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Following a short skiing trip ProgBlog reflects on music about winter and snow, and reconsider reggae...

By ProgBlog, Feb 5 2017 07:20PM

I bought myself a bass guitar shortly after my 18th birthday, a sunburst finish Fender Precision copy with no manufacturer’s details. I was aware that there were hundreds of budding guitarists of my age, all with a head start over me, so I chose four strings instead of six, reasoning it would be easier to get into a band as a dedicated bassist. By this stage, with five years of listening to progressive rock under my belt, I’d also worked out what sort of bassist I’d like to be; I’d figured out there was a small cohort of what I called ‘classic English rock bassists’ who didn’t necessarily have the flash of their fusion counterparts but, despite the difference of rock idioms in which they operated, had a distinct harmonic style which suited their particular genre. Chris Squire’s bass work stood out; Martin Turner’s playing was perfect for the twin guitar approach of Wishbone Ash, propelling them to the verge of prog; Paul McCartney may have been highly regarded for his song writing but his bass was very inventive if somewhat understated; John Entwistle first used the high treble style that influenced Squire; and John Wetton.

My first bass
My first bass

I’d missed out on Wetton’s early career in Mogul Thrash and Family and my introduction to his playing was in 1974, hearing The Great Deceiver played on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show when Starless and Bible Black was released. A few months later a friend bought the outstanding Red (1974) and my brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). As my appreciation for King Crimson increased, it became obvious that the bass and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972, unbelievably forceful and inventive. It wasn’t until I found a copy of USA (1975) in the record store local to my hall of residence at the end of the decade that I began to understand the power of the group in a live setting; Asbury Park is probably my favourite Crimson improvisation. All this was without realising that the bulk of Starless and Bible Black and Providence from Red were live tracks but the Night Watch playback and CD in 1997 put everything into context, further clarified by the superb Great Deceiver box set where not only the alchemy of David Singleton but also the diary notes and reflections of Fripp, Cross and John Wetton allowed the awesome sound of the band in full tilt to be fully appreciated.


Wetton-era King Crimson LPs
Wetton-era King Crimson LPs

Wetton-era King Crimson box sets
Wetton-era King Crimson box sets

Following the demise of Crimson, I regarded Wetton’s move to Uriah Heep as a retrograde step, though his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) was of note, as I harboured a begrudging regard for the Ash. It just wasn’t of enough interest to make me go out and buy the album though I did think that Wetton’s bass playing was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; restricting his song writing was evidently too much for him to take. As for the Roxy Music and Brian Ferry band period, I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy. The touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist, a temporary measure before Crimson was due to get back to touring. With shared management it was easy to help out friends (reciprocated on USA where Eddie Jobson provided violin overdubs) and helping to formulate Wetton’s next band.

The seemingly unlikely collaboration between Wetton, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but the collapse of that project resulted in the formation of supergroup UK. Their eponymous debut (1978) was a slick progressive album with leanings towards jazz rock and quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups like England. The song writing was mature with a coherent sound, as though the individuals were all treated as equals and were all pulling in the same direction. That meant it came as something of a shock when Bruford and Holdsworth departed, the former being replaced by an unknown (to me) Terry Bozzio and the guitarist not being replaced at all.


UK albums
UK albums

I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band at Imperial College, their only British appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. As good as this gig was, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. Danger Money (1979) was a stylistic nod to the earlier progressive era but the balance present on the debut had gone, ushering in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction with shorter numbers like Caesar’s Palace Blues and Nothing to Lose, the latter released as a single. Despite the more commercial slant there are some classic prog moments, especially the Jobson organ work. The evocative Rendezvous 6:02, another outstanding but understated song, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and I think his vocals would be the best they’d get

.

Caught in the Crossfire
Caught in the Crossfire

Wetton’s Jack-Knife project resulted in I Wish You Would (1979), an album recorded in Munich over 10 days. This was a reunion with Richard Palmer-James and covered material that the two played together in Tetrad. More a demonstration of his remarkable versatility, it included Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma - hardly challenging for the players or listeners. Presented in an awful cover, I gave my copy away to a charity shop. I have kept Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) where, despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, the content is well removed from progressive rock; the track When Will You Realize? was apparently cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK.

The formation of Asia, Wetton getting back together with prog luminaries promised so much but I have to admit being disappointed with the end product. I wasn’t aware that he was deliberately choosing to depart from the band members’ pasts and eschew long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that runs counter to my love of long-form. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) and even bought the compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990. I was pleased that the venture was successful though I was perturbed that Steve Howe appeared to have been ejected from the band after Alpha and was unable to work out why Wetton also left, to be replaced, briefly and somewhat ironically, by Greg Lake.


Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes
Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes

Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on three occasions, at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, in Croydon and in Bromley. I didn’t really know what to expect but I thought his re-emergence, with progressive rock no longer a dirty word, was something to follow. I was able to track his progress over a couple of years from the quality of playing of the music that made up the set list, a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs, watching the evolution of the band. I wasn’t over-impressed with guitarist Billy Liesgang though drummer Tom Lang was good; these two were eventually replaced by Dave Kilminster and Steve Christey (ex-Jadis) respectively. Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards. A major highlight was in September 1997 when I saw him along with other members of the 72-74 King Crimson for the Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental. He performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday and signed copies of the double CD at the end of the event. Sadly, mine was stolen from the boot of a taxi in Miami in 2003.

In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with a cheap word processing package by Gary Carter and it was through this fanzine that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material, adding Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001) to the copy of Akustika (1995) I’d bought from the merchandise stand at the Astoria gig. The vast majority of this is well-produced AOR but there are some stand-out tracks like The Circle of St Giles and E-Scape and I enjoy all of Chasing the Deer. I also invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which is a bit short on detail and concludes in 1997.


ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine
ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine


John Wetton CD collection
John Wetton CD collection

Qango were a short-lived band that attempted to recreate the highs of prog. Alongside Wetton on bass and vocals were Carl Palmer on drums, John Young on keyboards and Dave Kilminster on guitar. I saw them play at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, using material from Asia and ELP, plus Wetton favourite All Along the Watchtower. They released a live album (Live in the Hood, 2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned.


Qango played Croydon in May 2000
Qango played Croydon in May 2000

I managed to catch a re-formed UK at Under the Bridge in May 2012, a great venue with the right level of intimacy, somehow just right for the return of a premier-league prog act. The performance included more than just material from the two studio albums, notably Starless, Jobson’s favourite King Crimson song. Wetton and Jobson were joined on stage Alex Machacek who beautifully recreated the Holdsworth guitar licks and Gary Husband was an inspired choice to fill in on drums. It seemed to me that Wetton’s voice was a little strained at times but these moments were neatly covered with some effective echo; he managed to keep in tune throughout and hit the higher notes. I’m delighted I got to see the show.


UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012
UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012

John Wetton was one of the reasons I picked up the bass guitar. I followed his career from true prog great (the King Crimson improvisations) to polished AOR and though it’s his time with Crimson and UK that remain a highlight for me, all his work, the collaborations and the ‘solo’ material are all very much respected. Wetton’s death is another huge loss to the prog world.


John Wetton b. 12th June 1949 d. January 31st 2017

By ProgBlog, Jan 8 2017 06:52PM

The Christmas and New Year bank holidays fell on days which allowed extended weekends and, in order to address some of the inevitable excess that occurred despite the reduced volumes of food and drink that were brought into the house, both weekends featured a cultural excursion into central London.

One of these was a trip to the new Design Museum, housed in the former Commonwealth Institute just off High Street Kensington, an edifice described by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall, which underwent an impressive refit to house the new exhibition spaces. I’d visited the building before, during the period of its former function, to receive a Wedgewood plate from the National Blood (Transfusion) Service for donating 100 units of blood, plasma and platelets and even in 1985, before I displayed any interest in architecture, I thought it was a remarkable building. The free, permanent display at the museum deserves more space and only scratches the surface of ‘design’. However, it still managed to mention album artwork and house a display of turntables. Perhaps they’re thinking of a temporary special exhibition of album artwork...


Interior of The Design Museum
Interior of The Design Museum

The other trip was to the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy of Arts (a far less attractive building, despite the Palladian influence on its design). The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a new phenomenon in American art associated with a generation of artists all working in the US but with diverse backgrounds: New York; the heartlands of the US; the West; European émigrés. I was interested in attending because I quite like the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the featured artists, having seen his work in the Guggenheim in Venice. It could be argued that without Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage there wouldn’t have been a Abstract Expressionist movement. Another reason I like Pollock is because I associate his artwork with progressive rock; though the art and prog movements took place in different decades, the room I most associate with listening to early progressive rock had a piece of my father’s artwork on the wall, a drip painting in white, yellow and red after Pollock and I seem to recall him with a board (in lieu of canvas) in the back garden of our first house wheeling his bicycle over a similar composition and this process of construction, as well as the complexity of finished piece, held a deep fascination.


The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism
The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism

The extended break still ended too early, even with a reduced working week but it was nevertheless good to consign 2016 to the dustbin of history. Domestic and global politics took a downturn just when we were thinking it couldn’t get worse, amplifying divisions and, for the first time in a long, long time, bigotry and hate speech seemed to have become legitimised. Apart from the power-play where more than one multi-millionaire labelled all journalists as elitist, 2016 did have what appeared to be more than the average number of deaths of famous musicians and this had a quite extraordinary impact on the feelings of those who had grown up with this music. I don’t particularly like David Bowie’s music but I understand that millions and millions of people all around the world did have some form of connection with Bowie, and Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. I was personally more affected by the deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two of the first rock musicians I’d ever heard but apart from reporting on their contribution to progressive rock in celebration of their careers, I remained relatively unmoved. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way and if anyone, from any background, is able to positively influence someone in some way; give them some kind of meaning or put into words what they’ve not been able to express themselves, that’s not to be scoffed at. I’m approaching this from a rationalist standpoint; both Bowie and Lake had cancer and, at 69 years of age, had lived a full life which had reached a natural limit within statistical ranges. I reject the government argument that pensionable age should be raised because we’re all dying older because plainly that is not true. It might be the case that age at death has increased for some but, especially in areas of greater deprivation and reduced life-chances, longevity lags behind. A 2015 study from the King’s Fund Inequalities and life expectancy Changes over time and implications for policy by David Buck and David Maguire may have shown the relationship between income deprivation and life expectancy got weaker over the period between 1999 and 2010 but other factors, including employment, housing deprivation and some lifestyle factors go some way to explain differences in life expectancy between areas during the latter part of the study period, and that low employment, housing deprivation and smoking are among the factors that distinguish areas with persistently low life expectancy over time. The argument to raise the age of the state pension and to make changes to public sector pensions in 2011 which caused widespread public anger was part of a plan to make public sector jobs open to private business. It might be more economically sound to allow workers to retire to create decent, full-time jobs for school leavers and graduates who had been hard-wired to believe in home ownership but we’re going to find many of the workers in caring professions, who generally are not well paid, being ground down until they are incapable of working or dying before they can take their pensions.


NHS strike action
NHS strike action

I stood on picket lines and argued that even in the long-term, the NHS pension pot easily paid for itself as long as staff continued to be recruited into the scheme. I pointed out that the proposed legislation was because the cost of similar pension benefits was prohibitive to private healthcare providers, with plenty of friends in government, wanting to move into the UK; that pension reform and privatisation were inextricably linked and austerity was being used as a rationale to deliver cost-cutting and the decimation of the Health Service. Over the next year I witnessed the sale of NHS departments to private firms; soft targets going to DHL, Serco and Sainsbury, removing staff from hospital payroll and immediately cutting upfront costs. The damage to the NHS, alarmingly labelled a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the Red Cross last week, includes no money for training, de-skilling, understaffing, endemic low-morale and stress-related sickness absence; throw in stories of European workers being told to prepare to leave the UK and it’s evident that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Perhaps someone is waiting for the private sector to gallop in on a white charger...

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing particularly pertinent to current times, where not only access to music and film has been made easier, our ability to comment on and interact with others who feel the same, or the polar opposite, is part of the everyday landscape. I used to abuse the letters page of Barrow’s North Western Evening Mail with made-up opinions and made-up names in an attempt to lampoon parochial concerns (read: dog mess) but this ruse took a good deal of time and effort; I had to write the letter by hand, post the letter using Royal Mail and wait to see if the terribly elite editorial board would publish. If only Twitter and Facebook messages took two days, an editorial review and the equivalent of postage before they could be displayed. I’m not only guilty of mistreating the entire Evening Mail readership with letters and my poetry, I’m also in the business of spouting opinion on social media. That my ProgBlog somehow got mixed up with a Canadian political site of the same name may be of concern, but it earned a spot as the 24th most liberal blog detected by the Feedspot blog.

Meanwhile, at the back end of 2016, I was given a copy of the Greg Lake Live DVD for Christmas, a concert recorded in Stevenage in November 2005, less than a week before I went to see his performance in Croydon and dutifully watched it at the earliest opportunity. I recall enjoying the concert apart from a blues number which I refused to applaud because it was dire. This was Love You Too Much and I believe is evidence that Lake’s genuine creative period was over. I’m not fond of the later ELP material that’s included, either, beginning with the simplistic Paper Blood but also Farewell to Arms and Footprints in the Snow but the concert is well filmed and the band, including a young Florian Opahle on lead guitar, is really tight. Though it’s an accurate record of that tour, the bonus DVD material includes rehearsal time at Shepperton and some short interviews. One of these is with the promoter who predicts a great future for the ensemble and following the UK dates the band did play in Europe but his planned 2006 tour was cancelled.


Greg Lake Live DVD
Greg Lake Live DVD

Whereas Bowie and Prince maintained a sense of mystique and were able to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I don’t believe that same can be said for the members of ELP, or even Yes who continue to tour, though they were giants that did at one stage rule the world of music. The relevance of the original progressive rock bands lies in their legacy, their experimentation and challenging norms. There are probably two generations who have been inspired by music that refuses to be packaged as industry standard and this innovation is what Lake and Emerson, and Chris Squire in 2015 should be remembered for.





By ProgBlog, Nov 20 2016 08:22PM

I’m currently dipping in and out of Time and a Word – The Yes Story by Martin Popoff and thought that this latest piece of writing about the band, which includes thoughts on Heaven and Earth from 2014 and covers Chris Squire’s death from leukaemia last year, might help me work out where I stand on an issue that’s been raging for some time, spilling over on to the letters and comments pages of Prog magazine, concerning the validity of calling Yes ‘Yes’ and whether or not it is time to call an end to the venerable institution. In keeping with the progressive rock genre, debate on this particular subject has attracted opinion from all parts of the spectrum.

I’m not over-impressed by the book because it seems to me as though it’s been put together with minimum effort. I don’t doubt Popoff’s appreciation of the music and it can’t be denied that he’s a successful music writer but, not being a fan of the particular idiom he’s most closely associated with, I’ve not knowingly read anything else that he’s penned and I’m therefore not really qualified to comment on how much work was involved. What I can say is that you can’t compare Time and a Word to something almost academic like Bill Martin’s Music of Yes – Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock or even Chris Welch’s more mainstream journalist/fan account Close to the Edge – The Story of Yes, both of which I did enjoy. Perhaps the closest work to Time and a Word is The Extraordinary World of Yes by Alan Farley because of the concise coverage of each album, information that could as easily be obtained from the album sleeve notes, rather than any in-depth musicological, sociological or philosophical analysis, though Farley does add a soupçon of personal perspective. Popoff includes some odd little asides to his Yes timeline which is primarily comprised of portions of his interviews with the main protagonists; I’m not at all sure why the release of Rush’s 2112 on April 1st 1976 warrants a mention, other than to indicate it’s a poor joke, though there’s slightly more rationale to announcing the eponymous debut from The Clash on 8th April 1977, three months before the end of the self-imposed studio Yes album hiatus, highlighting a radical shift in the musical landscape over the intervening two and a bit years.




Though the advancement of time since the beginning of the progressive rock era affects all bands that fall under this umbrella, a span lasting on for almost 50 years, there have only been two deaths within the Yes camp and it’s only the loss of Chris Squire, however much Peter Banks originally helped to craft the early Yes style, that has really had an impact on the group. This is largely because Squire was the only original member remaining at the time of his death and the only member to have contributed to every studio album but he was as much integral to the Yes sound as any other musician who hopped on or off the Yes roundabout, for his vocal harmony work as well as the punchy, treble-rich bass work. Yet, when I saw the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the way Billy Sherwood reproduced Squire’s lines and stunned by the way Sherwood had adopted his mentor’s stage mannerisms, from his footwork to the handling of his instrument.




This highlights one of the major issues. There’s no doubt that there are other musicians of an appropriate calibre to play the music, as the whole album performances show. The last two tours, one with Squire and one without, have been about the recreation of recorded music in a fairly true-to-original fashion, down to the detail of the track running order, which coincidentally allows us to measure individual member’s performance against the original release. On the 2016 tour, featuring Fragile and Drama, it was only Steve Howe who had been represented on the earlier studio album. Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes had all played on Drama; on the 2014 tour of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, it was only Howe and Squire representing the line-up of the first two albums, and Howe, Squire and White from the personnel responsible for Going for the One.




So, despite my enjoyment of the gig I went to see in London, the latest tour was carried out without any original members; does that make them some kind of tribute act? Well no, not in my opinion. There are two strands to my thinking: Firstly, that Howe was one of the individuals making up the first of two ‘classic’ line-ups which starred Bill Bruford on drums and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and was responsible for Fragile and Close to the Edge. His appearance on The Yes Album marked a qualitative improvement in group composition and his playing style opened up a more symphonic sound but I think it was possibly his personal outlook and the way he fitted in to (what was going to become) the Yes philosophy added something unquantifiable but positive to the group. Furthermore, the replacement of Bruford by Alan White created the second classic line-up which lasted four incarnations but the revolving door of personnel changes was accepted by fans, at least on record, even including the Drama-Yes of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn which only revealed a degree of disillusionment amongst those who went to see them play live when the tour hit the UK. This suggests to me that as long as there is the spirit of Yes in a group of players, it can still be called ‘Yes’.

That the cracks in support were appearing as the genre reached the end its golden era is in part down to changes within the music business itself but Yes had showed that they could change guitarists and keyboard players without adversely affecting their appeal; unfortunately when they replaced Jon Anderson, who many even now regard as the voice of Yes, support was less forthcoming. It’s of note is that following his departure from Yes, Anderson embarked upon a successful collaboration with Vangelis and it was, arguably, Anderson’s involvement with the Squire, White and Trevor Rabin Cinema project which guaranteed that band success as the 1980s Yes.

That particular version of the group was hugely successful but they alienated some of the original core support, including me. I blame the industry, manipulating output to maximise commercial gain, curtailing artist creativity and resulting in music which hasn’t aged very well, compared to the timelessness of Close to the Edge and the reappraisal of Tales from Topographic Oceans as a major piece of recorded work by a rock band. This brings me to the second major issue: The quality of the new material.

I’ve previously argued that the substance of the 80s material was more mainstream, hence the greater commercial appeal in a world that was becoming more self-centred with less time and inclination to think expansively. Any attempt to recapture the cosmic nature of early 70s Yes music, by an ever expanding Yes family which had itself become more fractious and cut-throat, was never likely to amount to much, though the keyboard-light Magnification came quite close for me. I’ve never been too happy with the long-form studio pieces on Keys to Ascension and part of this is down to what I feel is the unsuccessful blend of cosmic and worthy social commentary; part is down to the unsatisfactory keyboard sounds. I believe the best modern material is the Fly From Here suite which was actually composed during the Drama years, such that the concept of Yes music has to conform to certain structural and thematic forms, many of which have been abandoned along the way.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is fine for Yes to continue for the time being, playing material which represents the early phase of the group, as long as there’s someone from that era to carry the torch. I’ve outgrown my belief that Anderson has to be in Yes; I don’t doubt White’s contribution to the sound and equally, I can’t question Sherwood’s fit but I think that if Howe had to drop out for some reason, there would be no purpose in carrying on. I don’t mind if there’s no new material, I’ll continue to go and see the band if there are no more line-up changes and they continue to play the classic early 70s material. Roll on Tales! Roll on Relayer!









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.







By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM

Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.

I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.



In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.


Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.

The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).




But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.






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