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Getting out a full edition of a magazine devoted to prog music every month obviously treads a difficult path, remaining relevant whilst retaining the ethos of prog rock. Prog manages this incredibly well, mixing content from all parts and all eras of the genre. ProgBlog reflects on 10 years and 100 editions of Prog magazine

By ProgBlog, May 13 2019 10:31PM

I have a soft spot for the Barrett-era Floyd, where the psychedelic whimsy found on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is tinged with a darker edge, and for those of us who weren’t able to see this version of the band play live, there are recorded hints of Pink Floyd as sonic pioneers in Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive – the vanguard of space rock. Having bought Relics around the same time as acquiring Dark Side of the Moon, my next Floyd purchase, within a week of its release, was A Nice Pair. I may have heard bootlegs of Atom Heart, Meddle and Dark Side but at that time I was more familiar with their earlier oeuvre and as much entranced by the gatefold sleeve of A Nice Pair and Nick Mason’s architectural sketch for the cover of Relics as I was of Dark Side’s prisms.


A Nice Pair
A Nice Pair

By the time I first got to see the Floyd play live they’d dropped almost all intimation of their progressive rock sound even though the scope and realisation of The Wall shows was totally incredible. The 1988 Momentary Lapse of Reason show I saw at Wembley Stadium concentrated on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and their current release and while 1994’s Division Bell tour included dates where they played One of These Days or Astronomy Domine, it was only the former that featured on the leg of the tour when I got to see them on October 14th, the earliest piece of music that I’d seen them play.


I went to see early-Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa who played at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre in May 2004 because, being a proponent of music in local venues, I thought it would have been churlish to miss it. Ultimately, I came away disappointed and vowed never to watch a tribute band ever again. This was a bit unfair on the group, who weren’t bad musicians and rather than play the material note-perfect, which is possibly what I was expecting having never attended a gig like that before, they improvised around the song themes which was entirely in keeping with live early Pink Floyd; I wasn’t too sure about the vocals which didn’t sound like any of the original members but it may have been the inclusion of songs like If and San Tropez in the set that most concerned me, straying from my personal viewpoint as to what conformed to ‘early’ Floyd, despite playing undisputed classics like Astronomy Domine, Careful with that Axe Eugene, A Saucerful of Secrets, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, One of These Days, Echoes and finishing with Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. They even had an appropriate ‘liquid light show’ to provide an accurate reminder of the period.



(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004
(Early) Pink Floyd tribute act Ummagummaa, Croydon May 2004

I stupidly turned down the opportunity to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets on their opening tour, unwilling to join the on-line ticket queue and pay what I thought was rather a lot of money to stand and watch a band that included an ex-member of Spandau Ballet. I reconsidered for the current leg of the tour, reasoning that £50 for a seat at the Roundhouse wasn’t too bad and the chance to see one original band member performing this material was actually too good to miss. I must have become aware of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse from browsing music weeklies in the mid 70s but it’s unlikely I made the connection to the Pink Floyd story until sometime later, including its significance to the beginnings of UK counterculture; the first cultural use of the Roundhouse was as the venue for the launch party of the International Times (IT) in October 1966, a multi-media all-night rave and happening billed as a ‘pop-op-costume-masque-drag ball’, featuring performances from Pink Floyd and Soft Machine plus screenings of films and poetry readings; the Roundhouse and early Floyd are intrinsically connected.


poster for International Times launch party
poster for International Times launch party

Built between 1846-7 for the London and North Western Railway by Branson & Gwyther as a building for turning round railway engines, the Roundhouse has been recognised as a notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture and was listed in 1954, amended to Grade II* in January 1999, then declared a National Heritage Site in 2010. 24 cast-iron Doric columns arranged around the original locomotive spaces support a conical slate roof and the columns are braced with a framework of curved ribs, imbuing the internal space with a distinctive industrial Victoriana. The recent refurbishment respects the structure while making it fit for purpose as an events venue – it was my ‘venue of the year’ in the 2018 Prog magazine readers’ poll.


The Roundhouse, May 2019
The Roundhouse, May 2019

I have mixed feelings about the gig. On the one hand I was pleased to be there to see Nick Mason’s ensemble in that particular setting because of its historical rock and sociological relevance; on the other I was seated in a better position than for the Portico Quartet performance last year but I thought the sound was not nearly as good, and it didn’t appear to have been too good on the main floor either, demonstrated by loud crowd murmurings when Mason was making an inaudible announcement between songs; at times it was difficult to hear Dom Beken’s keyboards, an essential part of the early Floyd sound. I also thought they weren’t very tight as a unit even though Mason’s drumming sounded as good as I’d ever heard it. I was possibly expecting a tone of naivety in the vocals, but neither guitarist Gary Kemp or Lee Harris, nor bassist Guy Pratt did wonderment and this detracted from the earliest songs. That’s not to say I disapproved of the treatment of See Emily Play or Lucifer Sam and I fully appreciated their version of Vegetable Man, written by Barrett in 1967 and originally scheduled as a B side to putative single Scream Thy Last Scream which was never released; it was finally officially put out on The Early Years (1965-1972) in 2016. It may actually have been the brevity of the majority of pieces they played that I found too strange to handle, along with the interpretation of ‘early’ Pink Floyd. My favourites from the evening tended to be longer material; opener Interstellar Overdrive, Astronomy Domine, One of These Days, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, the excerpt from Atom Heart Mother; what I wasn’t too keen on, and I have to stress this is personal opinion, was the inclusion of If from Atom Heart Mother which bookended the title track, Fearless from Meddle and the Obscured by Clouds songs, all of which are low down in my listening priority and, as the writing partnership between Gilmour and Wright evolved and Waters was developing a distinct style, don’t conform to what I would describe as early-sounding.


Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19
Ticket for Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, Roundhouse 3/5/19

Apart from providing Floyd enthusiasts with material that’s unlikely to be played by any current or former member of Pink Floyd ever again, Mason is currently presenting a nine-part series for BBC radio: A History of Music and Technology, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w27vq4h7 Produced in association with the Open University, it’s something on which his role in Pink Floyd has bestowed the appropriate qualifications. He also has an excellent voice for radio and the programme, which charts a history of the innovations which have shaped popular music, should be compulsory listening for anyone into prog. Episode 1: The Story of Sound Recording related the attempts to capture sound, from an oral tradition to Edison’s phonograph and it’s replacement by the gramophone, from vinyl to magnetic tape and eventually the CD, driven by cost and convenience rather than the quality of the technology. Episode 2: Electronic Music Pioneers may have covered some of the material from Robert Berry’s The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2016), a quest to find today’s musical futurists, but I found it totally fascinating; Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium from 1896 which is not only believed to be the first electromechanical musical instrument but it could also be considered to be the precursor of streaming, sending a signal through wires which were translated into music through large paper cones acting as a form of primitive loudspeaker. There was some good coverage of the Theremin, an instrument that may have defined science fiction soundtracks but still features in the current prog scene. The ondes Martenot (1928) came about when Maurice Martenot exploited the overlap in tones generated by military oscillators, producing a cello-like sound. The instrument he devised was touted around European conservatoires and features in over 100 classical music compositions; George Jenny’s ondioline was a cheaper version of the ondes Martenot which began production in Paris around 1940 and became destined for a more commercial market thanks to the talents of former medical student Jean Jacques Perrey who released the seminal Prelude au Sommeil in 1958, allegedly as a form of sonic tranquilizer for patients in mental hospitals; the hymnal music incorporated minimalist motifs that were later developed by Philip Glass and Terry Riley and could be considered the first ambient music.




Touching on musique concrète and tape manipulation, on Raymond Scott’s automatic music machines which played sequences of differently arranged patterns, the programme reminded us that though we might think electronic music is relatively recent, it’s now well over 100 years since the first electronic instruments appeared. The next episodes cover the electric guitar and the Hammond organ. Well worth a listen.








By ProgBlog, Aug 20 2017 11:24AM

I’ve recently introduced a ‘playlist’ feature to the ProgBlog homepage and rather than a straightforward list I’ve produced a GIF, made up from photos taken of the albums as I’ve been playing them. I used to tweet pictures of whatever I was ‘now playing’, influenced by the posts of some of those that I follow, including 140 characters (or less) describing what I think about the music on that record; for a couple of months in 2015 I did post a list of my weekly indulgences, because I’d seen playlists on websites including Steven Wilson’s official site where there’s also an archive of what he’s been listening to, referred to as ‘Headphone Dust’ http://stevenwilsonhq.com/sw/playlist-archive/ . My GIF is intended as a way of presenting my listening habits in a manner more interesting than a simple list and still illustrating the width of the progressive rock genre.


ProgBlog playlists from 2015
ProgBlog playlists from 2015

I’m vaguely wary of the idea of a playlist because I see it as a device to prop-up the music business, linked to streaming services. The release of the mp3 codec by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1993 was to facilitate rapid transmission and immediate access of audio files between different points on the planet and, inadvertently or otherwise, it proved very easy to copy and share. From the ‘home taping is killing music’ panic which began in 1981, when the industry really wasn’t that large (but which was about to gear up and become truly global) and the uproar over the introduction of Napster in 1999, music corporations have consistently stifled creativity and creamed off massive profits from their artists. At the beginning of this decade, recession, falling CD sales and piracy all seemed to spell doom and gloom for the record labels but last year saw a reversal of fortune, driven by streaming services exemplified by Spotify, Deezer, Apple and Amazon. It’s been reported that around 30% of Warner’s £2.66bn revenue for 2016 came from streaming. I’ve just finished reading Robert Barry’s excellent The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017) who points out that the idea of a ‘celestial jukebox’ (in essence, a remote server sending music to everyone with a suitable hand-held device for accessing the service) first aired by Stanford law professor Paul Goldstein in his 1994 article Copyright’s Highway, allowed the ‘record oligopoly’ to convert from supplying goods to on-line services and creating a landlord – renter relationship. The one-off Napster payment has given way to subscription which, it has been predicted, could double or triple the size of the music industry; the tech firms also seem to be doing fairly well from this model - there are 90 million people signed up to streaming services worldwide.


The Music of the Future by Robert Barry
The Music of the Future by Robert Barry

A couple of fairly recent articles in The Guardian, one in July and one earlier this week, highlight some worrying issues with streaming. Industry insiders such as Paul Smernicki, former head of digital at Universal Records, speak in terms of business models and commodity rather than music as an art form, proposing that the numbers of people streaming indicates that music has never been more popular, where the value of reliability, convenience and accessibility to an enormous catalogue of songs for a small cost now make illegal downloading almost redundant, encouraging people to invest in the service. He doesn’t go on to say that while a paid-for download or a physical copy of some music only generates revenue once, streaming rewards the music company over and over again and it’s only a tiny amount, between $0.006 and $0.0084 which goes to the artist for each play of a song; it’s being sold to us as ‘choice’ and in our inimitable consumerist manner we believe the glossy images and accept what the industry says. Unfortunately, a shift to streaming has the effect of discouraging experimental music while enriching already big stars, with the pursuit of Adele by Sony creating a parallel with the other-world Premier League transfer market. Both the majors and indie labels are incorporating streaming playlists as the thrust of their marketing strategy, tying in music to consumption and lifestyle habits.


It’s a successful strategy. There’s a huge market for streaming playlists because the public is increasingly engaging with the service to find their music, so that the streaming companies themselves have invested in the creation of their own playlists which theoretically, might help less well-known artists if part of their remit is identify new music to champion. This part of the tech company – music business relationship appears roughly symbiotic, where the business now uses streaming pluggers pushing for songs, and the range of artists on offer can define the streaming service and help it to attract more subscribers. In reality, the record labels are favouring music that is known to provide the greatest revenue and the tech companies are getting the greater benefit. Barry explains that Spotify (for example) is doing what tech companies do, gathering data, in much the same way as Facebook and Google and Amazon do. The playlists are created with the help of sophisticated collaborative filtering systems where your preferences are matched with the preferences of everyone else on a database and you're constantly badgered into 'liking' and responding to posts, so you get specific recommendations. This doesn’t work very well for me because I hold a deep disdain for advertising and anyway, a very large proportion of people who like the same music as me also like Rush...


While the latest Guardian article suggested that the album could be under threat from streamed playlists, as artists are tempted to ignore the format and concentrate on rolling playlists instead, the Alexis Petridis piece from July concerned reports of ‘fake’ artists used to pad out popular playlists, paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines, mostly unchallenging instrumental music for relaxation, avoiding royalty payments. Spotify denied the charge, which would have far-reaching implications for genuine artists, but the stories continued, citing theories relating to quality control, and a tussle for power between service and industry.


I don’t use a streaming service and have no desire to do so but the music business couldn’t care less as the development of voice-activated speakers means we can ask Apple, Google and Amazon avatars to choose some music for a specific mood at a specific time. The playlists I put together in 2015 differ slightly from those now appearing as video on my Twitter and Facebook pages and on the ProgBlog website; in 2015 I was commuting from East Croydon to London Bridge, a nominal journey of 17 minutes, during which I would read my Guardian and, like many other commuters/consumers, listen to my portable mp3 player to shut out incessant high frequency beats, predominantly hi-hat, emanating from the earbud headphones of my fellow travellers. For the past four years or so, the railway lines south of the capital have been increasingly congested as major redevelopment has been carried out at London Bridge, making it impossible to predict the duration of any single journey (industrial action by two rail unions didn’t help but they get my sympathy as they stood up to management pressure to relax safety regulations, opposing the introduction of driver-only trains) and therefore making playlist selection difficult; an unwritten rule was that you couldn’t leave the train mid-track.


The recent playlists have been compiled from listening to albums, mostly LPs but some CDs and, on one occasion a download of demo tracks by new Italian prog band Melting Clock. The commonality between the two sets of playlists is that I listen to the album in full, in running order. That’s obviously essential for something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway where there’s a linear narrative but it’s not strictly necessary for every single concept album. It might be irritating to mix the tracks around on Dark Side of the Moon because the album is designed with specific segues but would the world end if we played the different sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans out of order? It would certainly wind me up! I’m not a fan of the shuffle function on music players and as much as I admire Sid Smith’s eclectic podcast Postcards from the Yellow Room http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk which has genuine breadth, it’s essentially a sampler for the now generation, whereas I prefer to make time to submerge myself in the entire album.


playtime
playtime

It’s quite clear why the record oligopoly likes streaming and I find it hard to envisage what future developments might come along, if there’s ever to be another threat to the industry. I don’t believe that there’s any immediate risk to the album from streaming as long as genres like prog retain a degree of popularity, simply because the grand themes of progressive rock were developed across the LP format, continued during the CD era and as yet there’s no sign of that historic link being broken. The current fad for all things vinyl may not last but while it does, there’s no better feeling than holding the edges of a new release on heavyweight vinyl between your palms, placing it carefully on the turntable and getting ready to devote your time, in 20 minute chunks, to uninterrupted listening.







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