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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, Oct 18 2018 07:02PM

I’ve just finished reading Will Romano’s analysis Close to the Edge: How Yes’s Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock (Backbeat Books, 2017) which deals in the minutiae of how the album came to be made, with input from many of the participants, both musical and non-musical. Apart from being a really enjoyable read for a fanatic like me, i.e. someone who believes Close to the Edge is not only the definitive progressive rock album but also the best album, ever, it touches on the impact the record had on other musicians and some (American) celebrities, and raises the question of inter-band rivalry.



The idea of ‘rivalry’ between the original cohort of progressive rock bands is something I originally thought about not long after discovering the genre in 1972 after hearing Close to the Edge for the first time, though in the context of fan affiliation. The Nice were the second band I listened to, who by that stage had already been disbanded for two years, followed by Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer and then hosts of others. At some time in the early 70s I must have read that Hawkwind fans didn’t like Yes music (though I’ve never believed Hawkwind were a progressive rock band) and, from a personal perspective, I don’t appear to have had any inclination to listen to Genesis, based on some non-specific prejudice or resentment, until one of my friends bought a copy of the compilation LP Charisma Keyboards (released April 1974) which included the Nursery Cryme track The Fountain of Salmacis; then I was hooked. This sudden appreciation of Genesis also allowed me to view the entire genre as something inclusive with myriad bands all bringing something of value to the progressive rock world.


With two showman-like stars in Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, the music papers of the time gossiped about Yes-ELP rivalry which at the time I interpreted as a suggestion of enmity. Will Romano covers this in his book but the two keyboard players themselves have elsewhere written about and discussed their friendship, with Wakeman explaining how the two used to lunch together and laugh about their perceived competitiveness, with fans debating which of them was the better. The explanation put to Romano by Emerson was that any success of Yes would spur ELP on to greater things, whether that was song concepts or live sound. Wakeman has pointed out that the two friends came from different stylistic backgrounds, Wakeman himself from classical and Emerson from jazz, so that any ‘who is the best?’ argument boils down to the listener’s preferred style. In the October edition of Prog magazine (Prog 91), Emerson pips Wakeman in a readers’ poll for the best keyboard player...


It was fairly evident, even to a naive youth in 1972 or 73, that intra-band relationships could involve enough tension to tear the band apart; this probably being when I came across the risible term ‘creative differences’ for the first time. A review of the history of Yes, even at that moment in the early 70s, was enough to demonstrate the Machiavellian designs of certain band members intent on reaching their personal goals at whatever cost. I would come to realise that this behaviour wasn’t restricted to Yes, though later versions of the group could be equally brutal; it was sometimes difficult to discern whether ego or musical direction was a cause of conflict. On the other hand, gifted musicians left groups for perfectly understandable reasons like illness, stage-fright or an inability to reconcile family life with constant touring. However, it seemed to me that the overall scene was one of relative stability: Bruford had already left Yes when Close to the Edge was released; Pink Floyd had long put the dropping of Syd Barrett behind them and whatever personality differences were simmering under the surface wouldn’t rise until the end of the decade; the ELP juggernaut rolled on; Genesis had formed the classic quintet and were yet to begin shedding members; Gentle Giant had a settled line-up; Jethro Tull also had a settled line-up. Focus may not have been the most stable of bands, with a rhythm section that was frequently reinventing itself, and there were seismic changes in the pre-Larks’ Tongues in Aspic King Crimson, played out before I got into them, but the one glaring exception to the seeming constancy of the movement, at least among those represented by the music that I owned or listened to, was the flux within the Canterbury scene.


Soft Machinery - from Pete Frame's first volume of Rock Family Trees
Soft Machinery - from Pete Frame's first volume of Rock Family Trees

From a progressive rock fan’s point of view, the first major upheaval I felt was Wakeman leaving Yes for a solo career in 1974 and his eventual replacement, Patrick Moraz, breaking up Refugee. Their eponymous debut, one of my top five albums of all time, came out three months before Wakeman’s split and based on the quality of Refugee, I could only rue the loss of such a promising musical force. With the decommissioning of the 60’s – 70’s King Crimson in 1974 and the self-imposed temporary withdrawal of Yes, ELP and Pink Floyd from the scene in 1975, a number of musicians were left to occupy themselves outside of a group context, some releasing solo material with assistance from quite diverse sources. That meant that any rivalry that may have existed disappeared in an atmosphere of collaboration.


Friendships were formed when bands toured with one another and it wasn’t terribly unusual to come across a fellow act paying in the same city while touring; mutual respect between musicians is frequently quoted in biographies, creating a network of potential players for a ‘solo’ work. I mapped this network, based on musicians featured on albums in my record collection from the late 60s through the 70s and including two from the 80s, for a short article ‘What is Progressive rock?’ which accompanied a self-compiled 2CD set presented to a friend who was rediscovering prog in 2004. Though hardly comprehensive, it did indicate that even within a narrow range of groups, there was a healthy degree of interconnectedness.


Prog connections - in its original colours!
Prog connections - in its original colours!

I’ve not attempted to update or redraw this chart because the post-millennium revival of prog has resulted in an explosion of new bands, the reformation of old bands (sometimes with an extensive cast of new talent) and even instances where the assistance of an established musician is enlisted to help out with a less well-established act (João Felipe’s Amber Foil project enlisted the help of Manuel Cordoso, formerly of premier Portuguese 70’s symphonic prog band Tantra, who added guitar parts and produced the An Invitation EP.) Also, the original chart only covered three non-UK bands, Focus and Trace (Netherlands) and PFM (Italy). Any new review of the information would have to include more Italian bands to reflect my growing collection of progressivo Italiano, which I have recently discovered have their own extensive networks. There’s even a series of ‘supergroups’ with their own identity though they exist simultaneously with the groups that act as the main vehicle for the individual musicians.


The swelling number of connections between groups has to be due primarily to the increase in numbers of album releases and the additional bands that have appeared in the last 45 years, but the interest in the genre following a period when ‘prog’ was a dirty word seems to have had an unexpected positive effect, bolstered by Prog magazine and books from people like Will Romano, allowing the movement to become a large, happy family, almost encouraging bands to offer guest appearance slots to other musicians. This extended family idea, where guesting on different albums or joining a touring band, possibly in addition to being in their own group, facilitates earning a living as a professional musician. The days of the multimillion-selling prog album are over, along with self-imposed tax exile status, a huge advance for the next release and limitless studio time, so unless there’s another income stream, even if that means playing in the backing band for some pop act, it’s unlikely that music alone can pay the bills.


To challenge myself, I've begun the October ProgBlog album playlist based on the notion of interconnectedness. I've chosen direct connections between artists on a particular release, using an artist once only for a link to another album. For example, Patrick Moraz’s i features Jeff Berlin on bass, so the next album in the sequence also features Berlin and the next link is through a different musician on that record. This exercise predominantly features 70’s music but some of the LPs covered are from more recent incarnations of 70’s bands. The results will be available for scrutiny at the beginning of November...







By ProgBlog, Dec 20 2015 10:05PM

Shortly before I left South Newbarns junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough; I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board and embarked upon a literary marathon. I think I’d previously been more interested in seeing how things worked, a practical or visual viewpoint backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose. Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and, though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which goes against my atheist principles, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air. From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap, being friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes interested me deeply. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in the form of the three hardback books, borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn Elvish, written and spoken, along with some other school friends. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that prog bands should jump on the bandwagon: Camel with their pre-Snow Goose mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971). Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by authors of popular culture. At the Time of Olias of Sunhillow (1976), Jon Anderson owned an Old English Sheepdog called Bilbo and in 1972 Bo Hansson released a complete album Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Hansson’s subsequent work was inspired by other authors I was discovering: Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness. Alan Garner is still one of my favourite authors and my adolescence coincided with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

“...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the plot. Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog?


Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label
Refugee by Refugee - on the famous Charisma label

The Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the Syd Barrett whimsy, psychedelia rather than prog per se, is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame. Garner invokes Carroll’s word square to turn communication between Red Shift’s Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. When I was 13 or 14, my brother Tony and I cracked the code and sent our interpretation to Garner via his publisher, possibly the first people to do so. I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula taken at Jodrell Bank, close to Garner’s home, commending us on our efforts. I equate ciphers with prog, seeking to find meaning in words or symbols and can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979). I’m also informed by my friend and electronica aficionado Neil Jellis that the planetarium at Jodrell Bank used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs. How cosmic is that?


Postcard of the Horsehead nebula
Postcard of the Horsehead nebula

I now read more books relating to music than I do novels. I’m not a fan of lists but I own copies of Jerry Lucky’s The Progressive Rock Files (4th edition, 1998), his Progressive Rock Handbook (2008), bought as an updated version of Files, and his 20th Century Rock and Roll: Progressive Rock (2000) which is a book of the 50 most influential progressive rock albums of all time. Though largely an A - Z catalogue of bands, including brief descriptions and a strict discography, both Files and Handbook include an introductory discussion about prog but that’s not why I bought them. As early examples of books that promoted the genre, I used them to identify potential additions to my collection and they didn’t just sit on my bookshelves, their slightly dog-eared appearance is down to being carried around to record shops in the UK and elsewhere as reference manuals; the country of origin listing being particularly important.

The resurgence of, or detoxification of progressive rock in the mid 90s allowed authors to once more write about prog without being pilloried. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (1997), Paul Stump’s The Music’s All That Matters (1997) and Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) and Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-78 (1997) were all attempts to address the shortage of critical material about the genre, not simple biographies that had been available before (Yes Perpetual Change by David Watkinson, 2001; Close to the Edge, the story of Yes by Chris Welch, 1999), looking at the genre from musicological, sociological and philosophical perspectives, putting it in context of how, when, where and why. A series of essays edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson published as Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001) continued the academic approach and set a new standard of analytical writing. Though not a major fan of biography as a literary genre, I make an exception for some prog musicians such as Bill Bruford. His The Autobiography (2009) was a book that I could hardly put down, setting itself apart by avoiding a straightforward chronological narrative and using a series of ‘frequently asked questions’ to begin each chapter. I also like to read the stories behind my favourite bands. Paul Stump attempted a book on Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste (2005) that I enjoyed although three Amazon reviewers derided it for being too verbose, factually incorrect and over-reliant on pre-existing sources; Sid Smith did an incredible job with In the Court of King Crimson (2001) and Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart produced the excellent Van der Graaf Generator - The Book (2005).

I’m not jealous of Will Romano, loving his Mountains Come Out of the Sky (2010) because of the inclusion of a chapter of Italian prog, the first concise history of the sub-genre I’d seen, but his Prog Rock FAQ (2015) covers material that I thought I was the first person to commit to text in this blog! A series of interviews and an interesting theory about the origin of prog reveal his journalist credentials but I don’t always agree with his analysis or opinions. Finally, I need to learn Italian so I can fully appreciate a couple of Progressivo Italiano books...




Prog books
Prog books


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