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ProgBlog goes to the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice but still manages to find prog connections - and a relatively new record store...

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2016 09:20PM

I’ve just taken receipt of the Anderson/Stolt LP Invention of Knowledge and, sitting in my Barcelona chair with the gatefold sleeve open in my hands, I’m transported back to the mid 70s.


TV plays a balanced part in my life although the ability to call up 24 hour news or watch catch-up programmes on mobile devices means that breaking news or doing something else the same night that Brian Pern is scheduled means I never miss anything I want to see. In reality, programmes I’m missing in real time are conveniently recorded on a TiVo box and I get pretty sick of 24 hour news streaming where the anchors frequently have to ad-lib as some sort of live action reaches an impasse and the scrolling red ribbon runs on an ever quicker cycle, complete with uncorrected spelling errors. I think there are too many channels, most of which peddle meaningless nonsense, cheap programming and repeats. I may have watched a little too much TV in the 70s but at least broadcasting was restricted to three terrestrial channels where, despite the airing of tired, formulaic situation comedies and crass game shows, it appeared that on the BBC at least there was some thought about what was shown.

I was at the BFI on London’s Southbank on Thursday, attending a very enjoyable presentation called Transport as Architecture: Ballard to Banham that featured three short films: Crash! directed by Harley Cokeliss from 1970 that featured JG Ballard himself along with Gabrielle Drake (who I remember as Lieutenant Gay Ellis from Gerry Anderson’s UFO which ran from 1970-1973); The Thing Is... Motorways, part of a 1992 Channel 4 ‘talk show’ series by Paul Morley which also included short contributions from JG Ballard; and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles from 1972, in which the writer, critic and Professor of Architectural History drove around LA in search of interesting features to show to tourists. Both Cokeliss and Morley were present to introduce their pieces and, despite his writing for the NME from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, I hold a sneaking admiration for Morley, not because he’s a northerner (he was born in Farnham, Surrey), but because he has some interesting things to say and his taste in music is pretty eclectic; I thought that some of the music that accompanied his documentary, a short piece of electronica, was like a Mancunian take on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn only inspired by the Preston by-pass section of the M6. Before the films I flicked through a somewhat small collection of soundtracks on re-released vinyl in the BFI gift shop and, alongside Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack to the harrowing The Killing Fields, was an LP from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


The Radiophonic Workshop was a revolutionary sound effects unit created in 1958, originally to provide sound effects for radio programmes which became most famous for recording Ron Grainer’s Dr Who theme in 1963. The creators and contributors included trained musicians with an appreciation of musique concrète and tape manipulation and their rooms at Maida Vale are reported to have looked more like an electronics laboratory than a routine recording studio. The pioneering work was carried out by some memorable names including Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. A synthesizer designed by Oram, where sounds and compositions were produced by drawings, featured in BBC Technology news last week and forms the centrepiece of an exhibition Oram to Electronica at the Science Museum in London. A mini-Oramics machine, based on original plans but never completed during her lifetime, has just been completed by a PhD student from Goldsmiths College and though there are now apps that mimic the principle it predated sequencing software and, if the machine had been available in 1973, it could have changed the way music was taught and performed.

Strange electronic noises are very suited to science fiction and the inception of the Radiophonic Workshop coincided with the rise in popularity of SF, from radio serials Quatermass and the Pit to Douglas Adams’ immensely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which later translated to television, as well as shows like Dr Who.

One area where the BBC excelled was in its children’s programming. I distinctly remember a drama series, based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson and first broadcast in 1975 called The Changes. This near-apocalyptic vision was notable for its pro-integration message, being one of the first programmes to feature Sikhs, making it genuinely progressive. The excellent theme music was by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which I seem to recall was available as a 45rpm single, but which wasn’t stocked by any of the record stores in Barrow. The long-running Blue Peter which at one time featured Barrovian Peter Purves (I used to deliver papers for his parent’s newsagents on the corner of Oxford Street and Furness Park Road) included an updated theme tune performed by Mike Oldfield that was available as a single, reaching no. 19 in the charts in 1979 and raising money for the Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. Another BBC children’s programme was Horses Galore, presented by Susan King which had a relatively short run, from 1977 to 1979. I’ve got no idea why I would watch a programme about horses, not being interested in equestrian pursuits and having once been bitten on the shoulder by Nicola Richardson’s horse, but the theme music was Pulstar by Vangelis from Albedo 0.39 (1976).

There was a lot of instrumental progressive rock around at the time and I thought that some of this should be used for items on BBC TV’s regional news and current affairs programme Nationwide that was shown immediately after the early evening so I wrote to them in December 1976, prompted to put pen to paper because I’d detected a snatch of Echoes on Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man, providing them with a list of suggestions. I don’t believe they took any notice but I did get a standard postcard in reply.


I was reminded of this when I read Rick Wakeman’s programme notes for his recent appearance at the Stone Free Festival; the Arthur theme was used by the BBC for Election Night specials on a number of occasions, a very fitting use of the music.

Yorkshire TV, one of the Independent Television company franchise holders ran a science-based show called Don’t Ask Me from 1974 to 1978 which used House of the King by Focus as a theme tune and exposed panellists David Bellamy (botany), Miriam Stoppard (medicine) and Magnus Pyke (natural sciences) to a wide audience. Pyke came across as the archetypal mad scientist and it was his unforgettable manner that was largely responsible for the success of the series, such that a large proportion of my generation will think of Don’t Ask Me rather than Focus when they hear the song.

Holiday was a long-running BBC programme that began in 1969, featuring reports from holiday destinations around the world. I think it was broadcast on a Sunday in the early evening and it was therefore something that could be watched while eating an informal Sunday tea. I’d bought Gordon Giltrap’s Visionary shortly after it was released in 1976 and bought the subsequent album, Perilous Journey when that came out in 1977. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Heartsong used as the theme tune for Holiday ’78 and it continued to be used until replaced by an unpopular piece by Simon May in 1985. Interestingly, the ITV holiday reviews show Wish You Were Here? (essentially a rip-off of Holiday) used Giltrap’s The Carnival as a theme tune.

One of the best original theme tunes was by Greenslade for the gritty BBC crime drama Gangsters (appearing on Time and Tide, 1975.) I think I saw the programme before hearing the album, immediately recognising the twin keyboard work of Daves Greenslade and Lawson. Set around Birmingham and originally a one-off Play for Today in 1975, this was the most lifelike screen violence I’d seen and was genuinely gripping.

Like The Changes, it’s a lost gem with excellent title music.







By ProgBlog, Nov 10 2014 09:42PM

There’s something magical about a live performance, unless it’s to see a band that you don’t actually like. My personal nightmares include The Sweet (Barrow, May 1973 which fortunately cost me nothing because I accompanied a friend on his birthday), Slade (Goldsmiths’ College, December 1979) and UFO (Hammersmith Odeon, February 1980) but I’ve also seen performances from artists that I do like that have disappointed (Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth show at the Royal Albert Hall, earlier this year.) I think the disappointment stems from failed expectations. Wakeman had touted the format of the show beforehand but I was too stupid to take in what he’d said and I think that a full concert, rather than the Journey back-story peppered with jokes, some of which could be interpreted as offensive, that took up a good portion of the evening, would have been far less dissatisfying.

I think it’s generally true that musicians, of whatever genre, put a great deal into their live performances. Thematic or conceptual stage shows evolved in the 70s, especially amongst the more successful acts who graduated from small theatres to arenas. This coincided with the golden era of prog where the trilogy of recorded music, album design and stage set were fully thought through to provide what an economist might call ‘value added’. There was a shift from straightforward atmosphere to total immersion in a concept; from a light show to Yes and their fibreglass moulds to fit in with the Topographic Oceans iconography, ELP with their model of Tarkus, Rick Wakeman with inflatable battling dinosaurs or presenting Myths and Legends on ice, and culminating in the architectural designs of Pink Floyd, enhanced with models of crashing aeroplanes, flying pigs and giant puppets. There was no intention to downgrade the importance of the music but the increasing distance of the audience from the stage meant that there was a requirement to offer an alternative view to tiny dots on the stage. This became spectacle and, though many current rock and pop acts continue with the tradition, at the time it was seen as confirmation that progressive rock had become overblown and out of touch.

Though costume changes and make-up were seen as innovative by fans of David Bowie and the wider emerging glam rock scene, Arthur Brown was donning bizarre headgear and sporting makeup in 1968. A couple of years later, Peter Gabriel had also began to experiment with facial makeup, costumes and masks and wore his wife’s red dress and a foxes head for performances of The Musical Box before the release of Foxtrot, where it would be depicted on Paul Whitehead’s sleeve painting. [Have you looked closely at the horse ridden by the green headed huntsman on the cover of Foxtrot? It’s actually in a state of excitement.]

Gabriel’s theatrical touch served two purposes; to help him overcome his lack of confidence as he literally hid behind a mask and to provide a visual focal point as the other four musicians sat, barely moving, concentrating on playing their respective instruments. The costumes evolved from the basic ‘old Henry’ mask used on The Musical Box; through the bat wing head gear of Watcher of the Skies and the flower at the end of How Dare I be so Beautiful? and beginning of the Willow Farm sections of Supper’s Ready; Britannia on Dancing with the Moonlit Knight; culminating with Rael as a Slipperman on The Lamb Lies Down, a suit featuring inflatable genitals. Gabriel continued to wear face paint into his subsequent solo career and when I briefly played in a live band, I attempted to copy the makeup depicted on Plays Live – keyboard player Alistair Penny sported a Bowie-inspired flash and guitarist Eric Whitton wore makeup reminiscent of SAHB guitarist Zal Cleminson. It’s hard to believe that Gabriel was not responsible for inspiring the face painting of Fish, who wore makeup from the live inception of Marillion up to the end of the Real to Reel tour. Part camouflage and part refection of the Jester that appears on the sleeves of singles and albums up to Misplaced Childhood, a study of Fish’s greasepaint seems to show a thematic relationship with the venue. Though Fish denies any conscious adoption of colours relating to his surroundings, such as the black, red and yellow used for Marillion’s first indoor gig in Germany in October 1983, he does admit to putting some thought into occassionally going for specifics, such as a Union Jack and an RAF roundel design used at a gig at a base near Aylesbury in 1981, a design that was resurrected for the Reading Festival headlining gig of 1982. It's also of note that Peter Nicholls, vocalist with classic neo-prog band IQ, was also into face paint and costumes - the cover of The Wake depicts a character with make up very similar to that sported by Nicholls.

It’s difficult to know if Gabriel influenced Progressivo Italiano outfit Osanna. Genesis were certainly a very popular in Italy, where Nursery Cryme was a surprise success, reaching no. 4 in the Italian charts. L’Uomo was also released in 1971 and the cover depicts the band in costumes and theatrical makeup but their sound was rather different to that of Genesis, mixing jazz, psychedelia, folk and blues, indicating that Jethro Tull were a likely influence. They would later work with David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator, Charisma label-mates of Genesis and another successful UK musical export to Italy. It’s not even coincidence, but VdGG had a track called ’Masks’ on World Record, allowing Peter Hammill to extemporise on the subject of presenting a false persona. The theme of acting a part was also visited in the surrogate band that featured in the live shows of The Wall, wearing masks.

The vast majority of prog was about concentrating on the music. The visual additions to live shows were intended to enhance the musical experience but when theatrics became the dominant force like on the tour of The Wall, or Rick Wakeman performing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice, it’s as though the entertainment is making up for deficiencies in the music. I certainly don’t regard The Wall as progressive rock and I’ve previously questioned whether Journey to the Centre of the Earth is really prog. A good light show and effects is all you need to add to good music but some costume changes and face paint don’t do any harm; over-reliance on gimmicks, however clever, is slipping on a mask to hide what’s underneath.


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