Listening to…’Time Machine: A Vertigo Retrospective’

Vertigo Records was of course the house ‘progressive’ label, founded by what eventually turned into Phonogram and though Dire Straits albums were still appearing on Vertigo into the 1980′s (and perhaps still are), it was that swirly, trippy Bridget Riley-esque label and the whole early 70′s British rock scene that people think of  when they think of Vertigo.

The familiar Vertigo label, 1970′s vintage

‘Time Machine’ is a welcome review of that early ‘prog rock’ era because it gives us a real sense of what the label was really about.  Over 3 CD’s  and nearly four hours of music you get a cross-section of Vertigo’s output in the ‘progressive ‘ field  and the first thing that you notice  about the ‘cast-list’ is that virtually all Vertigo’s bands were British, apart from the odd European import like Atlantis or Aphrodite’s Child.  In fact, Canadian band Lighthouse and American singer Jim Croce were the first trans-Atlantic additions to Vertigo’s roster and they didn’t appear until the label was already a mature force in the marketplace.

The emphasis is really very much on what I’d call British blues-rock or variations around that theme. Yes, there are some bands with jazz leanings; notably Nucleus and Colosseum, but also Jade Warrior and Centipede.  There are a few bands, principally Magna Carta, but also Fairfield Parlour who have strong folk leanings.  For the most part, though the bands featured are playing music that whilst rarely in the blues idiom – Juicy Lucy aside - is nonetheless in a style that is informed by the blues  – we just referred to it as ‘heavy rock’ in those days.

And to be honest, much of it sounds horribly dated to my ears.  A lot of these bands – naming no names – are the sort of band that would appear at the local Teacher Training college on a wet Tuesday night or on the ‘underbill’ at one of the big festivals.  Some of it is the material; the songs are often derivative and the production frequently leaden. 

 However some of my indifference is no doubt due to my unfamiliarity with this stuff.  Vertigo was never a big label in my life.  As I recall, the only Vertigo albums I owned in the 70′s were Colosseum’s ‘Valentyne Suite’ and an early Kraftwerk album called ‘Ralf & Florian’  I was very much an Island lover (See Strangely strange and oddly 50….‘ from 26 September for more on this) and much more attuned to what they were doing, because even then we all knew that Vertigo, like EMI’s Harvest label was just a marketing umbrella for their prog/blues/jazz/folk output.  None of these corporate sub-labels actually had a real identity like Island or the short-lived Immediate seemed to have .

Even so, ‘Time Machine’ is a great collection if you want to know what Vertigo were up to in their very busy early years.  There is some good stuff on here – Rod Stewart’s version of ‘Handbags & Gladrags’ – not as good as Chris Farlowe’s version, but OK  – and the early Jade Warrior tracks, which presaged the much more interesting records they would make for (you guessed it) Island later on.  Colosseum, always a bit bombastic, but OK and a very interesting track from a band unknown to me until today – Ben – apparently an English quartet.  Their jazzy 10-minute ‘The Influence’ is a highpoint in this collection.

And of course there’s Sabbath…and Gentle Giant…sorry guys, not in 2009  -it’s just a bridge too far for me.  To be fair, I suppose that if I was hearing Quintessence or Dr Strangely Strange (both originally on Island) for the first time this year, I might well dismiss them as hippie nonsense, but the point is I first heard them in 1969 when hippie nonsense was the name of the game.  Those albums and those sleeves and that whole Island ‘thing’ just became a part of my life and is the soundtrack to the internal movies of those days that I sometimes run in my head – and guess what?  Those soundtracks  sound better with each passing year…..

Gentle Giant on stage….white cellos, boots that take an hour to lace up, a violin-playing bassist….Lord Snooty & his Pals tap-dancing……Blimey…..

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