By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2017 08:54PM
The latest edition of Prog magazine (Prog 75) arrived last week with a somewhat surprising cover story: The 100 Greatest Prog Anthems of All Time. Not only had I missed the call for voting but I wasn’t sure what readers were supposed to have voted for. It turns out that what they had asked for was our favourite track, and their feature was actually a list of ‘the 100 Greatest Prog Songs of all time’, also described as ‘pretty much the definitive list of prog songs old and new’. Not surprisingly, the Prog website anticipated the response to the published list; a byline predicting ‘feverish debate’.
As happy as I am to wade through a comprehensive list, knowing I’ll disagree with a good proportion of it (although in this instance I have 17 of the top 20 in my collection, just not in the same order of preference), I do think compiling lists is lazy journalism. However, I wouldn’t want to diminish the not inconsiderable task of compiling the list, as it’s likely that there were very large numbers of votes cast. The feature also includes some new insight into the making of some of the albums highlighted, such as David Cross providing background thoughts on King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973 and a decent-length interview with Steve Rothery.
My gripe isn’t with the list, although Close to the Edge should have been at number 1 instead of Supper’s Ready, not number 2, but with the magazine’s cover and headline. According to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘anthem’ derives from old English antefn or antifne, a composition sung antiphonally, itself a derivation from late Latin antiphona (see antiphon); the alternative spelling with ‘th’ was probably adopted in the 16th century. Whereas there’s a nationalistic connotation to anthems, solemn or patriotic songs officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity, and a subtly different appropriation where a rousing or uplifting song becomes identified with a particular social grouping, political body or cause, I’m not convinced that what we now recognise as anthems have any place in progressive rock.
This may not always have been the case, as Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist from Le Orme, has described the use of ‘stereo’ choirs in the Basilica di San Marco in his native Venice. This is an example of an antiphon, a hymn or a psalm performed by two groups of singers chanting alternative sections like a call and response and whether you believe in a Christian God or not, progressive rock has roots in liturgical music.
Call and response isn’t limited to either church music or prog but forms an interesting device in narrative songs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Genesis, with their moniker and background in Charterhouse public school (and public schools had strong church links; Charterhouse was founded by Thomas Sutton in 1611 and built on the site of the ruins of a Carthusian monastery) should employ multi-character vocal parts on a range of albums: Harold the Barrel from Nursery Cryme; Get ‘em Out by Friday (Foxtrot); The Battle of Epping Forest (Selling England by the Pound); Robbery Assault and Battery (A Trick of the Tail); and All in a Mouse’s Night (Wind and Wuthering). There are some examples where a call and the response aren’t vocal, the best of which are on Between Nothingness and Eternity by the Mahavishnu Orchestra; normally a duel, Mahavishnu use three lead instruments in fiery exchanges, interplay that hints at the difficult nature of the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
The common understanding of an anthem involves a short, distilled message, largely because this is the easiest way to get a message across, be it a patriotic call or an environmental protest. That’s not to say progressive rock can’t be used to highlight some ecological or political concern; Yes’ anti-war themes in Yours is no Disgrace and Starship Trooper and their use of ‘green language’, especially on Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans embrace counter-cultural thinking but the message isn’t clear-cut, relying on a deeper engagement with the audience. On the other hand, Don’t Kill the Whale, although still not an anthem, is a direct call to humankind to respect sentience in another species which cynics thought was simply the group jumping on an environmental band-wagon, but in fact their musical philosophy pre-dates the realisation that we were hunting whales to extinction.
An anthem has to include vocals and, in the context of pop or rock music, not only requires a structure that invokes euphoric feelings, it has to serve as something that is closely associated with a particular band. It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that minor chords are gloomy and major chords are ‘bright’ but, apart from increasing the tempo (which gives a sense of urgency or striving) it’s possible to make a chord sequence sound more rousing by opening up the chord; taking the middle note of a triad and raising it by an octave. In terms of association with a group, sticking to a pre-existing structural verse, chorus, bridge formula helps a little, as does revisiting familiar lyrical tropes, but in a world where visuals are as dominant as sounds, subscribing to a group’s visual identity is also a helping factor. A tendency towards style over substance is more rock than prog rock which is why I’d include Asia’s Heat of the Moment in the anthemic class. It just seems to me that there’s a propensity for stadium AOR and heavy rock acts to churn out this sort of music, so that wearing the patch on your cut-down denim jacket becomes an emblem of belonging, waving devil-horn hand gestures and singing along with 50000 others who have lost their own individualism to bask in the enveloping identity of the group.
As a season ticket holder of many years at Crystal Palace I can see, and I’m very wary of mob behaviour. It’s no surprise that national anthems are sung at the beginning of international matches; the sub-text is that two teams are going into battle. At league level we wear the club shirt and sing and chant club anthems in lieu of violence and, for some die-hards, the result is everything, not simply entertainment. I’m a bit intimidated by this fervour and though I always want Palace to win, playing well and demonstrating cohesiveness is nearly as important as coming away with three points. I think that immersion in the mob, whether it’s at a sporting event or at a gig is a repudiation of your individuality, whereas progressive rock is about inclusivity while retaining individualism; a realisation that different cultural influences makes more interesting music, that diversity is to be celebrated.
I suspect that the Prog editorial team simply made a poor choice of words when it came to putting together the front page of the magazine, which leaves us with the question: Are there really any prog anthems? I may go to gigs and sing to myself, sometimes with my eyes closed like some old dope, but I don’t like a singalong or to be encouraged to clap along to a piece of music because it interferes with my appreciation of what is being played. I suppose these moments get as close as anything to being anthemic but the complexity of the music normally brings audience participation to a premature close. The use of encores, playing well known and appreciated tunes, kind of fills the requirement for an anthem without necessarily being anthemic. Heat of the Moment, the culmination of John Wetton’s search for commercial success while retaining a relatively high degree of musicality would fit the bill, but stomping out verse-chorus-verse-chorus isn’t really prog.
If there was a Yes anthem it would be I’ve seen All Good People. Not surprisingly, I’m least disposed towards it out of all the songs on The Yes Album because the All Good People section comes close to straightforward rock. It remains a live favourite however, the second most played song by the band, where it frequently appears as an encore and audience clapping is encouraged. The most played tune is Roundabout which, despite the success brought about by the truncation into a radio-friendly single, chops and changes too many times to be an anthem.
The answer lies with Emerson, Lake and Palmer who covered the William Blake / Hubert Parry Jerusalem. This may seem like a return to the theme of church music, or even the idea of a national anthem but Blake has also been appropriated by a wide range of people who recognise a spirit of utopianism in his writing. Rugby fans may bellow out the hymn in an effort to galvanise their team while right-wing commentators remind them that perhaps Blake wasn’t quite as patriotic as they thought; rationalists like Dawkins and Bronowski and Marxists like EP Thompson have sided with him; he inspired Gordon Giltrap’s excellent prog-folk Visionary. His Complete Works was the first book of poetry I ever bought. It may be the Elgar’s orchestration of the hymn provides much of the uplifting feel but the ELP version, with Greg Lake’s clear voice ringing through, is a call to all followers of progressive rock.