ProgBlog

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Five days of progressive rock, dedicated to musicians and friends who have died since the last event, divided between historic and new bands, symphonic prog and jazz rock, the avant-garde and a tribute to an important story. Along with the desire to share music together, the event is only held thanks to the effort of all those who work for free: artists, organisers, hosts and helpers. The Progressivamente Festival is a display of dedication, comradeship and great music

By ProgBlog, Aug 2 2017 01:05PM

For all the problems with London, the locals’ belief that it’s the centre of the universe, the ridiculous property prices, the clogged up roads and packed and pricey public transport which make the commute from the outskirts into the centre almost unbearable, there’s a lot to do and see. I don’t mean it’s like Italy where it seems there’s a prog gig or festival almost every weekend but if a professional band is going to play anywhere, they are likely to include a date in the capital. When I came down to London as a student I don’t believe I ever thought I’d stay but then I didn’t really expect to embark on a career in blood and transplantation; if the head of the Transfusion Service in Tooting felt he needed to offer me a job just after I’d graduated, it would have been churlish to refuse and anyway, I though the post, working for the NHS, was really worthwhile. Three years into the job, I’d switched from red blood cells to white and I attempted to follow an opportunity at the Transfusion Centre in Lancaster, a city close to my roots and one I really like; I was shortlisted and interviewed but wasn’t offered the post and remained in south London.

Two-thirds of my undergraduate life was based in North Cray, a hamlet in the amorphous London-Kent boundary between Sidcup and Bexley. If getting to and from college was a bit of a drag, getting up to the West End for gigs and exhibitions was even more so but realising that the delights associated with being around the cultural capital of the UK was too good a prospect to ignore, especially with student discount, I travelled up to town almost every weekend. This was the tail end of the golden era of progressive rock so there weren’t many good gigs to go to, though a few of early examples of a truly worthwhile shows were Yes at Wembley Arena (28/10/78, matinee performance, a copy of which I’m listening to as I type – thanks for the link @timcwebb); UK’s only British performance featuring the Danger Money line-up at Imperial College (3/3/79); and Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon (11/10/79) kicking off the I Can See Your House From Here tour. The final third of being a Goldsmiths’ student was spent living in Streatham which, even without the access to a flatmate’s car, provided easy routes to both Victoria and London Bridge stations. This period of my life was the only time I’d travel by car into central London for entertainment purposes because parking on Whitehall was free from around lunchtime on a Saturday and there were abundant free spaces behind Oxford Street in the evenings, handy for the 100 Club.



I may have still just been a student when King Crimson reformed in 1981 but I was working when the neo-prog movement started up and though the 80s was generally a poor time for the sort of music I like, throughout my life I’ve always managed to ensure I get to almost all the gigs which interest me including, in recent years, an increasing number on the European mainland as the incredible world of progressivo Italiano has resurfaced and developed.

Music plays the most important part in my life after family but it’s the easy availability of other cultural asides such as Their Mortal Remains or You Say You Want a Revolution at the V&A, the accessibility of a huge variety of architectural forms visited informally with family or as part of the Open London and Walk London programmes, the permanent or special exhibitions at the Design Museum or the Royal Academy, there is always something to do in and around London. This weekend I went to see Into the Unknown – a Journey through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre.




I’ve previously mentioned that I used to be a big science fiction fan and the exhibition, covering art, design, film, literature and music included around 800 works some of which had never been shown in the UK before, arranged in four main themes: Extraordinary Voyages; Space Odysseys; Brave New Worlds; and Final Frontiers. The first section included some of the material I’d describe as proto-SF, adventure literature exploring the possibilities provided by the deep ocean and undiscovered lands or islands, including the works of Jules Verne who famously inspired Rick Wakeman with his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and combined his writing with the latest scientific understanding.

The first successful powered flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 opened another chapter for science fiction, celebrated in the second section of the exhibition: Space Odysseys. The early twentieth century writing may have centred on conquering the skies but the use of rockets in WW II, the invention of the atomic bomb and the escalating cold war pushed imagination to the moon and the stars. Many of these stories still relied upon adventure-explorer narratives, some containing West vs. East allegory (cf. The Omega Glory, Star Trek episode #52). The 1953 film of HG Wells War of the Worlds was on TV the night our family moved to a new house when I was about 10 years old and it’s the only movie that’s ever really frightened me. Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical interpretation was a huge commercial success and though it contained some soft-prog (Justin Hayward’s quite pleasant Forever Autumn) it wasn’t really to my taste. If there are any progressive rock links to space travel it’s the early Pink Floyd period, more linked to psychedelia than prog, with titles such as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Let There be More Light; Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun may have a cosmic title but the lyrics are based on Taoist poetry with Roger Waters’ own space-rock refrain thrown in; the Floyd performed a live five minute long jam titled Moonhead during the BBC TV programming for the first lunar landing in 1969. The gloomy Negative Earth by Barclay James Harvest also counts as being representative of journeys in space. From 1974’s Everyone is Everybody Else, it’s a telling of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. I say gloomy, but it’s a powerful track on an album filled with social commentary.


The section which most interested me was Brave New Worlds. The imagined harshness of extra terrestrial conditions brought out the best in SF writers, who carefully crafted viable worlds based on mass, proximity to their sun(s) and orbits, so that climate could be inferred and the development of societies could be explored. The best anthropological studies, including questioning racial and sexual stereotypes, are by Ursula Le Guin whose The Dispossessed (1974) is set in an ambiguous utopia and can be cited as feminist and anarchist literature. The concluding part of The Handmaid’s Tale was shown on TV at the weekend and the book was also highlighted in the exhibition as portraying a dystopian near-future. The serialisation of Atwood’s novel has come across as essential viewing, originally written at a time when the religious far-right were whispering in Ronald Regan’s ear and turned into a TV series as self-confessed sex-pest Donald Trump’s presidency displays alarming instability, fuelled by right-wing ideology and cutting the budget for family planning which puts the lives of millions of women at risk. (Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s the poor sound from our TV, but we watch the program with subtitles and have started to quote from these aids for the hard of hearing: Door opens; door closes.)

The mega-cities of the future are often portrayed as dystopian, whether the product of inequality or destroyed by some natural disaster which is usually traceable to the folly of mankind. The seedy underbelly which exists in our present is massively amplified in the futuristic cities committed to film including Blade Runner, Minority Report and the off-world frontier town in Total Recall (1990). Synthesizer soundtracks were still something of a novelty in the early 80s but Vangelis was a master and his original score for Blade Runner (1982) fits the mood of the film perfectly; equally, Brad Fiedel’s score for Terminator (1984) works well, from the haunting main theme to the industrial beat used in chase sequences.



The final thread, Final Frontiers, eschews geography and looks instead at subjects like the enhancement of the human body and other life-forms through techniques like mutation, cloning and prosthetics. Roger Dean’s artwork for the Fragile to Yessongs series may have inspired Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, an album which I think comes close to SF with its tale of planetary disaster and the organisation of the evacuation and search for a new world but I’d class this as fantasy, however original the story and successful it is in being converted from concept to recorded music, but Dean’s painting has also touched on the mechanisation of living things, fusing a gull’s skull onto the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ fuselage for Budgie’s Squawk and the equine enhancements for the cover of Paladin’s Charge!

The paradoxes revealed by time travel were also covered, and one of the displays was footage from BBC TV series Dr Who. It was good to see an article about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in a recent edition of Prog magazine (#78) – where Delia Derbyshire was responsible for the original Dr Who theme tune but also where Paddy Kingsland would write music for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (but not the title tune, which is Journey of the Sorcerer by The Eagles) and some classic children’s TV programs like The Changes.



Outside the main exhibition are three ‘media pods’ where those queuing can play games or listen to ‘science fiction’ music. I wasn’t interested in the games but the music pod featured a diverse range of genres, from Disco, Funk & Hip Hop (there was a series of videos in the main exhibition, mashing classic SF and sci-fi with Sun Ra and Kraftwerk) to Psychedelic and Prog Rock.




One of the first pieces you see as you enter the exhibition is a painting by Chris Foss, Asteroid Collision. Foss was my favourite SF book cover artist (and he did have imitators) where the detail of his spaceships or space architecture matched the sonic designs of my favourite prog bands.

Only a little progressive rock was inspired by SF but for me, the two are inextricably linked. Get to see Into the Unknown if you can.











By ProgBlog, Feb 19 2017 07:51PM

The reappearance of Prog magazine, putting an end to a period of uncertainty for the staff, is most welcome and its unchanged format is very reassuring. I rarely get the chance to sit down and read it in one go so it normally takes a week or so for me to get through the articles I find interesting – no, I don’t read every word because some of the featured artists are from beyond the spectrum of my listening habits. I also have to balance Prog with other reading material: my physical copy of The Guardian which is mostly but not entirely completed on my commute to-and-from work; the occasional essay written by a colleague (Describe and discuss the categories of solid organ allograft rejection and the means by which they may be limited, and Describe the structure of MHC encoded antigens and their role in the presentation of peptides to T cells); and books received at Christmas or on birthdays. I’m currently struggling with William Morris’ News from Nowhere which, despite its socialist message and relative brevity is heavy going, meaning sessions are interspersed with getting through the prog-related literature that appeared under the Christmas tree.




I’ve already written about Yes is the Answer (and reviewed it on Amazon) but I’ve also completed Time and Some Words: The Anthology of Prog Rock Quotations 1969-1976 by Dave Thompson and just started Yes and Philosophy - The Spiritual and Philosophical Dimensions of Yes Music by Scott O’Reilly. Thompson’s quotations are frequently devoid of context or else have context imposed upon them by virtue of the chapter title; some are from author interviews and come with a degree of perspective. As much as I enjoyed reading the words of wisdom of my musical heroes, some of which I’d probably originally seen in the NME or Melody Maker in the mid 70s, the inclusion of pithy or equally, convoluted remarks from musicians I’ve never heard of and some who really aren’t progressive rock at all, ran contrary to the title. It may be that Thompson, a Brit who has lived in the US for some time who has far broader tastes than me, has simply over-estimated the true size of the genre during its first, golden period but at the risk of setting myself up in a glass house, I’m a firm believer in accuracy. There’s nothing revelatory in the book as we’ve moved on over 45 years since the first of the contributors aired an opinion which means that there’s been plenty of opportunity for their thoughts to be fully analysed in the intervening period; Thompson may have reasoned that the recent rise in prog-related publications was a good opportunity to knock out another book. It’s too early for me to say what I think about O’Reilly’s effort but the posted reviews are ambivalent or worse, the best of them criticising the typographical errors (a complaint I could raise against Thompson’s book where it appears that the grammar check has been deactivated.) I like the idea of a philosophical study of Yes, adding to the work of Bill Martin (a professor of philosophy) whose Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock has a logical, analytical approach which draws in political and sociological strands.



It’s almost as though my reading habits have been totally inverted. As a youth and during my early adulthood I read a fairly wide range of novels, from the classics to fantasy. I’ve previously written about the links between the authors I’d been reading and progressive rock but at the time there were no books about the genre. I’d only buy one of the weekly music papers if it had something about a band or artist I was interested in, so there were less than six years, from September 1972 when I first heard Close to the Edge to summer 1978, when there was any reasonable coverage of the genre; even the last two years of this period were becoming dominated by punk and new wave. I don’t read very many novels any more (the last, apart from my current tribulations with News from Nowhere, was The Vorrh by Brian Catlin) but there seems to be a new wave of literature relating to prog, of variable standard, which I am slowly amassing and authors like O’Reilly and Thompson are currently riding.

If we accept fantasy literature as a prog genre (Alan Garner, Richard Adams, JRR Tolkien), what can be said for science fiction? I have read a fair amount of SF over the years and witnessed a blurring of the boundary between SF and fantasy and though there’s an obvious association between Michael Moorcock and Hawkwind, Hawkwind’s brand of space rock was never really prog; on the other hand, William Burroughs may have had an influence on the thinking of Soft Machine but he was never really a science fiction writer. I read most of the SF classics and some, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, appeared on my reading list because of my nascent appreciation for progressive rock. Lyrically, the song appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel but Heinlein’s pro-military opinions were aired by characters within the book and there’s a possibility that Anderson and Squire were responding to Heinlein’s view with their own positive outlook; Yours is no Disgrace, also from The Yes Album is an anti-war song and it’s not unreasonable to imagine members of Yes reading SF.


Rick Wakeman was an avid Jules Verne fan but was Verne’s output really science fiction. It can’t be disputed that Verne was a strong influence on the genre and he wrote about emerging technologies and incorporated the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time. I’d accept that Verne was the grandfather of science fiction but I think his novels were basically books about exploration, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth describing an expedition but also taking readers on a journey through geological time. This suggests to me that Wakeman was not necessarily inspired by the strictly scientific aspect of the work but more by the possibilities of musical adaptation of a good story. No Earthly Connection is more new age than SF but Out There, which revisited the quest for the origins of all music after a hiatus of 26 years, does come across more as science fiction. I saw Wakeman touring both No Earthly Connection (1976) and Out There (2003) and the latter struck me as a piece of science fiction theatre, mainly because of the NASA footage and a steampunk graphical representation of the spaceship.



My favourite SF authors are JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, who approach the genre from very different angles. Ballard wrote about the ‘deep undercurrents’ of the present, exposing a dystopian psychogeography and his writings influenced post-punk synthesizer bands which was in tune with the feelings circulating around the concrete walkways of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. I first came across Le Guin through her Earthsea fantasy trilogy (at the time) and then got caught up in her interconnected SF worlds of the Hainish Cycle. Her almost academic anthropological writing makes her stands apart from others (her family background) but her portrayal of gender and race put her firmly in the progressive bracket. I personally think of Le Guin’s twin worlds of Anarres and Urras (from The Dispossessed) when I listen to Felona e Sorona by Le Orme but Peter Hammill’s lyrics for the English language recording Felona and Sorona suggest some form of supernatural Being holds responsibility for the two planets, a major detour from Le Guin. In fact, progressivo Italiano has a few science fiction-themed albums including Per... un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno (RRR) about the anguish felt by an astronaut when he finds that humankind has disappeared on his return to earth. Van der Graaf Generator acknowledge the influence of science fiction on the sleeve notes of The least we can do is wave to each other with a credit for reading matter: Asimov/Donleavy (JP Donleavy is not an SF writer!) and the epic Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, the Hammill nod to Arthur C Clarke on Still Life where he ponders the evolutionary course of humankind.




Robots are currently very topical. There’s a great deal of current interest in artificial intelligence from poker playing computers to television series and now London’s Science Museum has opened a major Robots exhibition. One of the classic SF books was a series of short stories, published as I, Robot by Isaac Asimov with its ‘Three laws of robotics’: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov may have been a successful scientist but I always thought his writing was like cowboys in outer space, and that includes his best work, the Foundation trilogy. I, Robot is actually a whodunit played out in a future where our lives are enhanced by the presence of robots. I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project is inspired by the book but the music is far from stimulating. I don’t own any of their albums, I’d not class the Project as prog and whereas I’d normally lump them in with art-rock, this particular release varies from competent AOR to almost disco; it goes without saying that it’s well produced. The instrumental tracks bookending the work are the best, though the rhythm machine drumming (is it Stuart Tosh?) however appropriate for the subject matter, detracts from some decent, keyboard dominated pieces.



ELP may have trodden familiar tropes about the future of mankind in Karn Evil 9 but the AI is a computer, not a robot; Radiohead may have referenced depressed robot Marvin from spoof SF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on OK Computer with Paranoid Android; but only Pat Metheny has built a robot orchestra for his backing band on his Orchestrion album. Despite the technological innovations associated with progressive rock, I don’t think technology-heavy science fiction has had any particular influence on prog. Rather, it’s strong stories and key philosophical ideas which have inspired artists to push musical boundaries.











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