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They specialised in music you couldn't dance to, but how prog were Pavlov's Dog?

Some hailed them as America’s first prog band, they played with members of King Crimson and influenced generations of prog bands... But just how prog were Pavlov's Dog?

With their air of medieval folk metal, songtitles alluding to Arthurian legends, shifting time signatures and the singer’s startling, shrill voice, Pavlov’s Dog were arguably America’s first prog band. Sadly, they didn’t quite do the business of their Brit prog counterparts, and after a striking debut album, their music became more mainstream and streamlined, closer to AOR, only latterly returning to prog pastures.

Still, for a while, Pavlov’s were Very Prog Indeed. They had members of King Crimson playing with them and they shared an engineer with Meat Loaf. Their frontman, David Surkamp, a cult figure of mythic proportions, can even detect their influence in the prog of today. But when they emerged, straight outta St Louis in 1972, with their seven musicians including a violinist and a flautist/mellotron player, according to Surkamp, “Nobody had heard anything like us.”

When Prog asks what sort of reaction they got from audiences, his answer is simple: “Astonishment.”

Pavlov’s Dog’s story starts with the band High On A Small Hill, which Surkamp formed in 1971, aged 19, with bassist Rick Stockton and two other high school friends. Surkamp would write songs on his acoustic guitar to try to impress local beauty Sara (now his wife). He had always been musical, playing the ukulele, mandolin and piano when he was four or five. He says he never thought his singing style “was that different” – a strange thing to say, perhaps, about a voice that has been compared to everyone from a hyped-up Geddy Lee or Edith Piaf to “a choirboy on speed”.

High On A Small Hill acquired two new members – Sigfried Carver on violin/viola/Vitar, and Mike Safron on drums – then changed their name to Pavlov’s Dog.

They were heavily influenced by King Crimson and Fairport Convention. “I was coming back from high school and went into the drugstore and saw In The Court Of The Crimson King and bought it because I liked the cover,” Surkamp recalls. “I remember hearing those foghorns at the start of 21st Century Schizoid Man – that was it for me. I loved Fairport Convention, too – they were probably my favourite band. But if you listen to that first King Crimson album: Moonchild, I Talk To The Wind… those are kinda folk songs. Just the saxophone and guitars set them apart.”

Pavlov’s lyrical preoccupation with Ye Olden Days – titles such as Episode, Preludin and Of Once And Future Kings – came from Surkamp.

“My grandmother was into Shakespeare,” he says. “She used to be a performer with a lovely singing voice and she was interested in children’s ballads and Elizabethan stuff, and that rubbed off on me.”

A childhood illness also had an impact on Surkamp. “When I was five, I guess I was nearly dead,” he says. “I was born with asthma, had frequent bouts of pneumonia and needed these allergy shots two or three times a week. I was so panicked and miserable. So my dad gets on the phone and starts calling round the world to find a boarding school in a decent climate that would take a five-year-old, and this operator said, ‘Oh, my sister is a Sacred Heart nun and they have a reservation school outside Tucson.’ So he called and apparently the nuns said, ‘Bring him down,’ and there I was, on the outskirts of the desert.”

There, “sick all the time”, the young Surkamp immersed himself in fantasy literature. “All I did was read,” he explains. “I read all the Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan books, the Grimm’s fairy tales, the Arthur stories… I had nothing else to do.”

If Surkamp was accruing a love of the fantastical at his first school, once back in St Louis, he got used to being an outsider at high school and took matters into his own hands.

“St Louis is a real backwater place, full of ignorant people, and I had hair down to my elbows and wore white clogs so I became something of a target,” he admits. “I soon learned to protect myself. One day, these students thought, ‘We’re going to beat up this hippie,’ and that didn’t work out too well for them.”

Playing gigs as Pavlov’s Dog was equally hairy, surrounded as they were by Lynyrd Skynyrd types. “All there was was white guys playing the blues – really pathetic,” Surkamp sneers.

Hence the somewhat negative reaction they would often face. “Occasionally we would play hostile environments and the girls would be hitting on us and the boys would want to kill us,” he laughs. “They hadn’t seen long‑haired boys playing really loud music with lots of time changes before. You couldn’t dance to it.”

In 1973, the band spent three days cutting a series of demos – later released as The Pekin Tapes – “in a studio in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois”. A local radio station began playing one of the tracks, Theme From Subway Sue, and that’s when record labels started calling. ABC offered them $650,000, an unprecedented sum for a new band.

Did the label think they had the American Genesis on their hands? Surkamp isn’t convinced.

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