I know it’s a bootleg, but I was there at that concert, so I ought to have some right to listen to it again… shouldn’t I?

It was August 1978. The location was Penn’s Landing, a strip of park along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia, which the city had just rehabilitated for the American Bicentennial. It was a free outdoor concert sponsored — and broadcast live — by WIOQ (Q102), one of Philly’s three-count-em-three progressive FM radio stations at the time. The band was a British progressive rock supergroup called U.K.

U.K.’s eponymous debut album from earlier that year had been promoted heavily on the radio with ads featuring a Mahsterpiece Theatre-esque British voice saying, “Collectively, Eddie Jobson, John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth have played in some of the world’s greatest rock bands. Bands like King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Yes, Genesis, Roxy Music, and Soft Machine.” The track “In the Dead of Night,” from that album, was in the background of the ad and getting serious radio airplay. It was a spiffy prog-rock tune in 7/4 time featuring Wetton’s vocals, Jobson’s atmospheric synths, Bruford’s crisp drumming, and a magnificently sculpted liquid-lightning guitar solo from Holdsworth.

I was a high school junior and getting into prog-rock. But all I knew of those musicians was that Bill Bruford was the original drummer in Yes who played on tracks like “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper.” I wasn’t sure whether Eddie Jobson’s last name was pronounced “job” as in “work” or “Job” as in the Biblical figure. I had never even heard of Soft Machine.

But I liked “In the Dead of Night.” So when a group of my friends — including a girl I had a crush on — wanted to go see them at Penn’s Landing, I was in.

I remember enjoying the gig … not that I could hear or see much, sitting on a blanket about 300 yards from the stage. I heard a Q102 DJ introduce the band, intoning the members’ names just like on the radio ad (sans British accent). By that time, I had come to know the debut album, but I didn’t recognize much of the music they played. I knew that Eddie Jobson played violin, and I remember hearing a violin solo. “In the Dead of Night” was the band’s set-closer, before they came back for encores that I didn’t know either.

Fast forward a few years to my days in college radio and my deep dive into progressive rock and fusion. I played guitar (badly), and Allan Holdsworth had become one of my idols. Bill Bruford was my hands-down all-time favorite drummer. I bought every album I could find that either of them played on — which was a lot of albums by a lot of different artists. I even interviewed both of them for the radio station. I discovered the great King Crimson lineup of 1972-74 with Wetton and Bruford; that Jobson had played on Roxy Music’s best-known records after Brian Eno left the band, as well as with Frank Zappa; and that Soft Machine’s roots went back to the 1960s British psychedelic scene alongside Pink Floyd.

In short, U.K. had become much more important to me than it was in August 1978. I had come to regard U.K.’s debut album as a solid entry in the prog discography that represented the state of the art in 1978 rather than some restatement of past glories. Apart from “In the Dead of Night,” highlights include Jobson’s “Presto Vivace,” a high-speed, rhythmically complex instrumental interlude that he wrote while on tour with Zappa and that sounds like Zappa with a British stiff upper lip; and Holdsworth’s pensive, elegiac “Nevermore.”

The band’s second album, Danger Money, was recorded after Bruford and Holdsworth had left the band. Terry Bozzio, whom Jobson brought in from Zappa’s band, had replaced Bruford; he was a technically dazzling drummer with a wild style, which got straightjacketed in the confines of U.K.’s heavily arranged prog. The new lineup was a trio with no guitarist. The album was less progressive, more monochromatic, and generally not up to the level of the debut.

U.K. split up for good after Danger Money, not counting a perfunctory live album. The band represented a moment in time in the history of prog-rock: the end of its glory period in the 1970s before it had transmuted into fully commercial arena-rock and punk had moved in.

It’s hard to keep a supergroup together, because the different members come to the band with different experiences and ideas for musical directions. (And if they do stay together long enough, they’re no longer called a supergroup. Viz: Cream, Bad Company.) This was the case with U.K. John Wetton was a powerful, gutsy bass player who did the singing in Crimson; he was focusing on vocals and wanting to be a rock star. Holdsworth had no use for arena rock and wanted to play jazz fusion. Bruford’s drumming style — which he had honed to perfection by 1978 — was utterly distinctive but also tended towards fusion. Jobson, meanwhile, wanted to play spacy prog.

The musicians’ post-U.K. career paths bore this out. Bruford organized a solo band with Holdsworth, the young fusion virtuoso Jeff Berlin on bass, and the idiosyncratic keyboard player Dave Stewart from National Health, a cult band that Bruford helped start after Crimson broke up in 1974. The Bruford band’s sound was, for lack of a better description, sophisticated Euro-fusion. Subsequently, Bruford rejoined Robert Fripp in a rejuvenated King Crimson and did copious journeyman work on the fringes of rock, jazz, and avant-garde music while continuously evolving his style.

Holdsworth became a guitar God who would grace the cover of many an issue of Guitar World and Guitar Player magazines. Eddie Van Halen cited him as an influence and produced one of his solo albums.

John Wetton, meanwhile, made his dreams of stardom come true. He formed and fronted the mutant arena-schlock-rock band Asia with Yes-men Steve Howe and Geoff Downes, and Carl Palmer from ELP. Asia lasted longer than U.K., the members being united in a common desire to get rich. Jobson briefly joined Jethro Tull (for whom U.K. opened on their 1979 tour as a trio), then settled into a low-key career of producing, film and TV scoring, and occasional solo albums.

Both Wetton and Holdsworth sadly passed away last year. That prompted Jordan Becker, my college radio comrade-in-arms who accompanied me to many a Crimson and Holdsworth gig, to write a blog post commemorating the many influential guitarists who died in 2017. This in turn led me to discover the existence of digital files of the tapes of the radio broadcast of that August 1978 U.K. concert in Philly.

What an amazing experience it was to listen to that gig forty years later, armed with all the knowledge and context I had gained since then. The tunes I hadn’t recognized that night turned out to be a mixture of songs from the then-forthcoming Danger Money and Bruford’s One of a Kind album. The Danger Money tunes had different dimensions with Holdsworth on guitar and Bruford’s more distinctive drumming style. The two tunes from One of a Kind (“The Sahara of Snow” and “Forever Until Sunday”) got more aggressive rock treatments from Wetton’s bass and Jobson’s brasher keyboards, compared to the more cerebral approach of the Bruford band.

Allan Holdsworth was supposedly fired from U.K. right after that night’s gig. The reason was the cliche “artistic differences”; but it’s not difficult to hear the evidence from the tapes. While Wetton and Jobson were trying to play blockbuster prog-rock for the crowd, Holdsworth was playing fluid, jazzy, saxophone-like lines on guitar, eschewing power chords for abstruse scales and harmonies, improvising all over the place, and generally playing music more befitting a small club than a big outdoor gig. Wetton and Jobson had wanted him to reproduce the solos from the album live; doing that just wasn’t in his blood. The tour, and that edition of the band, ended after the subsequent night’s performance in Cleveland.

The Philadelphia concert is one of a handful of broadcast recordings from U.K.’s 1978 tour; the Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and possibly other gigs are also available. For fans of these musicians, they’re great documents of their styles in transition as well as suggestions of what might have been. (Speaking of which: that girl ended up as my senior prom date, but nothing else ever happened.)

And by the way: it’s not a bootleg after all. It’s available as one disc of a massive 14-CD, 4 Blu-ray box set called Ultimate Collector’s Edition, if you’re prepared to shell out around $400 for it.

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John Glatt’s recent book Live at the Fillmore East and West: Getting Backstage and Personal with Rock’s Greatest Legends reaffirms the importance of Bill Graham’s concert venues — the Fillmore Auditorium and Fillmore West in San Francisco, and Fillmore East in New York — in the development of rock through the late-60s psychedelic era through the early 70s.  Although the regular acts at the Fillmores were bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company, part of Graham’s genius as a promoter was to bring in artists from other genres, often on the same bills as those rock bands.

In particular, Graham brought jazz to the Fillmore audiences.  And although it would be silly to give Graham full credit for the invention of jazz-rock fusion, a few milestones in that development took place at the Fillmores.  The sounds of John Coltrane and Miles Davis were influences on many of the rock musicians who played there, and the jazz musicians who played there soaked up some of the local flavor as well.

Glatt doesn’t mention it specifically, but the first jazz artist to appear at the Fillmore Auditorium was tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd.  Lloyd was known as a popularizer of Coltrane’s mid-period modal style; he reached out to rock audiences and often shared bills with acts like Joplin and the Airplane.  His Fillmore debut was in January 1967, on a bill with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose album of the time, East-West, featured an epic Coltrane-influenced title track.  Lloyd’s Fillmore performance — which included a Beatles cover — was captured on the album Love-In.

Coltrane passed away later in 1967, but Miles Davis went on to play at the Fillmores.  Glatt describes one particular bill Miles shared with the Dead and the Steve Miller Band; he also shared bills at Fillmore venues with Neil Young, Stone the Crows (a sort of British analog of Big Brother and the Holding Company), Leon Russell, and blues-rock guitarist Elvin Bishop.

In his autobiography, Miles talks about the musical cross-pollination that went on there: “Looking back,” he says, “I think Bill Graham did some important things for music with those concerts, opened everything up so that a lot of different people heard a lot of different kinds of music that they wouldn’t normally have heard.” He mentions meeting Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia: “[he] and I hit it off great, talking about music — what they liked and what I liked — and I think we all learned something, grew some.”

Miles’s time at the Fillmore inspired him to bring rock influences into his music. Miles Davis at Fillmore (East), recorded in 1970, is an early signpost of his musical development. His band at that gig included pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who had played with Charles Lloyd at the Fillmore (Auditorium) three years previous. Later that year, Miles would record the hard-rocking Tribute to Jack Johnson with guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock.

By 1971, Miles and other jazz players had established the genre that came to be known as fusion.  Alumni of Miles’s bands had started their own bands, such as Weather Report (Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Airto Moreira) and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (McLaughlin).  The jazz influences that could be heard in rock music of the time aren’t as apparent: rock musicians generally lacked the chops necessary to play jazz, and today much of that type of rock music is now in rotation on classic rock radio stations among music that wasn’t jazz-influenced.  You might hear a Miles Davis track with McLaughlin on guitar on a jazz station, but you wouldn’t think of, say, the Allman Brothers’ jazzy “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” as anything but a classic rock track.

Yet two things happened at the Fillmore East in 1971 that drew rock closer to jazz.  First was the Allman Brothers’ three-night stand, which was initially documented on the immortal Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from that album has long been my favorite Allman Brothers track.  Yet anyone who listens to the complete recordings of those amazing performances will know that that recording of “Liz Reed” was patched together from among four takes of the tune during the Allmans’ Fillmore East run.  Producer Tom Dowd chose in particular not to include an especially jazz-oriented aspect of the first night’s performances of “Liz Reed”: soprano sax solos from Rudolph “Juicy” Carter, a friend of drummer “Jaimoe” Johanson from Jaimoe’s R&B days who sat in one night. Dowd’s decision not to include his solos made sense for the simple reason that they weren’t very good.  Yet we can still listen to those takes and imagine what would have happened if, say, Charles Lloyd (or Miles sidemen like Wayne Shorter or Steve Grossman) had sat in instead.

The other rock-jazz link that the Fillmore created took place during a week’s worth of tribute concerts that Graham set up to mark the occasion of the Fillmore West’s closing in 1971. Graham had been losing his headliner rock acts to Madison Square Garden and other larger (i.e., more lucrative) venues.

One of the tribute sets was by Santana. It included a cover of Miles’s “In a Silent Way,” which Miles recorded in 1969 with McLaughlin on guitar.  Carlos Santana starts the tune in the quiet, reflective style of the original, but then the band ratchets it up to the full Latin-rock treatment, culminating in one of the most screaming, blistering guitar solos Santana has ever recorded.  This gem is available on an obscure album called Fillmore: The Last Days, alongside performances by Fillmore mainstays like the Dead, Elvin Bishop, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Taj Mahal, and Hot Tuna.  The concerts were filmed, and a documentary was made that includes some of these performances (and some not on the album), including Santana’s “In a Silent Way.”

Of course, Santana’s jazz influence was more explicit than the Allman Brothers’.  He went on to record Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme with John McLaughlin on their joint album Love Devotion Surrender, and to make other records with Coltrane associates Alice Coltrane and McCoy Tyner as well as Miles sidemen Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  But the roots of that influence — buried though they may be on classic rock radio these days — lay at the Fillmores, East and West.

Most people think of prog rock as a British genre. When the subject of American prog comes up, it’s hard to name more than a few bands, most of which were more heavily influenced by the likes of Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson than anyone else. Besides Kansas, only prog geeks will know Starcastle, Happy the Man, neoprog acts like Spock’s Beard and Djam Karet, and prog-metallurgists like Dream Theater. Frank Zappa had his prog moments.

Yet there was an American band that recorded its debut album in 1969, five years before Kansas’s debut. Let’s call this 7-piece outfit Band X. Band X’s music was rock-based but explored jazz, chamber music, and free improvisation. Its first three albums were all double LPs. All of its first few albums featured multi-part suites, some of which went on for well over ten minutes. The band’s drummer studied with jazz legend Papa Jo Jones. The band’s underappreciated guitarist, whom Jimi Hendrix called “better than me,” recorded one track that consisted entirely of noise and feedback.

Band X’s debut album was an acknowledged influence on Soft Machine’s avant-rock masterpiece Third. A track on a later album was called “A Hit for Varese,” after the French avant-garde composer who was a huge influence on Zappa. Their 1972 quadruple (that’s right, four-disc) live album predated Yes’s three-disc Yessongs by a year. They were known for playing stretched-out, drastically rearranged versions of British Invasion tunes in their early live set, just like Yes did with Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel tunes.

Did Band X fade into obscurity, like many other progressive bands? Was their music too arcane to be popular?

Hardly.

Band X’s first two albums contained massive hits that are played on classic rock and oldies radio stations to this day — and later albums contained many more hits. One of their multi-part suites produced two hits by itself. The band’s original lineup persisted until 1978, when their guitarist tragically died, but the group continued as a hit-making machine for several years afterwards. In fact, their career arc and eventual pop sellout roughly parallels that of Genesis, which started recording in the same year and is remembered as one of the most important prog bands ever.

Have you figured out who Band X is yet?

Ironically, the magnitude of this band’s chart successes and its descent into pure MOR schlock have long obscured their origins as an edgy, innovative, progressive, countercultural force in music. No one remembers songs from their first two albums… other than “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?”, “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “I’m a Man,” “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” and “25 or 6 to 4.”

That’s right, it’s Chicago.

The song lyrics say it themselves: “Don’t you put me down please/For creating beyond your mind/I said all you gotta do is listen.” (“Listen,” from Chicago Transit Authority, the band’s debut album).

P.S. my vote for all-time best Chicago album goes to Chicago II. If you’ve dismissed Chicago as pop schlockmeisters, listen to it all the way through (though feel free to skip “It Better End Soon,” a dated protest piece that fails to take its own advice) and see what I mean. Then check out the above-mentioned debut album, a close second. And the first disc of the double-LP Chicago VII, a first-rate fusion collection.

Anyone who has followed Yes for a long time — the band’s existence has spanned over four decades — has known about the changing lineups, members quitting and rejoining, feuds over naming rights, and vacillation between pop sellouts and attempts to recreate the magic of early-70s albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge.

For those and other reasons, I hadn’t paid much attention to the band for a while.  Yes was one of the least successful of the original A-list of prog-rock bands in making it past the 1970s.  Genesis’s wholehearted embrace of pop made them superstars; King Crimson stayed fresh and creative; ELP floundered and then just gave up.  Yes kept going… and going… and going.

One of the consequences of Yes’s insistent longevity has been the occasional appearance of bands with “Mostly Yes” personnel.  The first of these was in the early 80s, when vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard player Rick Wakeman had left the band.  Their replacements were, respectively, Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the synthi-new-wave band Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”). The sole studio album from this lineup, Drama, is now considered underrated: its cohesive band sound and energy level were Yes’s best since The Yes Album in 1971.

Recently I found two live albums from other “Mostly Yes” lineups that had some surprising elements.  One is An Evening of Yes Music Plus, a 1993 live album from the group that called itself Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (ABWH) after rejecting alternative names like “The Affirmative” and “No.”  The lineup of Anderson, Bill Bruford on drums, Wakeman, and Steve Howe on guitar was responsible for the classic albums named above… along with bassist Chris Squire.  Squire held the legal rights to the Yes name and had his own version of the band based in LA, which was churning out mainstream hits like “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

As it turns out, An Evening of Yes Music Plus is quite possibly the best of the 12-count-em-12 live albums Yes has released under its own moniker.  The difference can be summed up in two words: Bill Bruford.  Anderson and Howe were mostly content to re-create the tracks’ studio versions, while Rick Wakeman’s most interesting contribution was his cheeky solo piano intro to “Long Distance Runaround.”

Bruford played like it was 1989 (when the performance was recorded) instead of the early 70s.  His drumming style changed continuously from Yes’s beginnings in 1969 to forty years later when he retired from recording and performing.  It wasn’t just the Simmons electronic drums that he picked up in the 80s; his entire style evolved, and he gained new creative energy from stints in King Crimson as well as several avant-garde and jazz settings.  He brought all that to renditions of classic Yes material and thus made the songs fresh and vital.  These are also his only recorded live performances of songs from Close to the Edge, as he left Yes for Crimson just after recording that album.

Subsequently I heard Yes’s most recent live album, In the Present: Live from Lyon, a small-label release taken from a 2010 performance.  It was all oldies; no token would-be hit from some new album that fans didn’t care much about anyway.  Intriguingly, it included two tracks from Drama.

Jon Anderson wasn’t on that album and had always refused to sing anything from it live.  Now, there he was, singing the Pink Floyd-ish “Machine Messiah” and the rocking “Tempus Fugit.”  He sounded fine.  Otherwise, In the Present contains desultory readings of classic tracks, including “Yours Is No Disgrace” from The Yes Album at a particularly draggy tempo.  The reading of “South Side of the Sky” from Fragile is not bad.

Then I Googled this album and found out the secret: it wasn’t Anderson singing after all.  The vocalist was Benoit David, the Canadian singer whom Yes had hired in 2009 from a Yes cover band to fill in during Anderson’s illness — an updated prog-rock version of the Judas Priest/Tim Owens story that led to the 2001 movie Rock Star.  I was really fooled.

Even after learning this, I still found it hard to believe that Anderson wasn’t singing.  As a mimic, Benoit David is better than Owens’s Rob Halford, Brian Howe’s Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), David Coverdale’s Robert Plant, and even Johnny Van Zant’s Ronnie Van Zant in Lynyrd Skynyrd.

David stayed with the band for its ensuing studio album, Fly from Here, dividing his time between Yes and Mystery, his own prog band in Montreal.  On Fly from Herehe didn’t really sound like Anderson.  In fact, he sounded more like Trevor Horn.

I did two things related to music within the past few weeks: first, when Spotify launched in the United States, I immediately signed up for the Premium paid service.  I also read the book Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, by Rob Young of The Wire magazine, a thorough and idiosyncratic look at British folk music.

Electric Eden covers a style of music I don’t know much about.  I know a handful of Fairport Convention albums, and I have a passing familiarity with the Strawbs, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span, but that’s about it.  The book made me want to explore this genre of, as Young calls it, “visionary” or “secret garden” music.

Not discover, but explore.

So I dove into Spotify and started exploring artists such as the Watersons and John Martyn, and the solo work of Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior (lead singers of Fairport and Steeleye respectively).  This process worked to an extent, but it was neither efficient nor particularly satisfying.  To start with the obvious: the year given with each album was often that of some CD reissue, not the original, leaving me with little idea of the artist’s chronology.  And the list of “related artists” that these services show you say nothing about how they’re related.  This is particularly tricky with genre-blurring artists like Martyn and Fairport.

One of the biggest buzzwords in today’s digital music scene is “music discovery.”  Music discovery simply means listening to something you haven’t heard before; or at least its meaning has been reduced to that lowest common denominator.  The principal tool for music discovery in most of today’s digital music apps is the playlist.  For our purposes, there are three kinds of playlists: fixed, variable, and shared.

Fixed playlists are things like “stations” on Live365.com or the “top tracks” lists on artist pages in Rhapsody and other apps.  They’re just artist or genre anthologies, or they’re tantamount to Billboard charts with click-to-play links.  You know what’s in them, or at least you do once you’ve listened to them.

With variable playlists, you don’t know what you’re going to hear next.  Broadcast and satellite radio are variable-playlist media.  Variable playlists are generated by humans (as on radio) or automatically (as on services like Rhapsody), and sometimes you can customize them to your tastes, as with Pandora and similar apps.

The latest trend is shared playlists, where users can create them and publish them to the rest of the service’s user community.

Service developers like these types of playlists in increasing order by how I’ve listed them here, because they have increasing amounts of that quality so dear to startups and their venture investors: scalability.  That is, you can create more of them without much (or any) additional cost.  To use another silicon valley buzzword that’s currently teetering on the brink of cliche-dom: shared playlists crowdsource music discovery.

But how much do playlists help with music exploration?  Not so much.

The ultimate shared-playlist capability nowadays is Spotify’s.  Spotify’s application interface not only lets people create and publish playlists within the app, it lets them publish Spotify playlists anywhere at all.  There are now several different websites, like sharemyplaylists.com, that aren’t affiliated with Spotify but provide Spotify playlists.  At this writing, sharemyplaylists.com boasts over 50,000 of them.  At least some of them appear to be supplied by record labels.

This may be “scalable,” but it scales into a mess.  Abandon hope all ye who enter sites like sharemyplaylists.com.

What I’d like is someone sitting over my shoulder and telling me “if you like this song, try X.”  Or some way of helping me navigate from one artist or song to another based on specific characteristics.  The Music Genome Project (MGP) has this capability but, I’d have to say, keeps it from reaching its full potential by locking it up in the enormously popular Pandora music service (yes, I’m a paying member).

MGP creates lots of information — or in techie parlance, metadata — about relationships among songs.  Tim Westergren, the founder of MGP, describes it briefly here; in addition to the items in his description, MGP stores metadata about band members, so that Band X is recommended if you like Band Y because they had the same drummer, and so on.  Trained musicologists create the metadata in MGP the hard (i.e., non-scalable) way: by hand.  That’s why there are “only” about 800,000 songs in Pandora’s library, compared with over ten times that many in iTunes, Rhapsody, or Spotify — or other “custom radio” services like Last.fm and Slacker.  The latter boast of larger collections than Pandora, but there’s a reason why Pandora’s subscribership beats the others: it’s the quality of the metadata.

If MGP were to “open” its metadata scheme and let users (and app developers) navigate it according to relationship types, it would become more of a music exploration tool.  I like that song; let me see what other bands the guitarist played in.  Or: I like that song, let me see other downtempo ambient electronic music in major keys released during the same time period.  Or: I like that piece of chamber music, let me see what other woodwind quintets were written during the Baroque period.

Another type of tool that would lend itself well to music exploration is the “family tree,” as epitomized in Pete Frame’s series of books such as Pete Frame’s Complete Rock Family Trees.  Imagine a tool that turned Pete Frame’s family trees into clickable graphics that helped you explore a band like the Velvet Underground or a genre like Grunge.

Or, how about a tool that takes the text of a book like  Electric Edenor the one I’m reading now, Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock (or, for that matter, blog posts and so on), analyzes the text, and creates not only a bunch of playlists for use in your favorite music app but also deduces relationships among the songs, albums, and artists.

There are lots of things that music services can do to make it easier to explore, not just discover, music.   It should be the obvious next thing to do in digital music services… if someone can find ways to make it scalable.

I just finished Mark Blake’s new book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen. One of the first rock concerts I ever saw was Queen at the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1976.  I was a big fan then, but like many Americans, I lost interest in Queen when they “went disco” with hits like “Another One Bites the Dust” in 1980.

Yet outside of the States, Queen got bigger and bigger.  When lead singer Freddie Mercury succumbed to AIDS in 1991, they had been in existence for 20 years and had become one of the biggest-selling acts in rock history (second only to the Beatles in the UK).

Queen is perhaps best known these days for two career-boosting events: the band’s show-stealing set at the Live Aid concert in 1985, and the use of their first mega-hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in the movie “Wayne’s World” in 1992.  But as I traveled down Memory Lane with Queen while reading the book, I found a document that turns out to be more meaningful than either of those, let alone any of the myriad boxed sets and greatest-hits collections that have appeared since Freddie passed away.

The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert that the remaining band members staged the year after his death is one of the most significant live events in rock history, most closely paralleling The Band’s 1976 Last Waltz at Winterland.  The Freddie Tribute, which benefited his AIDS charity, took place in the UK’s Wembley Stadium and was seen by a billion people on television worldwide.  The three-hour affair featured a jaw-dropping list of artists who influenced or were influenced by Queen, playing Queen covers themselves or being backed by the remaining Queen members.

The concert was recorded and originally released on the long-gone Laser Disc format, then on VHS tape with lesser sound quality.  Eventually it was released as a DVD but with the first half of the concert missing, prompting howls of protest from reviewers and fans.   I really wanted to see the whole thing, so — having gotten rid of my VHS player years ago and never having owned a Laser Disc player — I turned to the dark side: YouTube.

It turns out that many of the important clips from the Mercury Tribute Concert are legally there, in decent quality, on YouTube’s Queen Channel.  But for the rest of it, you have to find the unauthorized camcorded clips that many fans have put up there… and that the remaining members of Queen have obviously let stay up there to help preserve Freddie’s legacy.  The quality of the user-contributed clips is as dubious as the provenance, but it’s all there, chopped up into less-than-ten-minute segments.

The main thing that struck me in watching these clips was the band members’ astuteness in picking other musicians to step in for Freddie’s vocals or cover the band’s tunes.  It all goes to show that regardless of Queen’s signature sound and internal cohesion as a band (20 years with no personnel changes and very few guest musicians), Queen has truly become part of the bedrock of modern music, by channeling its influences and by being a big influence on a younger generation of rockers.

The great choices vastly outnumber the ones that didn’t work.  James Hetfield of Metallica roars through the proto-thrash-metal “Stone Cold Crazy” from Sheer Heart Attack.  Annie Lennox of Eurythmics provides the right mix of elegance and decadence in duet with David Bowie on “Under Pressure.”  Both totally natural fits.

Led Zeppelin was a huge influence on Queen. The medley with Robert Plant  is pure genius: Plant sings Queen’s “Kashmir”-ish “Innuendo,” dropping in a couple of verses of the song that inspired it; then guitarist Brian May plays Jimmy Page on Zeppelin’s “Thank You”; then Plant and Queen segue into the rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” recalling Plant’s own rockabilly foray with the Honeydrippers.

Another moment of inspiration is Elton John singing and playing the piano-based opening sequence of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  As is the case when Queen performed the song live, the middle section with the zillion vocal harmonies is played from the recording.  But then Axl Rose comes out to snarl through the hard-rocking last section… and the unlikely pair of Axl and Elton sing together on the finale.

A reading of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” with Mott’s Ian Hunter on vocals, is also poignant: it recalls Queen’s first US tour when they opened for Mott; it also features Bowie (the song’s author) on sax as well as Bowie/Mott guitar legend Mick Ronson on what turned out to be his final live performance before dying of cancer the following year.

The Queen covers by other bands hold up well, too.  Def Leppard gives the sleek rocker “Now I’m Here” a celebratory treatment, with Brian May stepping in to play the song’s chug-chug riff.  A Queen medley by Extreme shows Queen’s influence on the Aqua-Net-and-lipstick glam-metal scene of the late 80s.

The only vocal substitutions that don’t work are the Who’s Roger Daltrey on “I Want It All” and Axl Rose on “We Will Rock You.”  The finale, “We Are the Champions” (what else?), is sung by one of Freddie’s great influences: Liza Minnelli, who gives it the full Broadway treatment.  Some critics didn’t get this one, but as the cliche has it, Freddie would have wanted it that way.

The real heroes of the concert,of course, are the remaining band members, who played on most of the tunes.  But with Roger Taylor stuck behind his drum kit and bassist John Deacon standing silently at the back in his usual fashion, Queen’s ambassador to the world that night was guitarist Brian May — with his longtime trademarks: his handmade red guitar and massive billows of hair.  May cements his reputation as one of the all time great rock guitarists while dueling with the likes of Slash (Guns ‘n’ Roses) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), and graciously ceding the spotlight to, and sharing emotional hugs with, the night’s many stars.   Queen may have been a chameleon of a band while it went through its varied musical phases and styles, but Brian May lives on as its rock ‘n’ roll heart.

Heard of concept albums?  Magma was a concept band.  Even though Magma threaded itself among the warp and weft of ultra-progressive rock in the early 1970s – King Crimson, Soft Machine, Gong, Henry Cow, and Frank Zappa – it labored in cultish obscurity, even among progressive rock fans.  This was the band to which you gravitated if you dug “21st Century Schizoid Man” but thought it was too pop.

A group of mostly French musicians formed the band that became Magma after John Coltrane’s death in 1967, having been inspired by the jazz icon to do something more fulfilling than their current gigs backing pop singers like Johnny Hallyday.  The leader was Christian Vander, a drummer of Polish Gypsy extraction who had studied with Chet Baker in Paris and was obsessed with Coltrane.  He started a commune, and the eight members developed their concept and music for several months before committing it to vinyl.

The band supposedly existed to tell the sci-fi story of the Utopian planet Kobaia, to which a group of intrepid Earthmen flee in the not-too-distant future as life on Earth becomes untenable.  The first set of albums tell the story – in Kobaian, a language that Vander invented, which sounds like a cross between German, Polish, and Klingon – and featured a surfeit of gratuitous diacritical marks long before heavy metal acts like Mötley Crüe.

The length of Magma’s “classic period” is a matter of honest debate among fans, but most say that it started with the band’s second album, 1001o Centigrades from 1971 and ended with 1976’s Üdü Ẁüdü.  Others narrow it to the three albums: Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh (1973), Köhntarkösz (1974), and Magma Live (a/k/a Live/Hhaï) (1975), the latter being allowed in for its high proportion of original material and excellent sound quality.

Side one of  1001o Centigrades established the band’s signature style, known as Zeuhl (pronounced either “Tsoil” or as a German would pronounce “Zöhl”) for the Kobaian word for “celestial music.”  It consisted of Carl Orff-style medievalist chanting put together with a jazzy rhythm section and influences from the likes of Stockhausen, Bartok, and eastern European folk music.  There were guitarists in the band, but they didn’t get solos.  The overall feel is heavily arranged doomy storm-trooper death march.  The music is utterly unusual, nothing like progressive rock a la Yes, Genesis, or Pink Floyd, and most definitely an acquired taste.

Magma ran out of steam and fell out of favor, like most progressive rock, by the end of the 1970s.  Vander half-heartedly tried the pop sellout route (1984’s Merci) and then gave up.

Fast forward to the 2000s, after two things happened.  First, the Magma “diaspora” and other musicians picked up where Christian Vander left off and formed their own Zeuhl-influenced bands (Weidorje, Univers Zero, Ruins, Shub-Niggurath, and a few others).  Then a few edgy alt-rock bands of the 1990s started to cover some of Magma’s shorter cuts, showing selective historical mining in the same way that other alt-rockers “found” Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

It was time to bring Magma back.  Vander did so, with his wife Stella on vocals, some young musicians from a band called Don’t Die that played Magma covers, and two children of the great bassist Bernard Paganotti from the glory period.  Magma achieved its resurrection without selling out (Genesis), phoning it in (Floyd), or releasing cardboard rehashes of their glory days (Yes).

Of the classic prog bands, only King Crimson produced recent music that retained the vitality and creativity of its 70s peak.  Yet while Crimson did it by redefining its sound for the current era, Magma resurrected the style for which it had become known and made it fresh through modern-day sound quality.  Magma’s music was so different from other bands’ that it never sounded “dated” and therefore wasn’t in need of  redefinition.

The first Magma comeback album was K.A. (Köhntarkösz Anteria), from 2004.  The material for this album was written before Köhntarkösz in the mid-70s but was never recorded in its entirety at that time.  Lyrically it was supposed to be a prequel to Köhntarkösz.

K.A. comes across as an ecstatic space oratorio, complete with chants of “Allelujah!”  The leaden feel of the original Zeuhl period is given a welcome facelift in the form of lighter, jazzier arrangements and far better sound quality.  Vander’s drumming — a skill he neglected during Magma’s hiatus — is inspired and shows a return to his jazz roots.  The third and final movement is especially intense and impressive.  The album only suffers from weak guitar and keyboard soloing, though new bassist Philippe Bussonet stands with the best Magma bassists over the years — Paganotti, Jannick Top, and Francis Moze — which is saying something.

Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê (2009) was released as a CD and as a DVD, the latter showing the sessions and the music being developed. Much of the material here had appeared on Magma Live, Üdü Ẁüdü, and elsewhere, but Vander changed the arrangements and knitted the parts together into a suite.  Vander’s drumming and singing show the subtlety and maturity gained over thirty-plus years since the music was originally recorded.  If you can get past the language barrier (hint: don’t even bother listening to the words, just treat them as sounds), then Ëmëhntëhtt-Rê serves as a high-quality anthology of the band’s best material, and therefore an ideal entry point for newcomers into this absolutely unique and fascinating musical vision.