Crotchety Man has been hearing a lot of slowish soft-to-ambient music recently and was looking for something with a bit more bite to spice up his listening hours. But the airwave gods were not paying attention. Although the cuisine was excellent and the menu was varied, each dish they served up had clearly been prepared in the same kitchen. The Crotchety palate yearned for something that would stand out from the crowd but, try as he might, he could not find it.
Then, this week’s Burning Shed newsletter announced a “remastered double CD anthology of all the recordings of Brit Proggers Wally for Atlantic Records between 1974 and 1975″. As usual with Burning Shed missives this was inviting pre-orders for a future release (27th September). Crotchety Man never responds to those – he likes to hear at least some of what’s on offer before pressing the ‘buy’ button and he doesn’t go for the demos and outtakes or the expensive box set. But this was intriguing. A British prog rock band who were making records in the seventies and that I’d never heard of? Well, that tickled the old grey curiosity whiskers immensely.
A standard research project was launched immediately. The first step, according to the procedures manual, was to consult Spotify, which turned up two studio albums: Wally (1974) and Valley Gardens (1975). There were no singles, EPs, compilations or “appears on” items, so this initial phase didn’t take very long.
The earlier of the two albums had a folk/country/rock feel to it, a kind of British Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, particularly on this rather lovely little song, Sunday Walking Lady.
On first hearing, that debut album came across as something of a patchwork of different styles whose centre of gravity sat only just within the boundaries of symphonic prog rock. The Valley Gardens follow-up seemed more assured and more consistent. The folk and country elements had melted into the melodic prog rock substrate; the band had found their own unique sound. Hear, for example, how the violin and lap steel guitar embellish the piano and vocals of the gentle song, Nez Percé.
At the end of the Spotify phase the tentative verdict was:
Very pleasant. I wish I’d known them in the seventies.
But those sounds, too, came from the slow-cook kitchen. On this showing ‘symphonic rockers’ would have been a better tag than ‘proggers’. Perhaps there was more to Wally, though, than those two albums had suggested. It was time to move to phase 2: Google, Wikipedia and beyond.
Those sources tell us that Wally was formed around 1971 and started life gigging at pub rock venues in the small spa town of Harrogate, the nearby conurbation of Leeds/Bradford and the metropolitan city of Manchester a little further away. In 1973 they entered a New Act competition run by Melody Maker magazine and reached the finals. Although they didn’t win the competition they did catch the ear of “Whispering” Bob Harris who offered them a session on his radio show, The Monday Program, and subsequently helped them to get a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
Produced by Bob Harris and Rick Wakeman, the band recorded its first album, Wally, in 1974. Now managed by Brian Lane (who also managed Yes), they toured Britain, Japan and the United States. They released their second album, Valley Gardens, in 1975 but, in spite of its 5-star reviews, they split up not long after.
There are slightly different accounts of the reasons for the band’s demise. The strain of continual touring is quoted as one reason. Another was that Rick Wakeman’s departure from Yes weakened their ties with Atlantic who decided to terminate their recording contract. The final nail in Wally‘s coffin was the arrival of punk music and the declining popularity of mainstream and progressive rock.
But good bands never really die, like fungi they just disperse their spores, waiting for environmental conditions to become favourable again, before they re-assemble a fruiting body for the reunion gig. Some 34 years after Wally split up they played the first of three reunion gigs. With five of the seven original members in the new line-up there can be no disputing that the band of 2009 was, in all essentials, the same one that started life in that small spa town back in 1971.
The reconstituted Wally made one further album of new material, Montpellier, and a compilation, To The Urban Man, both released in 2010. This track from Montpellier takes us into true prog rock territory; there’s no vestige of folk or country here.
And, continuing the prog rock theme, here’s an extract from a DVD of a Wally concert from 2009. This one stimulates the Crotchety Senses the way the smell of buried truffles intoxicates a forest pig.
The later Wally material is still quite gentle – another appetising dish from the slow-cook kitchen – but this band stands out from the crowd. I may have missed the party in the seventies but I am delighted to say that Crotchety Man has found Wally at last.