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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Jan 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Jun 12 2016 09:24PM

I remember the UK joining the EEC in 1973 better than I remember the last time the UK took place in a European referendum on the 5th June 1975. During an Art lesson at the time we joined the Common Market, we were given the task of illustrating the event and though my family quite happily discussed issues that laid the foundation for my own political awakening, I don’t recall how they voted in the 1975 plebiscite.

The first half of 1975 was relatively quiet for releases from major progressive rock acts. In April Camel released Music Inspired by the Snow Goose and Hatfield and the North released The Rotter’s Club the previous month but it wasn’t until late summer into autumn that the floodgates opened and Caravan finally managed to get an album in the charts with Cunning Stunts; Gentle Giant released the accessible Free Hand; Quiet Sun put out the phenomenal, off-beat Mainstream; Pink Floyd returned from hiatus with Wish You Were Here; Jethro Tull released the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Steve Hackett embarked on his first solo venture, albeit with help from a number of his band mates, Voyage of the Acolyte; Van der Graaf Generator mark II announced their reformation with Godbluff; Chris Squire became the first of the Yes alumni to release a solo album during their break from band duties with Fish out of Water; and Vangelis, who had sparked our interest because of headlines linking him with Yes after the departure of Rick Wakeman in 1974, put out Heaven and Hell. Focus rounded off the year with Mother Focus, a departure from the symphonic prog of Hamburger Concerto, veering into pop and funk territory, considered by many to be disappointingly sub-standard.


With the exception of Wish You Were Here and Fish out of Water, I didn’t buy any of the albums listed above at the time of their release due to a combination of lack of funds and a lack of willingness to take a punt when I’d only heard excerpts on the radio. I’ve yet to commit to a copy of Cunning Stunts. When I did buy an LP it was catching up with a release from earlier in the progressive rock timeline, including the compilation Yesterdays which really counts as the first Yes retrospective, no doubt issued (in February 1975) to maintain interest in the group as they all took time off to explore solo ventures. I thought it was a decent way of acquiring some of their early material, plus a muscular, prog version of Simon and Garfunkel’s America, for half the price of the first two studio albums. Another two albums that I did buy when they first came out were Rubycon by Tangerine Dream and Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from March and April 1975 respectively. I hadn’t bought Journey to the Centre of the Earth, having been put off by the vocals but I thought the singing on Arthur was better and Wakeman’s song writing had improved, though not to the standard of the musical vignettes on the entirely instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Also, as much as I approved of Jules Verne’s proto-science fiction, I was much more familiar with Arthurian legends. Rubycon continued on from where Phaedra had left off and at the time I was very much in favour of keyboard-drenched sojourns into outer and inner space and the amorphous washes from Tangerine Dream, coupled with the sequencer pulses weaving and morphing in and out of the synthesizer, organ and Mellotron drones chimed with my interest in sonic exploration.


Whereas I’d heard of bands like Amon Düül, Kraftwerk and, thanks to the marketing gurus at Virgin Records selling The Faust Tapes for 49p, Faust, of all the German bands I only really liked Tangerine Dream; that was until late summer when Triumvirat released Spartacus and, after hearing March to the Eternal City on Alan Freeman's radio show, I went out and bought the album. Whereas most of the album is stylistically analogous to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9, March to the Eternal City hints of ELP but is obviously Triumvirat. This is the best track on the album thanks to the lyrics which sound as though they could be telling some future tale, “they carry missile and spear”, like a storyline from the comic strip The Trigan Empire; the other words are a bit schoolboy-ish and naive.

It was early in 1975 was when I discovered Premiata Forneria Marcon (PFM) when friend Bill Burford bought Chocolate Kings and live cut Cook, and a Europe-wide take on the progressive rock super-genre began to reveal itself with other musicians and bands joining the movement, one that still seemed very much rooted in the original ideals. This time of progressive rock coincided with the death of Franco in Spain and the beginning of the transition to democracy and Greece only emerged from a military junta the previous year, 1974.


Fast forward to 2016 and Europe seems to be doing its best to tear itself apart. Southern states have been most badly affected by austerity and though it’s been easy for those in power to deflect the blame from the banks that caused the financial crisis in 2008, it has resulted in an abandonment of belief in the political system. Those on the Right blame immigration for their economic outlook while those on the Left decry inflexible centrists for imposing austerity on their countries. So far, the far Right have been kept from power but the frightening prospect of Golden Dawn in Greece, a violent party that took third place in elections in 2015 or France’s Marine Le Pen or, even more recently, of Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party who was narrowly defeated by the socialist Alexander Van der Bellen in this year’s Austrian Presidential election, being elected to run their country is a serious cause for concern because their insular point of view and populist nationalism is a breeding ground for hatred and violence and threatens genuine democracy through clamping down on freedom of speech. Our very own UKIP operates under the guise of respectability but a series of interventions by party officials shows how nasty they really are, trading on fear, lies and the politics of hatred. Wars in Africa and the Middle East have created a massive migrant crisis as refugees risk their lives in the flight from their own countries towards what they believe to be the safety of the West, landing in Italy and Greece, creating perfect conditions for the rise of anti-immigrant sympathies.

It seems to me that the UK referendum on our membership of the EU, a political gamble by David Cameron that was always destined to fail, has been reduced to the level of a playground brawl with each side calling each other names and, despite those who wish to remain talking up doom scenarios and those who wish to leave having no idea of how the country will fare outside of the EU, this has become a referendum on immigration. Those in favour of leaving imagine they are going to take control of our borders. Could they remind themselves how many Syrian refugees the UK has taken in? That was 1,602 at the end of March this year. What an amazing response to a humanitarian crisis! According to Nigel Farage, controlling immigration is restricting the movement of Europeans into the UK complaining of the stress placed upon housing, jobs and the NHS but allowing an undisclosed number of Commonwealth citizens to come to the UK. It’s hard to believe he can get away with such hypocrisy but the 24 hour media cover concentrates on ‘blue on blue’ attacks and making up non-stories about Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be nice if someone broadcast the message that it’s not immigrants who put strain on public services, but ideological austerity and the deliberate dogmatic shrinking of the State. No one has said there’s not enough room in the country. There aren’t enough hospital beds, teachers and affordable houses or public transport because this government, and those before, have pursued policies of enriching the few and penalising those on low and middle incomes, welcoming foreign investment in luxury developments but leaving flats empty, under-occupied and pushing house prices beyond the means of a major proportion of the population, slashing the salaries of healthcare workers and teachers through public-sector pay freezes and pension changes and forcing low paid private sector employees into zero hour contracts. Please don’t think that education, health, housing, jobs and transport would be better if we leave the EU – those advocating leave are equally responsible for the state of the country with their private healthcare directorships and money secreted away in tax havens.

Progressive rock espoused the benefits of external influences and embraced the nascent green movement. I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with the EU but the UK will not be able to face up to global challenges like climate change on its own. This means the abandonment of austerity and offering more, better targeted training and rejecting xenophobia. Let’s do it with help from our EU partners.





By ProgBlog, Jan 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




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