Back in the late sixties, the major labels were in a bit of a sticky situation. The market for their wholesome, more conservative pop acts didn’t much like the idea of having such reprobates as Black Sabbath on their label – and there were plenty of little independents gaining more and more underground credibility, and becoming a threat to the majors.
What they all did (no surprise here) was to set up their own little alternative labels, and Philips, in creating Vertigo, created one of the most prolific. Between 1969 and 1973 Vertigo threw a recording contract at almost any underground act it could find and though it then became much more conservative, during this time it was home to some of the best progressive rock of the period (oh, and Rod Stewart…)
So now we have the inevitable retrospective, and mighty fine it is too – almost four hours of music that, assuming some of the original masters were in the state they usually are, sounds unbelievably fantastic.
The box simply displays the famous “hey, stare at me when you’re stoned” Vertigo spiral that was the logo till 1973, and contains a genuinely interesting and informative booklet that’s also surprisingly honest about the behaviour of the label itself. It’s packed with rarities amongst the classics too, including Evil Woman’s Manly Child by Dr. Z, taken from an album that sold less than 100 copies but seemed relevant to whoever lovingly put together this compilation.
This set obviously isn’t for everyone. If you really don’t like eight minute prog-jazz-fusion improvisational extravaganzas, even when they’re as good as this, you’ll hate a lot of this set. Likewise if you have vowed never to risk listening to folk-rock for fear of waking up with a goatee, this isn’t for you. It’s not a greatest hits compilation but a picture of an era – so there’s also plenty of cringe-worthy silliness, usually taken very seriously.
Witness Lord of the Ages by Magna Carta – an almost unlistenable 10 minute epic that goes on about bringing the harvest in a lot, while what seems like most of an orchestra join in every now and then. Then there’s Life Child from Ramases, a Sheffield born ex army PT instructor and central heating salesman who claimed to be a reincarnated Egyptian king who was under orders from Pharoah Ramases to use music to spread the truth. Also, no prog silliness is complete without a bit of Uriah Heep, especially when it involves a riff as superb as in Lady in Black.
This being a picture of a record label, rather than a genre per se, there’s also a couple of more serious aberrations. If I could pay some all-powerful celestial body a reasonable fee, or annual subscription, and thus never have to hear Rod Stewart’s Handbags and Gladrags ever again, I would gladly do so – however here it is, inexplicably nestled between a couple of the aforementioned eight minute psychedelic jazz-rock epics by Nucleus and Gentle Giant. The effect is rather like having a beautiful daydream interrupted by your housemate slamming the TV on and opening your eyes to be confronted by a terrifying close-up of Ricky Gervais’ face.
This is a small bad-trip moment in an otherwise stunning package, though. Progressive rock has influenced more electronic artists than rock bands the last 10 years, and it’s often fashionable to just dismiss it with images of long beards and Stonehenge photo-shoots.
So here’s four hours of wonderful music, give or take Rod, to prove to you how wrong that attitude is. This may scare some modern indie bands, as these artists clearly know how to play their instruments properly. For the rest of us, this is pure ’70s magic. Superb.