Demise of the Radio Star
By ProgBlog, Feb 7 2016 11:30PM
Television is not my primary leisure medium. The broadening of choice in a post-analogue world has resulted in an overall decline in televisual standards. I am old enough to remember the early days of three terrestrial channels, when BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to regularly broadcast in colour; it appeared on air in April 1964 and colour transmissions began in July 1967. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s front room on a Saturday afternoon watching Trade Test Transmissions on her black and white rental TV, changing channels using a knob on the wall, intrigued by these short infomercials and being awestruck by the optimistic and futuristic pieces of programming, especially the film of the Evoluon science museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with its soundtrack of electronica and jazz which somehow fitted with the images of this beautiful UFO-like piece of modernist architecture; I’m pretty sure this introduced me to Take Five by Dave Brubeck but I may be mistaken.
I first became aware of the commercialisation of sporting events when Kerry Packer founded World Series Cricket in 1977, in a move to secure broadcasting rights for Australian cricket. Ripples from this move have since spread far and wide. With parallels to prog, cricket is a long-form sport. As a youth my summer breaks were punctuated by periods in front of the TV to watch Test Matches, played over 5 days and unadulterated by wall-to-wall sponsorship (the 65-over-a-side Gillette Cup which became the Nat West Trophy in 1981 came across as being unsullied by corporate interference; this had changed by the time it had become the C&G Trophy in 2001.) It was the tactical approach to the game with its changing conditions that kept me enthralled. I was watching a lot of cricket at the same time that I was getting into progressive rock and reading Tolkien, Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin; another piece of the cultural landscape that helped form what I’ve become. The Infield Park Gang would play cricket, too, on a local playing field attached to a convent school and, despite being pretty bad at the sport I was drafted in to play 11th man for two Goldsmiths’ College first XI matches which were held in the grounds of Loring Hall, my hall of residence at university.
It seems crazy to me that betting firms should be allowed to sponsor sports and I fully agree with Andy Murray’s recent outburst against sponsorship of tennis by betting companies, just when allegations of match fixing were flying around. I find it outrageous that the deregulation of the gambling industry has created a huge increase in the number of betting shops in poor and deprived areas of the country and that commercial TV is permitted to bombard us with adverts for online gaming. I blame deregulation for both the downturn in quality of programming and the knock on effects of commercialisation of sport; competition in the service industries always ends up as a race to the bottom. The walk out by Liverpool fans at their game against Sunderland yesterday, angry at the £70 price tag on away tickets, was meant to highlight the separation of the beautiful game from the true fans but sadly it’s not going to influence football’s governing body, as corruption appears to run through the veins of world football (and world athletics.) I don’t blame the players for their often ridiculously excessive pay, the responsibility lies with the broadcasters. With ever greater choice of channels it’s become more and more difficult to find anything of quality to watch. If I do sit in front of the TV it’s more likely to be for a film on DVD/Blu-ray or a music DVD than a piece of scheduled programming, mostly because what is aired seems to involve some form of voyeurism or schadenfreude: wannabe celebrity non-entities after their five minutes of fame; former celebrities clinging on to their five minutes of fame; police dogs in helicopters with cameras filming surgery that’s gone wrong... what occupation hasn’t been covered?
My first music videos were Yessongs (from the 1975 film) and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (the 1974 version), both on VHS format. Yessongs was disappointing because the sound quality wasn’t very good and the synching of music and video was poor. I’d not managed to see the film when it played in UK cinemas so it’s hard to know if the cinematic experience was any better. I was given the Blu-ray version as a present a couple of Christmases ago but the curse of Yessongs struck again: the disc could not be recognised in my Blu-ray player and was returned to the shop, sans the Roger Dean postcards that featured in the revised packaging. Live at Pompeii, on the other hand, remains a firm favourite. I’d been to see the film when it toured the UK and I’ve also visited Pompeii on a couple of occasions where the silhouette of Vesuvius continues to dominate the atmosphere of the site. I always thought it a shame that Echoes was used to bookend the film but it doesn’t detract from the performance, in effect a swan song to the space rock material (which I really like), issuing in the prog of the Dark Side era. The Directors Cut version that I now own on DVD isn’t really any improvement, the space graphics have not aged as well as the music!
I think I first saw the film version of Emerson Lake and Palmer performing Pictures at an Exhibition on TV, a performance from the Lyceum in London in 1970 released in the cinema in 1973. I wasn’t aware that the soundtrack was different from the album (recorded at Newcastle City Hall) until I bought a double-sided CD/DVD in 2003 as it had been so long since I’d watched the film, but I think it remains an important documentary of early prog, attempting a reworking of a classical piece in a rock context.
White Rock, the film documentary of the Innsbruck 1976 Winter Olympics, was another cinema release, opening in 1977 and touring as a double bill with concert footage of Genesis playing live. I don’t remember too much about the Genesis portion of the programme, partly because I’ve never owned a copy of Seconds Out (1977), being far more interested in Rick Wakeman’s return to form with the soundtrack for White Rock. I bought the album shortly after its release, from Boots in Barrow, impressed by the interpretation of speed and grace over snow and ice. I’ve got a couple of other Wakeman videos: Out There (2004), described as a ‘concept DVD’ and a performance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2009) at Hampton Court Palace on Blu-ray. Six Wives includes the original album plus three new tracks and, as it’s my favourite Wakeman solo album, I rate it quite highly. I was tempted to get a ticket for the gig but ended up at The Lumiere for Mellofest 2009 instead. The music on Out There isn’t bad and no doubt at the time the graphics were cutting edge, but when viewed ten years after it was released, some of them haven’t really stood the test of time. I saw Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble promote the album live in Croydon in April 2003, where a major technical hitch with the keyboards forced an early intermission.
We were made aware that the Camel concert at the Barbican in 2013 was being recorded for DVD release, In from the Cold (2014) which is a superb reminder of a brilliant gig; I also have the two live set collection Moondances (2007.) I have more melodic symphonic prog on DVD in the form of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith (2013) a 3CD+2DVD package of one of the musical highlights of 2013. The second DVD contains behind the scenes footage and interviews with collaborators, a theme that continues on another recent acquisition, the documentary-like Steve Hackett The Man, The Music (2015.)
Another gig that I should have gone to but didn’t, but which I had to buy on DVD is the Classic Rock Legends Van der Graaf Generator live at Metropolis Studios (2011, recorded 2010) which sits alongside Inside Van der Graaf Generator (2005) and Godbluff Live 1975 (2003.) Earlier this weekend I indulged in some PFM (Live in Japan 2002) featuring four members of the classic line-up.
One good thing about television in the 70s were series like Rock Goes to College and Sight and Sound in Concert. The Bruford gig from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) which I remember watching at the time, has become part of my DVD collection and though the camera direction is poor, it’s great to be able to see this footage again. There’s better camerawork on GG at the GG, (2006, filmed 1978, 1976 and 1974) which captures Gentle Giant at the tail end of their career. The earlier material is fantastic but Missing Piece tracks Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It are relatively poor fare. There was a more recent programme which showed Sylvian and Fripp live in Japan in 1993, during the Road to Graceland tour – it would be terrific if that was released on DVD...