It's not a unique story when it's about a 70s progressive rock that went through rapid lineup changes and ultimately broke apart after artistic differences." That's essentially the narrative of the short-lived supergroup UK, which existed roughly from 1977 to 1980. It's also not all that surprising that somehow in a group of uber talented musicians with big egos, they managed to make one or two albums that represented the prog rock genre well before splintering under the weight of expectations. That, too, happened with UK.
What hadn't happened with UK is the music that they left behind hadn't reached that mythical status, where people realize that lightning was caught in a bottle only after it was released again never to return. After revisiting their second record with a new perspective, I'm thinking that maybe it should be at least considered as a classic of the genre.
UK coleasced when ex-Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford and ex-King Crimson bassist/lead singer John Wetton invited guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist/electric violinist Eddie Jobson to join them in a supergroup of sorts. They made a self-titled debut in 1978, toured as Jethro Tull's opening act and then Holdsworth and Bruford left the group to form their own led by Bruford. Holdsworth wasn't replaced, but Jobson brought in fellow Zappa alumnus Terry Bozzio on the drums, and UK was re-christened as a power trio. The three made an album the next year, Danger Money, which somehow reached my ears then on the strength of their made-for-radio single Nothing To Lose." I went and got Danger, and found that the rest of the record wasn't quite as radio-ready, but it dazzled more.
This has many the earmarks of a stereotypical prog-rock record: heavy-handed musicianship, oddball and shuffling time signatures, extended pieces and songs about weird or abstract topics. But UK was exceptionally tight, and the songwriting team of Wetton and Jobson produced tracks that had just enough hooks to linger in your brain, but unpredictable enough to keep you coming back to the songs to figure out what you missed the prior time. There were three songs a piece on each side of the platter; three shorter (five minutes or less) songs and three eight minutes or longer. Most probably that reflected a compromise between Wetton and Jobson, who afterwards broke up the band over disagreement over how long the songs should run.
The title track opens up the record, and Jobson's advanced mastery of keyboard textures comes into focus right off on a bombastic, death march intro. Jobson's big organ sound interwoven completely with a synth in a grand, bombastic piece that fades away clean to make way for the quicker paced main body of the song. Wetton sings a first hand narrative of a hit man's life with dry wit ("It's one hell of a lifestyle/but then it brings in the pay," I can show you no mercy/well they don't pay me for that"). The song signifies what UK, Mk II was about: more straightforward melodies with some real verse and refrains folded in with tricky instrumental passages and quirky structure change ups. And though Wetton is plenty proven as a vocalist and bassist, this band had become a vehicle for its remaining true virtuoso in Jobson.
Rendezvous 6:02" points further into a pop direction, resting gently on a bed of Jobson's acoustic-sounding electric piano, playing in a jazzy vein during the instrumental section and competing against increasingly bigger cascades of synths. The Only Thing She Needs" is Bozzio's showcase, with a solo near the beginning and death-defying fills galore. Though Bozzio wasn't yet in Bruford's league yet, he was already plenty good enough to handle the chores. Caeser's Palace Blues" could have been a vocal track on Jean-Luc Ponty's Cosmic Messenger, with Jobson's demonic electric violin alternately sounding like a champion fiddler and a heavy metal guitarist. That track that I first heard on the radio Nothing To Lose" in retrospect pointed the way to a more digestible form of prog rock that Wetton preferred, and provided the formula for his next band, Asia. Carrying No Cross" is that obligatory epic track that you find in every good progressive rock album, the kind that hard core prog-heads prefer. With a temperament the ebbs and flows maticulously like a symphonic piece, token vocals and a frenzy of almost everything in Jobson's arsenal in the solo-laden middle section-synthesizers, organ and, yes, even acoustic piano-this was clearly constructed as a stage crowd pleaser and at over twelve minutes long they three let it all hang out. If you want to know why Eddie Jobson is considered sucha keyboard wizard, this is the song to head to first.
Danger Money effectively marked the end of the classic prog rock period; aside from a live record released the following year after the group disbanded, this was it for UK. After that point, it seemed most of the major participants in the decade of prog rock's golden era moved on to more commercials realms: Yes reformed with Trevor Rabin with simpler, shorter and radio-ready songs. Genesis continued its transformation to a pop-rock band that was all but completed by 1983, and Asia was formed with Wetton and Yes guitarist Steve Howe around the same time. Missing Persons, Bozzio's band with his wife Dale, fully embraced 80s synth-pop. Jobson kept a lower profile, releasing a couple of solo albums but working as a session player for other bands like Jethro Tull or Spyro Gyra.
Attempts to reform UK hadn't been successful, but the prog rock comeback that started in the 90s and continuing to this day is a testament to the enduring quality of the music of its best acts like this one. Just a couple of years ago, all three UK releases were reissued with what I understand are some intricate remasterings by Jobson. Though short-lived, UK did its part to make a strong case for the form of rock that's hardest to master.