“Frontiers of Progressive Rock”: The original Renaissance join Soft Machine, King Crimson & others in Night Flight’s Video Vault

By on August 22, 2016

On September 20, 1986, “Night Flight” explored the frontiers of British progressive rock and shared rare musical performance clips by some of the genre’s trailblazing pioneers, including Renaissance, Soft Machine, King Crimson and Yes, with Peter Gabriel’s original 1980 video for “Games Without Frontiers” added in for good measure. Check out our latest trip to the ol’ video vault, Video Vault 4 (which arrives about 25 minutes in) over on Night Flight Plus.

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“In the late sixties,” Pat Prescott says at the introduction to the videos, “the second wave of British rock brought a new sound to the musical mainstream: ornate orchestration which fused jazz, folk, classical musical and pop into what became known as progressive rock ‘n’ roll.”

The majority of the clips come from performances by these bands on Germany’s popular music TV show“Beat Club,” which had been airing since September 1965, broadcast from Bremen, West Germany, on Erstes Deutsches Fernsehen, the first of two national public TV channels.

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These “Beat Club” performances have subsequently been collected and released — first on laserdisc and much later on DVD — as Frontiers of Progressive Rock and show the bands in performances ranging from 1969 to 1972, with all the then-current video effects the show was known for intact, including very groovy double-exposures and wacky computerized graphics.

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First up — and the focus of this blog — is the band Renaissance and their performance of the track “Island” from New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) in 1969 (they also performed “Kings and Queens” on the show).

This was the first color episode of the show, and showcases the band’s early pre-Annie Haslam lineup, with two ex-members of the Yardbirds — Keith Relf (guitar, vocals), McCarty (drums) — joined by Louis Cennamo (bass), John Hawken (piano) and Relf’s sister Jane Relf on lead and additional vocals.

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Their first eponymous release was produced by ex-Yardbird bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and released on Island in the UK and Elektra in the U.S., with different cover art for both releases (audiences across Europe, ex-UK, came to know the album by the title it was released in those territories, Kings & Queens).

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This original lineup had formed after the breakup of the Yardbirds, sometime in ’68. Jimmy Page was first transforming the Yardbirds into the New Yardbirds first — later abandoning the name and striking out with a heavier new rock band, Led Zeppelin — and so Relf and McCarty paired up and decided to make music on their own.

Relf’s and McCarty’s first attempts were as a folky duo, called Together, a moniker they used on a single for Columbia Records in November 1968 (it failed to chart).

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By the beginning of ’69, they were organizing a new band with ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith (by then a noted producer) eager to help this new band — a quintet — find a unique sound of their own.

In Mountains Came Out Of The Sky: An Illustrated History of Prog Rock, McCarty is quoted by author Will Romana as saying that, “Towards the end of the Yardbirds, we wanted to do something a bit more poetic, if you like, not so heavy. A bit more folky.. we had had enough of heavy rock.”

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McCarty has also reported to have said the following about the new band, Renaissance, who would their first live shows in May of that year:

“”We were writing much gentler music than we had done with The Yardbirds. The songs were much more spiritual, something which both Keith and I wanted to explore with a new band. When we began recruiting for the new band, we knew bassist Louis Cennamo and asked him to the rehearsals. One of our other friends from The Yardbirds, Chris Dreja, was trying to put together a country and western band and he came with both ex-Nashville Teens pianist John Hawken and Brian (BJ) Cole, a pedal steel player. Keith’s sister, Jane, wanted to sing and she fit with with the band and while she’d never sung professionally before, she brought a certain grace and look to the band, as well. As we played that first day, Brian’s steel guitar didn’t fit well with what we were doing but John Hawken’s piano playing fit quite well. He gelled with Keith, Louis and I and it was clear that Brian was out while John was in. At one point, as we were jamming around on some of the songs, John began playing some Beethoven and suddenly we had found the missing element that was that ‘something different’ that Keith and I had been looking for. Renaissance was born.”

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For much of 1969, they would play shows in Europe, at rock festivals in Belgium and France, and closed out the year with their taping for “Beat Club.”

As they embarked on a tour of North America in February 1970, the band’s lineup were already growing wearing of touring, especially since they were often paired up with British rock bands that the Yardbirds might have played shows with (and probably did), including the Kinks, but Relf and McCarty were disappointed that bookers weren’t matching them up with other classically-influenced rock bands.

By the end of their spring tour, they were ready to move on (McCarty was also quite ill and he and Relf did not have the stamina to continue touring with the band).

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By June of 197, the band were disintegrating. Relf and McCarty decided to focus their future efforts on producing, songwriting and other areas.

Cennamo, meanwhile, joined Jon Hiseman’s band Colosseum, with whom he recorded the Daughter of Time album.

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Hawken — in order to fulfill contractual obligations to Island Records — formed a new lineup in order to record the band’s second album, Illusion, as part of their 2-album deal.

It was Hawken who had originally brought the classical side of the band to the forefront, and only natural that he’d continue on with the band, who went through subsequent lineups and achieved much of their success after the first five original members went their separate ways.

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Also featured on our Video Vault 4 presentation of the Frontiers of Progressive Rock are performances by Soft Machine (“Composition Based On Three Tunes” from 1972), King Crimson (Lark’s-Tongue in Aspic,” also 1972), an early video performance by Yes (1969’s “No Experience Necessary”) and be sure to catch the original version — albeit, a slightly lyrically-edited video — of Peter Gabriel’s 1980 hit, “Games Without Frontiers”… they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus..

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.