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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, Jun 28 2017 08:50AM

There’s a great deal to be said for being open-minded, the willingness to try different things, because it’s a wide world and being able to see someone else’s point of view helps us to build bridges and overcome divisions in society. Past experience invariably influences present and future choices, for either good or bad, but forming impressions of the widest possible range of stimuli is most likely to be a positive force. Genetics obviously plays a role in how we react to events but the molecular mechanisms are nothing when compared to environmental impact: Jazz was the predominant musical form in the house I grew up in but after hearing Close to the Edge I quickly found friends who liked the same sort of music and whether or not I was still happy to listen to my father’s jazz recordings, being of an age where you could choose to buy whichever records you wanted was a crucial part of adolescence.



Practitioners of progressive rock, appropriating bits and pieces from a multitude of sources, should really be regarded as exemplars of open-mindedness and, in keeping with the lofty ideals of the late 60s and early 70s, they took it upon themselves to end the cultural hegemony of the upper and middle classes through popularising classical music by amalgamating it with rock and jazz and other idioms. Progressive rock wasideally placed to carry out this change as it was by-and-large looked upon as a movement promulgated by the middle class with exponents such as the Charterhouse alumni making up Genesis being an exception at one end of the social scale, and Jon Anderson from Lancashire mill town Accrington at the other end of the ladder. This emancipation of the romantic European musical form was in keeping with the countercultural zeitgeist and could be viewed as reaching out to disparate tribes by embracing differences.

I jumped from not being interested in rock music to being intrigued by Roxy Music to being a dedicated prog-head in just a couple of months. I carried on watching Top of the Pops and remained friends with school mates who liked Slade or T Rex but around the age of 13 or 14 and certainly by 15, most people were forming a distinction between pop and rock and leaving pop behind though there were musicians I had begun to admire who used the pop idiom for one reason or another; Robert Wyatt with I’m a Believer springs to mind... At the height of the golden era of progressive rock bands still eschewed singles but by 1976, following the hiatus in studio recording by a number of the big-league players, the music industry had become more hard-nosed and the labels required their acts to generate money by writing hit singles. Adjusting to produce something specifically for this market may have been tricky enough if you were used to taking ten minutes or more to get your ideas across to the listener but the difficulty was exacerbated by a far more sophisticated competition.



The announcement of the forthcoming Steven Wilson album To the Bone has been greeted with keen anticipation from fans. As much as I like Hand.Cannot.Erase I got into Wilson’s music via the rebooted 70s prog of The Raven that Refused to Sing, rather than the more narrow sound of Porcupine Tree. H.C.E strays from the original progressive rock blueprint and takes in electronica and post-rock and the result is another great record, but it’s not really prog. This is simply an observation and, in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter but with videos available for three tracks from To the Bone, it can be seen as part of a trajectory towards what Wilson himself describes as ‘progressive pop’. While this refusal to stand still is in principle a good thing, the (give or take) five minute length of the previewed tracks doesn’t provide enough scope for development, although there is the promise of 9’20 of Detonation. From the examples available to the general public and from comments he’s posted on his website, it seems that the territory he’s now occupying is similar to that of more of the music he liked as a youth; Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, pop music which had a degree of depth. I’m a recent convert to Hounds of Love for The Ninth Wave suite which makes up the entire second side of the original LP though I’ve followed her career with interest since she first hit the airwaves with Wuthering Heights in 1978. Like Wilson, I also appreciate the Kate Bush – Peter Gabriel partnership probably best known for Don’t Give Up but which started six years earlier on No Self Control from Peter Gabriel III, a far more prog-sounding track; Bush and Gabriel also shared an interest in sonic innovation and were at the vanguard of the Fairlight CMI revolution. It could be argued that Gabriel’s solo output wasn’t really prog but it is undeniable that his method, if not all of his songs, conform to the overall prog scheme.


Wilson’s musical taste is suitably diverse, as indicated by his playlists and the two-song singles that were compiled for his 2014 album Cover Version; six original pieces paired with six cover versions of songs by Alanis Morissette, Abba, The Cure, Momus, Prince and Donovan (though The Unquiet Grave is a 15th Century folk song interpreted by Wilson.) He was even sporting an Abba T-shirt when I saw him on the second of the two Royal Albert Hall gigs in September 2015 though I can’t think of any redeeming features of Sweden’s number one musical export.



The nearest I get to a guilty musical pleasure is sharing record storage space with my wife’s Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Chris Rea, Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen – she has her own CD storage - and though I often have to grit my teeth when I buy her music as a present, it’s somewhat unfair on her that she gets streams of prog-related recommendations. Fortunately, Susan occasionally finds something she likes which might fit into the ‘progressive pop’ category, such as Gotye’s Making Mirrors or S. Carey’s chamber-pop Range of Light.

There was a time when I owned Anita Ward’s 45 rpm single Ring My Bell and although it features early syndrum and I can still sing along with it, this was never intended as a serious purchase; after suggesting I was going to buy it, I had to go along with the joke but it did only cost 50p. I have a pristine copy of Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls (Our Price, £5.29) bought along with Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles which were released two days apart in June 1985, neither of which fits in particularly well with the rest of my collection though David Gilmour ad Tony Levin feature alongside Ferry and Sting quotes from Prokofiev on Russians. It’s interesting to note that the drums on both albums are performed by Omar Hakim which fits in very nicely with Sting’s jazz-lite and might have been responsible for some subliminal appreciation of Boys and Girls.



Another pop-rock album which sits between my Endless River and Storia di un Minuto LPs is Every Breath You Take: The Singles, part of my leaving present from my first workplace but which was sanctioned by me. I didn’t like the early Police material but two-thirds of the group had decent prog connections (Stewart Copeland – Curved Air; Andy Summers – Dantalian’s Chariot; Soft Machine; Robert Fripp) and the songs on later albums Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity showed a high degree of sophistication. The first CD I bought was actually Nothing Like the Sun but Richer Sounds wasn’t really a place to buy recorded music – I just needed a CD to play on my newly acquired Yamaha CD player – and Sting was the least offensive artist available. I’ve still got it.



No one should have any guilt about the music in their collection. We buy and listen to the music we like, however broad or narrow our predilections. I applaud the broad-minded, but when it comes to music, my collection hardly encompasses anything other than progressive rock (in its myriad forms), jazz and a bit of classical; my taste is somewhat narrow.










By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM

The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.



As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.

My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.

This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.

Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.



The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.


An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.

As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.



I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.

If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.


The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.







By ProgBlog, Oct 9 2016 08:29PM

Every so often I allow myself the odd hour or two when I fully relax, when I don’t want to listen to anything epic or watch anything that engages, when I watch a fairly mindless film just for fun. Suffering from a heavy cold at the beginning of September (which delayed this blog), I chose to watch the DVD of School of Rock (2003), starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman, directed by Richard Linklater. Though formulaic and predictable the film requires absolutely no thinking and is still moderately enjoyable. One of the great surprises is the chalk board feature of the history of rock which Dewey Finn (the Jack Black character) is teaching to his 10 year old pupils. This scene, lasting only a few seconds, manages to neatly encapsulate the relationship between (rock) musical genres, listing some of the major exponents of each. It must have taken someone some considerable thought to produce and, quite impressively, includes ‘Prog Rock’ with examples Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis (the) Residents and King Crimson. The aspiring keyboard player is given Fragile to listen to as homework, with the instruction to pay close attention to Wakeman’s work on Roundabout. The film wasn’t aimed at the age group featured but it still must have been the first exposure to progressive rock for many of the viewing public.


Watching the DVD coincided with the start of a new school year. As a youth at school, I used to get annoyed at the airing of TV adverts for back-to-school paraphernalia the moment the summer holidays started. (I was similarly dismayed by the start of the season for pushing summer holiday destinations, which started over Christmas…) I don’t know if this was a reaction to commercialisation, a chaotic lifestyle or merely innate laziness, but the bombardment from supermarkets flogging school clothing and stationery stores plugging pencil cases was a major turn-off, as though the six week break was already over when it had barely begun. And anyway, I had far better things to do than think of preparing for a new term.

The start of this school year was heralded by the government indicating that they wanted to reintroduce selective education. There are so many reasons for not returning to the grammar school system and none for the reinstatement of the 11+ but this crazy policy announcement has galvanised a broad range of teaching professionals, education experts and parents, becoming united in opposition to the plans. It’s not even popular with all Conservative MPs, though it does appeal to the more reactionary types. Social mobility has become something of a political mantra and it’s this notion that is behind Theresa May’s idea of the expansion of the grammar schools system, incorrectly attributing the academic success of less affluent pupils to a grammar school education. It’s been pointed out that most children will lose out in a selective system but it’s evident that dogma is at work because there has been next to no thought behind the proposals, just the in-vogue trashing and rejection of objections raised by experts. Not only was there no mention of children with special needs or disabilities, they hadn’t considered the effect on teacher recruitment. I don’t really need to reiterate that the comprehensive system showed it is possible to provide a high quality, inclusive education for all children because the statistics speak for themselves: 86% of state-funded schools are currently rated as good or outstanding. This figure will be at risk if there’s a return to selection. The evidence shows that the educational advantage received by those selected for grammars is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. I’m the product of the grammar school system, the child of teachers and someone who has a history of active trade unionism. I know that selection is unfair and that teachers, one of the most recognisable groups of public sector employees, while tasked with educating the nation’s children, are frequently placed in unpleasant positions by politicians.


The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.
The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.

Prog doesn’t really do songs about school, which tends to be straightforward rock subject matter (c.f. the film School of Rock.) I started to become interested in music in 1972 and one of the first songs I heard was Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) which captured the anarchic mood at the end of a summer term with its anthemic guitar-heavy structure and the immortal lines: School’s out for summer, school’s out for ever, school’s been blown to pieces. I recognised this as something I’d not heard before, a form of musical theatre (Cooper brandished a rapier during his performances on Top of the Pops) but it was not something that necessarily convinced me it was worth pursuing, as it was relatively simplistic. That particular single vies with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1979) for most memorable school-themed song and it’s not really surprising that I consider this offering as outside of the Floyd progressive period. When The Wall was released and both the album and single became successful, I was torn between celebrating that success (as a band I’d followed for eight years) and disappointed with the quality of the material; the single in particular calls to mind a disco beat, something I’d been decrying for the preceding two to three years. Equally theatrical, it has been misinterpreted as anti-education when it's really an attack on a particular form of educational system within the UK, based on Waters’ own school experience, which he described as detestable: "I hated every second of it, apart from games. The regime at school was a very oppressive one ... the same kids who are susceptible to bullying by other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers.” This comes across very clearly in the film of the album.


One partial exception to the rule appears on Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant, a concept album that follows three school friends through their subsequent, somewhat less than satisfying career choices back to their reunion as friends. Following the introductory Prologue school is referenced as the starting point of their friendship in Schooldays where, along with sound effects of a schoolyard which according to Ray Shulman are intended to invoke nostalgia, are suggestions of a care-free existence before the three protagonists begin to question how long they will remain friends. The concept is relatively simple but the album is a forgotten gem in the Giant canon.


Education is about releasing potential. The evidence suggests that high-quality support in a child’s early years improves educational outcomes, as an infant ’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, rising to 80% formed by the age of three and this is where gaps open up between children from different backgrounds. That’s why the argument about social mobility and selective education is spurious - children from poorer homes are already playing catch-up by the time they start nursery. If there’s going to be any form of government intervention in education it needs to concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, the home environment and parenting skills. Just say ‘no’ to more grammar schools.







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