what ever dance “music” garbage was flavour of the day and the office harridans wet themselves over boy bands, TPC and I bonded over the discovery of our mutual love of Prog, Psyche and Fusion.
Is it elitist for those of us who revere King Crimson, Yes, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa to sneer at those whose preferences run to N-Dubz, Robbie Williams and The X Factor? Probably… so sue us!
Indeed, we got through the horrors (visual, aural and olfactory) of many a Friday afternoon on the public counter speculating about the prospective merits of that evening’s music documentaries on BBC 4. A recurrent strand among those was the “X” Britannia” series, in which the British contributions to and experience of various genres (“X” standing for jazz, folk, reggae, p*nk, whatever… and yes, they did a Prog one) were covered and assessed. Though long freed from the shackles of diurnal drudgery, we still look forward to such Friday night entertainments and Kalbir Dhillon’s Psychedelic Britannia (originally broadcast on BBC 4, 23.10.15) could have been made with precisely such snotty old gits as us in mind.
PB opened very promisingly with a nice trippy montage to the accompaniment of Traffic’s wonderful Paper Sun. When the penny dropped that the narrator was Nigel Planer (that’s right, the brain damaged hippy in The Young Ones) suspicions were roused that this was going to be one of those hatchet jobs which invariably conclude with the punch-line that Psyche and / or Prog only existed as deplorable aberrations that retrospectively illustrate what a wonderful remedy p*nk was (puke!) But no, Planer played it mercifully straight and the doc panned out pretty fairly. Sidestepping the more obvious claims of The Fab Four (to whom due deference was later paid), the program took an oblique, albeit valid entry point to its subject in the shape of The Yardbirds gregorian chant / sitar phase.
No Floyds were interviewed (fear not, gentle viewer, David Gilmour would get 75 minutes of prime BBC 2 Saturday night to himself a couple of weeks later with the doc Wider Horizons) but Pete Jenner (former Floyd manager), Joe Boyd (early Floyd producer), David Gale (a member of Syd Barrett’s Cambridge set) and sculptor Emily Young (another of same and reputed inspiration for See Emily Play) all got to say their piece. Amid the rampant stock footage that you you always knew were going to get (weekend drop outs painting their faces and dancing in the park, hipsters buying military duds in Carnaby Street, etc) were plenty of other authoritative talking heads (or should that be talking Heads?), including ’60s survivors Ginger Baker, Gary Brooker, Edgar Broughton, Arthur Brown, Pete Brown, Justin Hayward, Steve Howe, Kenney Jones, Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things, Twink and Robert Wyatt (see how I alphabetised them… sober as a judge!) Other disinterred scenesters whose wrinkly features popped up were the ubiquitous Barry Miles, Nigel Waymouth (proprietor of psyche outfitters Granny Takes A Trip) and Simon Napier Bell (thankfully talking about The Yardbirds rather than Wham…)
Ozymandias was particularly chuffed to see Roy Wood (a Boot Room Hall-of-Famer on account of his heroic efforts over half a Century) demonstrating how he got his guitar to sound like a sitar on I Can Hear The Gross Grow. While acknowledging Roy’s brilliance, Joe Boyd argued that The Move’s psychedelic phase had more to do with booze than anything that made Albert Hoffman fall of his bike… well yes, but you could say pretty much the same about 3/4 of the original Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett being the obvious exception.) And speaking of booze, did you know that Roy Wood was nearly a founder member of Asia, but… oh, that’s another story. A further brace of Boot Room heroes were trotted out in the shapes of Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone… total Mensches, the pair of them. Until somebody conclusively demonstrates the contrary to me, The Zombies stand as The Boot Room’s hands-down pick for most underrated British band of all time… see interview elsewhere on this blog.
A section about “getting your shit together in the country” ambled around rather too long in its rustic rut… a bit too much Mike Heron (Incredible String Band) perhaps, but it’s always a treat to hear the beautiful voice of Vashti Bunyan. You could argue the toss back-and-forth forever about who should and shouldn’t have figured In this program. It would have been useful to hear what Pete Townshend had to say (given the shove that the Who’s I Can See For Miles gave to the scene posthumously dubbed “freakbeat”, tipping it irrevocably into full-blown psychedelia), ditto Keith Emerson, given my half-baked theory (with which I’ve bored The Prog Consultant on many occasions) that Psyche starts morphing into Prog about halfway through The Nice’s Second Album, Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968.) The show’s outro doesn’t pursue the “Psyche into Prog” line particularly proactively but places Peter Gabriel’s lawn mowing routine alongside Ziggy Stardust, Led Zeppelin’s eclectic brew of electrified roots music and various others as possible scions of Psyche’s brief flowering.
As to why it ever flowered in the first place, Dhillon’s thesis seems to identify in it the ideal escape route from the world of drudgery cooked up in the white hot crucible of Harold Wilson’s Technological Revolution, a route that led simultaneously backwards and inwards… a retreat path that beckons even more brightly in today’s dreary world of aspiring strivers, budget responsibility, austerity… and when we’re not being bored titless by all that crap we’re being scared shitless by war and terrorism!
In the absence of any contemporary bands to illuminate the way for us, The Beeb helpfully segued straight from Dillon’s doc to Totally ’60s Psychedelic Rock At The BBC, a compilation of clips culled from their considerable archives. I think this one has been broadcast before (unless memory betrays me) but was no less welcome for that. Once again The Yardbirds kicked off the proceedings with a performance of Over Under Sideways Down from the program Whole Scene Going in 1966, setting the template for most of the subsequent clips (i.e. monochrome and mimed), if not without its its own directorial peculiarities in the shape of orientalist opticals left over from a Fry’s Turkish Delight commercial in an ambitious but ineptly executed attempt to marry vaguely oriental visuals and music… guess it looked really far out in ’66! The following year’s excerpt from Look Of The Week, in which The Pink Floyd perform Astronomy Domine, probably needs little introduction to followers of this blog. Ditto the “sine-wave” performance of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale on TOTP in 1967… Gary Brooker is definitely singing live over pre-recorded music on this one.
Next up, speak of the devil, it’s Mr Townshend and his buddies miming to the aforementioned I Can See For Miles on Twice A Fortnight (1967) … oodles of vertigo-inducing zooms in this one and some puzzling shots of Charles De Gaulle (well, the lyrics do mention The Eiffel Tower.) Finally you get to dig some groovy colours as Donovan strums his way through Sunshine Superman on The Bobbie Gentry Show in 1968… a song he composed on a Tambura that George Harrison allegedly gave him in Rishikesh. The captions also remind us that 3/4 of Led Zeppelin and Clem Cattini played on the original track… Bonham and Cattini on the same track? Talk about an embarrassment of percussive riches! Here, at last, come The Nice, taking us back to black and white with an abridged reading of America on the show How It Is (1968)… Emerson’s knife chucking antics fail to distract us from the mimed nature of the performance… I mean, I can hear Davey O’List’s guitar at various points but the dude himself is nowhere to be seen, presumably because he’d just been sacked. Another iconic psyche moment follows, with Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity doing This Wheel’s On Fire on TOTP (1968). From the same year and the same show, step forward Status Quo with Pictures Of Matchstick Men… Franics Rossi is clearly singing live, cracking up at one point and the band generally look less than comfortable in their freaky threads. A few years down the line they’d discover The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues and the rest is three chord shuffle history. Was there ever any doubt that The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown would complete a hat trick of 1968 TOTP clips with Fire? It’s often claimed that the masked drummer on this one is a young Carl Palmer but no, it’s actually his predecessor in TCWOAB, one Drake Theaker.
Joe Cocker goes OTT on With A Little Help From My Friends on How It Is (1968) then we’re back into another run of colour with The Small Faces, who all come out to groove about to a mimed version of Song For A Baker from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (Late Night Lineup, 1968.) My God, these guys really knew how to work a stage. Paul Weller, eat yer heart out. The Moody Blues put in the first of two appearances with Ride My See Saw (Late Night Lineup, 1968) before The Bonzo Dog Band try their best to look as though they’re actually playing The Canyons Of Your Mind (on Colour Me Pop in 1968), with Neil Innes delivering mock acid rock guitar heroics that pre-Tufnel Nigel Tufnel. There’s more sitar twanging from The Incredible String Band on The Half-Remarkable Question (Once More With Felix, 1968) before a really exciting and most definitely live rendition of I Can Hear The Grass Grow (Colour Me Pop, 1969) which underlines just how much The Move pinched (and to what good effect they pinched it) from The Who and also what a power house Trevor Burton became in that band after he took over bass duties from the departed Ace Kefford (The Move’s Brian Jones figure.)
There’s a brief relapse into b/w for the celebrated Jimi Hendrix Experience performance of Hey Joe / Sunshine Of Your Love which proved a bit too much of a happening for the producers of Happening For Lulu (1969)… they should have been tipped off that they were in for trouble when they clocked Noel Redding’s Plaster Casters T-shirt. All of which follows logically into Cream’s White Room from their Royal Albert Hall swan song (as recorded by Omnibus in 1969.) Finally, it’s those Bloody Moos again, with Justin Hayward on (yes, yet another) sitar for Om (Late Night Lineup, 1968.)
An enjoyable and reasonably representative concoction, then. Even the allegedly witty and informative captions with which the Beeb retrospectively plaster these things weren’t too annoying but this was possibly because I wasn’t reading most of them. The captioners did manage to excel themselves though with their claim that the Matchstick Men of the Status Quo song title are a reference to L.S. Lowry… substitute “D” for “Lowry” and you’ve got that about right.
This review previously appeared on the now defunct Bootroom Of Ozymandias blog.