It's Prog, Jim, But Not As We Know It: David Gates

cover art for David Gates - first

In his time capsule capture as the leader of Bread, David Gates is forever seen as an extremely mellow fellow, the man behind the feel-good West Coast ballads Everything I Own, If, and Make It With You; gauzy, grown-up love songs full of sun-kissed confidence, just add soft-focus.

However, all is not always as it seems – there was a little grit in his softcore oyster. The Tulsa-born Gates had been a key session man and producer in the 60s, playing with the likes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. “People always associate me with the ballads and pretty things, but I did quite a lot of rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock stuff early in my career,” Gates told writer Graham Reid in 2003. Gates would forever be a footnote in rock’s underground for his production of two singles for Captain Beefheart at A&M in 1966. Gates wrote the A-side Moonchild for the good Captain, sweetening his sound for the label’s hierarchy. Bread would also have their heavier moments, calling this style ‘Bread Zeppelin.’

By 1973, Gates was a household name. Bread had become world superstars, but the tension between Gates and co-leader James Griffin put the band on a hiatus, allowing Gates to release his debut solo album. First was made, unsurprisingly, with the cream of LA session players, and showcased all his sweetness and craft. However, at the end of its first side, First contains a slice of proper prog. Suite: Clouds, Rain is a rumination on life and love inspired by a plane journey home. It’s two songs joined together, with epic synths and a piano motif redolent of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park. It was recorded by Gates, on keyboards and guitar, over a rhythm section of Larry Knechtel (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums); his sleeve essayist Alan Robinson, notes, “It’s a splendidly atmospheric concoction… making for a mini-masterpiece of subtly shaded mood and tone, and the way that the sharp tang of electric guitar pierces the carefully-created atmosphere is illustrative of how many years of studio technique he could bring into play.”

Clouds, the first part of the song, ends with a portentous thunderclap. A section from this was taken for a single, reaching the US Top 50 and striking a chord with a lot of British fans as it was used as a closing theme for Samantha Dubois’ show on Radio Caroline.

Gates returned to Bread, and when he had later solo success with the track, Goodbye Girl, he put together a compilation of his first two albums, and Suite: Clouds, Rain (re-titled the less proggy Clouds Suite) featured prominently; he was duly proud of his work.

David Gates has now retired from music, but his big copyrights remain staples of oldies programming. But, for those who prefer something a little deeper, a visit to this quite wonderful track is thoroughly recommended.

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Daryl Easlea

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.