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Delayed for a few days due to IT issues at my hotel in Genova, it seems that a fairly important anniversary has been overlooked. Without Days of Future Passed, it's unlikely that the progressive rock genre would have developed just as it did...

By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2015 10:05PM

Shortly before I left South Newbarns junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough; I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board and embarked upon a literary marathon. I think I’d previously been more interested in seeing how things worked, a practical or visual viewpoint backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose. Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and, though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which goes against my atheist principles, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air. From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap, being friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes interested me deeply. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the form of the three hardback books, borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn Elvish, written and spoken, along with some other school friends. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that prog bands should jump on the bandwagon: Camel with their pre-Snow Goose mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971). Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by authors of popular culture. At the Time of Olias of Sunhillow (1976), Jon Anderson owned an Old English Sheepdog called Bilbo and in 1972 Bo Hansson released a complete album Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Hansson’s subsequent work was inspired by other authors I was discovering: Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness. Alan Garner is still one of my favourite authors and my adolescence coincided with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

“...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the plot. Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog?


Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label
Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label

The Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the Syd Barrett whimsy, psychedelia rather than prog per se, is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame. Garner invokes Carroll’s word square to turn communication between Red Shift’s Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. When I was 13 or 14, my brother Tony and I cracked the code and sent our interpretation to Garner via his publisher, possibly the first people to do so. I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula taken at Jodrell Bank, close to Garner’s home, commending us on our efforts. I equate ciphers with prog, seeking to find meaning in words or symbols and can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979). I’m also informed by my friend and electronica aficionado Neil Jellis that the planetarium at Jodrell Bank used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs. How cosmic is that?


Postcard of the Horsehead nebula
Postcard of the Horsehead nebula

I now read more books relating to music than I do novels. I’m not a fan of lists but I own copies of Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files (4th edition, 1998), his Progressive Rock Handbook (2008), bought as an updated version of Files, and his 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock (2000) which is a book of the 50 most influential progressive rock albums of all time. Though largely an A - Z catalogue of bands, including brief descriptions and a strict discography, both Files and Handbook include an introductory discussion about prog but that’s not why I bought them. As early examples of books that promoted the genre, I used them to identify potential additions to my collection and they didn’t just sit on my bookshelves, their slightly dog-eared appearance is down to being carried around to record shops in the UK and elsewhere as reference manuals; the country of origin listing being particularly important.

The resurgence of, or detoxification of progressive rock in the mid 90s allowed authors to once more write about prog without being pilloried. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters (1997) and Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-78 (1997) were all attempts to address the shortage of critical material about the genre, not simple biographies that had been available before (Yes Perpetual Change by David Watkinson, 2001; Close to the Edge, the story of Yes by Chris Welch, 1999), looking at the genre from musicological, sociological and philosophical perspectives, putting it in context of how, when, where and why. A series of essays edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson published as Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001) continued the academic approach and set a new standard of analytical writing. Though not a major fan of biography as a literary genre, I make an exception for some prog musicians such as Bill Bruford. His The Autobiography (2009) was a book that I could hardly put down, setting itself apart by avoiding a straightforward chronological narrative and using a series of ‘frequently asked questions’ to begin each chapter. I also like to read the stories behind my favourite bands. Paul Stump attempted a book on Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste (2005) that I enjoyed although three Amazon reviewers derided it for being too verbose, factually incorrect and over-reliant on pre-existing sources; Sid Smith did an incredible job with In the Court of King Crimson (2001) and Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart produced the excellent Van der Graaf Generator - The Book (2005).

I’m not jealous of Will Romano, loving his Mountains Come Out of the Sky (2010) because of the inclusion of a chapter of Italian prog, the first concise history of the sub-genre I’d seen, but his Prog Rock FAQ (2015) covers material that I thought I was the first person to commit to text in this blog! A series of interviews and an interesting theory about the origin of prog reveal his journalist credentials but I don’t always agree with his analysis or opinions. Finally, I need to learn Italian so I can fully appreciate a couple of Progressivo Italiano books...




Prog books
Prog books


By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 07:33PM

Towards the end of the golden era of prog, dinosaur bashing took a number of different forms. One of these was that progressive rock was rubbish because it was all about elves and wizards. The jibes were specific; mistakenly attributing the genre to a fantastic world inhabited by elves, goblins and associated fabulous beings. I’ll not deny that there are examples of songs that directly reference fantasy writing, but this was more a reflection of what was rapidly becoming mainstream popular culture at the time. The critics may have been highlighting what they perceived to be another example of the difference between the high culture of progressive rock, with its references to European classical music and ‘seriousness’, and the everyday grind of rock ‘n’ roll. Was this simple inverted snobbery, and when was any form of misogyny, an emerging ‘benefit’ of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, ever appropriate? Did critics conveniently forget Led Zeppelin’s much-praised Battle of Evermore and its Tolkien interpretation?

I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1972, coincidentally the year I got into prog, borrowing the classic three volume hardback set from Barrow library. Tolkien’s masterwork was more than simple story, it was a self-contained mythology and the appendices at the back of volume three were as important as the novel itself; the first (and, in my opinion, best) of a new literary genre. The bucolic idyll of Hobbiton and the Shire may have appealed to the Hippie movement as an example of being more in-tune with nature, so the popularity of the trilogy increased during the late 60s and early 70s. I bought my own copy, the single edition paperback with truncated appendix and cover artwork by in-vogue illustrator Pauline Baynes in 1973 or ’74 and read it once a year for the next 10 years or so. My copy even went on a school skiing expedition with friend Geoff Hinchley. I’d once been told by a headmaster that I didn’t read enough but I set about rectifying that in my early teens. Much of what I read was allied to fantasy, or science fiction, another so-called staple of the prog scene but I also started to read the classics. Barrow had a stationer/toy shop called Heaths that had an interesting book selection. Post-decimalisation, they retained a treasure trove of pre-decimalisation priced books, mainly Penguin modern classics in distinctive grey covers. There was at least one other independent bookseller, The Book Corner, that moved into the premises of the former local school uniform outfitters in Cavendish Street and this became a regular haunt.

I’ve gone through my collection of albums and there are very few Tolkien references. Does the band name Gentle Giant make them synonymous with Tolkien or even songs about ‘fairy-tale’ creatures? The answer is far more complex than simply quoting songs The Advent of Panurge and The Nativity of Pantagreul, creations of early 16th Century satirist François Rabelais, not Tolkien. The most obvious reference to Tolkien comes from Bo Hansson; his 1972 UK release of Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings brought him to the attention of a large number of prog fans. This had originally been a hit in Hansson’s native Sweden following its release on Silence Records in 1970 and it somehow came to the attention of Tony Stratton-Smith who released it in the UK on his Charisma label. This recording is quite far removed from the bombast associated with early 70s prog; it comes across as a rather reflective piece with few changes of tempo or volume and only at rare times does it suggest to me the grandeur of Middle Earth and the epic nature of the quest to destroy the One Ring. I first heard a track on a friend’s copy of Charisma Keyboards, what struck me as a rather short piece compared to other material on that compilation album, Flight to the Ford. Guy Wimble subsequently bought the album and though impressed with Hansson’s ability and the album cover artwork, I wasn’t too enamoured with the music because of the loose fit with the concept and paucity of dynamics. I only got my own copy (on vinyl) around 10 years ago; one of Susan’s friends and former work colleagues was performing surgery on her partner’s music collection. Thanks, Christine!

The second full homage to Tolkien’s work in my collection is Glass Hammer’s Journey of the Dunadan. This is criticised because it’s perceived as biting off more than Fred Schendel and Steve Babb could chew but, while to a large extent true, I don’t believe that should detract from some excellent musicianship and some strong ideas. The organ work throughout is quite Emerson- or Jobson-like and there is more than a hint of the grandeur of the story. I think it lets itself down when it comes to some of the interpretation. I don’t like the unnecessary The Way to her Heart, though I do like (the equally unnecessary) The Ballad of Balin Longbeard with hints of Gryphon or Gentle Giant. The narrative is aided by incidental background sounds, though there are many who don’t like this and find it irritating; its main fault is there is insufficient time to get the storyline across.

Galadriel, from Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, is one of the tracks that got me listening to BJH. I first heard this on Live, shortly before going to see them during the Time Honoured Ghosts tour in 1975, preparing me for what I was about to hear. It’s quite simple yet deceptively beautiful and I feel it sums up the character of Galadriel perfectly.

Andy Latimer’s mini-epic Procession/Nimrodel/The White Rider from Mirage is a very satisfying piece of music with what I consider to be an appropriate atmosphere, possibly due to the sonic palette employed and which depicts Gandalf pretty much as how I visualised him before the stunning Peter Jackson film trilogy, where all the main actors portray characters that are fully believable.

Bo Hansson has himself suggested that his 1972 release Magicians Hat (Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), is a kind of ‘what happened after the Grey Havens’ though here he references some other favourites of mine, Alan Garner’s Elidor and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Steve Hackett has the song Narnia on his second solo album, but that was written by Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis. That’s about it for Lord of the Rings references in my record collection and there genuinely aren’t very many.

Of course there are fantasy themes that run through other albums. Who can forget the imagery of Peter Sinfield as he writes about fire witches? This is most definitely not Tolkien but it may help form the critical view that linked prog to fantasy. I suspect the critics were conveniently forgetting the whimsy of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; Syd was praised by critics and the Barrett-less Floyd tended to be derided. Piper at the Gates of Dawn may have suggested Tolkien to some with its depiction of gnomes and suggestions of fairy stories but this seems to have been allowed if it was filed under the label ‘psychedelia’.


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