Back of 2016
By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2017 06:52PM
The Christmas and New Year bank holidays fell on days which allowed extended weekends and, in order to address some of the inevitable excess that occurred despite the reduced volumes of food and drink that were brought into the house, both weekends featured a cultural excursion into central London.
One of these was a trip to the new Design Museum, housed in the former Commonwealth Institute just off High Street Kensington, an edifice described by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall, which underwent an impressive refit to house the new exhibition spaces. I’d visited the building before, during the period of its former function, to receive a Wedgewood plate from the National Blood (Transfusion) Service for donating 100 units of blood, plasma and platelets and even in 1985, before I displayed any interest in architecture, I thought it was a remarkable building. The free, permanent display at the museum deserves more space and only scratches the surface of ‘design’. However, it still managed to mention album artwork and house a display of turntables. Perhaps they’re thinking of a temporary special exhibition of album artwork...
The other trip was to the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy of Arts (a far less attractive building, despite the Palladian influence on its design). The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a new phenomenon in American art associated with a generation of artists all working in the US but with diverse backgrounds: New York; the heartlands of the US; the West; European émigrés. I was interested in attending because I quite like the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the featured artists, having seen his work in the Guggenheim in Venice. It could be argued that without Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage there wouldn’t have been a Abstract Expressionist movement. Another reason I like Pollock is because I associate his artwork with progressive rock; though the art and prog movements took place in different decades, the room I most associate with listening to early progressive rock had a piece of my father’s artwork on the wall, a drip painting in white, yellow and red after Pollock and I seem to recall him with a board (in lieu of canvas) in the back garden of our first house wheeling his bicycle over a similar composition and this process of construction, as well as the complexity of finished piece, held a deep fascination.
The extended break still ended too early, even with a reduced working week but it was nevertheless good to consign 2016 to the dustbin of history. Domestic and global politics took a downturn just when we were thinking it couldn’t get worse, amplifying divisions and, for the first time in a long, long time, bigotry and hate speech seemed to have become legitimised. Apart from the power-play where more than one multi-millionaire labelled all journalists as elitist, 2016 did have what appeared to be more than the average number of deaths of famous musicians and this had a quite extraordinary impact on the feelings of those who had grown up with this music. I don’t particularly like David Bowie’s music but I understand that millions and millions of people all around the world did have some form of connection with Bowie, and Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. I was personally more affected by the deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two of the first rock musicians I’d ever heard but apart from reporting on their contribution to progressive rock in celebration of their careers, I remained relatively unmoved. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way and if anyone, from any background, is able to positively influence someone in some way; give them some kind of meaning or put into words what they’ve not been able to express themselves, that’s not to be scoffed at. I’m approaching this from a rationalist standpoint; both Bowie and Lake had cancer and, at 69 years of age, had lived a full life which had reached a natural limit within statistical ranges. I reject the government argument that pensionable age should be raised because we’re all dying older because plainly that is not true. It might be the case that age at death has increased for some but, especially in areas of greater deprivation and reduced life-chances, longevity lags behind. A 2015 study from the King’s Fund Inequalities and life expectancy Changes over time and implications for policy by David Buck and David Maguire may have shown the relationship between income deprivation and life expectancy got weaker over the period between 1999 and 2010 but other factors, including employment, housing deprivation and some lifestyle factors go some way to explain differences in life expectancy between areas during the latter part of the study period, and that low employment, housing deprivation and smoking are among the factors that distinguish areas with persistently low life expectancy over time. The argument to raise the age of the state pension and to make changes to public sector pensions in 2011 which caused widespread public anger was part of a plan to make public sector jobs open to private business. It might be more economically sound to allow workers to retire to create decent, full-time jobs for school leavers and graduates who had been hard-wired to believe in home ownership but we’re going to find many of the workers in caring professions, who generally are not well paid, being ground down until they are incapable of working or dying before they can take their pensions.
I stood on picket lines and argued that even in the long-term, the NHS pension pot easily paid for itself as long as staff continued to be recruited into the scheme. I pointed out that the proposed legislation was because the cost of similar pension benefits was prohibitive to private healthcare providers, with plenty of friends in government, wanting to move into the UK; that pension reform and privatisation were inextricably linked and austerity was being used as a rationale to deliver cost-cutting and the decimation of the Health Service. Over the next year I witnessed the sale of NHS departments to private firms; soft targets going to DHL, Serco and Sainsbury, removing staff from hospital payroll and immediately cutting upfront costs. The damage to the NHS, alarmingly labelled a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the Red Cross last week, includes no money for training, de-skilling, understaffing, endemic low-morale and stress-related sickness absence; throw in stories of European workers being told to prepare to leave the UK and it’s evident that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Perhaps someone is waiting for the private sector to gallop in on a white charger...
I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing particularly pertinent to current times, where not only access to music and film has been made easier, our ability to comment on and interact with others who feel the same, or the polar opposite, is part of the everyday landscape. I used to abuse the letters page of Barrow’s North Western Evening Mail with made-up opinions and made-up names in an attempt to lampoon parochial concerns (read: dog mess) but this ruse took a good deal of time and effort; I had to write the letter by hand, post the letter using Royal Mail and wait to see if the terribly elite editorial board would publish. If only Twitter and Facebook messages took two days, an editorial review and the equivalent of postage before they could be displayed. I’m not only guilty of mistreating the entire Evening Mail readership with letters and my poetry, I’m also in the business of spouting opinion on social media. That my ProgBlog somehow got mixed up with a Canadian political site of the same name may be of concern, but it earned a spot as the 24th most liberal blog detected by the Feedspot blog.
Meanwhile, at the back end of 2016, I was given a copy of the Greg Lake Live DVD for Christmas, a concert recorded in Stevenage in November 2005, less than a week before I went to see his performance in Croydon and dutifully watched it at the earliest opportunity. I recall enjoying the concert apart from a blues number which I refused to applaud because it was dire. This was Love You Too Much and I believe is evidence that Lake’s genuine creative period was over. I’m not fond of the later ELP material that’s included, either, beginning with the simplistic Paper Blood but also Farewell to Arms and Footprints in the Snow but the concert is well filmed and the band, including a young Florian Opahle on lead guitar, is really tight. Though it’s an accurate record of that tour, the bonus DVD material includes rehearsal time at Shepperton and some short interviews. One of these is with the promoter who predicts a great future for the ensemble and following the UK dates the band did play in Europe but his planned 2006 tour was cancelled.
Whereas Bowie and Prince maintained a sense of mystique and were able to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I don’t believe that same can be said for the members of ELP, or even Yes who continue to tour, though they were giants that did at one stage rule the world of music. The relevance of the original progressive rock bands lies in their legacy, their experimentation and challenging norms. There are probably two generations who have been inspired by music that refuses to be packaged as industry standard and this innovation is what Lake and Emerson, and Chris Squire in 2015 should be remembered for.