A New Day Yesterday – UK Progressive Rock and the 1970s – Mike Barnes (Omnibus Press)

This is the second book based on progressive rock (the first was the Strawberry Bricks reference guide from Charles Snider) that we’ve reviewed in the space of a few months, and is such a colossus that I was reminded of the Forth Bridge painting analogy. Determined to snatch at least half an hour a day to dip into it, nevertheless by the time I’d got to the final page, it felt like it was high time to start reading from the beginning again.

With no less than 586 pages (even before we get to indeces and bibliographies), separate chapters on over 30 bands and a number of entertaining ‘divertimento’, this is an extraordinary project documenting an often maligned and misinterpreted genre of music.  

With separate chapters on Egg, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North/National Health, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Caravan this book should be considered a major Canterbury-related work in its own right. That’s even before you start to delve into the later section on Gong and Steve Hillage, chapters on both Mike Oldfield and Camel, and an examination of Henry Cow. But there are lots of crossovers elsewhere too: the chapter for example on Roxy/Eno/Quiet Sun/801 is peppered with quotes not only from Bill MacCormick but also Geoffrey Richardson whose time at Winchester Art school followed that of Brian Eno. There’s also a few pages devoted to Centipede, who wouldn’t immediately be on the tips of your lips as progressive rock, but as apparently Keith Tippett argued, were “the most progressive group of the era” and that feels particularly insightful at the moment. You’ll also, obviously, find major writings on the ‘big six’ (ELP, Tull, Floyd, Yes, Genesis and Crimson) – with the latter’s Hyde Park performance in 69 the book’s real starting point; alongside other familiar suspects: Gentle Giant, Moody Blues, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest and Curved Air.

Gong 1974: (Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty)

The strengths of this book are many: Mike Barnes’ easy conversational style makes this a very readable book. His knowledge base is solid, underpinned by many years as a music journalist, but the real coup is the considerable amount of primary source material with a selection of original, personal and often illuminating interviews with many of his subject matter.

One post in the Canterbury scene Facebook group implied rather churlishly that this book added nothing new to the Canterbury lexicon. That was not only unkind, it’s also patently untrue. If you’re an ‘expert’ in any of the particular bands you won’t necessarily be surprised at anything that pops up in Barnes’ succinct summaries of artists’ timelines, but the direct quotes may well provide new insights – as the recollections which have been elicited and used are often delivered in the same relaxed, personal informality as the narrative. What I found personally was that it was nice to step away a little from the context of this blog and be somewhat consumed by chapters of the book for other real heroes of mine (such as Yes, Van der Graaf Generator, Arthur Brown) who I have less of an extensive knowledge base for. It also got me actively searching out new avenues such as the impact of Graham Bond on the whole scene, or the flutatious noodlings of Quintessence.

Kevin Ayers 1974: (Michael Putland/Getty)

It’s hard to approach progressive rock without immediately being consumed by a prevailing image of pomp and overblown virtuosity and  but another of the assets of this book is that it does much to put it into its proper context: an extension of the psychedelia which had been reined back in after 67, the merging of disparate musical styles, the flirtations with orchestration, and the parallels as well as the contrasts to what ultimately swamped it: punk.

Barnes breaks up the book with a series of diversions: mini-essays on facets of the genre which don’t relate to any particular bands, and therefore give more of a wider cultural context: fashion, drugs, sex, festivals, politics, and journalism – relying on personal anecdotes of himself and others, with varying degrees of successful integration into the narrative. Away from this, an interview with Sonja Kristina is incorporated directly and reads very well. There’s a really excellent section on the emergence of punk and its crossovers with prog – a prevailing theme throughout the book is the thoughts of contemporary journalists, including Nick Kent, who as someone who stepped over the threshold into the punk genre both as a musician and reviewer, often provides a telling counter-insight. There’s also an interesting identification of 1974 as the genre’s ‘tipping point’ (Snider conversely identified 1981 as the point of no return), although the subsequent analysis of Yes’ ‘Relayer’ and VdGG’s ‘Godbluff’ perhaps give the lie to that.

Soft Machine at the Proms 1970: (Keystone/Stringer/Getty)

Favourite anecdote of the book has to be a teenage Jakko’s tale of being picked up by Henry Cow as he was hitchhiking from one of their gigs, and driven back to his parents for a cup of tea; whilst Steve Hillage and Bill MacCormick’s tales are equally as entertaining. And there’s probably at least another page of things I need to tell you about. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start painting again…

Buy A New Day Yesterday at https://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Yesterday-Progressive-Rock-1970s/dp/1780389205

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