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Nick Mason has just received a CBE, is touring with Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets, and is currently hosting a BBC World Service radio series called A History of Music and Technology

 

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By ProgBlog, Jan 1 2019 05:22PM

2018. A year like no other, with global politics stooping to a new nadir as so-called world leaders lie, cheat and bully their way through life. I’ve always tended towards optimism, which is one of the reasons I have an affinity for progressive rock, but when humanity is fast-approaching the point where man-made climate change is going to have irreversible, accelerated effects on the biosphere and some of the largest economies in the world argue about the wording of a document at the end of the (extended) COP24 Climate Conference in Katowice relating to the implementation of the 2015 Paris agreement, I may have reached my personal tipping point. For the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with tacit encouragement from Australia and Brazil, joining forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings that any warming of above 1.5oC of pre-industrial levels would be disastrous for many species seems criminal to me. As forest fires rage across California and Australia and Japan once again break their local temperature records, it’s time surely for anyone with children or grandchildren to think globally and, at the earliest opportunity, use the ballot box to facilitate change.


The Guardian headline 15 December 2018
The Guardian headline 15 December 2018

Change appears to be the kryptonite of anyone with a vested interest. Colonial expansion allowed Europeans to profit from indigenous mineral wealth with little or no trickle-down benefit for locals (usually the opposite); the dirty energy that fuelled the industrial revolution made a small number of people very rich; the sell-off of former Soviet state industries made a smaller number of people super-wealthy; now our fondness for technology has created an even smaller group of unimaginably rich who are responsible for the way we get our information. I’m not going to deny that there’s no philanthropic disbursement of funds but however well-founded donations are, there’s always a return for the sponsor through free advertising and access to political power, and even something as outwardly benign as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come under scrutiny for purportedly cornering the market on global health issues. Thanks to some stunning work by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that the accumulation of wealth by a limited proportion of the global population, including politicians, is driven by self-interest and that they utilise schemes which although falling within the letter of the law, are actually complex constructs to preserve that wealth and ergo, influence or power. The employment of offshore structures is the equivalent of smoke and mirrors, a device to distract and confuse and ultimately avoid transparency; the influence is exerted to avoid regulation, the same red tape that might have prevented the Bhopal disaster, the Sandoz chemical spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Flint, Michigan water crisis and many others. There’s a salutary lesson here: cutting regulations may save you money, but cutting costs may cost lives.


Climate change appears to be rather low on the UK government’s list of priorities, along with rising homelessness and providing appropriate care for the elderly, those with disabilities and the unwell. Currently paralysed in a mess of her own making, bounded by red lines and surrounded by a party disunited over Europe, the Prime Minister continues to rely on DUP MPs to hold the government together even as she decries almost half of the population who voted to remain in the EU as undemocratic for suggesting a second referendum; her pro-Brexit allies from Northern Ireland don’t actually represent the majority ‘remain’ sentiment to be found in the province but she continues to allow them to hold her to ransom. It’s easy for critics of Jeremy Corbyn to lambast him for not holding Theresa May fully to account for her Brexit bungling but there are some equally pressing issues which, if satisfactorily addressed, might persuade those who voted to leave that their voice is being heard and that there was nothing to gain from leaving the EU. If May had taken more of a consensus approach to work out the best solution for the country and not attempted the impossible, the reconciliation of the pro- and anti-Europe wings of the Conservative party, the UK might not be three months away from the worst possible scenario – no deal.


Extrapolating from what I’ve seen in Prog magazine and in tweets posted by the individuals I follow on Twitter, I imagine that the majority of UK prog musicians are in favour of remaining within the EU. The challenge of restriction to movement throughout Europe effectively putting a kibosh on touring the mainland continent for all but the best resourced bands by erecting barriers to seamless touring not seen since the early 1970s, cutting off a previously accessible market. The reciprocal arrangement will undoubtedly deter artists from some of our former EU partners from gigging in the UK. The following argument could be made by not only anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of cheap intracontinental travel but by NHS senior managers, hoteliers and other owners of hospitality, catering or drinks businesses, even farmers requiring a large seasonal workforce; any restriction or barrier to EU citizens working in the UK is going to have an adverse effect on our daily lives, whether that’s longer waiting times in hospitals, no one to staff care homes for our elderly relatives, food shortages and concomitant rising prices, or just finding it harder to enjoy a night out. Doesn’t that make us look grown-up?

The Brexit-fantasy nostalgia even puts my infatuation with 70’s prog in the shade. I resent the barriers being erected that will inconvenience me on my quest to witness the last few classic progressivo Italiano bands I’ve not yet seen, and flourishing my blue UK passport at the end of a slow-moving immigration queue at Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo airport isn’t actually something I’m going to feel proud about.


2018 did turn out to be good for one thing; the number of concerts I managed to attend (22) was the most I’ve ever managed in a year; I had thought 2017 was busy with 14 (that’s including two days in Genoa for the Porto Antico Prog Fest and five nights in Rome for the Progressivamente festival.) At times it felt as though I was chasing gigs and was certainly flagging by the end of March. Having recommenced semi-retirement towards the end of 2017, it became easier to take extended weekend breaks so on my return from a midweek skiing trip to Chamonix in early January I discovered that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso had a gig in Brescia the following week which, thanks to its proximity to Milan, made travel arrangements relatively easy.


ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018
ProgBlog's list of gigs, 2018

The true gig marathon began on the 23rd March with my second venture to the Fabio Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest in Milan and ended with my first attendance at a Tangerine Dream performance at the Union Chapel, Islington, on 23rd April. Between those dates I got to see Yes at the Palladium, the first of Steven Wilson’s three nights’ residency at the Royal Albert Hall, had a week skiing in Austria after which I dropped off my gear and immediately headed out to the ESP 22 Layers of Sunlight launch party at the Half Moon, Putney, and flew off to Brescia again, this time for another classic Italian prog band, Le Orme, who were augmented by David Cross on violin. The complexities of getting back the hotel from some of these Italian venues can be something of a logistical nightmare after public transport has shut down for the night. Walking the streets of Genoa after a show poses no threat when the club or theatre is in the heart of the city but the 11km between L’ Angelo Azzurro and the NH Genova Centro, though only a 90 minute walk at most, might not be the best idea at 2am. I am deeply indebted to Marina Montobbio for arranging my lift back from an excellent gig. BMS at Brescia would have been less problematic if I hadn’t followed my wife’s instructions not to use public transport to get back to our hotel. Circolo Colony, the venue for the show, was hidden away on an industrial estate about 20 minutes walk from the light rail terminus to the east of the city. Though the last train was scheduled for 1am, the walk to the station would have involved a section behind the Armco protection from a dual carriageway, so I was told to get a taxi. I had pre-programmed a mobile phone app to get my return cab but despatch phoned me to tell me nothing was available at the time I requested, 00:45am, and the last taxi was at midnight. Apart from missing a chunk of the BMS set, I had to hang around the car park for almost half an hour and had to phone the company to ask where the driver was. When he appeared, it turned out that he was familiar with progressive rock so the journey back to the hotel wasn’t unpleasant. On my return to the city three months later I’d worked out not to bother trying to pre-book a return taxi journey. I made a note of where the taxi dropped me off on the way to the Brixia Forum, returned to that spot at the conclusion of the performance, and called a taxi; mine was the third to arrive. As a result of making the trip for the BMS gig, I was able to explore more of Italy. I really like Brescia with its three record stores (special mention has to go to Kandinski, Via Tartaglia 49c, 25100 Brescia) but it also hosts a UNESCO World Heritage site and the railway provides easy access to other cities including Cremona, and to Lake Garda.


While the variety of live events I attended spanned the inaugural local electronica festival (part three of Palace Electrics was held at Antenna Studios, Crystal Palace and included an interpretation of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music) to Camel at the Royal Albert Hall and the fabulous Lucca Summer Festival for an outdoor experience of King Crimson, I was also being exposed to a lot more music that I’d describe as being outside my comfort zone. Requests for me to review new music, which came from all parts of the prog spectrum, led to the creation of a new section on the ProgBlog website, DISCovery, which had the aim of exposing new artists to a wider audience. So far it has featured a diverse range of styles including classic Floyd-like soundscape prog, pop-prog, prog with a metal bias, and RIO-inflicted free jazz.

I hope that my contribution to the prog world, however small, inspires someone to go out and explore, whether that’s just the sonic adventure of trying something new or a geographical quest to unearth the inspiration behind the music, where an understanding of physical and cultural artefacts help to piece the world together. 2019 certainly needs everyone to display a little more understanding.


Wishing everyone a peaceful new year.







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, Dec 4 2016 11:47PM

Ten years ago I was sitting in an MBA tutor group, discussing the pharmaceutical industry and I casually announced my belief that the NHS should prescribe any drug which had a proven beneficial effect whatever the cost and that the production of medicines needed to be brought under state control; 30 years before that during a General Studies class, I made an observation on equality which provoked the teacher to ask if I was a Marxist. My world view is based on the advantages of co-operation rather than the destructive forces of competition and I favour hope over selfishness and greed. These are sympathetic aspects that I coincidentally detect in symphonic progressive rock but I don’t necessarily think they make me a follower of Marxist doctrine.




In the last 6 months my philosophy has been battered by some devastating political developments, most notably the decision by a small majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the election of Donald Trump as US President (the EU Referendum was discussed in the post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Referendum/10768128). As I write, counting of votes in the re-run Austrian Presidential election has just begun and there are a couple of hours to go before polls close in Italy, where voters have to decide between the political establishment and rising populist forces in a referendum called by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi; the political landscape of Europe may yet take another turn for the worse.

I don’t intend to criticise anyone for voting the opposite way to me but I’m deeply unhappy about our descent into a post-truth world, where both obvious lies and unsubstantiated opinion are presented as ‘facts’ which gain the gloss of validity when they are transmitted over and over again by traditional media, whether or not owned by vested interests, and the more insidious new media which is controlled by only a handful of giant corporations. Sometimes it seems the louder you shout, whatever rubbish you’re spouting but especially if you’re tapping into a source of insecurity, the more adherents you get. There is an obvious disconnect between elected members and the public they ostensibly represent, where in the UK becoming an MP relies more on impressing the party establishment than it does with understanding the concerns of constituents within the community. This is disturbing because communities which existed at the peak of UK manufacturing in the 70s were decimated by the policies of the Thatcher-run Conservative government in the early 80s and whatever new industry has appeared, such as the assembly of Japanese cars in the north-east, it has not compensated for the loss of the original manufacturing base. The reduction in output of physical product was originally partially met by the expanding service sector, best illustrated by organisations based away from high-cost areas in low-rent call centres, but the cost-savings of this model weren’t enough for many high street names who outsourced the work to the Indian sub-continent, creating a customer services debacle; most of these companies have now brought back their call centres to the UK. Even worse, our ability to provide apprenticeships for practical skills was allowed to wither, demonstrated by the defects present in the recently built submarines carrying our nuclear deterrent....

The world has moved on following the 2008 global financial crash but the same vested interests continue to pull the strings. Our current government boasts of record employment figures while failing to accept the consequences of the ‘gig economy’: unskilled work; low pay; underemployment; lack of job security; a failure to invest for retirement. These effects have been exacerbated by a commitment to austerity but resistance has been poor because of the reduced power of the unions and the voting public has swallowed the misdirection of the government and the press. The lexicon has changed where ‘welfare’, the state safety net for those unable to work, has become ‘benefits’ and instead of seeking out the millions owed by corporate tax avoidance, we want to punish the far smaller number of ‘benefit cheats’. Our appetite for buzz phrases like ‘workers and shirkers’ or ‘skivers and strivers’ plays into the hands of anyone who wants to divide the country. Politicians and the media know that in times of crisis it’s handy to have someone to blame, whether it’s immigrants or the disabled, just as long as it’s not them or any of their coterie running banks and big business; we’ve become lazy, falling for a catchphrase and victimising groups who most deserve our support.



There are a number of terms in music with positive connotations. Harmony describes different voices getting along together; the voices in counterpoint are harmonically interdependent but independent in rhythm and contour; even dissonance can be resolved. As a musical form, progressive rock explores and utilises these techniques in an effort to bridge the so-called high culture of classical music with the popular culture of rock, rejoicing in and incorporating other diverse influences. Prog rock emerged on the back of hope for a better future and was realised through innovative technical developments, indicating a close relationship between ideals and novel thinking. Many of the ideas expounded in the science fiction books I read as a youth are now reality but the concomitant idealism has been ground into the dust. So when did this positive vision dissipate and why? Almost all commentators agree that Yes were an affirmative musical force and when they began really hitting the big time in America during the Close to the Edge tour, Jon Anderson would introduce And You And I as a ‘protest song’ and encourage the audience to think about the importance of the message. Did any of that generation go on and vote Trump or were they the ones who have taught their children and grandchildren to value the environment and peaceful coexistence? Analysis of the demographic of the electorate in the UK plebiscite and the US Presidential election may be complex but I think whichever way Britons and Americans cast their ballot, it was influenced by voices which spoke to self-interest rather than an appeal for what was best for everyone.

You can call me naive or call me a Marxist but I still believe that music can influence people and prog in particular is an affirmative force. I call for all those who attended Yes gigs in the 1970s to spread the message of protest.


Post Script

I’ve just read that the far-right Norbert Hofer has conceded defeat in the Austrian Presidential election. There’s still hope for humanity!





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