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U.K. - U.K. Album Of The Week Club review

The world's first prog supergroup conjures up challenging jazz fusion, fail to set world alight

U.K.: U.K.
(Image: © E.G.)
U.K. - U.K.

(Image credit: E.G.)

In the Dead of Night
By the Light of Day
Presto Vivace and Reprise
Thirty Years
Alaska
Time to Kill
Nevermore
Mental Medication

In 1977, John Wetton formed the band U.K. with guitarist Allan Holdsworth, violin/keyboard player Eddie Jobson and old pal Bill Bruford. 

As far as Wetton was concerned, the formation initially stemmed from a sense of there being unfinished King Crimson business (he'd played on Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, and Red), but there was also an attempt to get things moving in a more chart-friendly direction.

A three-year run was undermined by line-up changes, personality clashes and various gremlins, although the band's debut, self-titled album is now viewed as something of a cult classic. 

"It had such a profound effect on changing my view of playing guitar," Kings X guitarist Ty Tabor told us. "Probably like nothing else I had ever heard before. I had never heard anybody think about playing guitar the way that he plays on that record. 

"It has become a style that we are all familiar with now, but at the time he was the creator of his new thing, that influenced everyone - from Eddie Van Halen to anyone you’ve ever heard of that’s a real rock guitarist."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in March 1978

  • ...And Then There Were Three... - Genesis
  • Northwinds - David Coverdale
  • Easter - Patti Smith Group
  • Zappa in New York - Frank Zappa
  • A Biography - John Mellencamp
  • Another Music in a Different Kitchen - Buzzcocks
  • Double Dose - Hot Tuna
  • Guilty Until Proven Insane - Skyhooks
  • You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can't Tuna Fish - REO Speedwagon
  • Generation X - Generation X
  • This Year's Model - Elvis Costello and the Attractions
  • London Town - Wings
  • First Glance - April Wine
  • Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival - Various Artists
  • Jesus of Cool - Nick Lowe
  • Waiting for Columbus - Little Feat
  • What If - Dixie Dregs

What they said...

"Without carrying the same rhythms or cadences through each song, U.K. implements some differentiation into their music, straying from the sometimes over-the-top musicianship that occurs with the gathering of such an elite bunch. The melodious finish of such tracks as By The Light Of Day and Alaska showcases the overall fluency of each member, and shows no signs of any progressive tediousness that could have easily evolved." (AllMusic)

"A very good album by the first supergroup in the history of progressive rock. Bruford's drumming is very impressive and Jobson's parts on keyboards and electric violin are delightful. Although Bruford and Wetton were both members of King Crimson, the music here is lighter and closer to symphonic prog than to hard prog." (Prog Archives)

"From the unashamed riffing of In The Dead Of Night to the blistering electric violin solo of Thirty Years, this is a record that starts well and continues even better, somehow managing to gather even more momentum and build up increasingly complex melodic and rhythmic layers. Overall, the whole thing is bursting with great musical ideas and packed with energy. It's made of effective melodies, energetic interplay and amazing performing skills, and an essential addition to any progressive fan’s collection." (Sputnik Music)

What you said...

Nigel Lancashire: Jazz fusion eh? Esperanza Spalding owns it. Joni Mitchell got away with it. Brand X made a career of it. U.K. just felt sort of awkward with it.

Up to this week’s musical... I’m going to call it ‘challenge’ this week, my experience of U.K is, almost wholly, buying Nothing To Lose on 7” after hearing it played it a record shop in 1979 and without knowing a thing about the band, and its b-side Dead Of Night, which I’ve just learned is a recording with the revised trio that recorded Danger Money.

So going into the album, I’m expecting prog with a bit more of a contemporary edge, a bit Asia and maybe some more 1977-contemporary noises from Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson. It’s hard, on hearing the initial track In the Dead of Night to not, with hindsight, point to all the almost-Asia moments that would bear such profitable fruit a few years later. It drifts very nicely into By The Light of Day then briefly offends my ears with the Presto bit of Presto Vivace And Reprise before settling down nicely. Thirty Years is initially elegant, almost classical with an interestingly phased vocal and I like it overall, despite its lack of anything resembling a hook.

When the jazz fusion kicks in hard though, it’s an uncomfortable fit, with the usually pleasing voice of John Wetton lacking the flexibility needed and is singularly unsuited to it. And it’s those jazz aspirations that, for me, tend to jar, marring the flow of the record. Jobson veers into fairly ugly, pitchy keyboard sounds (that Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser is brutal at times) and just gets plain discordant when he is, I assume, shooting for improvisation. He fares considerably better when he picks up his violin though, with some nifty finger and bow work.

There really aren’t many actual songs here are there? Alaska is what the classical types call a ‘tone poem’, Time to Kill is fragmented and forgettable, with some shockingly note-missing vocals, and Nevermore starts with a nice premise, but then loses it, although the jazz element fares better here, where the piece is structured to be pretty much given over entirely to it. Where it lurches in like a frantic drunk looking for his keys, not so much. Mental Medication feels like a freeform experiment that should stayed on the demo tapes. As a whole, over less than 50 minutes of music, I only hear two songs and a lot of aimless twiddling.

This is probably why I find, giving a blast to the follow-up album, Danger Money, that washing the more jazz improvisation-keen elements of Bruford and Holdsworth out makes the sound less unruly and more focused (I’m sure there’s a Thijs van Leer joke somewhere here). Although, I’ve got to say, for a lauded guitarist like Alan Holdsworth, I don’t hear much guitar at all on this record overall, and certainly nothing jaw-dropping.

I simply don’t find a thing to care about on U.K.. It’s head over heart music, obviously clever but it just doesn’t move you. I’m not surprised, despite the band’s collective pedigree, that it didn’t win over many fans, even prog ones. Overall, after 4-5 indifferent listens, I likely won’t be enthusiastically returning to U.K.’s shores. 6/10.

Gary Claydon: I bought this on release purely because of the personnel on show, which, for anybody with even the slightest of inclinations towards the widdly widdly end of the rock spectrum, given the pedigree of this collective, wasn't an unreasonable thing to do. If I'd heard anything from it beforehand I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have bothered.

It's not that there is anything unexpected here. The musicianship is, as you'd expect, pretty good. There are enough interesting moments to prevent it from being a poor album as such but it just left me cold. Still does. Doesn't flow, doesn't drag me along with it. A bit too clever, no real guts to the album. Doesn't help that there are numerous pointers to the future horrors of Asia (the band, not the continent) or that I've never been a big fan of Wetton's vocals. Holdsworth is technically brilliant but the whole 'why play just one note when I can squeeze fifteen in' approach does get a little wearing. Not that he's to the fore here, keyboards definitely rule the roost on this one. Bruford's drum work is generally nice & crisp throughout.

Best bits for me are the opener, In The Dead Of Night, and Alaska. Worst bits are the jazzier elements (I've never been much of a fusion fan) and Mental Medication, which is the kind of track that makes some people look at prog with contempt.

Always liked the album cover. Looks kinda moody. The music it contains, not so much.

Carl Black: Once again, another choice of band and album that I never knew existed. It immediately struck me that this was a cross between Pink Floyd and early 80s Rush. It then struck me that the guitar was missing in action. Where is it I kept asking myself. A solo... Yes but part of the riff that drives the song? No, very little guitar. So for me it's going to struggle. 

After listening to it it felt as if the keyboard player has spent a month laying down whatever is flying around his head in the studio and then getting some other guys to pick the bones out if it. "Go on lads, fill your boots where you can, but don't interfere with the keyboards" It's like they've lost the guitar tracks during recording. Really disliked this album. I won't be coming back. Unless it's remastered with the lost guitar tracks.

Mike Knoop: I came to the U.K. through a longtime fascination with John Wetton. That guy had been with so many bands or artists I like, if only briefly. I was further intrigued when I realised this band also featured Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson fame and Eddie Jobson (who I knew as the guy who somehow successfully replaced Brian Eno in Roxy Music). Ironically, guitarist Allan Holdsworth was the unknown factor for me.

This album was a tougher listen than expected. After several (virtual) spins of the album, the only song I can hum (and that's just the chorus) is the opening track In the Dead Of Night. There's interesting stuff happening in 30 Years, Nevermore, and Alaska, but the rest really has yet to take hold.

But I'm not ready to write it off either. I didn't really get into more challenging prog bands like King Crimson or ELP until the past decade, as well as offshoots like Krautrock (Can, Amon Düül II, Agitation Free) or jazz fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana, the Crusaders). U.K. falls on the same spectrum as those bands.

I can appreciate them now. Someday I might actually enjoy them.

Brian Carr: In the summer of 1986, I started buying and reading Guitar For The Practicing Musician. That was the summer I turned 14, so I was still very limited on my musical knowledge, especially with regards to variety (ie: anything outside of mainstream rock). One name that seemed to come up often in the magazine was Allan Holdsworth. 

I never had the opportunity, as I recall, to hear his music, and later when I delved deeper into music and guitar studies (and much later when streaming became an option), I had forgotten about Holdsworth. So I was excited when the U.K. album came up this week and I would finally get to hear what the highly regarded player could do.

If I didn’t make it to the end of the album this evening, I think I’d still be wondering. U.K. is absolutely drowning in keyboards. It’s like dumping half a bottle of ketchup on fries - just too much (actually, if the fries are good, I don’t ruin them with any ketchup, but I digress). It wasn’t until the last two tracks, Nevermore and Mental Medication, that I felt like I heard any guitar, so I suppose I wasn’t surprised to note those were the only two writing credits with his name.

Considering the prog legends on the U.K. album, I’m disappointed that I came away not liking it much. Maybe a couple more spins in the right mindset would improve my outlook, but in limited rotation this week, there was little to pique my interest.

Iain Macaulay: Technically, this is superb. Can’t fault that. Great musicianship. But that’s where it ends for me. Normally I have a lot of time for stuff like this but, there just no.... no... just nothing. I don’t like the way it’s been mixed either, level wise, there’s something very wrong with it. The EQ of the individuals tracks doesn’t let them sit together in a balanced way.

All told, music for music students with big egos to cream over and look down on songwriters while they play to an audience of five and think the rest of the world is wrong for not appreciating them. Sorry.

Carlos Luis Herrera: This rocks. I enjoy this very piece of music for what it is, a set of very smartly arranged, creative, predominantly instrumental and synthetic songs, and there's really nothing I can complain about that. It doesn't convey worldly emotions though, nor it has a lot of groove, and you can't choose it as the soundtrack of an action movie (without having a laugh). But it's the kind of music that was created to explore imaginary universes, as well as the challenges of our own mind. Plus, the harmonies are on point.

Bill Griffin: I started backwards with this band, first getting NIght After Night, then Danger Money and then, only about a year ago, this album. Alan Holdsworth adds a whole new dimension to tracks I was already familiar with. It's unfortunate that Jobson and Wetton couldn't deal with his improvisational playing style, especially since they lost Bruford as well. I do enjoy this album a lot though I typically go for one of the many live recordings I have when I want to listen to U.K. This will get a high mark from me.

Richard Cardenas: Great guitar work but the synths ruin it for me. Too poppy at times as well.

Mikel Urrutia Santerbás: I heard this when I was 16 years old (1981) and my head exploded.The eclectic sound of Holdsworth and Jobson's breaker keyboards joined the brick wall (in Fripp's words) of Wetton / Brudford. It's an exciting recording!

Graham Tarry: Love this album, but it's overshadowed by the follow up, Danger Money, where Terry Bozzio replaces Bruford, and nobody replaces Holdsworth.

Jonathan Novajosky: I heard this a while back but it was definitely time for a re-listen. At first, I wasn't sure just much I liked it. The first three songs almost all go together with a singular melody driving throughout each. It wasn't until Thirty Years that I was really feeling it. Alaska is a great, moody build up to my favourite song on the album, Time To Kill. I'm not really sure what the song is about, but it's groovy as hell. The light piano here really makes the track shine – I love the showy frills in between some of the lines.

Usually, it takes a few listens for prog albums for me to really decide if I like them. After about four runs with U.K., I would call myself a fan. It doesn't blow me away like other juggernauts of the genre like Close To The Edge or Selling England, but there's still a lot to love for this (sadly) only release by the band. 8/10

Aaron J. Hardek: It took til Thirty Years to catch me but it really took hold from there. Vocals didn't really grab me which surprised me coz I love much of his other work. Bruford and Holdsworth hit me like an 18 wheeler. Remarkable work.

Robert Dunn: For me, the part of the body that rock music should grab you by isn't the brain, and perhaps that is why prog just leaves me cold. It's the old joke about a rock guitarist playing three chords to an audience of thousands, whereas a jazz guitarist plays thousands of chords to an audience of three. I appreciate the musicianship, the difficulty level involved in such a loose song structure, and the fact that loads of perfectly civilised people love this stuff, but it still sounds like all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order to me.

I am not saying that the songs on this album are bad, far from it, but they are just not my thing. They are an artisanal, micro-lot, single source cup of Yirgacheffe, hand crafted and poured by an expert barista, when all I wanted was a cup of coffee. I'm afraid that for the moment, my prog tastes extend to Deep Purple and Jethro Tull, any further than that and I get a nosebleed.

John Davidson: Progressive rock comes in many guises… the best of it soars, when great musicians combine complex rhythms and ambitious melodies to create music that is not just impressive, but genuinely interesting and immersive. The very best of it is awe inspiring (rather than the overused American platitude of awesome).

U.K. don’t quite deliver on that. In fact, they don’t even come close. Despite the talent of the players the songs didn’t draw me in as a listener and for an album delivered in 1978 it sounds more dated than the best early prog of 1970-74. That may not seem much, but music shifted fundamentally in a few short years in the 70s.

Part of the problem is John Wetton’s vocal performance. I’ve never been a huge fan of his singing (though it worked well enough on the first Asia album), but on this he sounds flat and mostly just going through the motions rather than bringing an emotional aspect to the music. The other issue is that many of the songs lack a coherent structure, sounding more like fragments or jams that have been stuck together rather than conceived as songs.

The first three seem to blend into one without going anywhere – it was 50/50 that I would listen all the way through.

Things start to improve on the fourth track Thirty Years. Even it has a long intro featuring Vangelis-style electronica and a fairly mediocre vocal melody from Wetton (that sounds at times like a riff on American Pie) before it gets properly going and turns into a pretty decent song.

Alaska is a brooding synth/keyboard led affair. It’s telling that an instrumental is one of the better track.

The instrumental sections of Time to Kill are really good, particularly the violin solo but again marred by Wetton’s half-hearted vocals.

Nevermore starts with some finger picked guitar that sounds like it is lifted from the Steve Howe songbook but then opens up into what is probably the best song on the album. It has a decent melody and the song goes through a few short movements that emphasise the different instruments

Sadly, the album ends as it began, with a decent instrumental, overlaid with vocals that don’t do it any favours.

Overall, this an OK but not spectacular album and given the credentials of those involved that’s perhaps surprising, but great musicians don’t always make great songwriters and that’s where the album falls down. The marriage of music, melody and vocal delivery just doesn’t work as well as it should leaving us with an album that is less than the sum of its very talented parts.

As I write this I can’t think of a hummable moment and on that basis – having failed the old grey whistle test - this weeks verdict is a 4.

Final Score: 6.6⁄10 (70 votes cast, with a total score of 462)

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