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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

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 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.

By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.

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