Timing is everything, as England know – their 1977 debut was released when prog was seemingly in decline. But with a new release and a live show announced, they’re now back in business…
The amazing story of the greatest prog band you’ve probably never heard of!
“Ibelieve England to be unique,” says the group’s keyboard player, Robert Webb. “It’s a great musical achievement, both compositionally and as a performing group, and the chemistry between us made it extraordinary. Garden
Shed has never gone away from me. I suppose if you are the composer as well as one of the players, it’s a bit like giving birth.”
In a time when anything old, well-known and of reasonable quality is likely to get labelled as “classic” or “legendary”, we have over-enthusiastic fans mixing up rarity with quality and championing “great lost bands” who rarely live up to that description. But England’s 1977 debut Garden Shed was, indeed, until its reissue on CD in 2005, something of a lost classic of 70s progressive rock. And over time, the group have deservingly achieved something of a legendary status among the cognoscenti.
Listening to the album now, it holds its own with those of the group’s more illustrious peers. It’s adventurously structured and richly melodic: the contrapuntal keyboard and vocal lines on a track like Midnight Madness are imaginative in a way that recalls Gentle Giant, and there are hints of Yes and Genesis. Jode Leigh’s drumming – which he says was influenced by King Crimson’s Michael Giles – is particularly individual, swelling from a deft, light touch to dynamic fills.
From Mike Cosford’s cover artwork, which is a pastiche of the Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade label, to its pastoral Mellotron moments, there’s something about the punningly titled Garden Shed that feels as English as tea, toast and marmalade.
Record labels had embraced the new progressive rock music into the 70s and, with groups like Jethro Tull and Family promoting their hit singles on Top Of The Pops, no one knew how far this new phenomenon would go. But come 1977, the year that punk broke big, if you were a band or artist with moderate sales you were unlikely to survive. David Bedford, for example, had made a number of moderateselling orchestral and keyboard-based concept albums for Virgin, but when the label signed the Sex Pistols, he was soon dropped.
For a budding progressive rock band like England it was a cruel case of wrong place, wrong time. They formed in 1975 and by 1976 had landed a deal with Arista. They rehearsed at the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone, where their gear was permanently set up, and they recorded some backing tracks there with the Rolling Stones Mobile.
Arista were keen to get them a producer, and one in the frame was a big name. “Several people were offered, one of whom was Keith Emerson, and like a twat I turned him away, because I would have felt awkward with such an amazing player,” Webb admits. “Keith had been a great influence on me, and I would have found it difficult. Also, I saw him more as a keyboard player and a creative artist. He had no track record in producing.”
Instead they agreed on David Hitchcock, who had produced Caravan and Genesis. He reckoned the group needed to finish off in a professional studio, so they decamped to
Air Studios in London. As a producer he had a light touch and England felt that they needed something a bit more “directive” but they sent a demo to the label, who were happy with the results, and so the group basically ended up producing the album themselves.
With an excellent debut album in the can in early 1977, all looked set fair – in theory at least. Webb was disappointed when he got a proof of the cover artwork back from the printers and noticed that some of the colours were wrong and so he complained about it. What followed this shows just
I think there is a tendency to come up with a progressive rock sound, with singers either modelling themselves on Peter Gabriel or Jon Anderson in a loose kind of way. I don’t think that’s progressive.
how much and how quickly the musical landscape was changing.
“To get a new set of plates would have been expensive,” says Webb. “And our manager said, ‘If you don’t accept the sleeve as it is, I don’t think they’re going to bother to put the album out’, so I said, ‘OK, I accept it!’ Then when it was scheduled for release about a month later in March, there were two marketing guys, one was just about to come back from holiday and one was just about to go on holiday, and our album got put in a slot between the two. The guy who came back from holiday didn’t want to carry on promoting what the other guy had started doing, and the other guy who was going on holiday didn’t want to finish what he started. It was a right mess. So we left Arista.”
If Garden Shed had been released a few years before the convulsion of punk or a few years after – when a second wave of progressive groups like Marillion, Pendragon and Twelfth Night appeared – it would surely have been a high-profile release. People’s tastes didn’t suddenly change overnight and the album gained some media attention – Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale was impressed – but without promotion it slipped under the radar.
The group then extricated themselves from their manager, who, although proud of Garden Shed, had turned his attentions to newer signings. Webb got a job as a musical director for a musical show, Squeak, in Hornchurch, with England members playing in the orchestra pit.
When the show finished, the group lived in a shop in Tunbridge Wells, where Webb assembled a PA, made a 24-channel mixing desk and, soldering iron in hand, repaired local musicians’ amplifiers, while drummer Jode Leigh did up Morris Minors and sold them on. They got some gigs off their own bat but then hooked up with a London agent.
“Eventually it reached a head,” Webb recalls. “We did three gigs – two with The Enid and one with Renaissance in Plymouth – and the money we got paid barely covered the petrol.”
But the group were still expected to pay the agent his 10 per cent and, with two on the dole and no money coming in, they split. Webb joined Jenny Darren’s touring band.
The Melody Maker review of Garden Shed described it as “Yes in Toyland”, and although England didn’t paint on quite so large a sonic canvas, the comment was both glib and far from accurate. But then there is a similar feel about some of the vocal harmonies, even the texture of the voices, particularly on Three-Piece Suite. Although the group didn’t have a lead singer out front, Webb, Leigh and guitarist Frank Holland all had good voices.
“I’d been in Merlin before and a couple of other bands,” says Webb. “We had written our own material, but I’d never written anything for voices that were in harmony, I just had a melody line that I sang or someone else sang.
“Because of hearing Yes, particularly Fragile, I thought, ‘Ah, that’s a great idea, maybe I could write some voices together?’ I didn’t copy anything, but it does sound a little bit Yes-like because of three different voices.
But we found a blend that worked.”
One of the stories circulating online is that Webb sawed a Mellotron in half. If this is true it needs some qualification, as it makes tales of Keith Emerson and his daggers between the keys seem quite tame by comparison.
“It’s true,” says Webb, “and the reason is because it’s too big and incredibly heavy – a four-man job.” The instrument, a Mark II Mellotron, once owned by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, belonged to original drummer Mark Ibbotson and was languishing in the back of his three-ton truck “like a piece of furniture”.
“One day the roadie said, ‘Why don’t we get that Mellotron out and see what it bloody does?’ And we did. It had two three-octave keyboards side by side with a piece of wood in the middle, so you cut through that vertically. It’s much easier than it sounds. I had to get various other bits cut in half, like the capstan wheel that drives the tapes across the heads, but I did eventually get both halves working.
“With the Hammond C3 there wasn’t really much happening in the bottom half, so in the late 60s it became quite common for people to cut them in half so you could carry them. We call it a ‘split Hammond’. I think about half the Hammonds that survive have been split either by amateurs or by people working in the organ repair business.”
Webb remembers that when he worked at Selmer in London in 1972 he offered to split a new Lowrey organ for a customer.
“I was downstairs in the shop – the organ department was with the drum department – and I pushed this brand new organ on its back and got my handsaw and started sawing through it, and the guy who was the drum salesman was saying, ‘I don’t believe it!’ It was successful and the customer was happy.”
Webb was always keen on modifying equipment, from changing the speaker cones in his Leslie Speaker to altering the vibrato effect on his Minimoog.
“The Fender Rhodes had drawing pins in it and was tuned an octave higher than it should be,” he says. “I was very interested in finding new sounds and on Garden Shed it’s got this really strange ‘pingy’ sound.”
England’s reputation has grown over the years. A compilation of unreleased tracks from 1976’67, The Last Of The Jubblies, came out in ’97, and the band reformed for some live dates in 2005. Sadly, Leigh had a debilitating stroke in 2001, but six of his drum tracks were recorded in 1998’89 for a mooted England release. This appeared as
Box Of Circles, this year.
“It’s a very different album,” says Webb. “It was always conceived as an England idea and I followed it through. It just took a long time to do. Only Wheel Of Fortune really reminds me of the early England days. But it’s what I call progressive rock in the sense that you’re not going to sit still, you’re always learning, always progressing with your writing. I think there is a tendency to come up with a progressive rock sound, with singers either modelling themselves on Gabriel or Jon Anderson in a loose kind of way. I don’t think that’s progressive, I think it’s progressive nostalgia, although I’ve got nothing against it.
“It features Jenny Darren on vocals on one track and Mark Atkinson of Riversea on another, so there’s quite a bit of variety in there, and so we aren’t going to be able to feature that all at one gig.”
The gig is the Fusion Festival, Stourport in March 2019, where England will be performing Garden Shed and material from Box Of Circles with a line-up including Webb, guitarist Frank Holland and bassist Martin Henderson from the 70s line-up and singer Mike Morton, guitarist Dave Lloyd and keyboard player Gabriele Baldocci from The Gift.
“I’m interested in what younger people think of this style of music,” says Webb. “There seems to be a deep interest from people who think that this is an artistic style of music, which is appreciated for its artistic value and should be kept alive.”
Does Webb reckon that England will keep going and produce new material?
“I live in Greece now and the band need to get together to rehearse, so there’s complications,” he notes. “But if it goes forward, there’ll be new material. As a keyboard player my ideas would change with what the other musicians added and that’s not been the case with Box Of Circles because I’ve been more or less left on my own to come up with what I want. But if we can go on I’ll write for these musicians knowing what their skills are and what they could explore.”
Several people were offered, one of whom was Keith Emerson, and like a twat I turned him away, because I would have felt awkward with such an amazing player.
ENGLAND CIRCA GARDEN SHED, L-R: FRANK HOLLAND, MARTIN HUTCHINSON, JODE LEIGH, ROBERT WEBB.
ABOVE: DEBUT ALBUM GARDEN SHED.RIGHT: ROBERTWEBB IN 2018.
ABOVE: 1997’S THE LAST OF THE JUBBLIES. ROBERT WEBB: TAKINGA BREATHER FROM MELLOTRON SAWING…
BACK IN BUSINESS: ENGLAND IN 2006.
CHEERY CHAPS: FRANK HOLLAND (LEFT) AND ROBERT WEBB.
JODE LEIGH: SADLY SUFFERED A STROKE IN 2001. MARTIN HENDERSON: IN THE PINK.
ABOVE: 2018’S BOX OF CIRCLES.