The hard knocks of prog rock : A new smackdown

Let’s skip the introduction — it’s been far too long since we had a good Hymie’s blog SMACKDOWN…if you’re really worried about the rules you can find them here.

We enjoy comparing our favorite records and artists because this is what people do in a record store to pass time (yep folks, this one is not just in the movies). Here are our three most recent SMACKDOWNs…

To Coast or to Drift
The Battle for Middle Earth
Herb Alpert’s 9th vs. Beethoven’s 9th
and here’s a further collection of earlier links: Best of the Smackdowns

It’s all in good fun. Today’s is the first to explore the big, weird little world of progressive rock, pitting a beloved King Crimson/Traffic-affiliated album against a rare local gem. Today we present…

McDonald & Giles vs. McDonald & Sherby

Round 1: Best Cover

Kind of not fair, for while McDonald and Sherby are pictured by their hippy selves, McDonald and Giles appear with their hot girlfriends — maybe if Catharsis has come out on a bigger label McDonald and Sherby would have been asked to invite their girlfriends for a better photo befitting a gatefold jacket. Looking at the pictures and comparing these two duos, it’s possible McDonald and Sherby didn’t have girlfriends to invite to the shoot.


mcdonald and giles

Round 2: Best prog rock moment

Side two of McDonald & Giles starts as such:


This side-long track has an oppressively progressive title — Birdman; involving The Inventor’s Dream (Q.U.A.T.), the Workshop, Wish-bone Ascension, Birdman Flies!, Wings in the Sunset, Birdman–The Reflection. This is what’s actually written on the album jacket, along with extensive information on the composition’s, um, composition. It was “mostly written in the spring of 1969,” in case you’re worried for details.


Catharsis opens with “Addoranne,” a slow plodding love song to a woman with a surreal name. It takes a while to build, but when the synthesizer comes in about a quarter of the way through the fourth minute it sets course for interstellar space — and from there it’s got a “side two of Thick As A Brick” drive that works.

3 – Sweetest drum break

“Tomorrow’s People — The Children of Today” was sampled by the Beastie Boys on Hello Nasty (“Body Movin'”). We haven’t found a single sample from the McDonald & Sherby album, although there’s some trippy isolated cymbal and organ moments in the instrumental jam “Space Beam” (see Round #6).

tomorrows people the children of today

“Tomorrow’s People — The Children of Today” by McDonald & Giles

 4 – Shreddin’-est ass-kickin’-est guitar jam

McDonald & Giles is closer to the first couple Caravan records than King Crimson in its jazzy jams, while McDonald & Sherby lean roots n’ riff heavy on Catharsis. Guy McDonald really goes to town in “Drivin’ me Crazy”:


“Drivin’ me Crazy” by McDonald & Sherby


5 – Most ironically stupid arty instrumentation credit

Percussionist Ian McDonald wins this round for his team — his role is credited as “including milk bottle, handsaw, lip whistle and nutbox.” He played the nutbox.

Actually, that’s just a part of a drum kit, but this guy wanted credit for the unique way he worked his nutbox. That’s what prog rock is all about.

nutbox!6 – Best Prog-y Organ Jam

This is the round where underdogs McDonald & Sherby upset their well-heeled opponents. For while McDonald & Giles were able to borrow Steve Winwood from Traffic to back them on their album, Guy McDonald’s wild playing on Catharsis is far more exciting than anything Winwood contributes to McDonald & Giles.

Winwood’s presence suggests there’s going to be some awesome keyboard pyrotechnics, but the album is more Low End Spark of High Heeled Boys than Mr. Fantasy, in Traffic terms. Winwood is afforded the organ freak-out that opens the “Birdman” suite (heard in Round #2) but is mostly a backing musician here. “Flight of the Isis” has him playing a mellow fender rhodes.

flight of the isis

“Flight of the Isis” by McDonald & Giles

Guy McDonald is credited for keyboard and synthesizer on Catharsis, and his contributions are part of why this album has such an appeal to collectors of 70s prog albums. “Space Beam” overdubs his interstellar synthesizer on an surely Winwood-influenced organ jam. Where other middle-seventies progressive rock albums turned towards fusion, “Space Beam” seems blues-rooted along with the more guitar driven stuff on the album.


“Space Beam” by McDonald & Sherby

What have we learned?

Both records are a little too much — not really stuff for the casual collector. You might get a little more out of McDonald & Sherby’s album, but you’ll probably pay about ten times as much. So maybe your best bang for your buck (or in the case of progressive rock what gets you ‘Close to the Edge’ of ‘the Wall,’ if you’re ‘Thick as a Brick’) comes from McDonald & Giles.

But we like to stick close to home — McDonald & Giles sound so oppressively British at times. Yeah, we might be biased in favor of the McDonald & Sherby album because it was recorded about fifteen blocks from the record shop, but it really is a better listen. Still, as with many of our SMACKDOWNs, the winner is really anyone with a turntable and an open mind to listen.


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