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The Guardian newspaper occasionally includes a reference to prog - I suspect a couple of the writers are closet fans - but I was surprised when an edition earlier this month had two references: an article about Kate Bush and another about how rock musicians shouldn't have dabbled with disco...

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.











By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







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