More Manticores for your Madness

PFM BBC RecordingsIn an age when a band simply wasn’t a band if it didn’t also have its own record label, there was an awful lot of corporate silliness flung into the marketplace, towering conceits with names like Threshold and Purple, Swan Song and so forth, and all of them destined to put out a few good albums, deliver a few good promises, raise a few hopes… and then sink like a stone.

Of them all, Manticore stands out like a monster.  Not because its owners – Emerson, Lake and Palmer – were themselves such a glorious absurdity that even people who didn’t like them at least had to admire their audacity.  (Although that was a part of it.)  Nor because ELP’s own records were guaranteed sufficient success that all manner of private practices could take place in their shadow.  (Although that too played its role.)  No, Manticore was a monster because it released some amazing records.

Amazing records that were not by E, L or indeed P.

Named for the impressively-scorpion-tailed creature that kills the Tarkus on the band’s second album cover, Manticore, says Emerson, “started off with the best of intentions, to give other bands a similar opportunity to that we’d had.  I can only refer it to a bit like the Beatles and Apple.  We really liked bands like PFM, Stray Dog, Banco, Keith Christmas, Pete Sinfield, and we wanted to get them heard.”

And so they did.  The label debuted in 1973 with a solo album by King Crimson songwriter Pete Sinfield, Still.  Photos of Ghosts by the Italian band PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi) followed. Hanson, Stray Dog, and a second PFM set arrived later in 1973-74, and when Manticore’s US distribution moved to Motown from Atlantic in 1975, further sets by Stray Dog and PFM were joined by debut offerings by Keith Christmas (first released in the UK the previous year); another Italian band, Banco, and two sets by the putative supergroup Thee Image (ex-Iron Butterfly, Cactus).

But a fourth PFM LP, Chocolate Kings and Keith Christmas’ second, Stories from the Human Zoo appeared in the UK alone during 1976, and that was it.  When ELP themselves returned to action after a three year lay off in 1977, Manticore was nowhere to be seen, and since that time, its name has been invoked more as an affectionate alter-ego for ELP themselves (the Return of the Manticore box set, for example) than the fondly remembered home for sundry mid-70s talents.

And it’s true, the label did have its problems, as Thee Image’s Mike Pinera recalls.  “Thee Image music was a high powered power trio.  Keyboards based, drums and guitar… power rock with a little edge to it.  The songs were a mixture of power rock, blues, pop and progressive…” – the ideal blend, in fact, to attract the attention and the admiration of  what was then the biggest trio in the world, Emerson Lake and Palmer.

“We worked up ten original songs at a soundstage in Miami, and one day at rehearsal, I brought a little cassette recorder with a built-in mike.  I recorded the ten songs and took them to a friend of ours, Mario ‘The Big M’ Medious, who was then President of Manticore.  He liked the band very much and signed us.”

One of just two American bands on the label (Hanson was the other), Thee Image were ELP’s support act on the 1974 US tour that spawned the headliners’ Welcome Back My Friends triple live album.  Then it was down to Miami to record their debut album with engineer Karl Richardson (The Bee Gees, Clapton) and Pinera producing.

Thee Image, the band’s self-titled debut album, was released in February 1975, and Pinera recalls, “we were gigging a lot, everything from small clubs to theaters to big auditoriums and arenas with ELP.  We had what we believed was a great sound.  We recorded the album in about a month and then it was back out touring; we were out there with J Geils, Aerosmith, Journey….”

And then it was back into the studio, hammering out a second album, Inside The Triangle… the album was out in November, just nine months after its predecessor… they toured some more and then some more.  “But then,” says Pinera, “we decided to call it quits.”

In other words… rush rush rush.  No time to write, no time to relax, no time to even sit back and say “wow, this is kinda fun.”  Manticore was intended to allow bands the luxury of enjoying their music and their careers, away from the helter-skelter of the rock biz.  But the rock biz got its claws in there anyway, and flogged Thee Image to death.

Still the dream flourished, and if prog rock aficionados of the past few years have had anything to celebrate at all, in between their multi-mortgage mashing King Crimson box sets, and interminable Steve Wilson remixes of records that sounded fine as they were, then it’s the news that Esoteric Records – already the crucial flagship in the topographic ocean – will be rebirthing the Manticore once more.

Two Stray Dog albums, the eponymous debut and While You’re Down There have already shaken shelves; Banco, Keith Christmas and PFM’s studio output, likewise.  Now Pete Sinfield’s Still, spread over a double disc package, and a PFM BBC collection, lurching into three disc boxed territory, take things to the next level.

Still first.  Sinfield’s reputation as lyricist for both King Crimson and ELP sets the stage for the album, but musically its a far cry from the vastness that his past portended.  Closer in delivery to folk than fusion, it is sweetly poetic, gently balladic, and while Sinfield’s voice itself is not, perhaps, the greatest vehicle his lyrics have ever had at their disposal, still Still has a warmth that long ago rendered it one of those “favorite forgotten” albums of the age… one you’d pick up used because you dimly remembered liking it at the time, and then fell in love with all over again.

1436485A double disc… a supremely dreamy remastering of the original on disc one, and a bonus disc comprising two out-takes and more or less the entire album revisited in its earliest mixes – several of which do amply repay the time you spend listening to them.  All too often (can anybody spell “the latest Kinks box set”?) collectors and fans are lured into reissues with the promise of mixes that ultimately offer nothing you would even care to notice in the way of appreciable differences.  Still, however, underwent a few changes in vision and approach before Sinfield professed himself content, and disc two allows us a glimpse into a few of them.  Give it a go.  It’s fun.

Still startles.  PFM pulverize.  At their best, which meant most of the time, PFM were everything you’ve ever dreamed… or feared… a prog band could be.  Pretentious, playful, absurd, abominable, you could take any epithet you want and hurl it at them, and it would hang quivering from their carapace like another badge of honor.  If PFM had been represented among the cartoon creatures on the cover of ELP’s Tarkus, they would have resembled a giant bagworm.

That’s how great they were.

Paper Charms is three discs long, two devoted to hour long broadcasts on the BBC’s live In Concert program, in May 1975 and Apil 1976; the third a DVD serving up four broadcasts on the legendary Old Grey Whistle Test, beginning with the Manticore promo film for “Four Holes in the Ground”… a Pete Sinfield co-write, by the way… and continuing on through two amazing performances.

In both cases… In Concert and Whistle Test, it’s the 1975 show that best illustrates PFM, and not only because it features what is probably their best known number, the mighty “Alta Loma 5 ‘till 9,” into which they cut Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”  And, in the process, rewrote the rules for rocking the classics ever after.  You want to know why prog never sounded as good after 1975-or-so?  Why even it’s most blinkered apologists will admit that the mid-1970s marked the end of the music’s halcyon era?

It’s because nobody could follow PFM.  Not even PFM, although the 1976 In Concert had its mighty moments, and the accompanying booklet reminds us just how fiercely we responded to the band’s studio output.  Love hate love hate. But never, ever ignore.

Paper Charms will charm you properly, and with Still still playing in the background too, the Manticore has indeed returned, and if we add these to the E and L live set reviewed here a couple of whiles ago… welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

Oh, and did I mention a new edition of Trilogy is on the schedules for later this year?  Apparently it’s been remixed.  Hurrah.

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