By ProgBlog, Jul 31 2016 09:34PM
Progressive rock covers a huge number of themes, even though it is frequently derided for (mistakenly) being a one-topic genre: fantasy, the realm of elves and wizards. Rick Wakeman is less to blame than the music press but a much-used clip of Wakeman on the rocks at Tintagel posing with his Hammond and mini Moogs in cape and wizard’s hat, most recently appearing in the second episode of The People’s History of Pop, presented by writer, journalist, broadcaster and confessed prog fan Danny Baker which was aired on BBC Four last week. This episode related to 1966 to 1976, the years of Baker’s youth and included a piece about progressive rock from the perspective of a (now) Managing Director who was a 14 year old at the time, living in Crawley. The photo he showed of his teenage self could equally have been me captured in 1975. Baker, who should have known better, introduced this section from a record store (he used to work in One Stop Records in central London) by stereotyping glam rock fans, heavy metal fans (circa 1975) and prog fans: “Pale, introverted types, they took things very seriously... ...possibly with a copy of Lord of the Rings with them...” It’s true that we took our music seriously and, even though Hatfield and the North, Supersister, Focus, Zappa showed they could laugh at themselves, the musicians took the music seriously, too. However, I fell into the stereotype yesterday when I listened to the 1982 Jethro Tull album Broadsword and the Beast for the first time for years and was compelled to translate the runes on the cover. I may have done this when I bought the record when it was released, though I’d normally have left a copy of the translation inside the sleeve. I have form in this sort of thing and I imagine that there are many other prog fans who share this thirst for knowledge: I translated all the runes and the elvish script wherever I found them in my copy of Lord of the Rings and I cracked the encrypted letter from Tom to Jan that appears in Alan Garner’s Red Shift. It turns out that the runes on Broadsword and the Beast are Anglo Saxon and they just quote a lyric from the track Broadsword: “I see a dark sail on the horizon set under a cloud that hides the. Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding. Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.” The word ‘sun’ is missing from the second (bottom) panel because the Ian Anderson elf-like creature’s sword crosses the border at that point, although I don’t believe the three runic letters would have fitted in that space. The artist’s initials can be found top right, with runes for R, I and M plus the superscript ‘c’ for R Iain McCaig. There is more writing on the inside sleeve, indicating that it was ‘scribed by candlelight’.
Part of the earnestness of the musicians was manifest in the choice of subject matter for an album; grand themes, including literary interpretation, being a defining feature of the genre. I think there’s an innate rationality about the music itself and this, as someone who went down the sciences route at school, studied botany and zoology at university and ended up working in a medical science, is part of the appeal. Even something with a meaning as obscure as Close to the Edge works, not just because the musicianship is exemplary but, equally importantly, it has an appropriate structure that helps to convey the rather nebulous concept of seeking enlightenment; prog bands, pushing at the limits of what was sonically possible with the technology available, took on the role musical explorers and experimentalists where their artistic vision was equivalent to a scientist working to a hypothesis.
Flying used as a concept allows a band to utilise threads from a mixture of philosophy, technology and metaphor, from the Greek mythology of Icarus with its warnings against complacency and hubris, through the visions of Leonardo and his principles of mechanical flight, to understanding the physics; I love the parlour trick used in science museums to demonstrate the Bernoulli Principle with the table tennis ball or beach ball in the stream of air, fast flow creates low pressure and, when applied to the upper curved surface of an aeroplane wing, low pressure creates lift. Much of the original space rock concerned exploration, though the imagery of the lyrics for Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, one of my all-time favourite space rock-era Floyd songs, and one of the first Pink Floyd songs I ever heard, seems to relate to a quest to expand the consciousness rather than some kind of starship pilot plotting a course to crash his vessel into a star. Later, David Gilmour would write Learning to Fly (from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987) which is about genuinely learning the mechanics of flying an aeroplane (the pilot’s voice on the track is Nick Mason going through pre-flight checks) but is also about the liberation of the spirit. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of A Momentary Lapse, and this is because the writing is much more thought-provoking than the last two albums of the Waters era.
The space rock vision of flight is best covered by Hawkwind’s Silver Machine (1972) and the related Robert Calvert solo album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (1974) which satirised the story of the Lockheed 104 ‘Starfighter’ sold to America’s NATO allies, specifically Germany: the 104G. As a boy, Calvert, who co-wrote Silver Machine, had wanted to be an RAF fighter pilot but it is alleged that he failed the medical. The music on Captain Lockheed is quite varied but the album was originally conceived as a stage play. It’s not really prog, but it is very amusing; my favourite track being the Hawkwind-like Ejection.
Steve Hackett’s Icarus Ascending (Please Don’t Touch, 1978) name checks the son of Daedalus as a metaphor for someone who failed to achieve their goal (in the song, a stable relationship) where successful flight is eventually achieved “Never falling / Since your eyes first touched mine.”
One of the most profound uses of aeroplane and flying metaphors is Flight by Peter Hammill from A Black Box, 1980, Hammill’s first album after leaving Charisma and his first venture into long-form without the help of his Van der Graaf band mates. The side-long track could be compared to the VdGG epic A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers due to the structure comprised of different songs and moods pieced together with a unifying theme, the contemplation of fate and willpower and control. This was a surprise inclusion the last time I went to see Van der Graaf in 2013 although it had been performed by the K Group; the trio did a brilliant job, shifting from the manic to the melodic to the dissonant.
The idea of aeronaut as explorer is raised in Astral Traveller (from Time and a Word, 1970) a track that is almost steampunk with the protagonist being a balloonist within a futuristic-sounding setting. Together with The Prophet, this track seems to map out the future direction of Yes and forms a thematic link to Starship Trooper from the next Yes effort, The Yes Album (1971.)
When Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left King Crimson at the end of the first Crimson US tour in 1969, they put together a melodic, sometimes pastoral album that owes a great deal to the Beatles, where the mellotron is used for colour rather than doomy chords. Some sections (Flight of the Ibis, for example) are recognisable as coming from the Crimson stable, like bits of what would become Cadence and Cascade. The second side of the album is a multi-part suite conceived by Peter Sinfield, The Birdman, and this covers the desire of man to fly and his successful designing and building of the machine. This success is opposite to that described in Paper Wings by Barclay James Harvest (from Everyone is Everybody Else, 1974) where the protagonist is convinced of his ability to fly, but plummets to his death. I have the Barclay James Harvest Live version of this song and, though short, I really like it. The death plunge is a scenario revisited in Suicide? (from Octoberon, 1976.)
I was given a glider flight experience as a birthday present many years ago and headed off to the Surrey Hills Gliding Club based at Kenley, a few miles south of Croydon, for my taster. The sensation of unpowered flight is truly incredible and it’s no wonder that flying and flight has obsessed humankind. Should I ever get the necessary financing, it’s something I’d love to take up seriously.