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, Jan 8 2017 06:52PM

The Christmas and New Year bank holidays fell on days which allowed extended weekends and, in order to address some of the inevitable excess that occurred despite the reduced volumes of food and drink that were brought into the house, both weekends featured a cultural excursion into central London.

One of these was a trip to the new Design Museum, housed in the former Commonwealth Institute just off High Street Kensington, an edifice described by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall, which underwent an impressive refit to house the new exhibition spaces. I’d visited the building before, during the period of its former function, to receive a Wedgewood plate from the National Blood (Transfusion) Service for donating 100 units of blood, plasma and platelets and even in 1985, before I displayed any interest in architecture, I thought it was a remarkable building. The free, permanent display at the museum deserves more space and only scratches the surface of ‘design’. However, it still managed to mention album artwork and house a display of turntables. Perhaps they’re thinking of a temporary special exhibition of album artwork...


Interior of The Design Museum
Interior of The Design Museum

The other trip was to the Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy of Arts (a far less attractive building, despite the Palladian influence on its design). The phrase ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a new phenomenon in American art associated with a generation of artists all working in the US but with diverse backgrounds: New York; the heartlands of the US; the West; European émigrés. I was interested in attending because I quite like the work of Jackson Pollock, one of the featured artists, having seen his work in the Guggenheim in Venice. It could be argued that without Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage there wouldn’t have been a Abstract Expressionist movement. Another reason I like Pollock is because I associate his artwork with progressive rock; though the art and prog movements took place in different decades, the room I most associate with listening to early progressive rock had a piece of my father’s artwork on the wall, a drip painting in white, yellow and red after Pollock and I seem to recall him with a board (in lieu of canvas) in the back garden of our first house wheeling his bicycle over a similar composition and this process of construction, as well as the complexity of finished piece, held a deep fascination.


The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism
The Royal Academy of Arts - Abstract Expressionism

The extended break still ended too early, even with a reduced working week but it was nevertheless good to consign 2016 to the dustbin of history. Domestic and global politics took a downturn just when we were thinking it couldn’t get worse, amplifying divisions and, for the first time in a long, long time, bigotry and hate speech seemed to have become legitimised. Apart from the power-play where more than one multi-millionaire labelled all journalists as elitist, 2016 did have what appeared to be more than the average number of deaths of famous musicians and this had a quite extraordinary impact on the feelings of those who had grown up with this music. I don’t particularly like David Bowie’s music but I understand that millions and millions of people all around the world did have some form of connection with Bowie, and Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. I was personally more affected by the deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two of the first rock musicians I’d ever heard but apart from reporting on their contribution to progressive rock in celebration of their careers, I remained relatively unmoved. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way and if anyone, from any background, is able to positively influence someone in some way; give them some kind of meaning or put into words what they’ve not been able to express themselves, that’s not to be scoffed at. I’m approaching this from a rationalist standpoint; both Bowie and Lake had cancer and, at 69 years of age, had lived a full life which had reached a natural limit within statistical ranges. I reject the government argument that pensionable age should be raised because we’re all dying older because plainly that is not true. It might be the case that age at death has increased for some but, especially in areas of greater deprivation and reduced life-chances, longevity lags behind. A 2015 study from the King’s Fund Inequalities and life expectancy Changes over time and implications for policy by David Buck and David Maguire may have shown the relationship between income deprivation and life expectancy got weaker over the period between 1999 and 2010 but other factors, including employment, housing deprivation and some lifestyle factors go some way to explain differences in life expectancy between areas during the latter part of the study period, and that low employment, housing deprivation and smoking are among the factors that distinguish areas with persistently low life expectancy over time. The argument to raise the age of the state pension and to make changes to public sector pensions in 2011 which caused widespread public anger was part of a plan to make public sector jobs open to private business. It might be more economically sound to allow workers to retire to create decent, full-time jobs for school leavers and graduates who had been hard-wired to believe in home ownership but we’re going to find many of the workers in caring professions, who generally are not well paid, being ground down until they are incapable of working or dying before they can take their pensions.


NHS strike action
NHS strike action

I stood on picket lines and argued that even in the long-term, the NHS pension pot easily paid for itself as long as staff continued to be recruited into the scheme. I pointed out that the proposed legislation was because the cost of similar pension benefits was prohibitive to private healthcare providers, with plenty of friends in government, wanting to move into the UK; that pension reform and privatisation were inextricably linked and austerity was being used as a rationale to deliver cost-cutting and the decimation of the Health Service. Over the next year I witnessed the sale of NHS departments to private firms; soft targets going to DHL, Serco and Sainsbury, removing staff from hospital payroll and immediately cutting upfront costs. The damage to the NHS, alarmingly labelled a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the Red Cross last week, includes no money for training, de-skilling, understaffing, endemic low-morale and stress-related sickness absence; throw in stories of European workers being told to prepare to leave the UK and it’s evident that there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Perhaps someone is waiting for the private sector to gallop in on a white charger...

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing particularly pertinent to current times, where not only access to music and film has been made easier, our ability to comment on and interact with others who feel the same, or the polar opposite, is part of the everyday landscape. I used to abuse the letters page of Barrow’s North Western Evening Mail with made-up opinions and made-up names in an attempt to lampoon parochial concerns (read: dog mess) but this ruse took a good deal of time and effort; I had to write the letter by hand, post the letter using Royal Mail and wait to see if the terribly elite editorial board would publish. If only Twitter and Facebook messages took two days, an editorial review and the equivalent of postage before they could be displayed. I’m not only guilty of mistreating the entire Evening Mail readership with letters and my poetry, I’m also in the business of spouting opinion on social media. That my ProgBlog somehow got mixed up with a Canadian political site of the same name may be of concern, but it earned a spot as the 24th most liberal blog detected by the Feedspot blog.

Meanwhile, at the back end of 2016, I was given a copy of the Greg Lake Live DVD for Christmas, a concert recorded in Stevenage in November 2005, less than a week before I went to see his performance in Croydon and dutifully watched it at the earliest opportunity. I recall enjoying the concert apart from a blues number which I refused to applaud because it was dire. This was Love You Too Much and I believe is evidence that Lake’s genuine creative period was over. I’m not fond of the later ELP material that’s included, either, beginning with the simplistic Paper Blood but also Farewell to Arms and Footprints in the Snow but the concert is well filmed and the band, including a young Florian Opahle on lead guitar, is really tight. Though it’s an accurate record of that tour, the bonus DVD material includes rehearsal time at Shepperton and some short interviews. One of these is with the promoter who predicts a great future for the ensemble and following the UK dates the band did play in Europe but his planned 2006 tour was cancelled.


Greg Lake Live DVD
Greg Lake Live DVD

Whereas Bowie and Prince maintained a sense of mystique and were able to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I don’t believe that same can be said for the members of ELP, or even Yes who continue to tour, though they were giants that did at one stage rule the world of music. The relevance of the original progressive rock bands lies in their legacy, their experimentation and challenging norms. There are probably two generations who have been inspired by music that refuses to be packaged as industry standard and this innovation is what Lake and Emerson, and Chris Squire in 2015 should be remembered for.





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