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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Nov 19 2018 02:31PM



Contrary to my previous pronouncements about the availability of prog in Venice, I can now reveal that there is a relatively new record store in the city, Living in the Past, Sestiere Dorsoduro 3474, 30123 Venezia, and it’s pretty good. Venice was where I first made a conscious effort to collect Italian prog, in 2005, when there were two shops to choose from. My diary from that particular trip reveals that sometime after lunch on Wednesday 13th July, the second day of the holiday (my wife’s first time in Venice), we began winding our way back towards San Marco via the side streets of Dorsoduro, a slow but purposeful journey in the afternoon heat. Anyone familiar with the city will appreciate how you find yourself doubling back on your tracks as you seek a bridge over a canal so that what looks like a straightforward journey on a map devoid of detail is in fact fiendishly complex. I maintain that undertaking adventures through Venice’s maze-like alleys is the best way to explore the unique city, where you come across well-known tourist spots and less recognised gems by accident. That particular trek resulted in the discovery of what looked like prog heaven, despite its name: Discoland, a music shop with all manner of progressive rock CDs in the window, including the entire 2005 re-mastered catalogue of Van der Graaf Generator; Egg; King Crimson; Gentle Giant; Steve Hackett and more... but it was closed for lunch! A quick check of the time revealed that the store was due to reopen in 15 minutes so I popped into the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the Chiesa di San Barnaba until the shop owner returned, late. I asked if he had any Italian prog, but he said no. Rooting around did reveal that he had a couple of CDs by The Trip so I picked out Caronte, reissued in a cardboard sleeve, the first Egg album, and The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other, H to He, Pawn Hearts and Godbluff from the VdGG selection.


Though considered a classic progressivo Italiano record, I’m not actually such a great fan of Caronte (1971), a concept album based on the ferryman character Charon from Dante’s Divine Comedy who initially objects to taking Aeneas, a living man, on his boat; Charon is re-interpreted by The Trip as a metaphor for conformity. It’s steeped with psyche/blues characteristic of proto-prog, so comes across as more Iron Butterfly than The Nice. The Trip were actually founded in London in 1966 and included Ritchie Blackmore on guitar but the future Deep Purple guitarist had departed before the arrival of Joe Vescovi, whose keyboard style, influenced by Keith Emerson, is the best feature of the band. The other Venice music shop was Parole & Musica in the Castello Sestiere where I bought an early PFM live compilation The Beginning 1971-1972 Italian Tour. A day trip to Treviso on that 2005 holiday also involved finding a record shop where I bought Concerto Grosso n.1 and 2 by New Trolls, the very disappointing Donna Plautilla by Banco, and an album I’d really wanted to buy in Venice itself, Contrappunti by Le Orme, because that was where the band formed. Originally a beat group, they underwent some personnel changes and then released what many regard to be the first RPI album, Collage, in 1971. I managed to get to see the current incarnation earlier this year in Brescia with David Cross as a guest musician. The album that I most associate with the city is actually Le Orme’s Florian, released in 1979, named after Caffè Florian, alleged to be the oldest establishment of its kind in Europe, dating from 1720 and located under the Procuratie Nuove in piazza San Marco. A two-year hiatus following 1977’s Storia o Leggenda allowed the group to prepare for what seemed like a radical departure from progressive rock, where the electronic instrumentation was replaced with acoustic and early instruments. The result is still recognisable as Orme (they dropped the definite article from their name for the release) even though it should more correctly be referred to as chamber music or chamber prog; the original idea is said to have come from keyboard player Tony Pagliuca who realised that audiences were turning away from prog but didn’t want to subscribe to the mediocrity of commercial pop. The pieces on the album are effectively a protest against destructive economic forces within the music industry and those in the wider world choking other aspects of Italian culture. The lack of a record shop on the island(s) meant I had to look elsewhere for a copy, eventually finding the CD in Vicenza’s Saxophone record store on a day trip out from Venice in 2014; I found a second-hand vinyl copy earlier this year, on Record Store Day, on a stall in Cremona.



I spent a couple of days in Venice during the summer of 1980 on a month-long Interrail trip, staying on Giudecca in a youth hostel, and was blown away by the city. During that stay PFM were playing somewhere in Mestre but I didn’t have the wherewithal to organise getting to see them. On 15th July 1989 Pink Floyd famously played on a barge floating in the Grand Canal, nearing the end of the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour. This was broadcast live on Italian TV and precise timing restrictions meant that some songs had to be curtailed before their natural ending. I recorded this performance when it was shown on UK TV but that disappeared in a clear out of VHS tapes years ago – it’s now available as an unofficial DVD release Pink Floyd ‎– Pazzia & Passione - Live In Venice '89 from Room 101 Entertainment.

The closest I ever got to live prog in Venice was seeing the construction of a stage for Peter Gabriel playing an open air concert in piazza San Marco in 2007; we were staying less than 50m away in the Albergo San Marco but our flight back to the UK was a matter of hours before the performance – apparently Signal to Noise and Washing of the Water were played at the sound check in the early afternoon, where Gabriel acknowledged the fans who had begun to gather around the square after realising that he was present on stage. If that had happened in the last couple of years I’d have found accommodation for an extra night and bought a flight for the following day.






Despite the presence of Living in the Past and the historic connection of Le Orme to the city, Venice doesn’t really appear to have much of a connection with the modern prog scene apart from being somewhere bands like to perform – King Crimson finishing their mainland continental European tour with two dates at the end of July this year at Teatro La Fenice, for example. The ubiquitous newsstands of Italian cities, normally packed full of journals and periodicals, handy for picking up copies of Prog Italia and maybe the DeAgostini classic rock progressivo 180g vinyl reissues, are filled with tourist tat in Venice. Last year my wife found a copy of Prog Italia on Lido for me but there was nothing on any newsstand in any of the main Sestiere this year, or in any of the larger Tabacchi.


Apart from the basic accommodation on Giudecca, I’ve previously only stayed at hotels close to the piazza San Marco when visiting Venice. This trip was a departure from that norm, splashing out on an NH hotel in Dorsoduro abutting neighbouring Santa Croce, an area largely tourist-free but filled with students; there are two universities in the area, Università Ca’ Foscari and IUAV, the architecture school, contributing to the really good vibe. There’s a relative paucity of Venetian gothic and a noticeable presence of more modern architecture, which may explain the lack of visitor interest despite its proximity to the cruise ship terminal, Santa Lucia station and the bus terminus, one of only two places where cars are allowed (the other being Lido) but there are still dozens of friendly restaurants and bars where an Aperol spritz is half the price you pay in London. It wasn’t supposed to be a prog trip – we’d gone for the Architecture Biennale – but there does seem to be more than a passing link between architecture and prog, beginning with the early years of Pink Floyd at Regent Street Polytechnic.


However far removed from modern prog, the city is still able to turn up references to the genre in some of the oddest places. Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate have just released a new CD, Out of Mind which includes the track De Humani Corporis Fabrica, named after Andreas Vesalius' treatise on human anatomy from 1543 which challenged the prevailing doctrine proposed by the Greek physician Galen in the second century AD. I’m a particular fan of the song because it features some of Kathryn Thomas’ gorgeous flute and also includes a passage in 13/4 time, so when I came across the Mario Botta Architects’ installation in the Corderie at the Arsenale, a tactile, circular timber structure where the work of students was presented as tabernacle-like architectural research, I was amazed to find a section labelled De Humani Corporis Fabrica!


Like all cities Venice continues to change. Living in the Past was previously a second hand bookstore but was revamped in 2017 as a shop selling books and second-hand vinyl. There’s a decent selection of Italian prog along with a good selection of international prog and classic rock. Handily, it was a five minute walk from the hotel where we were staying and though I didn’t imagine that I’d find any records on this trip, I still had my cotton LP bag to hand for my purchases: Par les Fils de Mandrin by Ange and David Gilmour’s About Face, an album I’ve never physically owned in any format but once had a tape recorded from a friend’s LP. The shop is certainly a welcome addition to the Venetian landscape, a retail gem amongst some of the most stunning architecture in the world.








By ProgBlog, Sep 4 2017 10:23PM

I’ve just watched the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/adventure film The Running Man which, when it begins, is set in 2017, jumping to 2019 after Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger’s character) is framed, and imprisoned for a mass murder of innocent civilians. Based on a Stephen King novel published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman (with the Bachman borrowed from Canadian rockers Bachman Turner Overdrive) the 2017 of the future hints at the 2017 of today: “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A Police State, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the State and a sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground” but it’s the plot relating to editing video footage, the use of ‘fake news’ to manipulate the masses, along with the quest for ratings, which most resemble our present. It’s quite incredible that two actors from the film, Schwarzenegger himself and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (who plays Captain Freedom) would make the shift from entertainer to politician: Schwarzenegger was the Republican governor of California for two terms from 2003 and Ventura was the Reform Party candidate and elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, deciding not to stand for re-election in 2003; current POTUS Donald Trump has no previous political experience but he has featured in the reality TV business.

The Running Man also serves as a vehicle for the acting talents (!) of Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) and Dweezil Zappa, who happens to be playing 50 Years of Frank in the UK over the next month. Stephen King’s novel was written three years before Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the two books share that near-future (our present) dystopian world-view.



The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa
The Running Man and Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa

We live in worrying times. The very recent planned detonation of a hydrogen bomb, ten times more powerful than the previous device tested and allegedly capable of deployment by one of their ICBMs which have also been tested with alarming frequency in recent weeks in response to joint military manoeuvres by the South Koreans and the US, represents a disturbing testosterone-fuelled escalation towards a potential devastating conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and almost all of the rest of the world. Whereas I personally wasn’t worried by the Cold War stand-off between the US and its allies and the Communist Bloc, even though my youth was spent living in a potential target for Soviet missiles and I moved to London, an obvious target, just before the Thatcher-Reagan years; a period when bullish rhetoric was backed by American-controlled cruise missiles sited on UK soil and of Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense [sic] Initiative. However, the behaviour of Trump on the one hand and Kim Jong-un on the other, two megalomaniacs who simply refuse to back down, is an increasing cause for concern.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock is currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight, indicating that the probability of global catastrophe is very high, the highest it has been since 1953 when the US decided to pursue the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Throughout 2016 and 2015, the clock stood at three minutes to the hour, the closest to midnight since the early 1980s; this year the danger is even greater. My lack of concern during the 80s was partly due to my belief that the USSR economy, ploughing ever more resources into the military-industrial complex and away from the staples needed by the ordinary people was unsustainable, though there was always the possibility of initiating a strike by accident. I attended CND rallies and laughed at the ridiculous Civil Defence plans for a nuclear attack on the UK, its forced public dissemination five months after it had been ‘officially’ released in January 1980 following an investigation by the (pre-Murdoch) Times newspaper. In March 1984 David Gilmour released his second solo album About Face which included the jaunty and ironic Cruise, featuring innumerable puns about atomic warfare and fading out with a cod reggae groove. My current anxiety is fuelled by the actions of a paranoid dictator in North Korea who ignores the basic rights and requirements of his people and a clueless, populist, not-particularly-successful-businessman-turned-TV-personality who wouldn’t know diplomacy if he had to shake it by the hand.



Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84
Dave Gilmour, Hammersmith Odeon 30.04.84

If there is going to be a future despite Trump’s best endeavours to scupper it through either total war or climate change denial, what is prog going to look like? In 2017 we have the benefit of being able to look back at almost 50 years of prog, but is reflecting on the changes in both the music itself and the industry since Sgt Pepper’s, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Days of Future Passed any help in imagining future-prog?

I propose that we define prog rock along temporal lines to provide an indication of general stylistic attributes. If we restrict the term ‘progressive rock’ to music produced between 1969 (the year of In the Court of the Crimson King) and 1978, which equates to the so-called ‘golden era’, there were a couple of years beforehand where blues-based rock and psychedelia began to push at the boundaries of conventional popular music which we could call proto-progressive, append neo-prog (early-mid 80s) which combined progressive rock traits with an almost punk attitude, and further append the early 90s prog revival which has gone from strength to strength and flourishes today; to avoid any arguments over semantics and how ‘progressive’ implies continuous development, these four ages, plus future-prog should be scrutinised under the overarching umbrella of ‘prog’.


It’s quite remarkable that prog should be as strong as it currently appears. If the original proto-prog and progressive rock success was down to the baby boomer generation, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that our children are maintaining the continued interest. However, this is not necessarily always the case. My son may recognise classic progressive rock and buy me prog but I couldn’t get him to learn an instrument or get serious about the genre! At least part of the driver for prog was a series of technological advances from the 60s onwards and innovators like Robert Moog who took these ideas and turned them to practical, musical uses, though there have been some duds. I’ve never been happy with the sound of the string synthesizer, seen as a reliable alternative to the unwieldy Mellotron, but which had an equally short life cycle. The Elka Rhapsody was produced in Italy between 1975 and 1980 and became something of a favourite, despite what I’d describe as a thin sound; even my band used one in 1979-80, before our keyboard player John Carrott bought himself a Juno 6 and the band dissolved. Perhaps the biggest offender was the Solina String Ensemble before the Prophet 5 and Yamaha DX7 polyphonic synthesizers came along to make the string synth redundant. Fortunately, after a number of hiccoughs Mellotron are going strong and it’s virtually impossible to go to a prog gig in Italy without seeing a Mellotron on stage. However, there are two mellotron companies: Mellotron run by Markus Resch in Sweden who own the brand name and produce the Mk 6 and digital M4000D model, and Streetly Electronics, the original UK manufacturers of the Mellotron who produce the M4000. The accurate digital reproduction of 70s analogue sounds is a feature of much of the current keyboard-based prog and while appearing retrograde, it’s the culmination of technological advancement to achieve the widest range of sounds without compromising portability. This refinement is hardly a major leap forwards compared to the pace of change within the recording side of the business. Digital recording and file sharing have facilitated a near revolution in record production, so that The Invention of Knowledge (2016) was made over a two-year period without Jon Anderson and Roine Stolt meeting up, apart from for a Los Angeles photo shoot; Anderson sent his vocals from the US to Stolt in Sweden, where the instruments were recorded with other musicians.


Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)
Anderson-Stolt - The Invention of Knowledge (2016)

This lack of a geographical centre of the movement is associated with the prog revival and it’s a very good thing. Progressive rock wouldn’t have emerged without the political and social changes experienced by the UK in the 60s, quickly exported to our continental European neighbours who had both similar and their own unique conditions for developing the genre. Some of the original proto-prog and progressive rock philosophy remains and has been applied to some of the woes of the modern world: Steven Wilson’s latest release To the Bone (2017) covers topics like the divisiveness of President Trump and his notion that truth isn’t always the truth, the everyday lives of refugees, terrorists and religious fundamentalists; Roger Waters also wades into current affairs and Trump on Is This the Life We Really Want? in a continuation of a thread running from Animals (1977).


Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)
Roger Waters - Is this the life we really want (2017)

But what of the future? Is the recycling of classic progressive rock sounds and the return of vinyl a step into tomorrow? Is the cause helped by the remnants of original acts touring their old material? I suspect that the genre is time-limited and we’re currently approaching the twilight of a second ‘golden age’ though through recorded media it has the chance to live on.

There’s nothing wrong with playing the greatest hits from your back catalogue because that’s what bands of all eras and all genres have done; if the creative spark has gone then continue to please audiences with old favourites and let newcomers, the next generation of prog rockers, reinterpret the idiom in whatever way they can. Prog has used a myriad of diverse influences to create wonderful, amazing, challenging music and whether good or bad, there will be plenty of unimagined future legends to inspire the prog musician.



Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images








By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2016 10:01PM

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the first ever use of a nuclear weapon, one of only two times nuclear arms have been utilised in conflict when Little Boy (a reference to Franklin D Roosevelt who was president at the time of the inception of the Manhattan Project, the US atom bomb program) was dropped by the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, chosen because it was one of the main supply depots for the Japanese army. The device was over 2,000 times more powerful than the largest bomb used up to that time and devastated an area of 13 km2, destroying over 60% of the buildings in the city and, at the time recorded as killing 118,661 civilians. Later estimates suggested the final death toll was up to 140,000 (from a population of 350,000 including military personnel and those who subsequently died from radiation.) Many would also suffer from long-term sickness and disability. Three days later, the US dropped a second, bigger atomic bomb, Fat Man (a reference to Winston Churchill) on Nagasaki. Nearly 74,000 were killed and a similar number injured and though this was a more powerful device, the geography of the region restricted the level of destruction to a little less than 7 km2. The Japanese were effectively left with no choice and surrendered to the Allies on 14 August 1945.

The threat of all-out nuclear war can only be exacerbated by the unwillingness of members of the nuclear club to dismantle their arsenals. I may have grown up in the town most associated with building the vessels that carry Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent but ever since my school days when I became politically aware, I’ve believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament. A 2014 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) listed nine nations possessing nuclear weapons In order of acquisition: the United States; Russia; United Kingdom; France; China; India; Pakistan; Israel; North Korea. They have approximately 16,300 weapons between them. All, apart from Israel, are known to have successfully detonated a nuclear device but it is the first five which are considered to be ‘nuclear-weapon states’ (NWS) under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) whilst India, Pakistan and North Korea obtained their weapons after the NPT; North Korea did become a signatory but withdrew in 2003. Israel maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its atomic weapons program but is estimated to have approximately 80 nuclear warheads. South Africa developed nuclear weapons but disassembled its arsenal before joining the NPT. The SALT talks resulted in some decommissioning but while any weapons exist, there’s a potential to use them. The fall of communism has given way to a dangerous nationalism in Eastern Europe and the posturing by the North Korean oligarchy can only raise tensions. At least sense prevailed over the Iranian nuclear program, though the possibility of President Trump reversing the US/Iranian accord is rather worrying.

On the flip side there’s also the peaceful use of nuclear power, the creation of clean energy from Uranium or Plutonium, plus some pretty toxic waste that hangs around for a very, very, very long time. Also as a schoolboy, I doodled imaginary nuclear power stations and, as a sixth former studying physics, stood on top of the reactor at Sellafield during a site visit (when it was still called Windscale.) At that time tests were being carried out to vitrify the nuclear waste, which would have revolutionised storage of spent nuclear fuel. Sellafield was the site of the UK’s worst nuclear accident in 1957 when a fire broke out in a reactor chimney and the surrounding countryside was contaminated with radioactivity. Amazingly, the Infield Park Gang had access to a long wheelbase Land Rover, driven by the father of a neighbour, which dropped us off at local beaches for a day during the summer holidays. Roan Head was a favourite destination, largely because of the extensive sand dune system and though we were aware of the presence of effluent in the water it didn’t stop us swimming, joking that the presence of radioactivity in the Irish Sea was sufficient to neutralise any number of bacteria.


Roan Head
Roan Head

Last week the UK government continued to procrastinate over the construction of Hinkley Point C which has been dogged by a string of controversies, not least of which is the untested design. Without heading down the nuclear waste debate, I’m equally concerned about the requirement for Chinese money and the unit price of electricity negotiated with the French company EDF who will be running the plant which almost everyone agrees is a poor deal for consumers. However, neither the delay in making a decision nor the government’s energy policy of supporting fracking and removing subsidies on renewable generation, surprises me in the least.

I can’t think of any prog albums that are about nuclear power though Steve Rothery’s haunting, atmospheric and melodic The Ghosts of Pripyat (2015) deals with a post-Chernobyl landscape. His main band Marillion released Radiation in 2008 but the reference there, in the song Under the Sun, a track that sounds more like indie rock with some good organ bursts, is global warming. The best song on that album is the lengthy A Few Words for the Dead which features a more experimental sound and approach, coming across more thought provoking with both eastern and middle-eastern sounds before an anthemic section just after half way through the song preceding a decent guitar solo. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark may not be prog but their anti-war song Enola Gay (from Organisation, 1980) is an undisputed classic. It cites three references to the Hiroshima attack, Enola Gay (the aeroplane), Little Boy and the time of the bomb drop, 08:15:

“It's eight fifteen

And that's the time that it's always been

We got your message on the radio

Conditions normal and you're coming home

Enola Gay

Is mother proud of little boy today”

An OMD precursor band, The Id, according to OMD founder Andy McCluskey, was a “bunch of teenagers playing art-school rock that was on the proggy side. We had a brief flirtation with Yes and Pink Floyd.” Former Gong bassist Mike Howlett produced Messages, Enola Gay and Souvenir for OMD after Dindisc boss Carol Wilson insisted they have an outside producer for their third single, the first two having not done very well and sounding somewhat thin. Howlett was Wilson’s boyfriend.


Roger Waters was born into a family with strong left-wing views and his mother was a involved with CND. Two Suns in the Sunset from the last Waters-era Floyd albums The Final Cut (1983), released at the height of the cold war this track spells out the end of the human race in nuclear annihilation, the final track of his final cut with the band, the ultimate anti-war album. A lighter anti-nuclear arms song was released by Waters’ erstwhile colleague David Gilmour on his second solo album About Face (1984). The track Cruise refers to American Cruise missiles which were based at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, arriving in November 1983. There are two versions of the chorus but the first includes the line “Saving our children, saving our land” which reflects the women-only nature of the peace camp at Greenham, an important facet because the women were using their identity as mothers to legitimise the protest against the nuclear missiles for the safety of their children and future generations. Meanwhile, Gilmour protégé Kate Bush was also singing about the aftermath of nuclear conflict with the single Breathing which would appear as a more lengthy version on Never for Ever (1980.) This track has a further Floydian link, as the spoken words, taken from Protect and Survive, the hopelessly ineffectual official government instruction booklet for civilians in the event of a nuclear strike, “How to make your home and your family as safe as possible” are recited by Roy Harper. I love this track; the video was pretty epic but the brilliant fretless bass, provided by John Giblin, gives me goose bumps. On a non-progressive rock aside, Sting’s first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) features Russians and whereas the album is predominantly soft-jazz, Russians borrows from Prokofiev and addresses the cold war standoff, using clever lyrical references to the atomic bomb.



It may not be the longest track on the eponymous Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album (1989) and to an extent it’s a bit of an oddity, but Birthright is not just a great sounding song with some beautiful Steve Howe guitar, it evokes vast, barely populated areas of Australia and captures the huge disservice to the Aboriginal people when the British government tested its first atomic weapon in Woomera, in 1954. The test was Britain flexing its muscle in an era when the British Empire was crumbling. This loss of global influence has continued and though there are a number of successful global British brands, our European referendum earlier this summer reflects a desire by 52% of the population to go back to the glory days of Empire. I’m only surprised by so-called progressives who want to retain nuclear weapons. They’re ridiculously expensive, they’re not independent and their deterrent value only increases when you’re willing to have the blood of millions of innocent people on your hands. Nuclear weapons? No thank you.







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