Prog. Rock – Orchestral Manouevres

Saturday 1st March

In the early seventies music was exploding; all those youngsters inspired by the Beatles were making wonderful music of their own.  For me it is probably my favourite era; everything was acceptable, everything was moving incredibly quickly.  One strand was what became known as Prog Rock.  This was a move towards longer pieces in a more classical style, lots of concept albums, weird sounds and song-cycles and the (re) introduction of orchestras into Rock music.  In one sense orchestras had never gone away, there were still ballads with strings in the background, even the Beatles themselves used orchestra on Yesterday and a few other tracks.  But I am talking about the attempts by some bands to marry classical and electric instruments together.  The most famous was the Moody Blues. but there were lots of groups doing it all in their own individual ways, from the almost classical Enid to Barclay James Harvest, my own particular favorite band ever (after the Fab Four of course).

They (BJH) even toured with a full orchestra, which almost bankrupted them and the record label too.  Another pioneer was Steve Harley and his band Cockney Rebel, whose first two albums were recorded with orchestral backing.  When these band did it well it was fantastic; that wonderful swell of sound as the violins kicked in over the drums and guitars was incredible.

Steve has recently returned to those first two Cockney Rebel albums “The Human Menagerie” and “Pschomodo” and has recorded them live with a full orchestra and choir.  The arrangements are almost exactly the same as the original records but the dynamics and recording techniques are so much better today.  He has released them on a double album “Birmingham” which is blowing my mind at the moment.  Steve’s voice is slightly ragged in places but the sound is so dynamic, and you realise just how brilliant these songs always were.  As I said, when you get it right the mix of full orchestra and drums and guitars is superb, majestic and uplifting.  Maybe just what concert-goers of a hundred years ago felt as they heard for the first time classical pieces being played.  So much of music today is incidental, background and meaningless it is a real pleasure to just revel in an exciting sound again.

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