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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Jun 11 2017 05:59PM

The UK has been gripped by the general election over the last week, somewhat surprisingly when it appeared that the electorate was completely battered by a spate of recent polls: The Scottish Independence referendum; the 2015 general election; the EU referendum; then the somewhat unnecessary call for a stronger mandate to bolster Theresa May’s negotiating hand for our exit from the EU. Yet, on Friday as I prepared to go for work, there was an indication that the world of politics may never be the same again as the results indicated a hung parliament and a good number of seats gained by the Labour Party, including mine in Croydon Central. Seven weeks ago there was a tacit understanding, promoted by almost all mainstream media, that Labour faced annihilation and that Jeremy Corbyn would be personally responsible for the wipe-out at the ballot box. However, on that morning commentators and a large proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party had to admit just how wrong they’d been; though Labour didn’t get more seats than the Tories it was widely recognised that in overseeing a net gain of 32 seats, including positive results in Conservative heartlands such as Canterbury and Kensington, Corbyn had emerged as the biggest winner of the previous night.


Croydon Central. Photo: Chris Gorman www.standard.co.uk
Croydon Central. Photo: Chris Gorman www.standard.co.uk

At the start of the campaign, the contradictory behaviour of May, parroting that she was ‘strong and stable’ while embarking on a series of damaging U-turns seemed to be sufficient to dispel any vestiges of interest in politics in all but the politicians themselves, numbed as we were by the inane slogans of a political class which frequently put itself before the constituents. The gap in the polls between the two main parties was running at over 20 points, leading to the conclusion that May was calling the election, already with a working majority, for simple political gain. Despite the backing of media moguls and big business, however much money was thrown at the Tory campaign it was insufficient to hide May’s innate deficiencies. Badly advised and playing to vested interests, and projecting many of the damning qualities she accused the Labour leadership of possessing, her presidential-style campaign came unstuck with her refusal to debate head-to-head, the catalogue of changes in policy, a lack of empathy towards struggling working people, plus her dismal record as Home Secretary as she sought to pin the blame for the murderous attacks in Manchester and London on ‘terrorist sympathisers’ leading the opposition.

Meanwhile, Corbyn did what he does best; take his campaigning style out around the UK. Helped by the most socialist manifesto for a generation, one which had been agreed by the PLP, he sent out a message of hope and a rejection of seven years of failed neo-liberal economics. If anything, the manifesto was a little too cautious for me but I understood that the Labour document would undergo more forensic scrutiny than anything produced by the incumbents; fortunately for Labour, the Tories relied on their (entirely unwarranted) reputation for sensible fiscal management and didn’t bother to properly cost their programme, thus revealing a deep disdain for the voting public. The trend for the poll gap to close in some surveys, attributed to Corbyn’s message of hope to the young, was also dismissed as being of little concern because of the perceived notion that young people wouldn’t bother to turn out to vote.

The other misplaced presumption was that UKIP votes, even those from former Labour supporters would end up with Conservative candidates. This worried many prospective Labour MPs in the north, in Wales and the Midlands where they believed that Corbyn was responsible for alienating voters. What I already knew and what people saw following the announcement of the election, was that when seen outside of the bear-pit of the House of Commons with its turn-off adversarial politics, a game Corbyn was unhappy playing, he went down very well with thousands of people all around the country and, when reported on the news outside the prism of normal parliamentary coverage, millions more could hear his message of hope and positivity and witness his inclusivity. It became obvious, rather quickly, that he wasn’t a monster with fringe ideas dedicated to destroying the UK but quite the opposite; he wanted a fairer system where those who could afford to, paid a bit more tax and through investment, wealth was better distributed and services were resumed for the benefit of all.


I became politically active when Andrew Lansley proposed his Health and Social Care Bill after the formation of the coalition government in 2010. This was something that didn’t even feature in the Conservative manifesto at the time but, because of its swift introduction, it had evidently been pre-planned and I could see that it spelt out the certain break-up of the NHS. Over the following years I marched, sat down in the middle of Westminster Bridge for an hour or two and made connections with like-minded individuals. The highlight of this time was giving a short address to a crowded Central Hall, Westminster, about the threat of privatisation in the NHS. I’d just organised a ‘Hands Around St Thomas’ Hospital’ event, held opposite Parliament during some of the most dreadful spring weather imaginable and Jeremy Corbyn was one of the only MPs to attend; then, when I’d given my speech, John McDonnell approached me to say how much he enjoyed what I’d said.


The drift towards an acceptance that austerity was the only possible answer to the global crash of 2008 was simply the will of large corporations who wanted to carry on as normal. Politicians, possibly fearing the wrath of vested interests, went along with this because the alternative narrative required a shift to economics proposed by the left and a refutation of centrist social democracy so ironically, it was Labour who saved neo-liberalism. The coalition inherited an economy that had begun to shows signs of recovery but, following the dogma that decried the requirement for any form of state control, they imposed a wage cap on the public sector and began a series of cuts to services which hit the poor, the ill and the young while cementing the lifestyle of the top earners. The downward pressure on wages of already low-earners in an economy dominated by the service industries provided one of the sources of anti-immigrant sentiment; another was a chronic shortage of appropriate housing stock. No one in a position of power had the will to challenge the causes of this tension because this too would have upset the orthodoxy. Instead, we witnessed the return of slum landlords and an increase in top-end properties bought by foreign investors who never set foot in their purchases; the divide between haves and have nots got ever wider and resentment simmered in former industrial heartlands, stoked by the multimillionaire proprietors of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The DailyTelegraph and the people ignored by Westminster.


This election result changed all that. Originally deeply despairing of the Labour leadership, fuelled by the difference in opinion of the members and the PLP, The Guardian came round to supporting Labour following the publication of their manifesto. The contrast between Labour and Conservative became quite stark: positivity vs. fear and negativity; concern for social justice vs. conceited indifference and, crucially; discipline vs. chaos. Even after the exit poll at 10pm on Thursday there were still some Labour MPs who doubted. Of the imagined carnage, they only lost five seats but gained 37; the Conservatives lost 33 seats and gained 20, losing the parliamentary majority they held before the election. May’s Brexit-election gamble backfired spectacularly. Winner? Hardly!


Jeremy Corbyn may be an unorthodox leader but his sincerity and willingness to listen in a world where shouting loudest (including electronically) and acting strong were formerly seen as important traits, has enabled him to rewrite the rules. Brexit may have been a tussle between the Conservatives and an irrelevant UKIP but 40% of the voting public had much more to worry about and Labour has the best answers to their problems. I’m looking forward to the Conservative-DUP deal coming unstuck – bring on the next general election!






By ProgBlog, Jun 12 2016 09:24PM

I remember the UK joining the EEC in 1973 better than I remember the last time the UK took place in a European referendum on the 5th June 1975. During an Art lesson at the time we joined the Common Market, we were given the task of illustrating the event and though my family quite happily discussed issues that laid the foundation for my own political awakening, I don’t recall how they voted in the 1975 plebiscite.

The first half of 1975 was relatively quiet for releases from major progressive rock acts. In April Camel released Music Inspired by the Snow Goose and Hatfield and the North released The Rotter’s Club the previous month but it wasn’t until late summer into autumn that the floodgates opened and Caravan finally managed to get an album in the charts with Cunning Stunts; Gentle Giant released the accessible Free Hand; Quiet Sun put out the phenomenal, off-beat Mainstream; Pink Floyd returned from hiatus with Wish You Were Here; Jethro Tull released the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Steve Hackett embarked on his first solo venture, albeit with help from a number of his band mates, Voyage of the Acolyte; Van der Graaf Generator mark II announced their reformation with Godbluff; Chris Squire became the first of the Yes alumni to release a solo album during their break from band duties with Fish out of Water; and Vangelis, who had sparked our interest because of headlines linking him with Yes after the departure of Rick Wakeman in 1974, put out Heaven and Hell. Focus rounded off the year with Mother Focus, a departure from the symphonic prog of Hamburger Concerto, veering into pop and funk territory, considered by many to be disappointingly sub-standard.


With the exception of Wish You Were Here and Fish out of Water, I didn’t buy any of the albums listed above at the time of their release due to a combination of lack of funds and a lack of willingness to take a punt when I’d only heard excerpts on the radio. I’ve yet to commit to a copy of Cunning Stunts. When I did buy an LP it was catching up with a release from earlier in the progressive rock timeline, including the compilation Yesterdays which really counts as the first Yes retrospective, no doubt issued (in February 1975) to maintain interest in the group as they all took time off to explore solo ventures. I thought it was a decent way of acquiring some of their early material, plus a muscular, prog version of Simon and Garfunkel’s America, for half the price of the first two studio albums. Another two albums that I did buy when they first came out were Rubycon by Tangerine Dream and Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from March and April 1975 respectively. I hadn’t bought Journey to the Centre of the Earth, having been put off by the vocals but I thought the singing on Arthur was better and Wakeman’s song writing had improved, though not to the standard of the musical vignettes on the entirely instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Also, as much as I approved of Jules Verne’s proto-science fiction, I was much more familiar with Arthurian legends. Rubycon continued on from where Phaedra had left off and at the time I was very much in favour of keyboard-drenched sojourns into outer and inner space and the amorphous washes from Tangerine Dream, coupled with the sequencer pulses weaving and morphing in and out of the synthesizer, organ and Mellotron drones chimed with my interest in sonic exploration.


Whereas I’d heard of bands like Amon Düül, Kraftwerk and, thanks to the marketing gurus at Virgin Records selling The Faust Tapes for 49p, Faust, of all the German bands I only really liked Tangerine Dream; that was until late summer when Triumvirat released Spartacus and, after hearing March to the Eternal City on Alan Freeman's radio show, I went out and bought the album. Whereas most of the album is stylistically analogous to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9, March to the Eternal City hints of ELP but is obviously Triumvirat. This is the best track on the album thanks to the lyrics which sound as though they could be telling some future tale, “they carry missile and spear”, like a storyline from the comic strip The Trigan Empire; the other words are a bit schoolboy-ish and naive.

It was early in 1975 was when I discovered Premiata Forneria Marcon (PFM) when friend Bill Burford bought Chocolate Kings and live cut Cook, and a Europe-wide take on the progressive rock super-genre began to reveal itself with other musicians and bands joining the movement, one that still seemed very much rooted in the original ideals. This time of progressive rock coincided with the death of Franco in Spain and the beginning of the transition to democracy and Greece only emerged from a military junta the previous year, 1974.


Fast forward to 2016 and Europe seems to be doing its best to tear itself apart. Southern states have been most badly affected by austerity and though it’s been easy for those in power to deflect the blame from the banks that caused the financial crisis in 2008, it has resulted in an abandonment of belief in the political system. Those on the Right blame immigration for their economic outlook while those on the Left decry inflexible centrists for imposing austerity on their countries. So far, the far Right have been kept from power but the frightening prospect of Golden Dawn in Greece, a violent party that took third place in elections in 2015 or France’s Marine Le Pen or, even more recently, of Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party who was narrowly defeated by the socialist Alexander Van der Bellen in this year’s Austrian Presidential election, being elected to run their country is a serious cause for concern because their insular point of view and populist nationalism is a breeding ground for hatred and violence and threatens genuine democracy through clamping down on freedom of speech. Our very own UKIP operates under the guise of respectability but a series of interventions by party officials shows how nasty they really are, trading on fear, lies and the politics of hatred. Wars in Africa and the Middle East have created a massive migrant crisis as refugees risk their lives in the flight from their own countries towards what they believe to be the safety of the West, landing in Italy and Greece, creating perfect conditions for the rise of anti-immigrant sympathies.

It seems to me that the UK referendum on our membership of the EU, a political gamble by David Cameron that was always destined to fail, has been reduced to the level of a playground brawl with each side calling each other names and, despite those who wish to remain talking up doom scenarios and those who wish to leave having no idea of how the country will fare outside of the EU, this has become a referendum on immigration. Those in favour of leaving imagine they are going to take control of our borders. Could they remind themselves how many Syrian refugees the UK has taken in? That was 1,602 at the end of March this year. What an amazing response to a humanitarian crisis! According to Nigel Farage, controlling immigration is restricting the movement of Europeans into the UK complaining of the stress placed upon housing, jobs and the NHS but allowing an undisclosed number of Commonwealth citizens to come to the UK. It’s hard to believe he can get away with such hypocrisy but the 24 hour media cover concentrates on ‘blue on blue’ attacks and making up non-stories about Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be nice if someone broadcast the message that it’s not immigrants who put strain on public services, but ideological austerity and the deliberate dogmatic shrinking of the State. No one has said there’s not enough room in the country. There aren’t enough hospital beds, teachers and affordable houses or public transport because this government, and those before, have pursued policies of enriching the few and penalising those on low and middle incomes, welcoming foreign investment in luxury developments but leaving flats empty, under-occupied and pushing house prices beyond the means of a major proportion of the population, slashing the salaries of healthcare workers and teachers through public-sector pay freezes and pension changes and forcing low paid private sector employees into zero hour contracts. Please don’t think that education, health, housing, jobs and transport would be better if we leave the EU – those advocating leave are equally responsible for the state of the country with their private healthcare directorships and money secreted away in tax havens.

Progressive rock espoused the benefits of external influences and embraced the nascent green movement. I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with the EU but the UK will not be able to face up to global challenges like climate change on its own. This means the abandonment of austerity and offering more, better targeted training and rejecting xenophobia. Let’s do it with help from our EU partners.





By ProgBlog, Oct 2 2014 08:31PM

September’s referendum for independence for Scotland energised political debate north of the border and late in proceedings, dragged pro-union UK political party leaders and other leading Westminster MPs beyond Hadrian’s Wall to shore up their flagging ‘No’ campaign. The temptation to vote ‘yes’ was spurred not because of a nationalistic hatred of the English but a distrust and dislike of a system that allowed a Conservative-led coalition to impose laws that affect Scotland despite the Tories being wiped out from there in the 1997 general election and only having one current MP. A sizeable minority voted for full self-determination but there were evident doubts about the economy and currency should Scotland have become independent. Though it would have been really good to see Trident kicked out, the loss of jobs would have been somewhat detrimental.

Despite being a single-issue campaign, it was great to see how successful the referendum was in getting the electorate engaged, especially with younger voters (the voting age was reduced to 16) because of the effect the result would have on future generations. This connection with politics has been sadly missing for a long time and the reasons are multifactorial: The selection of MPs from a metropolitan elite; the rightward drift and the blurring of political identity; the expenses scandal; the planned 9% pay rise for MPs compared to a long-running public sector pay freeze or 1% rise, itself denied to many; the insidious effect of commercial lobbying and the post-parliament jobs.

The compromise between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, designed by Gordon Brown, was to offer greater powers to Holyrood. The reaction of English Conservative MPs was predictable and a greater degree of devolution in Scotland was coupled with devolved powers in the rest of the UK; English-only votes for English matters, a sop to English nationalism that was intended to outflank UKIP and cause Labour problems.

There are some left-wing commentators who are brave enough to point out the requirement to accept the notion of ‘Englishness’. This doesn’t have to be viewed as a nationalistic concept, the preserve of the politically far-right or the insular UKIP (who are nearly as far right) and it’s not represented by John Redwood’s cricket ball; Englishness is amorphous and it should be celebrated. It’s not a reaction against immigration or immigrants, it’s partly made up from the exact opposite and the Left needs to help everyone see the issue from this other angle; the mixture that is England is a result of migration, would-be invasion and settlement and, more than that, an acceptance of those who have been persecuted, making Englishness an acceptance and celebration of diversity. In socio-economic terms, nationalistic elements blame immigrants for taking the jobs of English people, stirring racial hatred and sowing fear in unskilled or low-paid workers who are most likely to be in threatened jobs. This deliberate lie needs to be cut out and exposed because it’s the unwillingness to pay a living wage that has forced down wages. The lack of an organised workforce, after a Thatcher policy carried on after 1997 by Blair, effectively cuts off any form of resistance to this strategy and as globalisation took off in the 80s, multinationals moved their operations around the world to take advantage of cheap labour in an attempt to squeeze out more profit. Decimating the UK industrial base and then spending North Sea oil revenues on social security payments for masses of unemployed was economic incompetence but somehow Thatcher got away with it, fighting a war over Las Malvinas, gerrymandering and plugging into the ‘greed is good’ creed that she claimed, probably knowing it was a lie, would create trickle-down wealth. This is the source of UK inequality that has led to the safety net of social security being rebranded as ‘benefit’ and the unemployed stigmatised as ‘skivers’, a narrative that conveniently ignores the true cause of the global crash in 2008 and one that is blind to the suffering caused by austerity because the super-rich, whose greed precipitated the financial meltdown, have just got richer over the past six years. Gideon Osborne’s speech to the Tory party conference this week shows exactly how little he cares about the low-paid. The Tories, fearing that the rise of UKIP will prevent them from gaining a parliamentary majority, have developed a language of hatred aimed at the unemployed, the low-paid, people with disabilities, minority groups and immigrants. I find that behaviour obscene; a behaviour that shrinks away from fairness for political expediency. The creation of the welfare state and the NHS, funded by taxation, was a major step in reducing the gulf between the poor and the wealthy, an act of decency and ‘the right thing to do’; fairness and decency are also included in the formula for ‘Englishness’.

Progressive rock is something that has a strong association with Englishness. Geographically, prog was a largely English phenomenon but one that was outward-looking, absorbing influences from around the world; European classical music, Eastern music, jazz and (to a lesser extent) blues from America, all mixed in with traditional English folk music. This eclectic blend sometimes attempted to reconcile different world philosophies (Tales from Topographic Oceans) and frequently borrowed from world literature. It arose from psychedelia which in the UK was itself founded on a mixture of sources, from Marvel comics to EE Cummings, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame and Tolkien. The association of psychedelia with the peace movement and environmental awareness also spilled over into prog, providing grand themes based on the inclusiveness of the global village. It’s quite fitting that ELP should record Jerusalem and that Mont Campbell of Egg should be the grandson of composer Martin Shaw, not simply because of the imagery of northern hills and a green and pleasant land but because of the influence, cited by many of the protagonists, of church music on the musicians. Though religious belief has declined in the UK over the last half-century, the Church of England still retains undue power in our national affairs, with 26 unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords.

The inclusion of the sea shanty Wreck on Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste may have been influenced by their formative years in Portsmouth but this isn’t a paean to England’s historic nautical supremacy, something that would be boastful and nationalistic, it’s another slice of Englishness as it updates traditional folk. A number of commentators have analysed the relationship between Englishness and progressive rock, how and why it came about, but there’s no simple answer. It’s a combination of embedded culture and emerging culture in association with scientific, technological and medical advances; an increasing awareness of our place in time and space, of the futility of wars and the consequences of environmental destruction. Prog emerged as the music of a generation that was willing to reflect and engage; a positive force. That’s my kind of Englishness.


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