Frank Zappa, at The Royal Garden Hotel in London, September 1974

Frank Zappa, London, 1974. Photo by Ron Burton. © Mirrorpix.

Yesterday I went to Zappa.com, the website of all things Frank Zappa, to look at what — if anything — is being done to make his music available to the digital generation.  Zappa.com and the rest of Zappa’s business interests are overseen by the Zappa Family Trust, headed by Frank’s widow Gail Sloatman Zappa.

I consider Frank Zappa to be one of the most underappreciated American musical geniuses of the twentieth century, a bandleader and composer who should be up there with the likes of Ellington, Davis, Mingus, Carter, and Copland.  But the best word to describe what the Zappa Family Trust is doing to preserve and spread his music for posterity is a Yiddish one: it’s a shanda.  For you German speakers out there, this is equivalent to Schande.  It’s a shame and an embarrassment.

Back when Rykodisc controlled Zappa’s recorded catalog, it was possible to buy Zappa’s music legally as DRM-free downloads on sites like eMusic.com.  Then when Warner Music Group acquired Rykodisc in 2006, it took all of the label’s music off those sites.  At the time, downloads were sold with DRM on sites like iTunes, but WMG did not make Zappa titles available there.  Nor did the company license Zappa’s music to subscription sites like Rhapsody (or, later, Spotify).

Now, iTunes and other major music download sites are DRM-free. but Zappa’s catalog is nowhere to be found… legally.  On Zappa.com, all that’s available for digital download is a handful of newly-released concert recordings.  There’s also a “Zappa radio” MP3 playlist for those with WinAmp or other web radio player apps, which plays all Zappa music at the mediocre bitrate of 64kbps.  You can go to a “custom radio” service like Pandora or Slacker and construct a “Frank Zappa radio” station that plays a Zappa cut every few songs.  But otherwise it is not possible to get Zappa’s music digitally.

This is a travesty.  It prevents young people from discovering Zappa’s music, and it forces existing fans to choose between buying and ripping CDs (a lengthy, bothersome process) and obtaining the music from illegal sources.

Frank Zappa himself understood very well the necessity of competing with illegal sources.   He released a series called Beat the Boots, in which he sold known concert bootlegs — dubious sound quality and amateurish cover art included — so that he at least could profit from them instead of bootleggers doing so.  (The series is still available.)  Evidently, the Family Trust doesn’t share the paterfamilias‘s hard-won wisdom.

Furthermore, various Zappa tribute bands exist, many of which feature some of the large number of musicians who passed through Zappa’s band — a badge of honor indeed, given the technical complexity of his music as well as his reputation for fierce discipline as a bandleader.  But the Family Trust uses trademark law to limit their ability to publicize themselves: for example, they can’t say “plays the music of Frank Zappa” in gig listings or use “Zappa” in their names.  The best known of these bands is Project/Object, which the Zappa Family Trust threatened with a lawsuit.  Various contemporary classical outfits also perform his music.

These limitations may have something to do with the fact that the Zappa Family Trust has its own “official” Zappa tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, featuring Frank’s son Dweezil playing guitars from Frank’s collection as well as occasional guest appearances from former Zappa sidemen on joyful, competent, and respectful covers of dad’s tunes.   But equally worthy tribute acts such as the Ed Palermo Big Band (New York) and Le Bocal (France) must labor in the shadows and rely on email lists and word of mouth to get people to their performances.  This is not the case for the legions of Beatles, Stones, or Led Zeppelin tribute acts.

Finally, Zappa.com itself has the look and feel of a cheap amateur job.  Its site copy relies on cheap verbal Zappa clichés in a way that recalls Mad Magazine, and its e-commerce engine doesn’t work very well.  It’s a web 1.0 isolationist “strategy” in a web 2.0 era where Zappa should be everywhere online.

Despite the fact that some of Zappa’s music is not exactly fit for radio airplay or children under 18, the Family Trust should be doing much, much more to spread his legacy and introduce the “born digital” generation to his genius.  They could even (gasp) make more money in the process.

By the way, the digital download I purchased on Zappa.com (with some difficulty; the site’s PayPal interface doesn’t work) was a 1976 live set from Australia called FZ/OZ, featuring the band from the Zoot Allures album plus vocalist/reed player Napoleon Murphy Brock from Zappa’s previous band.  Though overly long on the cheap porn songs from Zappa’s mid-70s period, it does contain some sterling FZ guitar solos and great drumming from a very young Terry Bozzio.

Update: In July 2012, the Zappa Family Trust finally — FINALLY — started distributing Frank Zappa’s music through digital channels through a distribution deal with Universal Music Enterprises, part of Universal Music Group.  The entire catalog is now available for download (iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.) and interactive streaming (Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, etc.).  Almost all is forgiven, Gail.

I say “almost” because of the senseless limitation on tribute bands, and because the Family Trust still hasn’t gotten it together to release one particular item that has reached legendary status among Zappologists: the long-promised video of the 1973 concerts at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles.  The performances, some of which are available on Zappa’s Roxy & Elsewhere album, feature a band lineup that many consider to be his best ever, including fusion star George Duke on keyboards and Ruth Underwood’s dazzling percussion virtuosics.  C’mon, guys…

Another update: After years of dithering, the Roxy material was finally released in 2014, not as a DVD but as an audio CD. It features material from the Roxy dates that wasn’t released on the Roxy & Elsewhere album, and liner notes from Ruth Underwood.  It’s not available through mainstream distributors, it’s a little rough around the edges, and there’s a little too much time spent on clowning around with the audience (for a released album).  But oh, that band…

Yet another update: Roxy the Movie was finally released in October 2015, on Blu-ray only.  The movie packs in more material than the CD, including tunes that fans will recognize from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2, the amazing double live set recorded in Helsinki a year later with a smaller, road-tested version of the same band.

Return of the Son of Update: In 2016, a rift developed between Dweezil Zappa and two of his siblings who took over the Zappa Family Trust since Gail died the previous year.  The public feud apparently grew out of a dispute over music licensing and revenue from Zappa Plays Zappa concerts.  At first, the feud led Dweezil to stop using the Zappa Plays Zappa name, instead touring under the unwieldy moniker Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa.  Then, in late 2016, the ZFT filed for a trademark on the name “Zappa,” which would force Dweezil to pay his siblings if he wanted to use his own last name in a musical context.  At this writing, Dweezil has launched a crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMusic to fight the trademark.  Shades of the two feuding Yeses in the late 1980s.

Advertisements

As I was walking to work one day with my favorite Pandora station playing in my earbuds, I heard a tune by the 1970s Dutch band Focus that I hadn’t heard in many years: “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!”, from the 1972 album Focus 3. Guitarist Jan Akkerman riffed and traded solos with keyboard player Thijs van Leer in a fourteen-minute jam.  It was wonderful.

Then it hit me: this was Holland’s answer to the Allman Brothers.  That’s silly, you might say; the Allman Brothers were (are) southern rock or jam-rock, and Focus was Euro-progressive rock.  But think about it: take the Allmans, swap out the (American) country influences for (European) classical, and you’ve got Focus.

Both bands were based around hard-hitting lead guitarists and singing organists who were all top-notch players.  (Van Leer wasn’t as much of a singer as Gregg Allman, but he did double on flute.)

Compare their best-known tunes.  Pretty, single-length instrumentals: the Allmans’ “Jessica,” Focus’s “Sylvia” (from Focus 3).  Mind-expanding album-side-long extravaganzas: “Whipping Post,” “Eruption” (from Moving Waves) — both featuring signature solos from the bands’ lead guitarists.  Modal jazz-blues jams: “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”; “Answers? Questions!”.   Homages to their local roots: “Southbound”; “Elspeth of Nottingham” (from Focus 3).  Big hits: “Ramblin’ Man”; “Hocus Pocus” (from Moving Waves).

Moving Waves and the double-LP Focus 3 are the best of the bunch, particularly the former.  They are respectively the band’s second and third albums.  After that came a high-energy live set, At the Rainbow, followed by studio albums of decreasing quality after Akkerman lost interest and ultimately left the band.

The jam-band movement of this past decade offered some glimpses into the connection between prog-rock and jam bands; witness the music of bands like Phish and Umphrey’s McGee.  Anyone who listened to the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” knows this.  Focus proves it.

P.S. other evidence that the Allmans were known among the European progressive rock scene includes the German band Agitation Free, which at times sound like Die Gebrüder Allmann (when they weren’t sounding like Die Dankbare Toten or Der Rosafloyd). Check out 2nd, their excellent second album from 1973.

Like many, many people — including, supposedly, one out of every five households in the UK — I have a copy of Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon. And like the vast majority of those people, I don’t listen to it much anymore.

Instead, I listen to an album called Dub Side of the Moon, by a NYC pickup group called the Easy Star All Stars. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this 2003 album: that’s right, this is a dub-reggae version of the Pink Floyd classic. It is also a masterpiece in its own right. It has been on the Billbaord (reggae) charts for 100 weeks, an echo (pun intended) of the original’s unequalled 724-week chart reign.

Dub Side of the Moon is not, not, not a cheap tribute album. It is not a group of well-known artists getting together to pay tribute to one of their influences (e.g., Two Rooms – Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin or Common Thread – The Songs of the Eagles), although it does feature well-known reggage and blues musicians like vocalist Ranking Joe, the harmony group Meditations, and guitarist Corey Harris. Nor is it the work of a smarmy parody act (Dread Zeppelin), nor is it a paint-by-numbers emulation (Beatlemania).

Dub Side of the Moon is, finally, the delivery of a pregnant idea. Dub music has a fair bit in common with progressive rock, and fans of the latter often share an affinity for the former. The spaciness, shifting textures, rhythmic juxtapositions, and emphasis on instrumentals over vocals are common to both. I remember listening to the productions of the UK-based dub wizard The Mad Professor in the early 1980s and thinking about how similar it sounded to British art-rock. I may have even segued from the Mad Professor into Floyd on my radio show back then.

On this album, the original material is treated with respect as it is transmogrified into dub language. Michael Goldwasser, the producer, was judicious in the elements he decided to change rather than emulate. For example, marijuana becomes part of the metaphor of paranoia that pervades the original album; hence the cash-register noises in “Money” are now the sounds of bong hits and coughing. David Gilmour’s soaring guitar solo in “Time” becomes a Ranking Joe toasting rap: “Time is the master, time can be a disaster.”

The sound quality of the album is amazing; it’s tailor made for iPods and earbuds, just as the original benefited from big clunky ear-surrounding headphones plugged into your stereo. It is also, allegedly, tailor made for listening while The Wizard of Oz plays on your VCR, just like the original.

I find myself listening to Dub Side of the Moon over and over again. I even saw the Easy Star All Stars perform it in its entirely at a downtown club a couple of years ago; the album has become so popular that the core group tours it internationally. Easy Star Records has followed with a Radiohead tribute called, of course, Radiodread.

Now, I have a request to the Easy Star All Stars: how about a dub version of a certain classic Yes album? One tune in particular cries out for the dub treatment. You could call it “And I and I.”

Postscript: the Easy Star All Stars released Dubber Side of the Moon, an album of remixes featuring such legendary dub producers as Scientist, Adrian Sherwood, and The Mad Professor, in October 2010.  It displaced Dub Side of the Moon after a Billboard reggae chart run of about 200 weeks.  I just listened to the new one.  Lots of wacky, spacy effects… but not as good as the “original.”

This past week, I went to the CMJ conference at NYU in NYC. Originally a gathering of college radio people, the CMJ Music Marathon is now a huge agglomeration of performances by new bands hoping to get noticed by record labels, radio music directors, promoters, and so on. Oh, yeah, and a conference with some panels. One of which, “2007: The Year in Tech”, had me as a panelist.

I spent the vast bulk of my college years at the radio station, WPRB in Princeton, NJ. Now I run the alumni board that oversees the station, but I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis. Two weeks ago, WPRB had its first ever on-air fund drive; I went down to help out, take phone calls, and even do my first radio show in over 12 years. That, combined with soaking up the atmosphere of CMJ, gave me a glimpse into the college radio scene nowadays.

CMJ — it originally stood for College Music Journal, now it’s just… CMJ — first appeared during my undergrad years of 1979-1983. For the first time ever, it gave college radio DJs an easy way of finding out what their peers at other college stations were playing. It was a great source of information. Around the same time, and not coincidentally, punk and new wave were emerging — and college stations were virtually the only ones that played that music. CMJ collected college radio playlists and produced charts, which record labels began to notice.

This had a major effect on the rock music industry. In fact, it was probably the biggest source of internal change until 1992, when automated SoundScan retail reports superseded retail managers’ payola-fueled “take our word for it” sales reports — resulting in the “sudden” vault of Grunge (Nirvana) past Urban Contemporary (Lionel Richie) to the top of the charts. With CMJ charts, record labels quickly understood why bands like the Police, Clash, U2, Talking Heads, and REM were selling healthily, and they took action: they signed bands, and the major record companies acquired punk and new wave labels like Stiff and Sire.

Over time, CMJ began to carve up the college radio sound into charts representing narrow — and basically trendoid — micro-segments like “American Stars & Bars.” These were very effective both in sending signals to college DJs about what’s hip and giving A&R people at record labels blueprints for their next signings.

CMJ was the serpent in the college radio Garden of Eden. The good news was that record labels finally began to take college stations seriously enough to provide them with decent record service (plus concert tickets and other bennies). The bad news was that college DJs began to look to their semi-weekly issues of CMJ to find out what they should play; as a result, music played on college radio began to homogenize, and much of the creativity got sucked out of the medium.

Nowadays, many college stations actually pride themselves on playing the CMJ Top 20. XM Satellite Radio even has a station called XMU, which plays it too — though with no blown segues and no announcers saying “ummm” and “uhhh.” Much of the music of the CMJ Top 20 sounds similar to what we played on college radio in the early-mid 80s. First it was called punk, then it was new wave, then it was alternative rock, then more simply alt-rock, and now it’s indie rock.

But it’s largely the same sounds. During a lunch break in the CMJ conference track, a band called La Laque played. They sang in French and had a female lead singer, but otherwise they might as well have been called Les Nouvelles Tetes Parlantes. The guitarist not only looked and jerked around stage like David Byrne, he even played the same vintage Fender Mustang guitar that Byrne played during the Talking Heads’ early days.

All in all, college radio today strikes me as much the same as it was 25 years ago. There are little differences. Some DJs plug their iPods into the studio mixing board instead of bringing a crate of albums in; this increases the chances of musical serendipity but decreases sound quality. The ubiquity of email, IM, and cell phones makes it easier to fit station management duties in with a class schedule, but it reduces station hanging-out time that leads to stronger commitment.

College radio perseveres because it has come to be identified closely with a type of music whose fans know is available there. Just as there was a rite of passage during my high-school days when you moved from Elton John to ELP and from Top 40 to progressive FM radio, today’s rite of passage from Avril Lavigne to Animal Collective often involves a college radio station (as well as various MySpace pages).

Of course, college radio doesn’t just play indie rock. It also perseveres because it offers two things that commercial radio does not. One is what Peter Gabriel has called a curatorial function: as the Internet makes music more ubiquitous and easier to get for free, the value is shifting to those who can help you discover music you don’t know but would like, or who can juxtapose different music in new and exciting ways.

In the 1960s and 70s, FM radio used to be a tastemaker. Now commercial radio is more of a taste reflector. One indie label guy I met at CMJ told me that his most successful artist, a folk-pop singer-songwriter, got her big break doing background music for TV, including the theme song for a prime time network series (I forget which one). Only now is commercial radio starting, slowly, to play her music. This is completely backwards from the way it used to be. College radio is virtually the only tastemaker left on broadcast radio.

The second is the human element. In commercial radio, with its automated music formats and generic, disembodied jocks, the human element has passed to talk radio — which partially explains its staggering rise from the fringes to the top during the last 10-15 years. College DJs are refreshingly, unabashedly, unapologetically human.

Many college radio people today talk about whether or how the Internet threatens the medium. The human element in radio is inherently non-scalable, and it’s what’s missing from net radio a la Live365.com. Many of the most successful college stations simulcast online. WPRB does this and got a significant number of pledges during its recent fund drive from Internet-only listeners.

Tastemaking is also not all that scalable online. The sheer volume of music-geek blogs, and the fact that most of them don’t last long before they are abandoned or discredited (as losers or as record-label shills), makes them a rather unreliable source. Recommendation engines like Pandora can be great but have significant limitations. College radio continues to emerge as a (user-)friendly, often reliable, and self-editing source of tastemaking information.

Back at the CMJ conference, someone from a new Internet-only college station asked a question to panelists: how can we get an FM license? My question to him was: why would you want to? He couldn’t give me an answer other than duh, it’s obvious. His lack of eloquence spoke volumes about the contiuning viability of college radio, even in the Internet age.

Quick: name two early-70s albums by British hard rock bands with proggish tendencies that get played to death on classic rock radio. That’s right: Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (1971) and Deep Purple’s Machine Head (1972). Now: name any other album that either of those bands recorded.

Can’t do it? Not surprising. That’s the power that tightly formatted commercial radio has achieved over the past 20 years or so. No doubt that those albums were those bands’ best, but the overfamiliarity of tracks like “Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” and “Space Truckin'” (Purple), and “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and “Locomotive Breath” (Tull) dull their value almost as if they were the advertising jingles that surround them.

Those two bands had other great albums. For Jethro Tull, my vote goes to Stand Up (1969), the band’s second LP. Aqualung, Tull’s fourth, was the first album that singer/flutist Ian Anderson dominated; the previous three were really band albums. The difference is readily apparent in the mix: Anderson’s vocals are less assertive and much less pretentious, and his flute is more of an ensemble instrument than a source of solos; Martin Barre’s guitar is more of a source of creativity in general, not just hooky lead lines.

Stand Up is a wonderfully eclectic yet unassuming collection of tunes. “New Day Yesterday,” the opener, features a heavy guitar riff pasted on top of an odd meter. “Nothing Is Easy” is swinging and jazzy, as is the album’s best-known track, “Bouree,” a reworking of Bach’s Bouree in E Minor. Other tunes like “Back to the Family” and “Fat Man” add light touches without being precious in the manner of Aqualung’s “Mother Goose.” Incidentally, Stand Up was Tull’s only UK No. 1 album.

Deep Purple started out with a different lineup than the one that recorded Machine Head, which is known as Deep Purple Mark II. But Mark II’s pre-Machine Head albums, Fireball and Deep Purple In Rock, were nothing special. Machine Head magically pulled all of the band’s raw materials together into a coherent style and milked it for almost all it was worth.

I say “almost” because the true excellence of this now-all-but-fogotten band (not even listed in the latest edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide!) was onstage. Made In Japan was released in a hurry to the Japanese market in 1972 to capitalize on the breakaway success of Machine Head. Its popularity led the band’s label, EMI, to release it in the US and Europe as well.

Made In Japan is one of the greatest live rock albums of all time. Deep Purple plays for the crowd in Osaka as if its life depended on it. The album is guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s crowning career achievement, and Jon Lord’s performance on organ — Jimmy Smith bluesy one moment, Mike Ratledge noisy the next — shows at least as much risk-taking experimentalism within the blues-rock format as Keith Emerson showed with The Nice and ELP. Roger Glover and Ian Paice pound away like crazy. Ian Gillain’s astounding shrieks show that he was most definitely not just a creature of studio artifice, and at times (such as during “Strange Kind of Woman”), he sounds like he is actually having fun.

Made In Japan‘s greatness derives from the fact that these were not just recreations of studio tracks from Machine Head and earlier albums. The extended improvs, many of them jousts between Blackmore and Lord in the time-honored tradition of jazz “cutting contests,” show true fireworks far more often than self-indulgence.
This is just one of those albums that must be listened to at ear-shattering volume or the entire point is lost.

Further evidence of Purple’s vitality as a live act is in the Mark II band’s reading of “Mandrake Root,” a track from the Mark I band’s 1968 debut album Shades of Deep Purple. Mark II really made this track its own on stage, though it doesn’t appear on Made In Japan. To get it, seek out the otherwise inferior In Concert, originally released in the early 1980s.

Ironically, Made In Japan was one of the first live albums released as “pure product” to capitalize on a band’s momentum, as opposed to The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, the Grateful Dead’s Europe 72, and the Who’s Live at Leeds, which served to document those bands’ primacy as live acts. The pure-product greatest-hits live album became the rule after Made In Japan, give or take a few exceptions such as Cheap Trick at Budokan that prove it.

Frank Zappa’s prolific career as composer, arranger, guitarist, satirist, dada art conceptualist, producer, and record company entrepreneur spans a breathtaking array of American and European styles, often brought together in combinations through his own idiosyncratic filter.

Zappa first moved into commercial rock & roll music — relatively speaking — with his 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation. This was a collection of short songs about sexual deviants and other oddballs, like the dental floss farmer in “Montana,” which turned out to be Zappa’s first hit. Longtime fans cried sellout, while feminists were enraged.

Commercial-sounding rock would be Zappa’s primary mode of expression for much of the remainder of his career. The next album, Apostrophe (‘), featured the hit “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (with its “huskie wee-wee”) and the is-he-racist-or-is-he-not “Uncle Remus” in addition to brief gems liks “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Excentrifugal Forz.”

Just as it seemed as though Zappa was descending irrecoverably into commercialism and cheap satire, he did something that saved his career trajectory for the next few years: he hired an absolutely killer band. The live Roxy & Elsewhere, from 1974, was the first document to feature a lineup that included tuned-percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood; reed player and manic vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock; the airy, jazzy keyboards and vocals of ex-Cannonball Adderley sideman George Duke; the Fowler brothers (Tom on bass, Walt on trumpet, Bruce on trombone), and Chester Thompson on drums. This band achieved an ideal balance of personal style with the ability to play Zappa’s daunting music flawlessly.

Roxy is a fine album, but the greatest achievement by this band is You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – Vol. 2 (YCDTOSA #2), one of the series of live albums that Zappa released in 1992, this one culled from a series of concerts that a smaller version of the band played in Helsinki. Where Zappa couldn’t rely on his audience’s command of the English language, he toned down some of the cheap humor and focused more on the music itself. The result was one of the best live progressive rock albums ever recorded, up there with Phil Manzanera’s 801 Live, Magma Live, and King Crimson’s Night Watch. The band rips through “serious” instrumentals like “RDNZL” and “T’Mershi Duween” along with pop tunes like “Village of the Sun,” theatrical showpieces like “Room Service,” and repertory favorites ranging from “Montana” back to “Uncle Meat.” The communication amongst the musicians is telepathic.

Zappa went into the studio with the Roxy band and produced his best studio album of the mid-70s, the unjustly overlooked One Size Fits All. This sparklingly-produced collection of songs includes “Inca Roads,” featuring one of Zappa’s most memorable guitar solos (pasted in from the aforementioned Helsinki concerts); the heavy-metal-ish “Florentine Pogen,” the two German lieder-influenced “Sofas,” and no cheap porn whatsoever. The programming, material, and playing make this one a standout among Zappa’s rock albums.

Fans of the Roxy lineup should also look for the DVD Frank Zappa: Dub Room Special, which contains clips of that lineup from a live TV special (as well as others of a later, less interesting band).

Another interesting sidelight to this band is Road Tapes, Venue 2, which was released in 2013.  It was recorded in Helsinki a year before the YCDTOSA #2 concerts.  The material is much the same, but the band is a transitional one from the previous Zappa era: in addition to George Duke, Ruth Underwood, and Tom Fowler, it featured Tom’s brother Bruce on trombone, Ian Underwood (of older Zappa bands) on keyboards and reeds, and special guest Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Zappa’s approach to this material was more tentative, and the band hadn’t jelled as on YCDTOSA #2, but the material still shines.

The two-year existence of the prog supergroup U.K. was notable for marking the end of the glory days of progressive rock. Although the initial nucleus of the band was drummer Bill Bruford and bassist/vocalist John Wetton, who made up the rhythm section in the celebrated 1972-74 edition of King Crimson, the band’s collective c.v. read like a Who’s Who of British Prog.

Bruford began in Yes, toured with Genesis after Crimson broke up, and sat in with various bands including the cerebral post-Canterbury-hippie outfit National Health and space-rockers Gong and Absolute Elsewhere. Wetton had stints in Uriah Heep, Family, and Roxy Music as well as Crimson. Bruford brought along guitarist Allan Holdsworth, a true virtuoso who introduced an entire school of legato, saxophone-style playing and was an acknowledged influence on Eddie van Halen; his resume included prog (Soft Machine and Gong) and heavy metal (Tempest) as well as fusion (Tony Williams, Jean-Luc Ponty). Wetton brought in keyboard and violin whiz Eddie Jobson from Roxy; Jobson had also been with Curved Air and (most recently) Frank Zappa’s band.

The lineup was promising enough, as was the 1978 eponymous debut album U.K.. The featured track was “In the Dead of Night,” which showed off the band’s basic style: a mixture of King Crimson-style blockbuster prog and sophisticated fusion. The main elements were Jobson’s atmospheric keyboards; Holdsworth’s liquid-lightning soloing; and Bruford’s crisp, distinctive drumming. The instrumental “Presto Vivace,” which Jobson wrote while touring with Zappa, sounded like Zappa with a British stiff upper lip. The dark, reflective “Nevermore” featured Wetton’s increasingly competent singing – he was clearly becoming more interested in that than in his bass playing – and a mesmerizing Holdsworth solo. In all, a solid slab of up-to-the-minute prog.

Then a schism in the band led to its breakup: Bruford and Holdsworth wanted to keep things on the edge, while Wetton and Jobson had plans for rock stardom. The former duo departed to form the decidedly fusion-y band Bruford, with much the same band that had appeared on Bruford’s pre-U.K. debut solo album Feels Good to Me (1977): ex-National Health keyboardist David Stewart and the Berklee-trained American bassist Jeff Berlin.

Meanwhile, Wetton and Jobson kept U.K. going. They brought in drummer Terry Bozzio from Zappa’s band, but no guitarist to fill Holdsworth’s slot.

Danger Money was a transitional album that combined prog epics (“Carrying No Cross”) with poppish tunes (“Rendezvous 6:02”) and a few in between (the ELP-ish title track). Bozzio was a technically impressive but less distinctive replacement for Bruford (he had fit in better with Zappa); the lack of guitar made the sound monochromatic, notwithstanding Jobson’s violin solos. The ensuing live album Night After Night was pure product, and U.K. broke up in 1979.

The final membership of U.K. then proceeded to finish selling out. Wetton formed the mutant arena-rock outfit Asia with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Yes/Buggles keyboard player Geoff Downes, and ELP drummer Carl Palmer. Bozzio teamed up with his wife Dale and ex-Zappa bassist Patrick O’Hearn to form the new-wave-pop outfit Missing Persons. Jobson, after a brief stint in Jethro Tull, drifted off into the sunset through production and session work. Thus ended the prog saga.