By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:18PM
In the early 70s, radio was a vital medium which began to play an increasingly important role in my interest in prog. Though BBC Radio 3 was primarily dedicated to classical music, the Sunday Times journalist Derek Jewell hosted a not to be missed programme called Sounds Interesting that featured jazz and progressive rock bands, but it was Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show on Radio 1 which aired from 1973 until 1978 that provided the best introduction to new acts to buy into. We were allowed to use a large Grundig stereogram in ‘The Big Room’ normally reserved for entertaining guests, probably to keep the noise to a minimum. This stereogram was more like a piece of furniture than a radio, but the speakers were of a decent quality and the walnut-finish wooden construction produced a warm tonal response. The sprung turntable was hardly at the cutting edge of hi-fi but it was certainly adequate. We cemented our claim on this piece of equipment by buying a new stylus, being unaware of its previous history, and prided ourselves on our careful handling of any vinyl. If we borrowed a record we would take great care of it, and if we lent one of ours to a friend, we expected that they would take as good care of it as we would ourselves. In reality our hopes were sometimes dashed: one friend left a borrowed copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth above a radiator, reducing it to something like a timepiece in Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory.
The Saturday afternoon radio sessions were often accompanied by a scouring of one of the UK’s weekly music papers, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, or (less commonly) Sounds that we’d bought in town earlier that day. At the time progressive rock was big business and consequently these papers carried many column inches of information about acts we were interested in, and also acts that might potentially interest us. Melody Maker originally concentrated on jazz, and though at first rather dismissive of rock and roll, in the early 70s it became quite sympathetic to prog, particularly the writers Richard Williams and Chris Welch who raised the standard of writing on the subject of popular music. I always preferred the professionalism of MM and felt that NME journalists were rather fickle, likely to follow any trend in the hope of appearing ‘hip.’ The NME was more likely to champion straight forward rock acts and espouse the Dionysian values of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and in the mid 70s it was quick to latch on to punk and new wave and embark upon some serious dinosaur bashing, advocating the view that exponents of progressive rock were class traitors with an unhealthy obsession for high culture. I have to admit to subscribing to the view that prog did represent high culture, whether it was the symphonic sound of Yes, the politically driven stridency of Henry Cow or the electronic musing of Tangerine Dream, this was all thought-provoking and often challenging music, aimed at the head and not the heart (or genitals.) I wasn’t interested in rock for its rebelliousness (which has since been shown to involve a great deal of hypocrisy as acts like the Rolling Stones are now firmly embedded within the establishment); I was interested in the possibilities of the music. Henry Cow were anti-establishment and unashamedly complex and for me, the prog ethos reflected a philosophy of expanding an understanding of art, literature and science, not simply a ‘get your rocks off’ base instinct.
The inclusion of lengthy instrumental passages meant prog was increasingly able to be used as the soundtrack to documentary pieces on TV. In 1973 Jacob Bronowski included a short section of Echoes in the Generation Upon Generation episode of his seminal series The Ascent of Man on BBC television. The accompanying clip was of two stags fighting for the right to mate with a female and it seemed to me that it was a fitting piece of music for the subject. Pink Floyd were even credited at the end of the programme. My feeling was obviously not without reason. Will Romano suggests that Echoes is as much as song about Darwinism and instinctual knowledge as about human connectedness. In 2010, Bronowski’s daughter Lisa Jardine presented a television programme entitled My Father, The Bomb and Me in which she explored aspects of his life that she knew little of. She had discovered that he worked in operations research during WWII, designing more effective bombs, and wondered how she could reconcile this piece of information with the loving father that she remembered. Whether by accident or design, she used Pink Floyd as incidental music.
In December 1976, imagining that I knew it all, I wrote to the editor of the daily television news programme, Nationwide, suggesting a number of prog instrumentals that could be used as music for their documentary features. I was a little disappointed to get a post card in reply with the stock phrase “Thank you for your recent letter to NATIONWIDE. The Team are always interested to hear from individual viewers in this way and are grateful to you for taking the trouble to write.” I don’t recall ever hearing any of my suggestions being played.