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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, Jul 31 2016 09:34PM

Progressive rock covers a huge number of themes, even though it is frequently derided for (mistakenly) being a one-topic genre: fantasy, the realm of elves and wizards. Rick Wakeman is less to blame than the music press but a much-used clip of Wakeman on the rocks at Tintagel posing with his Hammond and mini Moogs in cape and wizard’s hat, most recently appearing in the second episode of The People’s History of Pop, presented by writer, journalist, broadcaster and confessed prog fan Danny Baker which was aired on BBC Four last week. This episode related to 1966 to 1976, the years of Baker’s youth and included a piece about progressive rock from the perspective of a (now) Managing Director who was a 14 year old at the time, living in Crawley. The photo he showed of his teenage self could equally have been me captured in 1975. Baker, who should have known better, introduced this section from a record store (he used to work in One Stop Records in central London) by stereotyping glam rock fans, heavy metal fans (circa 1975) and prog fans: “Pale, introverted types, they took things very seriously... ...possibly with a copy of Lord of the Rings with them...” It’s true that we took our music seriously and, even though Hatfield and the North, Supersister, Focus, Zappa showed they could laugh at themselves, the musicians took the music seriously, too. However, I fell into the stereotype yesterday when I listened to the 1982 Jethro Tull album Broadsword and the Beast for the first time for years and was compelled to translate the runes on the cover. I may have done this when I bought the record when it was released, though I’d normally have left a copy of the translation inside the sleeve. I have form in this sort of thing and I imagine that there are many other prog fans who share this thirst for knowledge: I translated all the runes and the elvish script wherever I found them in my copy of Lord of the Rings and I cracked the encrypted letter from Tom to Jan that appears in Alan Garner’s Red Shift. It turns out that the runes on Broadsword and the Beast are Anglo Saxon and they just quote a lyric from the track Broadsword: “I see a dark sail on the horizon set under a cloud that hides the. Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding. Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.” The word ‘sun’ is missing from the second (bottom) panel because the Ian Anderson elf-like creature’s sword crosses the border at that point, although I don’t believe the three runic letters would have fitted in that space. The artist’s initials can be found top right, with runes for R, I and M plus the superscript ‘c’ for R Iain McCaig. There is more writing on the inside sleeve, indicating that it was ‘scribed by candlelight’.

Part of the earnestness of the musicians was manifest in the choice of subject matter for an album; grand themes, including literary interpretation, being a defining feature of the genre. I think there’s an innate rationality about the music itself and this, as someone who went down the sciences route at school, studied botany and zoology at university and ended up working in a medical science, is part of the appeal. Even something with a meaning as obscure as Close to the Edge works, not just because the musicianship is exemplary but, equally importantly, it has an appropriate structure that helps to convey the rather nebulous concept of seeking enlightenment; prog bands, pushing at the limits of what was sonically possible with the technology available, took on the role musical explorers and experimentalists where their artistic vision was equivalent to a scientist working to a hypothesis.

Flying used as a concept allows a band to utilise threads from a mixture of philosophy, technology and metaphor, from the Greek mythology of Icarus with its warnings against complacency and hubris, through the visions of Leonardo and his principles of mechanical flight, to understanding the physics; I love the parlour trick used in science museums to demonstrate the Bernoulli Principle with the table tennis ball or beach ball in the stream of air, fast flow creates low pressure and, when applied to the upper curved surface of an aeroplane wing, low pressure creates lift. Much of the original space rock concerned exploration, though the imagery of the lyrics for Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, one of my all-time favourite space rock-era Floyd songs, and one of the first Pink Floyd songs I ever heard, seems to relate to a quest to expand the consciousness rather than some kind of starship pilot plotting a course to crash his vessel into a star. Later, David Gilmour would write Learning to Fly (from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987) which is about genuinely learning the mechanics of flying an aeroplane (the pilot’s voice on the track is Nick Mason going through pre-flight checks) but is also about the liberation of the spirit. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of A Momentary Lapse, and this is because the writing is much more thought-provoking than the last two albums of the Waters era.

The space rock vision of flight is best covered by Hawkwind’s Silver Machine (1972) and the related Robert Calvert solo album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters (1974) which satirised the story of the Lockheed 104 ‘Starfighter’ sold to America’s NATO allies, specifically Germany: the 104G. As a boy, Calvert, who co-wrote Silver Machine, had wanted to be an RAF fighter pilot but it is alleged that he failed the medical. The music on Captain Lockheed is quite varied but the album was originally conceived as a stage play. It’s not really prog, but it is very amusing; my favourite track being the Hawkwind-like Ejection.

Steve Hackett’s Icarus Ascending (Please Don’t Touch, 1978) name checks the son of Daedalus as a metaphor for someone who failed to achieve their goal (in the song, a stable relationship) where successful flight is eventually achieved “Never falling / Since your eyes first touched mine.”

One of the most profound uses of aeroplane and flying metaphors is Flight by Peter Hammill from A Black Box, 1980, Hammill’s first album after leaving Charisma and his first venture into long-form without the help of his Van der Graaf band mates. The side-long track could be compared to the VdGG epic A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers due to the structure comprised of different songs and moods pieced together with a unifying theme, the contemplation of fate and willpower and control. This was a surprise inclusion the last time I went to see Van der Graaf in 2013 although it had been performed by the K Group; the trio did a brilliant job, shifting from the manic to the melodic to the dissonant.

The idea of aeronaut as explorer is raised in Astral Traveller (from Time and a Word, 1970) a track that is almost steampunk with the protagonist being a balloonist within a futuristic-sounding setting. Together with The Prophet, this track seems to map out the future direction of Yes and forms a thematic link to Starship Trooper from the next Yes effort, The Yes Album (1971.)

When Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left King Crimson at the end of the first Crimson US tour in 1969, they put together a melodic, sometimes pastoral album that owes a great deal to the Beatles, where the mellotron is used for colour rather than doomy chords. Some sections (Flight of the Ibis, for example) are recognisable as coming from the Crimson stable, like bits of what would become Cadence and Cascade. The second side of the album is a multi-part suite conceived by Peter Sinfield, The Birdman, and this covers the desire of man to fly and his successful designing and building of the machine. This success is opposite to that described in Paper Wings by Barclay James Harvest (from Everyone is Everybody Else, 1974) where the protagonist is convinced of his ability to fly, but plummets to his death. I have the Barclay James Harvest Live version of this song and, though short, I really like it. The death plunge is a scenario revisited in Suicide? (from Octoberon, 1976.)

I was given a glider flight experience as a birthday present many years ago and headed off to the Surrey Hills Gliding Club based at Kenley, a few miles south of Croydon, for my taster. The sensation of unpowered flight is truly incredible and it’s no wonder that flying and flight has obsessed humankind. Should I ever get the necessary financing, it’s something I’d love to take up seriously.

By ProgBlog, Nov 25 2014 11:57AM

In the late 60s, experimentation and the rejection of the values of the previous generation was fed by musicians, artists and writers in a mini-renaissance where scientific possibilities pointed in two opposing directions: one to the promise of a utopian future based on consumerism; the other to an understanding that the unfettered use of natural resources was going to endanger the planet. Wars on foreign soil were viewed by the counterculture as imperialist manoeuvres and showed that governments were incapable of embracing ‘cultural relativism’, the academic anthropological view that other distinct cultures should not be seen as inferior to those that espoused Western ideals, because moral values can be culturally specific. The US government had begun to control the populace with pledges of the rewards of hard work: a steady job; a bank loan; a car; a house; new appliances, and competition was deemed to be good because in the economic race, the successful would rise to the top and, according the advertising copywriters of The American Dream, anybody could reap the rewards of the system if they worked hard enough, or swindled, lied and cheated enough.

The opposing view was imported from Eastern Europe and Asia. At that time, no one thought that wars would be fought over foreign oil and other natural resources, the raw materials of capitalism; the enemy was ideological. Such was the paranoia of US politicians, even Communism’s less strident sibling Socialism was to be feared and hated. The proponents of the counterculture embraced the principles of true egalitarianism and challenged creeping corporatism in areas such as agriculture and energy, preferring a ‘back to nature’ outlook and the benefits of a mutually supportive society. During this time, science fiction (SF) matured from escapism into a genre that looked both outwards and inwards and became a serious literary tool to criticise imperialistic tendencies (Ursula Le Guin) and one that warned of the consequences of climate change (JG Ballard). Not surprisingly, SF was embraced by the counterculture and, in conjunction with emerging musical technologies and a liberal dose of chemical stimulants, Psychedelia was born and Space Rock followed shortly after.

The extended blues jamming of the Grateful Dead wasn’t really replicated in the UK or Europe. Pink Floyd played extended jams during their live set and, despite the whimsical psychedelia of the Barrett-penned material that made up the majority of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the inclusion of Interstellar Overdrive and Astronomy Domine on the album indicated the direction of the Floyd for the next couple of years. The Floyd weren’t virtuoso but they did extend musical form by embracing effects and applying them in unusual ways and it was this experimentation and a penchant for cosmic-sounding titles that made them the premiere space rock act from around 1969; the live album of Ummagumma showcases their particular brand of music. The other main UK space rock outfit was Hawkwind who had a longstanding collaboration with SF author Michael Moorcock. Heavy and riff-based and again, not a virtuoso band and certainly not prog, I found them more amusing than any kind of serious proposition. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for Space Ritual and Quark Strangeness and Charm and I even attempted to see Robert Calvert’s West End stage interpretation of his novel Hype but the show had been closed early, that very same week. I did pluck up the courage to see Hawkwind at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon on 14th November 1999 but they didn’t play much material that I was familiar with and the gig was more techno than rambling space rock.

The Floyd had quite an influence on bands from mainland Europe. France’s Pulsar were dreamy and trippy and admit to being strongly influenced by Pink Floyd; before changing their name from Free Sound to Pulsar and playing self-penned material they used to perform cover versions of Set the Controls, and Careful with that Axe. Half Canterbury and half Space Rock and half French, early Gong created the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong space mythology and their music was defined by trippy grooves, played by some excellent musicians. The arrival of Steve Hillage in the Gong fold in 1972 didn’t change their direction much as he’d just released an album with his band Khan called Space Shanty (1972) that highlights his fluid glissando guitar. His next venture outside of Gong was Fish Rising (1975) which continued where Space Shanty left off and included the classic Solar Musick Suite.

Perhaps more than anything, the influence of Pink Floyd was soaked-up by the fledgling German rock movement. Despite the America-centric music industry labelling all German bands with the derogatory term 'Krautrock', the bands themselves adopted the title. Somewhat like Italian prog having a different flavour depending on where the band originated, there were few similarities between bands from the different German cities and there were often no sonic similarities between bands from the same city. What they did have in common, however, was a rejection of the attitude of the previous generation who remained deeply conservative and refused to contemplate atonement for the acts their leaders had carried out in WW2; the new generation had grown up after the war and wanted to create something new and different and independent of mainstream western rock. Many of the early Krautrock acts were highly politicised: Amon Düül arose from a commune that celebrated a variety of art forms and the music they produced was fairly amateur. Musicians from the band formed Amon Düül II and the qualitative difference between the two acts, which co-existed for a while, was huge. Some would argue that Amon Düül II reneged on the principles of the commune, seeking to make a materialist livelihood playing Floyd-inspired space rock. It’s important to point out that not all Krautrock was spacey and reliant upon common instrumentation; much of it was a startlingly original blend of electronics and industrial sounds, including the use of a cement mixer by Faust.

Eloy played a fairly basic form of symphonic prog that owed a debt to the Floyd and were even signed to the Harvest label. Taking their name from the futuristic race in HG Wells’ The Time Machine, their sound is heavy and organ/guitar drenched. I have a copy of Inside (1973) that I bought second hand in Beanos in 2005; all the vocals are in English and the lyrics lack complexity; there’s a hint of politics in the writing but political content was toned down after their first release. I find Nektar, who were British and based in Hamburg yet still get classed as Krautrock, stylistically similar to Eloy with a basis of heavy rock but stretching out into space rock territory. They’re certainly more rock than prog and the one CD that I own, Remember the Future, is considered to be one of their best works. I’m not at all keen on the almost country rock guitar and vocal harmonies and find it hard to believe that I paid nearly €16 for the album. On the plus side, I did buy it at a good exchange rate when I was in Berlin in 2005.

The other major Floyd-influenced Krautrock band is Tangerine Dream. They began with guitar and drums but fairly rapidly evolved into the classic electronic trio line-up that had a great deal of success with the progressive crowd after signing to Virgin. Their expansion of kosmische musik (electronic drones produced by tape loops or keyboard, originally popularised by Popol Vuh) using sequencers for a form of metronomic backing. Pink Floyd had begun to use the VCS3 for Dark Side of the Moon and TD used sequencers in a not dissimilar fashion, weaving in and out of electronic washes of sound. Phaedra and Rubycon are both classic albums and essential listening. By the time of Stratosfear (1976), guitar had crept back into their instrumentation and original member uses mouth organ. Personally, I don’t think that the harmonica is not a prog instrument!

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