Book Review: ‘The ABC of 1-2-3’ by Billy Ritchie (Hillfield Publishing) Print E-mail
Written by Jim Rowland   
Sunday, 06 November 2016 03:00

1232So who invented prog? Robert Fripp and King Crimson? Keith Emerson and The Nice? The Moody Blues? The Beatles? Yes? Genesis? It’s a question that can never really be answered of course.


One less well known name is that of Scots keyboard wizard Billy Ritchie, whose influence is now finally being widely recognised, and is credited as a pioneer and originator of a style that laid the foundations for what was to become progressive rock. This was confirmed recently in the ‘prog episode’ of the Sky Arts ‘Trailblazers’ series, in which Billy Ritchie featured prominently. So this book, ‘The ABC of 1-2-3’ is his story, in his own words.


Billy Ritchie was the keyboard player in a band called 1-2-3 in the late sixties, a band with a fearsome live reputation who, as legend has it, blew away every band that stood in their path. Despite laying those foundations for the prog explosion of the 1970’s, for many years they sank without trace into the annals of musical history. Ritchie was the first keyboard player to play standing up and make the keyboard the lead instrument in a guitar-less three piece rock band, playing complexly arranged songs. Sound familiar? Well his style didn’t go unnoticed by a young Keith Emerson, in the audience at their shows, who picked up on Ritchie and his band’s style and ran with it, with a little more added showmanship, all the way to the bank. Wakeman et al soon followed.


‘The ABC of 1-2-3’ is a largely a tale of a great adventure of missed opportunities, bad luck, injustice and, as is often the case with pioneers and originators, a lack of material reward for the ideas and influence passed down the line to the next generation who reap those rewards. Whilst they had that undisputed fearsome live reputation, 1-2-3 never got to release a record. By the time they had morphed into Clouds, who did release records, they had effectively missed the boat and settled for a watered down version of what they once were, by Ritchie’s own admission.


The cast of friends and acquaintances on the journey Ritchie describes is astonishing. Brian Epstein and then Robert Stigwood were the band’s managers, Keith Emerson, Jon Anderson and Robert Fripp, amongst countless others, were in their audiences, and the likes of Rory Gallagher, Jethro Tull, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Janis Joplin were the people they shared a stage with or hung out with. David Bowie features prominently, then a young, ambitious unknown hanger-on with whom Ritchie had an on/off friendship for many years, and whom Ritchie had introduced to Jimi Hendrix. Years later, Bowie was to refer to Ritchie as a genius.


Ritchie pulls no punches as he tells his story. At times he comes across as opinionated and bitter, at times reflective and satisfied. He may not have reaped the rewards his talent deserved, but you can tell that after years of being frozen out of the history of a style of music he pioneered, he’s pleased than in recent years he is at least belatedly getting the recognition he deserves as that pioneer.


‘The ABC of 1-2-3’ is a fascinating read, whether you are familiar with the work of Billy Ritchie or not, and would appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of popular music.


  • ‘The ABC of 1-2-3’ by Billy Ritchie is out now on paperback and Kindle.