Four on the floor
By ProgBlog, Dec 25 2018 10:15PM
There were a couple of articles in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month (December 8th, 2018) that hinted of prog. The first was a piece by Alexis Petridis in The Guide listings supplement ‘I hate playing this song’: When rock stars go disco www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/08/noel-gallagher-rod-stewart-beach-boys-when-rock-stars-go-disco which was prompted by Noel Gallagher’s recent announcement that his next album would have a ‘70’s disco feel’ but developed into a history of rock musicians who attempted to harness the commercial benefits of the disco genre, some of whom created deeply regrettable releases when they should have known better. From a prog perspective, the article cites a version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue recorded for Rick Wakeman’s 1979 double LP Rhapsodies and Jethro Tull’s Warm Sporran, an instrumental from 1979’s Stormwatch released as a single backed with the David Palmer-penned Elegy, the only other instrumental on the album. The inclusion of Warm Sporran by Petridis is a little controversial when you consider some of the other contenders who didn’t make his list; yes, there are moments where you can detect a beat that might not seem out of place at a late 70’s disco but the composition is overwhelming a piece of folk rock, simply infused with a little bit of funk. This is one of the tracks where Ian Anderson plays bass, John Glascock having stepped down from involvement in recording due to deteriorating health even though he’d only just returned to the fold after his initial illness. It’s clear that drummer Barrie Barlow and Anderson formed a cohesive rhythm section, unsurprisingly not too dissimilar to the Barlow-Glascock pairing, but Barlow has suggested that Anderson recorded his bass parts too loud. Despite its autumn release, the front cover image of a hooded and mitted Ian Anderson figure sporting a snow-flecked beard, together with the badly drawn polar bear on the rear has always suggested to me that Stormwatch is a ‘winter’ album, so somehow its mention in an article in December seems quite fitting.
Giving a song the title of Warm Sporran also seems to imply winter, as protection (for something) against the cold. In my opinion the rhythmic diversity of Warm Sporran separates it from disco music although I don’t believe that same can be said of Another Brick in the Wall (part 2), absent from Petridis’ article but which, according to Gilmour, was turned into a disco single by Bob Ezrin after the producer had suggested that the band check out what was happening in clubs. Despite misgivings, describing Pink Floyd as a band that didn’t release singles, they recorded a version of Another Brick in the Wall with a four-to-the-bar bass drum part which was subsequently edited into a hit, reaching the number 1 spot in the UK singles chart almost exactly 39 years ago. The members of Pink Floyd are unlikely to regret the recording of Another Brick in the Wall but I have always felt, however good Waters’ concept, the music had declined in standard from a peak of the Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here eras to something that was no longer progressive rock; a result of a less collaborative approach to writing.
Ignoring glaring omissions and forgiving inappropriate inclusions, Petridis’ coverage of Rhapsodies is fully warranted. Following the progressive rock of solo albums White Rock and Criminal Record (both released 1977) and Tormato (1978) with Yes, Wakeman remained in Switzerland and put together Rhapsodies, produced by Tony Visconti, before band rehearsals for a follow-up to Tormato began (and ended with Wakeman and Jon Anderson leaving.) One of my friends bought it at the time of its release when I heard it in its entirety for the first and only time. Wakeman has said that A&M exerted considerable influence over the content and imposed Visconti as an external producer. Fortunately, Wakeman and Visconti got on well but the range of styles covered on the LP created something of a mess. On reflection, the album is full of Wakeman humour and amazing playing, albeit with a more uniform sonic palette than on his earlier solo material; anyone who has witnessed a Wakeman one-man show mixing music with his raconteur persona will understand the genesis of Rhapsodies. However, I’ve found it difficult to get beyond the cover of the album and as much as I like subtle or subversive comedy, I prefer my prog to be serious. The disco beat Rhapsody in Blue, included on the wishes of his record company and arranged by Visconti might be a joke but it’s certainly lost on me; I suppose that the album cover is also fitting for an article about music appearing in December.
The other Guardian article was Lyric poetry by the novelist David Mitchell which appeared in the Review supplement, about his ‘decades of Kate Bush fandom and the songs that have been the soundtrack to 'his life and work’. I read this with interest because when Bush hit the airwaves in January 1978 with Wuthering Heights, it was immediately obvious she stood apart from the usual suspects you’d hear on UK pop radio stations or see on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops and I immediately became a fan. There were a number of intriguing things about her, from the Emily Brontë literary reference which I’d thought was a progressive rock trait, to the story of her ‘discovery’ by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and her performance of Wuthering Heights on TV was certainly something of a revelation. At the time, the sobriquets ‘sophistipop’ and ‘pop-prog’ had not been coined but that was the style she was developing. My dose of Kate Bush was delivered via the jukeboxes of the pubs we used to frequent; one that is indelibly etched in my memory was at the New Commercial Inn at Newton, a brisk half hour walk from home via the ascent of Yarlside, a site of former haematite mining littered with industrial relics and pock-marked with collapsed shaft entrances. Other hazards included cow pats but the effort was rewarded with well-kept beer, a log fire in winter, and Wuthering Heights.
When I moved to London to study at Goldsmiths’ College later that year, Kate Bush was in residence at 44 Wickham Road, Brockley, which happened to be very close to one of Goldsmiths’ halls of residence. I moved out of halls in my third year, sharing a flat with my friend Jim and a friend from my Barrow school days, Eric Whitton, who owned the three Kate Bush albums available at the time: The Kick Inside, Lionheart and Never for Ever. My first Kate Bush album was The Whole Story, a compilation from 1986 which covered the essential singles including my personal favourite Breathing, largely for John Giblin’s brilliant fretless bass (I was listening to a lot of Brand X at the time) although the video for the song was totally captivating and the anti-nuclear war message was something that I related to. Bush herself described the song as her ‘little symphony’ and I’ve always admired the way it was constructed, borrowing a page from the Pink Floyd song-writing book and getting label-mate Roy Harper to help out, adding spoken words from the UK government’s Protect and Survive public information leaflet. With a running time of 5’ 30” on Never for Ever (the single was a little shorter), this might not be her longest song but it certainly pushed the boundaries of conventional pop. Apparently I have a first pressing of The Whole Story, indicated by the stated release date of Wuthering Heights which it cites on the inner gatefold as being November 4th 1977, when it was actually James and the Cold Gun, originally selected as Bush’s first single which had been scheduled to be released on that date. Wuthering Heights, Bush’s preferred initial release, finally came out on January 20th 1978.
Along with sometime collaborator Peter Gabriel she was a prime exponent of the Fairlight CMI, marking her out as an innovator. In fact, every release held something of interest and, as David Mitchell suggests in the Guardian article, her lyrics have become progressively more mature and the imagery more challenging. It’s not really surprising that she gets associated with prog with her choice of collaborators and approach to music but as the first woman to have a self-penned song reach number one in the UK singles chart and later the first female solo artist to top the UK album charts, with Never for Ever, she was genuinely progressive and has acted as an inspiration for a number of women in the current prog scene. The length of time between album releases was something of a concern for some of her fans, especially John Mendelssohn, whose 2004 novel Waiting for Kate Bush mixed real-life and fiction, screwed up some facts and was comprehensively panned by amateur critics. I read some of the book when I was thinking of buying it as a present but I’d encourage anyone tempted to leave it well alone.
I didn’t actually buy any Kate Bush albums after The Whole Story until the early 90s, when I was in Jersey on a family holiday and picked up The Sensual World (1989) on CD. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to buy second-hand copies of the original releases on vinyl, having also bought downloads of both The Kick Inside and The Hounds of Love in 2014.
Thanks to The Guardian, Alexis Petridis and David Mitchell for providing some prog- and prog-related coverage.