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…

Prog - - Contents - Words: Mike Barnes

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.








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