Into the Unknown
By ProgBlog, Aug 2 2017 01:05PM
For all the problems with London, the locals’ belief that it’s the centre of the universe, the ridiculous property prices, the clogged up roads and packed and pricey public transport which make the commute from the outskirts into the centre almost unbearable, there’s a lot to do and see. I don’t mean it’s like Italy where it seems there’s a prog gig or festival almost every weekend but if a professional band is going to play anywhere, they are likely to include a date in the capital. When I came down to London as a student I don’t believe I ever thought I’d stay but then I didn’t really expect to embark on a career in blood and transplantation; if the head of the Transfusion Service in Tooting felt he needed to offer me a job just after I’d graduated, it would have been churlish to refuse and anyway, I though the post, working for the NHS, was really worthwhile. Three years into the job, I’d switched from red blood cells to white and I attempted to follow an opportunity at the Transfusion Centre in Lancaster, a city close to my roots and one I really like; I was shortlisted and interviewed but wasn’t offered the post and remained in south London.
Two-thirds of my undergraduate life was based in North Cray, a hamlet in the amorphous London-Kent boundary between Sidcup and Bexley. If getting to and from college was a bit of a drag, getting up to the West End for gigs and exhibitions was even more so but realising that the delights associated with being around the cultural capital of the UK was too good a prospect to ignore, especially with student discount, I travelled up to town almost every weekend. This was the tail end of the golden era of progressive rock so there weren’t many good gigs to go to, though a few of early examples of a truly worthwhile shows were Yes at Wembley Arena (28/10/78, matinee performance, a copy of which I’m listening to as I type – thanks for the link @timcwebb); UK’s only British performance featuring the Danger Money line-up at Imperial College (3/3/79); and Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon (11/10/79) kicking off the I Can See Your House From Here tour. The final third of being a Goldsmiths’ student was spent living in Streatham which, even without the access to a flatmate’s car, provided easy routes to both Victoria and London Bridge stations. This period of my life was the only time I’d travel by car into central London for entertainment purposes because parking on Whitehall was free from around lunchtime on a Saturday and there were abundant free spaces behind Oxford Street in the evenings, handy for the 100 Club.
I may have still just been a student when King Crimson reformed in 1981 but I was working when the neo-prog movement started up and though the 80s was generally a poor time for the sort of music I like, throughout my life I’ve always managed to ensure I get to almost all the gigs which interest me including, in recent years, an increasing number on the European mainland as the incredible world of progressivo Italiano has resurfaced and developed.
Music plays the most important part in my life after family but it’s the easy availability of other cultural asides such as Their Mortal Remains or You Say You Want a Revolution at the V&A, the accessibility of a huge variety of architectural forms visited informally with family or as part of the Open London and Walk London programmes, the permanent or special exhibitions at the Design Museum or the Royal Academy, there is always something to do in and around London. This weekend I went to see Into the Unknown – a Journey through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre.
I’ve previously mentioned that I used to be a big science fiction fan and the exhibition, covering art, design, film, literature and music included around 800 works some of which had never been shown in the UK before, arranged in four main themes: Extraordinary Voyages; Space Odysseys; Brave New Worlds; and Final Frontiers. The first section included some of the material I’d describe as proto-SF, adventure literature exploring the possibilities provided by the deep ocean and undiscovered lands or islands, including the works of Jules Verne who famously inspired Rick Wakeman with his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and combined his writing with the latest scientific understanding.
The first successful powered flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 opened another chapter for science fiction, celebrated in the second section of the exhibition: Space Odysseys. The early twentieth century writing may have centred on conquering the skies but the use of rockets in WW II, the invention of the atomic bomb and the escalating cold war pushed imagination to the moon and the stars. Many of these stories still relied upon adventure-explorer narratives, some containing West vs. East allegory (cf. The Omega Glory, Star Trek episode #52). The 1953 film of HG Wells War of the Worlds was on TV the night our family moved to a new house when I was about 10 years old and it’s the only movie that’s ever really frightened me. Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical interpretation was a huge commercial success and though it contained some soft-prog (Justin Hayward’s quite pleasant Forever Autumn) it wasn’t really to my taste. If there are any progressive rock links to space travel it’s the early Pink Floyd period, more linked to psychedelia than prog, with titles such as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Let There be More Light; Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun may have a cosmic title but the lyrics are based on Taoist poetry with Roger Waters’ own space-rock refrain thrown in; the Floyd performed a live five minute long jam titled Moonhead during the BBC TV programming for the first lunar landing in 1969. The gloomy Negative Earth by Barclay James Harvest also counts as being representative of journeys in space. From 1974’s Everyone is Everybody Else, it’s a telling of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. I say gloomy, but it’s a powerful track on an album filled with social commentary.
The section which most interested me was Brave New Worlds. The imagined harshness of extra terrestrial conditions brought out the best in SF writers, who carefully crafted viable worlds based on mass, proximity to their sun(s) and orbits, so that climate could be inferred and the development of societies could be explored. The best anthropological studies, including questioning racial and sexual stereotypes, are by Ursula Le Guin whose The Dispossessed (1974) is set in an ambiguous utopia and can be cited as feminist and anarchist literature. The concluding part of The Handmaid’s Tale was shown on TV at the weekend and the book was also highlighted in the exhibition as portraying a dystopian near-future. The serialisation of Atwood’s novel has come across as essential viewing, originally written at a time when the religious far-right were whispering in Ronald Regan’s ear and turned into a TV series as self-confessed sex-pest Donald Trump’s presidency displays alarming instability, fuelled by right-wing ideology and cutting the budget for family planning which puts the lives of millions of women at risk. (Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s the poor sound from our TV, but we watch the program with subtitles and have started to quote from these aids for the hard of hearing: Door opens; door closes.)
The mega-cities of the future are often portrayed as dystopian, whether the product of inequality or destroyed by some natural disaster which is usually traceable to the folly of mankind. The seedy underbelly which exists in our present is massively amplified in the futuristic cities committed to film including Blade Runner, Minority Report and the off-world frontier town in Total Recall (1990). Synthesizer soundtracks were still something of a novelty in the early 80s but Vangelis was a master and his original score for Blade Runner (1982) fits the mood of the film perfectly; equally, Brad Fiedel’s score for Terminator (1984) works well, from the haunting main theme to the industrial beat used in chase sequences.
The final thread, Final Frontiers, eschews geography and looks instead at subjects like the enhancement of the human body and other life-forms through techniques like mutation, cloning and prosthetics. Roger Dean’s artwork for the Fragile to Yessongs series may have inspired Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, an album which I think comes close to SF with its tale of planetary disaster and the organisation of the evacuation and search for a new world but I’d class this as fantasy, however original the story and successful it is in being converted from concept to recorded music, but Dean’s painting has also touched on the mechanisation of living things, fusing a gull’s skull onto the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ fuselage for Budgie’s Squawk and the equine enhancements for the cover of Paladin’s Charge!
The paradoxes revealed by time travel were also covered, and one of the displays was footage from BBC TV series Dr Who. It was good to see an article about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in a recent edition of Prog magazine (#78) – where Delia Derbyshire was responsible for the original Dr Who theme tune but also where Paddy Kingsland would write music for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (but not the title tune, which is Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles) and some classic children’s TV programs like The Changes.
Outside the main exhibition are three ‘media pods’ where those queuing can play games or listen to ‘science fiction’ music. I wasn’t interested in the games but the music pod featured a diverse range of genres, from Disco, Funk & Hip Hop (there was a series of videos in the main exhibition, mashing classic SF and sci-fi with Sun Ra and Kraftwerk) to Psychedelic and Prog Rock.
One of the first pieces you see as you enter the exhibition is a painting by Chris Foss, Asteroid Collision. Foss was my favourite SF book cover artist (and he did have imitators) where the detail of his spaceships or space architecture matched the sonic designs of my favourite prog bands.
Only a little progressive rock was inspired by SF but for me, the two are inextricably linked. Get to see Into the Unknown if you can.
A worthwhile exhibit that takes on the genre's scope and ambition! Whilst I concur that there is an indivisible link between prog rock and sci-fi (particularly through artwork, TV and film as identified above), do you think that prog musicians were more influenced by fantasy since there are prominent connections with folklore through the genre?
You could have a point about the connection with folklore as folk music is one of the elements that makes up prog but I don't know the answer! I see progressive rock as a positive, uplifting kind of music and a fair amount of SF is dystopian - and this was picked up by post-punk synthesiser bands who, if asked, will tell you that they were influenced by prog!
The space travel SF was covered by space-rock bands like Hawkwind and some German groups, who are like cousins to prog