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Is this where prog rock actually started?

June 16th, 2020 · Posted by Skuds in Music · No Comments · Music

The other night I was watching a re-run of an old Sky Arts show from 2016 – Trailblazers. This one was all about prog rock. I have watched a few of these. They are entertaining enough, with lots of nostalgia-inducing clips and Noddy Holder’s distinctive voiceover, but ultimately they tend to promise more than they deliver.

There is the interesting idea of having ‘civilians’ doing some talking head pieces, fans of whatever is being talked about, mixed up with celebrity talking heads who are experts on that scene. But then the same talking heads keep turning up and you wonder whether somebody is really an insider expert in punk, new romantics, metal, 80s pop, acid house and disco.

The clips of film are the same ones we have seen many times before and the clips of music are often the very obvious ones, and yet somehow the programmes often manage to miss out something hugely obvious – like doing an hour on electronic music and not featuring Depeche Mode at all.

Anyway, the one I watched the other day was about prog rock and it completely opened my eyes and ears. It started by talking about how it was some unsung hero who kick-started the scene. I am by no means an expert in prog rock but I know a bit. I was around in the 70s and listening to it. My first concert was Yes at the Empire Pool and my first few albums included Yes, Genesis and Mike Oldfield. I have a passing familiarity with the Canterbury scene, the Zombies/Argent lot. I was expecting to be told about somebody I knew about but who might not have troubled the charts, but then Noddy started talking about somebody called Billy Ritchie.

Apparently he inspired a lot of the people who started prog rock, but I found it hard to believe if I hadn’t even heard the name. Didn’t I read NME and Melody Maker every week back in the 70s? I was a bit sceptical and then they played some footage of Ritchie’s band, the 1-2-3 and I almost fell off my chair. If you had told me it was early Yes I would have believed you!

It just goes to show that you are never to old to learn something new. The featured song was a version of Paul Simon’s America, which is a song thast Yes also covered in a very similar way. The 1-2-3 had a residency at the Marquee club at a time when Jon Anderson was working next door and Chris Squire and the Syn were always popping in, along with various other future prog superstars, and it all made sense.

Best of all, the show actually had Billy Ritchie on talking about all of that. Considering that ELP and Yes got all the success for something he was doing first he was nowhere near as bitter as I would be in that position, in fact he seemd like a lovely bloke. The thing is, his band sort of got re-named as Clouds and had a couple of things released but fizzled out in about 1970 and I don’t think he continued.

I found myself wanting to know what happened to Billy Ritchie and what has he been doing in all the time since? Did he settle down to life as an electrician or bus driver? Music teacher? That is a story I would be really interested to hear. I have been avoiding all those slab-like history of prog books, but perhaps its time I gave one a try after all.

Anyway, here is Billy Ritchie’s band playing America live in 1967, a whole year before Yes even formed their first line-up. It really in uncanny, and completely brilliant.

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