Somewhere in the seventies in-between Uriah Heep and punk rock, I fell in love with the mellotron.
I think the album that really did it for me was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis. I had actually seen Genesis in concert about a year prior, along with the less than 100 other people who bought tickets to their Seattle show based on the hype coming out of England about a theatrical spectacle somewhere in-between Alice Cooper and David Bowie. What I actually saw was something I completely failed to understand at the time. I basically interpreted it as a bunch of guys who mostly sat down to play their instruments, while their lead singer Peter Gabriel told a bunch of stories and wore a lot of funny masks.
But by the time The Lamb came out, I more or less got it. The first time I heard this album it actually scared the crap out of me. I had never heard anything quite like the haunting, ethereal sort of layered music of this album. After getting over my initial shock though, I was pretty much hooked. Especially on those angelic sounding voices I soon learned were created by an instrument called the mellotron. So I immediately began seeking out anything I could find which featured this instrument. Which I soon learned would be found on recordings located for the most part in the import section (ahh, remember the "import section"?) of my neighborhood record store.
You see, progressive, or "prog-rock" as it has long since come to be known, is a distinctly non-American phenomenon. My own search through the import bins for these types of bands led me to places and bands as obscure as Italy's Premiata Forneria Marconi (or PFM for short) and as far out into the musical stratosphere as the synthesized soundscapes of Germany's Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream.
But at the end of the day, straight ahead prog-rock–meaning the type that featured actual guitars in addition to all the synthesizers and mellotrons–was by and large a product of the British. And as many of said British prog-rock bands that hit it big in the States–bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Jethro Tull–there were an equal number who basically couldn't get arrested (or get airplay) on this side of the pond.
These "also-rans" of progressive rock were among my favorites:
The Strawbs basically began, as many of these bands do, as a British folk-rock outfit along the same lines as people like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. But by the time a guy named Rick Wakeman joined up on keyboards, the Strawbs began to move in ever more proggy directions. Even after Wakeman left to join Yes, subsequent keyboard players like Blue Weaver and John Hawken made sure that there were synthesizers and mellotrons aplenty to match up with Dave Cousins lyrical storytelling.
My buddies and I would devote entire evenings that we dubbed "Strawb-Outs" to basically getting stoned and delving deep into Strawbs albums like Grave New World and Hero And Heroine (the latter of which I would recommend as an essential for any respectable prog-rock collection). When the Strawbs played Seattle opening for fellow Prog stalwarts Gentle Giant, their more subtle and still folk-based nuances were not received well by an audience hungry for the musical bombast of the headliners. Still, the Strawbs music holds up quite well even today.
On the decidedly more classical influenced end of the prog spectrum was Renaissance. The first time I saw Renaissance live was when I managed to bluff my way into a 21 and over nightclub in Seattle (even though I was underage) using my credentials as a writer for the now defunct Seattle rock magazine Monolith. What I remember most about that night was being absolutely awestruck by the five octave range of vocalist Annie Haslim. Standing not more than ten feet from the stage, I recall sensing the air around me actually vibrate as she hit the high notes of songs like the 20 minute opus "Ashes Are Burning."
The thing about Renaissance is that between Haslim's incredible vocal range, and the other musicians all being virtuoso types–particularly bassist Jon Camp–they were an absolutely amazing live band. The only problem was a marked lack of actual memorable songs, making studio albums like Turn Of The Cards largely forgettable affairs. If you can find it however, Live At Carnegie Hall may be the best live album ever made by a prog-rock band.
Camel was a largely unheralded band headed up by Peter Bardens and Andy Latimer that nonetheless made a string of fine prog-rock records that included Mirage, Moonmadness and the obligatory concept piece The Snow Goose. I saw them live once at one of those concerts that was attended by the 50 or so people who actually knew who they were (the far more popular Average White Band was playing across town the same night). Despite the tiny crowd, Camel played their hearts out as though they were performing before a packed arena. I'm not really sure what any of them are doing these days, although I did hear that the drummer is now with Marillion.
Barclay James Harvest:
BJH was among the most heavy in their use of the mellotron for symphonic sort of arrangements and as such will always hold a special place in my prog-rock heart of hearts. Largely because of their more than liberal use of the mellotron on albums such as Time Honoured Ghosts, Eyes Of The Universe, and the wonderful Octoberon, BJH were often compared unfavorably to the Moody Blues. Not beyond having a sense of humor about this, BJH actually recorded a song they deemed "Poor Man's Moody Blues" where they basically turn the Moodys classic "Nights In White Satin" inside out, deconstructing it in such a way that is as much tribute as it is parody.
Nowadays you don't hear a lot of prog-rock and the mellotron is all but dead as an instrument used by rock musicians. Still, every now and then you will hear traces of prog's lingering influence. Radiohead's OK Computer is an album that comes immediately to mind as an example of modern day prog dressed up to look like something new and "alternative," when in reality much of what you hear there was done twenty years before on albums by Genesis and King Crimson. Marillion, who I mentioned before, briefly enjoyed a career in the eighties basically remaking Genesis albums like Selling England By The Pound over and over again. I understand Marillion these days have developed a more original sound all these years later.
So prog-rock is largely one of those forgotten genres–much like funk–long gone, and basically representing little more than a snapshot of it's time these days. Asking for an album by one of these bands will likely draw you a snicker from the kid behind the counter at the record store (assuming you still have one of those in your neighborhood).
The memories of countless nights getting "Strawbed Out" however remain great, if somewhat bitter-sweet ones. And to this day, I wear my prog-rock heart proudly on my sleeve.