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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Sep 4 2017 10:23PM

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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



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








By ProgBlog, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2014 03:33PM

It's mid December and I'm in Bah! Humbug mode. The endless incitement to consume that began gearing up in October is now reaching fever pitch and I’m feeling bad that I feel bad about the whole season. It's not that I don't like giving but I prefer not to be bullied into becoming a slave to this celebration of the unnecessary and shallow. 40 years ago, at the height of the popularity of progressive rock, there was a tug between those promoting commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance. In a socio-political context, this was the height of the cold war and the ideological battle was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms; the West was fighting dirty, their propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality as money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day; power to the consumer! Power to consume!

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. My seasonal preference predates the Christian hijacking of Saturnalia, back to the pagan solstice; one where we simply recognise the end of a solar cycle without resorting to over-indulgence in food and alcohol. What do I wish for at this time of year? Peace on earth (yes, really!) and much stronger regulation of the food, drink and advertising industries.

Much of progressive rock owes a debt to church music. In In My Own Time, Kim Dancha’s authorised biography, John Wetton spoke of his use of chordal structures based on the harmony and counterpoint found in church music, citing the influence of his elder brother Robert who became a church organist of some accomplishment; Steve Hackett has acknowledged the influence of church music on Genesis material; and Jan Akkermann has referred to Eruption (from Moving Waves) as “patched-up church-y ideas, sacral stuff” describing that he made “blues out of those neoclassical church-like harmonies.” Chris Squire was a choir boy at St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and has spoken of the influence of church and choral music on his writing; though largely hidden within his co-written Yes-epics, the song-form on Squire’s solo album Fish out of Water is steeped in ecclesiastical influences, where he’s helped out by former school friend and band mate Andrew Pryce Jackman on keyboards and enlists the help of Barry Rose, the sub-organist from St Paul’s cathedral who plays pipe organ.

The cultural significance of the church within progressive rock has been thoroughly covered by academic authors such as Bill Martin and Edward Macan. The genre is peppered with references to liturgy, from the straightforward Credo by Refugee to the psychedelic retelling of Revelations by both Aphrodite’s Child (666) and Genesis (Supper’s Ready.) Perhaps the most overt church music albums are Mass in F minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes and the first album by Italy’s Latte e Miele, Passio Secundum Mattheum (1972). Mass in F minor was not really a full Electric Prunes album and it’s not really prog. The music was written by David Axelrod and he felt he had to draft in other musicians from Canadian group The Collectors to complete the project, a mix of acid rock guitar and Gregorian chants, sung in Latin and Greek. It’s a strange mix but somehow it works really well. Some critics have labelled Latte e Miele as an ELP clone, partly because of their keyboards/guitar/percussionist line up and partly because they include a Bach quotation that appears almost note-for-note and with the same feeling on The Three Fates (Clotho) from ELP’s first album. Such criticism is grossly unfair because 16-year old drummer Alfio Vitanza also adds flute, contributing to a pastoral feel that conjures up suggestions of early Genesis; I’d argue that the inclusion of Mellotron and string synth are the antithesis of ELP. It should be seen as a brave move for a first album and is rightly regarded as being something of a minor RPI classic.

That a band formed in a British public school should display influences from the church is hardly surprising. What is slightly more unexpected is that young musicians, absorbing blues, jazz and rock influences from the US, music born of repression and rebellion, should also exhibit a debt to music that, on reflection, reflects a deeply authoritarian way of life. I suppose it’s only symphonic prog, where the prevalent form is European art music, which truly fits this picture. These musicians grew up in a post-war society where religion played an important role in providing spiritual solace in the years following the massive loss of life and wanton destruction. This thinking was challenged by the pointless wars that occurred in faraway countries throughout the 60s and 70s and by the ideals of the counterculture when prog followed the trail of The Beatles and looked eastwards. These outside influences and experiences were revelatory; this wasn’t a clash of cultures because individuals were actively seeking alternatives to Western consumerism, leading to the dawn of the understanding that other belief systems were equally valid. The end result was that the prevailing church music, largely based on catholic and protestant doctrines, lost its religious baggage and became spiritual. On Aqualung, Jethro Tull play out a rejection of organised religion and on The Only Way from Tarkus (which describes itself as a hymn), ELP appear to take a humanist stance: “People are stirred, moved by the word/Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the wine/How was the earth conceived? Infinite space/Is there such a place? You must believe in the human race” and “Don’t be afraid, man is man made”.

During the 70s the church organ became an instrument of the prog keyboard player. Rick Wakeman played the organ at St Giles’, Cripplegate, part of London’s Barbican complex on The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the organ at St Martin’s, Vevey, Switzerland that was used on Going for the One and the solo album Criminal Record, an album that was something of a return to form; Keith Emerson uses St Mark’s church organ on Tarkus; Rick van der Linden plays the organ in the church of Maasluis (near Rotterdam) on the eponymous first Trace album and the organ of St Bavo’s church in Haarlem on the second album, Birds; on Hamburger Concerto Thijs van Leer plays the organ of St Mary the Virgin, Barnes (the album was recorded at Olympic Sound studios in Barnes.) Hamburger Concerto includes the track La Cathedrale de Strasbourg and when I was presented with the opportunity to visit Strasbourg for a scientific meeting, I took time out to visit the cathedral which is suitably impressive; a gothic masterpiece rising from the cobbles of a fairly densely hemmed-in square.

I like church architecture and the space they contain from a mathematical point of view. I like church music but I disassociate it from worship. Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme described how, during La Serenissima, there use to be two choirs in the basilica di San Marco, one on either side of the congregation, singing in stereo. Prog has absorbed bits and pieces of the form and few overt references to a specific god remain. The search for enlightenment, which runs throughout many prog compositions, doesn’t come across as religious; it’s head music which requires conscious engagement without the requirement for religious baggage. That’s something to think about if you receive any progressive rock as a present this Christmas.

By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


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