Prog on the map
By ProgBlog, May 7 2017 06:11PM
When my son was young we had family membership of both English Heritage and the National Trust and some part of most weekends was spent on outings to properties and gardens in the south east, with occasional forays into the north west when we returned to visit my family. Our subscriptions lapsed when Daryl became an adult; not only would this have incurred extra cost but we also saw less of him when he graduated and went off to do a Master’s degree in Oxford and then went to work in Australia for 18 months.
Remarkably for someone who graduated after the global economic meltdown, his career is based on his academic choices, architecture and historic conservation, and it’s this calling which has rekindled our interest in wandering around London in search of bits of fascinating architecture and design. When I first came to London in 1978 I roamed the streets from Notting Hill to Holborn looking for sites both off and on the tourist radar and, after almost weekly trips for three years, I considered myself well acquainted with the capital. This obsession with exploring the urban environment was an extension of my behaviour in Barrow, where almost all accessible and many (theoretically) inaccessible parts of the Furness peninsula were forensically investigated, inviting derision from anyone outside of a close circle of friends. Genetic or environmentally influenced, Daryl’s fixation with seeking out architectural gems means his knowledge of London’s streets is far better than mine ever was.
On a recent trip to the Design Museum in Kensington, a must for lovers of modernist architecture or anyone with a curiosity about the history of design, we stopped off at Café Phillies for a coffee and some lunch. I was intrigued to see a minibus pull up outside, the London Rock Legends Tour, on a stop to visit Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant which is opposite Café Phillies in Phillimore Road. I’m sure there are plenty of music-related sights, from the Abbey Road zebra crossing in St John’s Wood to The Hendrix/Handel museum in Brook Street, Mayfair, but it can’t be easy planning a sightseeing tour in London by road; the roadworks and sheer volume of traffic are hardly conducive to a strict schedule.
I was amazed to see the Yes logo on the side of the bus, along with more rock ‘n’ roll acts but, as the itinerary takes in pubs and clubs, it could be that there’s a stop at what used to be La Chasse at 100 Wardour Street, just down from the old Marquee. Writing songs about a particular location is nothing out of the ordinary but it tends to be a bit of a rarity in progressive rock; The King Crimson improvisations given the title of the town or city where they were recorded don’t count, whereas Egg’s A Visit to Newport Hospital (on the Isle of Wight) from The Polite Force (1971) is an excellent example – at this point it’s pertinent to mention that former Egg drummer and Pink Floyd drum tech Clive Brooks died last week, another loss to the progressive community.
I decided to challenge myself and go through my collection in search of London-themed compositions, requiring lyrics about the place, to see if it was possible to put together a virtual tour of physical locations, streets or landmarks which warranted a mention somewhere in the prog catalogue.
Public transport may have its problems but a combination of rail, tube and foot is by far the best way to move around the city and coincidentally, the tube map turns out to be a good place to start looking. Crimson’s Doctor Diamond from the Red-era, a song that never managed to get a studio release, doesn’t mention a place despite the reference to an ‘underground train’. I’d always assumed it was a New York subway train because Fallen Angel from the same cohort of songs is set in New York, but there’s every possibility that it’s London Underground, with a capital ‘U’. The most comprehensive reference to London Underground is on Alight, released earlier this year by progressivo Italiano Cellar Noise, where apart from the track Underground Ride, other songs are named after District and Circle Line stations Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars and Monument. This remarkable debut effort is a concept album where the narrative takes place somewhere between the real world and the imagination of the protagonist who, stuck in the monotonous grind of the daily commute through the underbelly of London, who suddenly finds a reason for existence. Musically and lyrically there are parallels with Genesis, from the Trespass-era to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (another New York-themed album) and the opening track on the album, Dive with Me is stylistically and harmonically linked to Foxtrot. It comes as no surprise that the play The Knife at gigs as an encore.
Genesis name-checked Epping Forest on Selling England by the Pound, a remnant of ancient woodland straddling the Greater London-Essex border where Peter Gabriel set his fictitious skirmish between rival East End gangs, apparently inspired by a piece in a newspaper that he’d read some years earlier. As much as I like this track, the piece has so much going on that when you include the four-minute instrumental After the Ordeal, it feels as though it’s taken up the entire side of the record when you’ve still got the ten-minute Cinema Show to come! Epping Forest is served by a number of stops on the Central Line and Forest Road, lined with its luxury cars (according to the song) heads into the forest from Loughton.
Also on the London Underground network is Turnham Green, served by the District and Piccadilly lines. This appears in Suite in C from McDonald and Giles’ self-titled album released in 1970, as a sub-section of the 11’40 mini-epic. This is a love song dedicated to Charlotte Bates, where the Turnham Green lyrics refer to the first time McDonald set eyes on Bates and the tube station where she disembarked. Besotted, McDonald placed an advert in International Times and remarkably, this was spotted by Bates’ friend who had been on the tube with her. It’s not really like Crimson but Michael Giles’ jazzy drum patterns do call to mind his work with his former band and his brother’s bass wouldn’t have been out of place on anything by the Crims; the subject matter is quite different, giving a more Beatles-like feel to the track.
Perhaps there’s a link between London geography and songs by King Crimson alumni. The UK song Nevermore, from their first album is about Soho, though it doesn’t relate to one particular location. Lyrically, it appears to be thematically linked to In the Dead of Night; commencing with some beautiful Allan Holdsworth acoustic guitar, it’s an altogether underrated piece with changes of dynamics and an experimental middle section. If Nevermore is a little hazy in its precise location, Rendezvous 6:02 from subsequent UK album Danger Money describes both time and place. When I first arrived in London I used to use the Sidcup branch of the railway from Charing Cross to Dartford, because my hall of residence was in North Cray, between Sidcup and Bexley. Stopping at Waterloo East, this journey afforded an excellent view of the (now Grade II Listed) Victory Arch leading into the main Waterloo Station. Built from Portland stone and completed in 1922, I find it an ugly piece of architecture but it relates to one of the most memorable UK songs, the poignant Rendezvous 6:02, which first describes the car journey from Hyde Park to Waterloo before specifically mentioning the arch itself. It was always a favourite pastime reviewing the departures timetable for trains leaving at two minutes past six in the evening and the last time I attended a talk at the nearby BFI, I deliberately arranged to meet Daryl at 18:02 under the arch.
It may not be part of the Underground network but Bill Bruford wrote the tune Palewell Park for the last of the Bruford albums. I’m labouring the point here, but this location, like the somewhat lengthier (in terms of both track timing and ground dimensions) Hergest Ridge was to Mike Oldfield, was evidently very inspiring to Bruford who lived close by in East Sheen and it's surprising because it's a piano-bass duet!.
Ian Anderson dedicated almost a full side to Baker Street on Minstrel in the Gallery, and Fulham Road features in A Passion Play. Of the former, which also mentions Blandford Street and Marylebone Road, this is the district inhabited by Anderson during 1974, making observations of everyday life in London W1. It’s possible that some of the lyrical content reflects some of the rehearsals for the album, where Anderson took on a great deal of the work as his fellow band members entertained themselves around Monte Carlo; there’s certainly more of a singer-songwriter feel to parts of the album, more acoustic guitar and less flute, but it remains one of the high points of the Jethro Tull canon. I’m less convinced about A Passion Play, particularly the use of saxophone and synthesizer, although the storyline is rather good. Is Fulham Road referenced because Brompton cemetery is close by?
Returning to modern prog, Big Big Train recite the names of underground and former waterways in Lost Rivers of London, from 2016’s Folklore. Citing Old Kent Road and Turnagain Lane (off Farringdon Road), there is much to be admired in their approach which reconnects modern, melodic prog with the importance of the roots of the genre. With the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Neckinger, the Westbourne, the Walbrook and the Effra, there are plenty of places to put on a progressive rock map of London.
...and there are a number of mews around Baker Street!
Just listening to the excellent Garden Shed (golden edition) by England, complete with lyric sheet and realised the track Paraffinalea references Whitechapel - which I imagine was a lot different in 1977 - and Pimlico, plus a Metropoli-tango tram... surely they mean tube!