ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

There’s now a new reason to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury; the city has three excellent independent record stores, two of them very new, which cover subtly different markets.

Some of the other touristy bits aren’t too bad either!

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.











By ProgBlog, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



By ProgBlog, Apr 13 2015 03:58PM

During the halcyon days of progressive rock, when bands took time out to recharge their batteries and subsequently, when punk came along and the influence of prog artists waned, there was always an outlet for creative talent (enough to keep up the mortgage repayments) especially for keyboard players: film score work. Instrumental prog has cropped up in a variety of TV and film roles, from the exceptionally famous Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist to Greenslade performing the soundtrack to the gritty, post-modern criminal gang drama Gangsters, set in multi-cultural Birmingham that began life as a BBC TV play in 1975 and was followed by two series in 1976 and 1978. A portion of Pink Floyd’s Echoes even featured in Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man in the early 70s.

The last film soundtrack I listened to was the live performance of Profondo Rosso as an accompaniment to the film at the Barbican in February. I have to admit that even though I enjoyed the entire event, I had just gone to see legendary progressivo Italiano band Goblin.

I’m not really much of a soundtrack person. The first examples I ever owned were Pink Floyd’s Cirrus Minor and The Nile Song which appeared on Relics, having originally come from the album Soundtrack from the film More (marking the directorial debut of Barbet Schroeder.) Whereas Cirrus Minor fits in with my idea of a Pink Floyd song, with its church organ tone and spacey effect-ridden organ that calls to mind the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets, the overtly heavy rock Nile Song, which had previously been released as a single in 1969, seems out of synch with the rest of the Floyd oeuvre. At the time, the only other Floyd albums I’d heard were Dark Side of the Moon and a rather confusing bootleg of Atom Heart Mother and, though I listened to and found Hawkwind’s Silver Machine and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid amusing, I didn’t actually attach any musical value to heavy rock. It’s stretching a point but another soundtrack piece from Relics is Careful with That Axe, Eugene, originally the B side of the single Point Me at the Sky; t was re-recorded as Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up and featured in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

The Floyd also released Obscured by Clouds (1972), music from the film La Vallée (also directed by Barbet Schroeder) and though I’d heard Free Four on Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show and at least one of my friends in Infield Park owned the album, I thought that the material was rather lightweight, similar in nature to the material on the first side of Meddle and the second side of Atom Heart Mother and I was never motivated enough to buy a copy. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the album were the rounded corners of the original sleeve!

Apart from two Goblin albums, Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, I only own two soundtrack albums. The first of these is Rick Wakeman’s White Rock which I think is an admirable fit for the film of the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics and is much better than his two preceding studio releases because it is entirely instrumental. The second is a work by another Italian prog outfit, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. Wakeman’s first foray into film soundtracks, something that he has since disowned, was Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) where Wakeman interpreted Liszt and Wagner. He would later provide soundtracks to more films: The Burning (1981); Crimes of Passion (1984), another collaboration with director Ken Russell and starring Kathleen Turner in which he used themes from Dvorak’s New World Symphony; and Phantom Power (1990), a remake of Phantom of the Opera.

More recently, during my efforts to acquire as much Italian prog as possible, I bought Garofano Rosso (Red Carnation) by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. The film, directed by Luigi Faccini was based on the novel of the same name by Elio Vittorini, best known for his much admired Conversation in Sicily. Once again located in Sicily, the story deals with tentative youthful longings set within the charged political background of Italy of 1924. The hero is 18 year old Alessio Mainardi, who receives a red carnation from a girl named Giovanna which becomes a symbol of love, desire and a representation of the struggle for political freedom in opposition to Fascism. This sounds like my kind of film but I’ve yet to see it; Banco had a reputation for left-wing politics though for this soundtrack album the operatic vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, a sound that defines Banco, are missing and the compositions are much shorter. It’s not possible for me to comment on the fit of the songs to the film but this is my least favourite of the early Banco albums, despite the outstanding musicianship. It’s as though the music never gets a chance to develop and consequently is unfulfilling.

I’d been a fan of director Alan Parker since Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express and though I’d been overlooked for the role of Pink in the film of The Wall (which I’m not counting as a soundtrack album), I dutifully went off to the West End to see Birdy (1984) which had a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel including adaptations of tracks from PG III (Melt) and IV (Security). The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by William Wharton, though the setting is changed from World War II to Vietnam; it stars Matthew Modine as Birdy and Nicholas Cage as his long-time friend Al.

It’s surprising that Keith Emerson stuck with writing movie scores after his experience on his second venture into the film business with Nighthawks (1981) after what he considered a massive, unnecessary strip-down of the music he had delivered; his first venture was a move into Goblin-territory, providing the music for Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), which prompted some unfavourable comparisons with Goblin’s performance on Suspiria. Emerson would go on to perform some not-quite blockbusters Best Revenge (1985), Murder Rock (1986), China Free Fall (1987), Iron Man Vol.1 (2001), La Chiesa (2002) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Patrick Moraz was another of the 70s keyboard greats to provide music for films, beginning with Les Vieilles Lunes (1969), before he’d formed a rock band.

Shortly after I first heard Tangerine Dream I thought that their compositions would be suited to film music, not realising that they had provided soundtracks for films and TV shows that were later to be released via their own fan project, Tangerine Tree. They have now produced over 50 scores but not all of them have been officially released. The first that I was aware of was William Friedkin’s Hollywood action-adventure film Sorcerer (1977).

Vangelis is another prolific film score composer. Blade Runner has just been re-released (as The Final Cut) and it’s this score, along with Chariots of Fire (1981) that I find most memorable. Chariots of Fire features my friend Mark Franchetti as an extra in some running scenes, having to run slowly to let the stars of the film Ian Charleson and Ben Cross beat him. I turned down the chance to be an extra; I refused to get my hair cut...

fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time