Tag Archives: prog rock

Sailing topographical oceans: the absorbing pleasures of the gatefold album

Ah, the beguiling Elysian fields of the gatefold-album. The grand vistas which floated into view at the marvellously magical moment of opening the twin record-sleeves for the first time. There’s something almost awe-inspiring, a religiosity about opening up a gatefold LP album for it to occupy a space wider than your own head. It’s something of an immersive experience, allowing you to explore the fascinating, intricate details of the album cover (particularly important with, for instance, Roger Dean’s artwork for Yes albums, and a feature of prog-rock). In fact, the wider vistas which the gatefold created were perhaps integral to the nature of the concept album, and the mystical synergy which allowed partnerships like Yes and Dean to craft a product where the outside mirrored, nay, even enhanced the inside.

The gatefold packaging of rock music, and of prog-rock in particular, demanded that you gave yourself over entirely to listening to an album, and the information often packed into the densely-loaded inner vistas which gatefold packaging offered turned the consumption of an album into a total immersion-type experience; you submitted yourself entirely to the sonic, visual and textual odyssey, surrendering the senses in an entirely legal (though not necessarily non-addictive) way. I remember one of the earliest gatefold LPs I ever bought, Never for Ever by Kate Bush, which features a plethora of animals, both real and mythical, bursting unstoppably from beneath the songstress’ skirt.

Bats, birds and butterflies adorned the inner covers, either hovering above them or seeming to burst through from the other side (I loved the implied three-dimensionality there), and there was now the chance (as always) of pressing your nose up against the lyrics to try and decipher their meaning. Was it THAT Delius about whom she was singing ?

Jazz, too, embraced the gatefold packaging; who can forget the back cover of Weather Report’s 8.30 featuring the band casually sitting around engaged in a whose-shoes-are-the-longest competition, clearly won by Jaco Pastorius in those impossible, never-ending, glowing-white winkle-pickers ?

Or the mysterious, hallucinatory, swirling panorama (perfectly mirroring the music) that appeared when you opened up Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and saw front and back covers side-by-side, turning into a single yin-and-yang image,  featuring what seemed to be a high priestess and acolyte engaged some sombre ritual on the left, mirrored by a couple standing in the surging surf beneath an ominously-looming sky on the right ?

Contrastingly, there was African Sun by pianist Dollar Brand, that offered the opportunity to sink into the front cover’s warm, orange glow.

Rather than simply printing the lyrics to the songs and the band line-up, prog-rock positively luxuriated in the creative possibilities afforded by gatefold’s inner and outer covers, and it was also a way for puzzled fans to really scrutinise the mytho-poetic lyrics, and really get to grips with all the references and the pastoral imagery of something like Nursery Cryme, from Genesis in its early years. Following the magnificent perspective of a impossibly-well manicured lawn hosting a malevolent-looking game of croquet, you flipped over to the inside of the sleeves to reveal what looked like a collection of postcards, complete with chintzy illustrations, each as though tucked into a presentation portfolio by its corners. The bearded figure emerging on a current of notes escaping from ‘The Musical Box;’ the mock-Victorian image for ‘The Return of the Giant Hogweed’ showed an innocent young girl standing by a towering weed. And now you could follow the words to ‘The Fountains of Salamacis.’

Or Foxtrot, Genesis’ next album release; you could follow the complicated narrative of ‘Supper’s Ready’ by perusing the lyrics, which unfolded against a (deliberately misleading) background of blue skies and fluffy clouds. And as prog-rock sank beneath the weight of its own over-inflated self-aggrandisement, heavy metal came in to occupy the void that it left behind.

(A shameful admission here; I also had the double-LP Livin’ Inside Your Love by George Benson (I know, I know…), which I bought when I discovered that he was the guitarist on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky, and rushed out to find something else by him (I should have done some more research first, shouldn’t I…); the LP’s soft-focus cover should have been a clue, hinting at the soft-focus music contained therein…sigh… )

Prince, too, saw the potential for gatefold’s symbolist evangelising,  in his Around the World In a Day (although the album, like Never For Ever was only one LP, rather than two); the cover is packed with references to the songs in a slightly trippy evocation of the mythical Paisley Park itself.

There’s a fascinating quote by (if memory serves) keyboardist Nick Mason (in Dark Side of the Moon: the making of a Pink Floyd Masterpiece by John Harris), who observes that the publicity opportunity afforded by the album’s presentation was missed; you could open the album out and have it leading across front and back covers in continuous fashion, an effect that he says would have looked spectacular in record shops, only no-one noticed the potential to display it so. (My copy is currently in the loft, and I only have the one so sadly can’t endeavour to create this phenomenon for myself to see the effect…)

Regrettably, cassettes and, later, CD reissues couldn’t offer the same escapism; it was impossible to immerse yourself in liner notes from a CD jewel-case that, when opened out, barely covered both your hands. The printed lyrics were tiny, and the amount of detail in those prog-rock, symbol-saturated album covers was lost at so small an incarnation. I bought Miles Davis’ fearsome jazz-rock album, Live-Evil, on CD years later, which endeavoured to recreate the mystique of the gatefold LP with an unfolding four-sides cardboard presentation style, but it wasn’t the same; it lacked the imperiousness of the LP’s sheer physical presence. And don’t even get me started on the (literally) unfolding, multi-level misery of Prince’s Emancipation on cassette…

I’ve necessarily limited this to a discussion of some of the albums I have, or used to have (there’s also somewhere in my loft Queen’s A Night At The Opera and, I think, Sheer Heart Attack, and Tippett’s impenetrable opera, The Knot Garden, plus Joni Mitchell’s eminently forgettable Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, in gatefold format); a full examination of the Gatefold Phenomenon would take years, and embrace such thorny issues as what was the FIRST gatefold release (do you include 78s that were released in this way ?) – Bing Crosby, Elvis, Bob Dylan ? – what was the most controversial (Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, Black Sabbath’s self-titled album ?) – what about gatefold inner covers that just featured a nicely-pleasing photo of the band (Seargent Pepper ?) rather than going down the whole concept-art-tunnel ? Do you include albums that only had one LP rather than being a double LP release, the latter arguably a more justified reason to package with two sleeves ? You see what I mean…

These days, of course, streaming and digital platforms have all but rendered the physical presentation of an album obsolete, sacrificing (in my view) the ability to play whatever you want, whenever you want on your digital device for the sheer, tangible, pleasure of the impact of the album’s artwork. But vinyl is making a comeback – time for Gatefold Novices to get out there and experience the heady delights, that transcendent rapture, of unfolding a double LP on its first playing…

Wondrous Stories, or the love of Prog Rock

A new album has got me excited. Admittedly, it’s a new album of old stuff, but even so. The old stuff in question is about forty years old, and can be found on Wondrous Stories, a new compilation of the best of Progressive Rock.

Most people I know hate prog rock: a former colleague of mine called it ‘pomp rock,’ and was infuriated with its self-indulgent self-belief and over-blown self-importance (features encountered in classical music too, I countered: think of Wagner…).

Roger Dean album art
Wondrous worlds: album artwork by Roger Dean

Prog rock was about exploration: extending the structure of songs beyond the three-minute wonder of the traditional pop song; extending the textural soundscapes using electronics,  singing about bizarre, elliptical subjects, and often incorporating elements of improvisation from jazz. The swirling synthesiser sounds of Rick Wakeman and the melodramatic Mellotron in the hands of Tony Banks (think of the opening of ‘Watcher of the Skies’ from Foxtrot, where the whole album seems to appear out the fog); and rhythmic trickery (see the opening of BBC 4’s marvellous ‘Prog Rock Britannia’ for a vocal rendition of some of the movement’s famous rhythms): all these elements contributed to drive rock to new dimensions.

Prog rock also embraced instruments not usually associated with pop, such as the violin and the flute, and live experiences often included heightened theatricality aided by bizarre costumes (think of Gabriel’s flower-costume for ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’ or the face-painted fire-dancing of Arthur Brown).

The wonderfully tactile nature of gate-fold LPs gave full reign to the imaginary invention of prog rock albums, with fantastic imagery and the often incomprehensible lyrics of the quasi-erudite subject matter adorning the inner covers. Artist Roger Dean’s dream-like escapist album art for the group Yes revelled in the panaromic possibilities the gate-fold album offered, a visual feast sadly diminished with the arrival of CDs and all but lost with the mp3-download culture.

Admittedly, prog rock threw up some turkeys: Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall is so dreadfully awful that it put me off going any further in my Wakeman exploration of discovery, which is good because I enjoyed The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Criminal Record without the horror, so I’m informed, of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur on Ice that still awaits me.

But consider the endless inventiveness of King Crimson, led by Robert Fripp, with its deliberately complicated time-signatures;  Pink Floyd’s marvellous Animals; very early Genesis (before the departures of Peter Gabriel and later Steve Hackett, turning Genesis into Phil Collin’s pop backing band and ruining them forever), with great albums Nursery Crymes and Foxtrot; Yes’s ‘Close to the Edge;’

Closer to home, Canterbury also had a foothold in the prog rock movement, with the Canterbury Scene including bands such as Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Steve Hillage and Hatfield and the North. Hillage’s music may often be just the product of guitar-loop trickery, delay and repetition (as in ’Meditation of the Snake’ from Fish Rising and ‘Ether Ships’ from Green), but I like the cascading textures;  whilst his Rainbow Dome Musik (1979) anticipates some of the New Age music’s ambient sonic soundscapes.

Yes, prog rock sometimes was hideously self-indulgent, often took itself far too seriously, and had an inflated view of its own importance. But it also yielded some classic albums, and allowed pop music to spread its wings beyond traditional structures, liberating it from the confines of the three-minute cage to envisage new landscapes and new musical textures.

It’s no good: I’m going to have to get this album. Amazon, here I come…