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Following a short skiing trip ProgBlog reflects on music about winter and snow, and reconsider reggae...

By ProgBlog, Jun 28 2017 08:50AM

There’s a great deal to be said for being open-minded, the willingness to try different things, because it’s a wide world and being able to see someone else’s point of view helps us to build bridges and overcome divisions in society. Past experience invariably influences present and future choices, for either good or bad, but forming impressions of the widest possible range of stimuli is most likely to be a positive force. Genetics obviously plays a role in how we react to events but the molecular mechanisms are nothing when compared to environmental impact: Jazz was the predominant musical form in the house I grew up in but after hearing Close to the Edge I quickly found friends who liked the same sort of music and whether or not I was still happy to listen to my father’s jazz recordings, being of an age where you could choose to buy whichever records you wanted was a crucial part of adolescence.



Practitioners of progressive rock, appropriating bits and pieces from a multitude of sources, should really be regarded as exemplars of open-mindedness and, in keeping with the lofty ideals of the late 60s and early 70s, they took it upon themselves to end the cultural hegemony of the upper and middle classes through popularising classical music by amalgamating it with rock and jazz and other idioms. Progressive rock wasideally placed to carry out this change as it was by-and-large looked upon as a movement promulgated by the middle class with exponents such as the Charterhouse alumni making up Genesis being an exception at one end of the social scale, and Jon Anderson from Lancashire mill town Accrington at the other end of the ladder. This emancipation of the romantic European musical form was in keeping with the countercultural zeitgeist and could be viewed as reaching out to disparate tribes by embracing differences.

I jumped from not being interested in rock music to being intrigued by Roxy Music to being a dedicated prog-head in just a couple of months. I carried on watching Top of the Pops and remained friends with school mates who liked Slade or T Rex but around the age of 13 or 14 and certainly by 15, most people were forming a distinction between pop and rock and leaving pop behind though there were musicians I had begun to admire who used the pop idiom for one reason or another; Robert Wyatt with I’m a Believer springs to mind... At the height of the golden era of progressive rock bands still eschewed singles but by 1976, following the hiatus in studio recording by a number of the big-league players, the music industry had become more hard-nosed and the labels required their acts to generate money by writing hit singles. Adjusting to produce something specifically for this market may have been tricky enough if you were used to taking ten minutes or more to get your ideas across to the listener but the difficulty was exacerbated by a far more sophisticated competition.



The announcement of the forthcoming Steven Wilson album To the Bone has been greeted with keen anticipation from fans. As much as I like Hand.Cannot.Erase I got into Wilson’s music via the rebooted 70s prog of The Raven that Refused to Sing, rather than the more narrow sound of Porcupine Tree. H.C.E strays from the original progressive rock blueprint and takes in electronica and post-rock and the result is another great record, but it’s not really prog. This is simply an observation and, in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter but with videos available for three tracks from To the Bone, it can be seen as part of a trajectory towards what Wilson himself describes as ‘progressive pop’. While this refusal to stand still is in principle a good thing, the (give or take) five minute length of the previewed tracks doesn’t provide enough scope for development, although there is the promise of 9’20 of Detonation. From the examples available to the general public and from comments he’s posted on his website, it seems that the territory he’s now occupying is similar to that of more of the music he liked as a youth; Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love, pop music which had a degree of depth. I’m a recent convert to Hounds of Love for The Ninth Wave suite which makes up the entire second side of the original LP though I’ve followed her career with interest since she first hit the airwaves with Wuthering Heights in 1978. Like Wilson, I also appreciate the Kate Bush – Peter Gabriel partnership probably best known for Don’t Give Up but which started six years earlier on No Self Control from Peter Gabriel III, a far more prog-sounding track; Bush and Gabriel also shared an interest in sonic innovation and were at the vanguard of the Fairlight CMI revolution. It could be argued that Gabriel’s solo output wasn’t really prog but it is undeniable that his method, if not all of his songs, conform to the overall prog scheme.


Wilson’s musical taste is suitably diverse, as indicated by his playlists and the two-song singles that were compiled for his 2014 album Cover Version; six original pieces paired with six cover versions of songs by Alanis Morissette, Abba, The Cure, Momus, Prince and Donovan (though The Unquiet Grave is a 15th Century folk song interpreted by Wilson.) He was even sporting an Abba T-shirt when I saw him on the second of the two Royal Albert Hall gigs in September 2015 though I can’t think of any redeeming features of Sweden’s number one musical export.



The nearest I get to a guilty musical pleasure is sharing record storage space with my wife’s Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Chris Rea, Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen – she has her own CD storage - and though I often have to grit my teeth when I buy her music as a present, it’s somewhat unfair on her that she gets streams of prog-related recommendations. Fortunately, Susan occasionally finds something she likes which might fit into the ‘progressive pop’ category, such as Gotye’s Making Mirrors or S. Carey’s chamber-pop Range of Light.

There was a time when I owned Anita Ward’s 45 rpm single Ring My Bell and although it features early syndrum and I can still sing along with it, this was never intended as a serious purchase; after suggesting I was going to buy it, I had to go along with the joke but it did only cost 50p. I have a pristine copy of Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls (Our Price, £5.29) bought along with Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles which were released two days apart in June 1985, neither of which fits in particularly well with the rest of my collection though David Gilmour ad Tony Levin feature alongside Ferry and Sting quotes from Prokofiev on Russians. It’s interesting to note that the drums on both albums are performed by Omar Hakim which fits in very nicely with Sting’s jazz-lite and might have been responsible for some subliminal appreciation of Boys and Girls.



Another pop-rock album which sits between my Endless River and Storia di un Minuto LPs is Every Breath You Take: The Singles, part of my leaving present from my first workplace but which was sanctioned by me. I didn’t like the early Police material but two-thirds of the group had decent prog connections (Stewart Copeland – Curved Air; Andy Summers – Dantalian’s Chariot; Soft Machine; Robert Fripp) and the songs on later albums Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity showed a high degree of sophistication. The first CD I bought was actually Nothing Like the Sun but Richer Sounds wasn’t really a place to buy recorded music – I just needed a CD to play on my newly acquired Yamaha CD player – and Sting was the least offensive artist available. I’ve still got it.



No one should have any guilt about the music in their collection. We buy and listen to the music we like, however broad or narrow our predilections. I applaud the broad-minded, but when it comes to music, my collection hardly encompasses anything other than progressive rock (in its myriad forms), jazz and a bit of classical; my taste is somewhat narrow.










By ProgBlog, Sep 23 2015 04:06PM

I’m currently reading Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) and thoroughly enjoying it; I’ve just reached the part where Wyatt becomes paralysed after falling out of a window at Lady June’s party on 1st June 1973. This was just after Wyatt had asked Nick Mason to produce the third album by a reconfigured Matching Mole, the original line-up having been disbanded by Wyatt after the release of Little Red Record (1972) because he found himself unable to take the decisions required of a band leader. This time point coincides with the start of my interest in music; in June 1972 I had no idea what I liked but by August I’d noticed there was a qualitative difference between Chinn and Chapman pop and the art-rock of Roxy Music. It wasn’t until much later in the 70s that I started to collect Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt related material but the first time I came across Wyatt’s music was a performance of I’m a Believer on Top of the Pops in the autumn of 1974, made more intriguing by the presence of Nick Mason and his ‘wave’ drum kit; I also seem to recall that Wyatt sung with his eyes closed. By this time I’d been become a regular reader of Melody Maker and New Musical Express so I had some idea of how well he was regarded as a musician.

Never mind his inability to hand out orders, he’d also proved unable to take them towards the end of his time in Soft Machine and though his departure from that band represented the end of a chapter in the Softs’ history, in reality the band had changed dramatically over that time going from pop psychedelia to power trio to to big band septet to jazz rock quartet so that none of the first four albums sounded alike. Third (1970) was released after the line-up had stabilised as a quartet (the septet never committed to the studio) and Fourth (1971) was performed by the same personnel. The difference between the two albums is creative input from Wyatt. Fourth had no Wyatt-penned material and though limited to one track (the entire side three of the original Third LP), Moon in June is essentially a Wyatt pop song, albeit a very clever one and it indicated the future course of the drummer; the ensemble hardly contributes and there’s a guest musician, Veleroy Spall, who adds violin. O’Dair suggests that Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge really didn’t like the vocals but also demonstrates that Wyatt’s preferred direction was back to song-based material, making the split inevitable. I can detect continuity between Moon in June and the eponymous Matching Mole debut that was released in 1972.

Fourth demonstrates Elton Dean pulling the band towards free jazz and it was only after I’d discovered jazz rock and fusion and subsequently lost faith in the sub genre that I thought William Burroughs’ term ‘soft machine’ meaning the human body, was no longer appropriate as a moniker. I think that at the beginning of the fusion movement, with jazz musicians moving towards rock and rock musicians moving towards jazz, the spark of creativity produced some incredible music. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew / In a Silent Way period, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever uncovered new musical ground to populate but eventually technique became valued above all else. The jazz rock of Fourth may have been cerebral but it was disconnected from warmth and feeling; I prefer the organic nature and humour of Matching Mole and Little Red Record. It’s not really surprising that Wyatt should return to a song format with his own band, encouraged by Dave Sinclair, and reusing material like Instant Pussy that was originally aired in 1969.

The trajectory of Gong, originally fronted by ex-Soft Machine Daevid Allen who instilled a sense of mischievous fun into music, evolved from space rock psychedelia into very slick jazz rock similar to that produced by Soft Machine in the mid-late 70s, Allen being jettisoned during the process. First coming to my attention when Camembert Electrique was reissued by Virgin in 1974 for the price of a single, I subsequently picked up Time is the Key (1979) on cassette from the bargain bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1981 to discover a very different sound. It’s only since then that I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces: You (1974); Shamal and Gazeuse! (both 1976.) Similarly, from being the long-time owner of only one Soft Machine album Softs (1976) that I picked up for £1.99 in Virgin in January 1982 and having been donated a copy of The Soft Machine (1968) that I can no longer find, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to move to complete the collection.

It’s the coincidence of filling in the gaps at the same time that allowed me to hear the similarities but it’s no coincidence that there’s one individual who appears at the pivotal time point in both bands – Allan Holdsworth.

Apart from some Kevin Ayers guitar on the first Soft Machine album, the band eschewed guitar in favour of keyboards and saxophone, until Holdsworth was recruited for Bundles (1975.) Holdsworth’s guitar style is instantly identifiable, with fluid, fast melodic runs and a unique tone. I’d first come across him on the first Bruford album and subsequently on the first UK album (both 1978) and I bought a battered second-hand copy of the first Tempest album featuring Holdsworth, from a flea market in Crystal Palace sometime in the mid 80s. I also managed to get to see him play at the 100 Club as part of Plough with Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Gordon Beck in the early 80s that I described as ‘complex, challenging music’ in a letter to my brother Tony. Superimposing the guitar over the almost mathematical keyboard work of Karl Jenkins (with Ratledge becoming less involved) added a degree of feeling to what I described as ‘sterile’ jazz rock; Bundles and Softs, where Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge, were the only high points after Third. Perhaps the parallels between Soft Machine and Gong aren’t so surprising when you consider their origins and shared members. Daevid Allen may have left Soft Machine when he was unable to return to the UK with the rest of the band after some gigs in France, so he formed Gong with a group of largely French musicians; the inclusion and subsequent leadership of tuned percussionist Pierre Moerlen, during which phase Holdsworth was part of the band, was characterised by jazz percussion which was used to play fast, melodic, extended and repeated riffs, much as keyboards were used by Soft Machine. Even today, the Gong-Soft Machine cross-pollination continues with Theo Travis.



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