jump to navigation

Beggar’s Opera – Rock Music Commentary January 11, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Beggar's Opera, electrosensitivity, music, music commentary, progressive rock, Ricky Gardiner, rock music.
Tags: , , , , ,

This post exists purely because of the internet, specifically because of blogging. Beggar’s Opera, the 1970s progressive rock group, came to my attention as a result of interactions with my blog. I had never heard of Beggar’s Opera. I did a little internet research and had a feeling I would like them—some of my favorite music from the 1970s is progressive rock, and my research indicated they created music in that style. I picked up their first four albums, and two more recent efforts of their lead guitarist. It’s fun to find new music from an old era. Progressive rock has migrated to new places—places I like by the way—Spock’s Beard and Flower Kings, to name a few. But 1970s Beggar’s Opera takes me back to a past era, offering new musical experiences in an old familiar style, like an old friend offering new surprises: 

“Act One” (1970): This album reminded me immediately of Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP group, the Nice. (With apologies to Lee Jackson, the vocals on Beggar’s Opera are a big improvement over the Nice.) Alan Park, the organist, quotes classical music pieces throughout “Act One,” with guitarist Ricky Gardiner joining in. They even play homage to the Nice with a quote from the Karelia Suite, one of the Nice’s more successful pieces. The song “Memory,” with its shift of rhythm, and shift through chord changes, riffs gliding over the rhythm and harmony, took me back to early Yes and Gentle Giant, with a hard rock driving push added.

“Waters of Change” (1971): A mellotron is added to many of the tracks, thickening the texture of Beggar’s Opera’s music. But one of the highlights of this CD is a short piece, “Lament,” with an organ and distant drum offering a droning chant-like feel, like a bagpiper standing alone on a hill in the early morning mist, plaintively calling for attention. “Festival” is another highlight of the “Waters of Change” album, calling to mind Jethro Tull, along with other progressive rock influences. Flute riffs permeate the background of parts of “Festival.” The music throbs through wonderful chord migrations with the cadence on the lyrics “festival is here to stay” that surprises in a really satisfying way. “Festival” paces through development and shifts as we expect from a good progressive rock song. In fact, this is my favorite cut from the first four Beggar’s Opera albums. The quotes of classical music are reduced in this album, but have certainly not disappeared. “Silver Peacock” starts out with the C minor prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (I) played flawlessly at break-neck speed on the organ.

“Pathfinder” (1972): This album starts with “Hobo,” a catchy song about a truly tragic situation! The bouncy minor key seems at odds with the story, an effective tension that makes the song effective. They also take on pop music’s late 1960s flirtation with the progressive rock style, “MacArthurPark.” The keyboard background and soaring vocals put the band’s stamp on the song. Creative combinations of piano, harpsichord and organ bring enchanting colors to the effort.

“Get Your Dog Off of Me” (1973): The group seems to be transitioning away from the progressive rock style with this final effort from the original “Beggar’s Opera.” There is a bluesy, old-time rock ’n roll, sometimes almost country-rock feel to many of the songs. There are some hints of progressive rock here, with adventurous chord shifts during “Morning Day,” and the riff-based “Working Man,” with guitar lead lines flowing through the lead vocals of the chorus in well-placed counterpoint. And they offer a great progressive rock rendition of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” with a dynamic synthesizer fanfare where the brass section comes in, and an instrumental break with a crisp synth solo.


The other two CDs I picked up are recent releases from Beggar’s Opera’s guitarist, Ricky Gardiner. One is a Beggar’s Opera CD. The other is a rock opera about an affliction Gardiner has been struggling with, “electrosensitivity.”

“Close to My Heart” (2007): This Beggar’s Opera group is a family affair with the original Beggar’s Opera guitarist playing the guitars, bass, and adding some vocals. His wife, Virginia Scott, a member of the group in some of the original Beggar’s Opera recordings, sings the lead vocals and provides some supporting keyboard parts, including mellotron sounds, recalling her contributions to the 1970s albums. Their son, Tom Gardiner, plays the drums. This CD is basically a guitar CD, with block chords and searing, clean-sounding leads soaring over the chords. But though the textures are relatively simple, and certainly simple for progressive rock, the music itself has an exotic feel, with unconventional chord changes, involving chromatic moves as well as through shifting keys, overlaid with the lilting quality of Virginia Scott’s voice, often effectively doubled with harmonies. “Passing Her” is a highlight of this CD, with an apparently simple rhythm, with simple melodic lines. But the exotic chromatic moves give the music a pleasantly eerie vibe. The B section breaks into an electronic pulsing bass that lowers while the melodic line raises, creating a musical stretching effect. “A-Ha” is a hypnotic, catchy song with a little bass riff during the chorus that will stick with you long after you hear it. “Angelus Thread” starts out simply, with two chord progressions moving in half steps under a chant-like melody. But as the song develops, we get our most progressive rockish selection, with flowing guitar lines and piano countermelodies intertwining through the chord progressions.

“Lost a Life” (2011): This is a rock opera produced by the same Gardiner family comprising the 2007 Beggar’s Opera group. It is the story of an affliction that has transformed the life of Beggar’s Opera guitarist Ricky Gardiner—“electrosensitivity,” a disabling sensitivity to the electricity generated by all the technological devices surrounding us. It seems a cruel fate for someone so steeped in music electronics, someone so capable with beautiful, clear-toned electric guitar passages. But Gardiner takes on the affliction in the way we might expect, by creating music about it. During “Masts On My Roof,” we have what may be the signature passage of the rock opera, with choruses of “electrosensivity” harmonized in Virginia Scott’s upper vocal range, calling out in distress, with that one word, begging for an explanation and a solution. It does not seem to be forthcoming. The selection ends with a long list of devices that must be avoided—and heart-wrenchingly, even people with those devices. One of the more striking of the selections from “Lost a Life” is “Dr. Carlo.” Finally, a medical person takes the affliction seriously. It is not just some psychological tweak—“electrosensitivity” is a real illness, with drastic measures needed to address it, but validating the symptoms experienced as something beyond “in the head.”


I suspect there are other gems out there like Beggar’s Opera. Folks, if you know of one, please feel free to comment!