ProgBlog

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The possibilities afforded to composers since the birth of electronic instruments together with a willingness to explore different fields ensured that formal music progressed. The appropriation of classical music forms by rock musicians from the late 60s onwards marked the birth of progressive rock.

David Bedford was equally at home in both camps, at the forefront of a movement ensuring that all forms of music could be appreciated by everyone and anyone

By ProgBlog, Feb 14 2016 08:04PM

It was Peter Gabriel’s 66th birthday yesterday and the twittersphere was replete with felicitations. Gabriel’s part in the pantheon of progressive rock is firmly cemented: lead vocalist with early Genesis; world music luminary; sonic innovator. I’d like to add that I believe his anti-apartheid stance and his concern for our treatment of the planet are also very prog; promoting environmental issues and equality are key progressive traits, born of late-60s idealism.


There are many more differences between the music on his first solo album Peter Gabriel (1977) and his collaborative previous release, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) than there were between Trespass (1970) and The Lamb. Early Genesis followed a distinct trajectory from compositions that featured 12 string guitar and piano or organ in equal measure overlain by lyrics that were seeped in mythology and allegory, where Gabriel often comes across as vulnerable and tentative. On The Lamb, Gabriel oozes confidence, perhaps aided by the adoption of the Rael persona and the music is heavier, more muscular, involving more riffs than before even though it’s still very melodic. Banks’ use of synthesizer, absent on Foxtrot (1972) and debuting on Selling England by the Pound (1973) is predominantly used for angular runs (such as on In the Cage and Back in NYC.) On reflection, I suggest it’s primarily the synthesizer that’s responsible for the majority of motifs that I’ve detected forming a sonic bridge between Selling England and The Lamb.

The Lamb may be made up of short pieces but it does have an overriding linear narrative that puts it in the long-form category, Supper’s Ready was originally a series of musical ideas that were fitted together to make one piece, similar to Van der Graaf Generator’s A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (from Pawn Hearts, 1971) where sections are discrete but seamlessly segue into each other; as a distinct modern musical trope this idea was adopted by The Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), an idea that was mimicked by any number of proto-progressive acts and one that could be used to define the genre in its infancy. I believe that the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967), not fully formed prog by any means, is another good example of a well-defined full album-length concept comprised of disparate songs and this, rather than a nebulous concept like Dark Side of the Moon (1973) or the philosophical musings of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), has more parallels with Rael’s journey of self-discovery.

The shorter songs on Peter Gabriel are not conceptually linked but all display thoughtfulness in their composition. This may have been Gabriel’s return to ‘the machinery’ after a hiatus but it was on his terms, informed in part by the years he’d spent in Genesis but reflecting other influences. I don’t think it conforms to the original definition of prog but it is undoubtedly progressive. It’s probably art-rock, with more immediacy and a more contemporary feel. It’s as though Rael showed Gabriel what he was able to become and I think the first solo effort has a New York vibe to it, even though it was recorded in Toronto and London! One similarity between The Lamb and Peter Gabriel is the humour in the rhyme, the use of couplets, half rhymes and rhymes within a single line (the rhyme is planned, dummies) evident, for instance on Moribund the Burgermeister “Bunderschaft, you going daft? Better seal off the castle grounds...” or Humdrum “I ride tandem with a random/Things don’t work out the way I planned them.” However, there’s a less obvious break with prog on Peter Gabriel that hits you the moment you take the album out from wherever you’ve stored it: the cover photo of Gabriel in the passenger seat of Storm Thorgerson’s Lancia Flavia.

It’s probably incidental but the album contains a couple of automobile references, in Excuse Me where Gabriel muses “who needs a Cadillac anyway” and a more technical, almost Ballardian reference to a “red hot magneto” on Modern Love. Despite Nick Mason’s association with motor racing and Rick Wakeman’s collection of cars in the mid 70s, cars don’t often make an appearance in prog rock songs. Is this surprising? Rock ‘n’ roll and the associated ‘live fast, die young’ ethos seem inextricably linked with motor cars and there have been hundreds of songs written about driving and automobiles. This is hardly astonishing as the development of the two aspects of (American) youth culture, music and driving, were contemporaneous; the end of post-war austerity and the invention of the American Dream issuing in a world of leisure and consumerism. Singing about driving could be rebellious but whatever the message, songs about cars pervade much of rock music from Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place to Go (1964) and The Beatles Drive My Car (1965) to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album (1975) and there’s a strong association, at least amongst British TV viewers, of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (1977) and F1 racing. The movie Grease with its cod 50s rock ‘n’ roll appeared in 1978 and has become the most popular musical film of all time. There even seems to be a morbid glamour that has attached itself to automobile accidents, brilliantly explored in JG Ballard’s collection of related stories The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and full length novel Crash (1973), epitomised by the death of James Dean in his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955, the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris in 1997 and even the assassination of JFK in his open topped limousine in 1963 (partly the subject of Gabriel’s Family Snapshot (on Peter Gabriel III, Melt, 1980.)

The lyrics of Adrian Belew on Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984), the second and third releases by the 1981 – 1984 incarnation of King Crimson are something of an exception when it comes to prog and cars. Beat was inspired by Jack Kerouac so road trip references abound in Neal and Jack and Me: “I’m wheels, I am moving wheels/I am a 1952 Studebaker coupe... ...I am a 1952 Starlite coupe”. Crimson journeyed into experimental industrial music on the second side (aka the Right side) of Three of a Perfect Pair, starting with homage to the scrapped car, Dig Me which calls to mind Christine (1983) the Bill Phillips film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel and hints at Ballardian prose. I don’t suppose any of us should be shocked that tyre manufacturer Dunlop used a portion of 21st Century Schizoid Man for adverts in 1996...



A cosmic take on the idea of cruising along was released as a single and appeared on Rain Dances (1977) by Camel in the form of Highways of the Sun. It doesn’t matter if they’re in an old sedan that’s lost a wheel or a ship that’s got no sails, this is hardly the same vision as that visualised by heavy rockers Deep Purple, on Highway Star (from Machine Head, 1972) with its imagery of sexualised power. Hard rock seemed to go for this form of association, the video of ‘fast’ women, hot cars and hard guitars, apparently reinventing scenes of bikini-clad women draped over cars at a motor show for the MTV age... and critics called prog musicians dinosaurs! Even Roger Waters got in on the act with the cover artwork for The Pros and cons of Hitch Hiking (1984.)



One oddity is White Car from Drama (1980) by Yes. Lasting only 1’20” this song was allegedly brought to the band by newcomers Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. It’s likely to be seen as throw-away because of its brevity but in that time it opens out to reveal a cinematic scope, with nice keyboard orchestration and poignant percussion. I don’t know what the lyrics allude to but I think of a classic Rolls Royce on a road atop of Yorkshire or perhaps Devonshire moors. It’s dramatic, and maybe that’s where the album title comes from; it’s certainly not car as analogy for sex object!

By ProgBlog, May 31 2015 09:06AM

This month marks the the 10th anniversary of the live reunion of Van der Graaf Generator (Friday 6th May 2005.) I’d heard about the event a couple of weeks beforehand but when I checked for availability, the Royal Festival Hall had sold out. Fortunately, one of my work colleagues was something of an expert at getting seats for prestigious concerts with high public demand and advised me that the press were often allocated a job lot of tickets that they didn’t always use and that I should check for returns about 24 hours before the show. I ‘phoned the box office two days beforehand and to my surprise and delight, managed to secure my attendance.

I think it’s fair to say that Van der Graaf Generator are an acquired taste. From being intrigued by the track White Hammer from The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other that I first heard on the Charisma Keyboards sampler LP in 1974 which I found to be an intense, almost frightening piece of music about the Spanish Inquisition, of all things, I’ve been a big fan. As much as I liked The Fountain of Salmacis, the Genesis offering on that album, it was the sheer force of VdGG that impressed me, blowing the twee Genesis track into the dust. Older brother Tony recently thought that he should see what the fuss was about and I directed him to Pawn Hearts as a good representation of the Mark I incarnation and Godbluff from the 1975 formation. He wasn’t over impressed and I think that VdGG inspires adoration and dislike in equal measure. That John Lydon should go on records as being a fan is quite amazing.

Apart from some powerful music, one of the things that I like about VdGG is Peter Hammill’s use of words. There can’t be any other lyricist who utilises the lexicon in the same way, something I put down to his education; from Jesuit public school to studying Liberal Studies in Science at Manchester University. There’s an immense range of material covered that reflected my interest in science and science fiction plus some deeper, philosophical thinking.

Commercially, VdGG were something of a second-division band. They may have been nurtured by Charisma Records owner Tony Stratton-Smith but they didn’t really get too much coverage in the music press at the time. However, I do remember being impressed by the photography on adverts for World Record in Melody Maker when the album was released in 1976 and it was only much, much later that I discovered that they had been successful in Italy.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I bought my first VdGG album, Still Life, from the Streatham branch of WH Smith. I had a choice between that and Godbluff but chose Still Life because I could see the lyrics on the back of the sleeve which looked interesting. I then randomly completed my collection, on vinyl and on cassette, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I included the out-take LP Time Vaults in my collection but I didn’t buy any of the compilation albums until I started to switch from vinyl to CD. I also embarked upon the acquisition of Peter Hammill solo albums, beginning with The Future Now and pH7 (both in a sale from Streatham WH Smith.) I went to see a solo performance by Hammill at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Camden on July 26th 1984 and was so impressed that I went to his show the next night, armed with a camera. I went to the first show not really knowing what to expect; it turned out to be almost entirely solo material but he did include Last Frame from the Van der Graaf album The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome. I seem to recall that, despite playing consecutive nights at the same venue, he still subtly adjusted the set list.

Though I remained reluctant to spend a lot of money on music, I bought the King Crimson 4CD box set The Great Deceiver in when it was released in 1992, thinking that it might represent a decent investment (it worked out at about £14.50 per CD.) When I came across 4CD The Box (2000) on a trip home to Barrow, with its remastered tracks and bonus material from BBC sessions and some unreleased live recordings, it seemed to me that VdGG were having something of a renaissance and I bought it without over-thinking. On reflection, this heralded the remastered 2005 releases and in the mean time, the band had remained friends and even played together at birthday parties. Shortly before the reunion gig they released their first CD of new studio material, Present (April 2005) since the Van der Graaf line-up released The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome in 1977. There used to be a record shop on the north east side of London Bridge, close to Guy’s Hospital, where I went to buy my copy so I’d know any new material that they were due to play.

The reunion gig was the best gig I’ve ever attended. The Royal Festival Hall is comfortable and has amazing acoustics and my seat was in row H of the front stalls, a little way to the left of centre. The choice of material couldn’t really be bettered; I imagine that the assembled audience (from 27 different countries), including me, were really there to hear some old classics but the two new songs that were performed, Every Bloody Emperor and Nutter Alert, were seamlessly integrated into a set comprising the best of VdGG, captured for posterity on the brilliant subsequent release Real Time (2007). The power of the quartet was almost overwhelming; the Hugh Banton bass pedals with their low-frequency punch, the manic horns (and double horns) from David Jackson, Guy Evans’ fluid drums and the urgent vocals from Hammill, delivered with unbrlievable feeling. I loved it all, even though I felt pinned to my chair by a brutal, sonic blitzkrieg. Part of the reason for this reunion was that the band members tended to see each other mainly at the funerals of friends and former roadies and, as Hammill had himself suffered a heart attack in 2003, if they were ever going to play together again, Hammill suggested that it seemed like a good time to start. Under these circumstances, his performance was truly outstanding but the whole band was on incredible form. I didn’t think I’d ever hear VdGG music played live by the original ensemble and I think that’s why it was such a special occasion. Later in 2005 Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart released their excellent Van der Graaf Generator The Book, an in-depth biography of the band that concludes with the 2005 reunion. I had pre-ordered my copy (which cost around £20) but it is no longer available. Second-hand copies on Amazon sell for around £150.

I subsequently went to see the band, sans David Jackson at the Barbican during the Trisector tour in 2007 and again at the Barbican in June 2013; losing the horn player made the performances more unbalanced, raw and awkward and when in full flow the band seemed to be teetering on the ragged edge, dangerous and brilliant. On the latter occasion I thought the 64 year old Hammill looked slightly frail, but he proved he could still belt out songs and Hugh Banton somehow managed to mitigate the loss of saxophone and flute.

I was sorely tempted to attend an intimate evening with VdGG at Metropolis Studios in December 2010, part of a series of gigs by so-called ‘rock legends’. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify the cost and have had to make do with a DVD filmed at the event. I still have some reservations about the post-2005 material even though Hammill’s writing is as clever as ever; I remain stuck in the past and a fan of long-form VdGG flights of fancy.


Postscript:

I saw David Jackson perform with David Cross at The Bedford Arms last week and, in such an intimate venue it became clear how innovative he is. I wasn’t disappointed to see him bedecked his leather cap as he not only played saxes, flute and whistles, he also used the saxophone keys as a form of percussion instrument.



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