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ProgBlog catches King Crimson on an auspicious date at the beginning of their 2018 UK tour

By ProgBlog, Jul 24 2016 05:20PM

Last week was the hottest of the year so far and it started very badly. Sometime during the middle part of Monday a sinkhole appeared underneath the railway tracks at Forest Hill, rendering this route and my back-up route, the London Bridge to East Croydon line, unavailable for my journey home.


The staff at Whitechapel Station could have been a bit more helpful, by telling the commuters that the service between New Cross Gate and both Crystal Palace and West Croydon was suspended, for instance; instead, they suggested that passengers should “board this train for West Croydon and Crystal Palace” even though the service was going to Clapham Junction. I asked a woman who had just been making arrangements for someone else to pick up children if there was a problem and she told me about the subsidence. I guessed that London Bridge services might also be affected, though I had no idea how badly until I eventually got home and, having already missed two opportunities to go to Clapham Junction, decided to adopt Plan C.


Unable to concentrate on the Mellotron-drenched Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (Edgar Froese, 1975) because of the requirement to listen to station announcements, I made my way on a relatively empty train to New Cross, but decanted onto a thronging platform to wait for one of the three South Eastern train services per hour to Hayes; the first of which was cancelled because of ‘signal problems’ at London Cannon Street. Since I began commuting by train through South London 38 years ago, there has been woefully inadequate investment in the railways, which despite privatisation continues to suck in taxpayer money through government subsidies to the tune of £3.8bn in 2015. The private train operators then pay out millions of pounds to shareholders while the travelling public have to put up with a fractured and fragmented service dogged by delays, infrastructure failings, cancellations and increasing ticket prices. Needless to say, the state of overcrowding on the train that eventually appeared, late, carrying twice as many commuters as normal, made the scheduled 20 minute journey to Elmers End in 30oC heat deeply unpleasant; it was further delayed by signalling problems at Lewisham and I had to repeat the journey, when it was even hotter, the next day. There’s a simple solution: Renationalise the railways; use public money (or through a re-jigged Green Investment Bank that doesn’t rely on commercial rates) to invest in staff, infrastructure and rolling stock that is fit for purpose; support British engineering. Failure to do so will result in an economy which, like the trains on Monday and Tuesday, is going nowhere.

It was a hot summer forty years ago, too. I had finished my ‘O’ Levels and took part in what can only be described as an epic mountaineering holiday with brother Tony and friends Steve Dickinson, John Ullock and Guy Wimble, camping on mountainsides between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, bagging Munros. The planning for this event rivalled a Chris Bonnington Everest expedition though our chosen food supplies, Ryvita crackers and Vesta freeze dried meals had to be supplemented by free mountain fare, blueberries, which were accompanied by an attempt to concoct cream from dried milk powder, margarine and water from mountain streams, and a stop for takeaway haggis and chips in Kinlochleven. I was somewhat leaner and fitter at the end of the trip...

1976 was also rock’s ‘Year Zero’, the foundation of Punk in the UK which I first noticed when I started in the Sixth Form in the autumn. School friends were now showing interest in bands spearheading the scene around CBGB in New York and whereas school mates’ bands had only a few months before been plying covers of Focus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and even Fruupp, a trip to the RAF Club would result in having to listen to attempts at Ramones songs and scrawled in my ‘rough book’, the school exercise book used for making notes, was a picture of a penis with the words ‘Sex Pistols’ along its length; thanks, John Bull. The Sex Pistols had begun to gig in late 1975 (as support to Bazooka Joe at St Martin’s College) but only played cover songs. Even this early on the Pistols’ influence was spreading and by early 1976, a core group of fans that included Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin and Billy Idol had coalesced into the so-called Bromley Contingent, brought together by an accident of south London geography, music and fashion, the latter supplied by the Malcolm McLaren – Vivienne Westwood shop SEX. I may not have heard much punk when it first appeared but it was the fashion, specifically the appropriation of Nazi symbolism which really inflamed my dislike of the genre, rather than a musical form that was the antithesis of prog: short; simple; simplistic.

So what was prog doing at the time? The premier league of prog bands were on hiatus, effectively exiled by what their accountants would have told them was a punitive tax regime. Yes and ELP were huge acts, though even less commercially successful bands like Gentle Giant set up recording sessions outside of the UK to minimise how much of their cash went to the exchequer. The highest rate of income tax throughout the 50s and 60s was 90% but this was reduced by the Conservative administration to 75% in 1971. When the Labour government took over in 1974, the top rate of income tax was increased to 83% but the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98% and these rates applied to incomes over £20000 per year, affecting 750000 people, including some major prog bands. The absence from home turf for prolonged periods (there was an allowance for so many days residence without triggering the tax) deprived the music journals of prog-related copy and coverage of new bands, who wished to be seen to eschew the perceived overblown and self-indulgent nature of progressive rock, was fed by a new generation of journalists armed with sociology degrees who regarded prog as elitist. The Stranglers were already gigging in spring 1976 and The Damned were formed sometime around the middle of the year, famous for being the first UK punk band to release a single. Captain Sensible, born Raymond Burns, lived in Edith Road SE25, the location of my first flat as an owner-occupier. There’s a rumour that if it wasn’t the same property, it was next door to the Burns’ home.


It’s often been commented on that many original punks were into prog. The Damned had evolved from jazz improvisation; Johnny Rotten is often cited for his appreciation of Van der Graaf Generator after being invited to play his own records on a Tommy Vance show on Capital Radio in July 1977; He played some Can, The Blimp by Captain Beefheart, Fleance from the Polanski film soundtrack The Tragedy of Macbeth by Third Ear Band and The Institute of Mental Health (Burning) plus Nobody’s Business from Peter Hammill’s 1975 solo album Nadir’s Big Chance. Rotten also accused David Bowie (he played Bowie’s Rebel Rebel) of copying Hammill’s moves!

Punk didn’t really last very long and, apart from the legacy of bands like The Clash, the punk ethos became swiftly diluted, revealing itself to be nothing but an expression of fashion in the broadest sense. The snarling bands like the Sex Pistols, put together to generate outrage, burned with a very brief flame. Bromley Contingent leader Siouxse quickly branched into proto-Goth; Billy Idol dabbled in proto-Goth, too, and appeared to be obsessed with his own image. Were The Stranglers really punk in the first place? I’m disappointed to have missed them when they played Maxim’s in Barrow in March 1977 but I have a confession: I’ve seen The Undertones twice. Once at a free concert in Brussels in August 1980 and in 1983, supporting Peter Gabriel at Selhurst Park. Manchester-based Buzzcocks were always just a clever pop band and are now reaping in cash from What do I Get? being used in an advert for McDonalds. This is hardly punk-principle. It appears that every musician has to continue to make a living somehow...






By ProgBlog, Aug 23 2015 09:38PM

August in the south eastern corner of the UK has been quite poor in terms of weather this year, with unseasonal downpours following a series of Atlantic depressions that have tracked across the country. This weekend we experienced a ‘Spanish plume’, a condition that arises from a large southwards dip in the high altitude jet stream that developed to the west of Europe that in turn encouraged a deep southerly wind flow that pushed hot and humid air from Portugal and Spain north and north-east into northern Europe, including to us the UK. Temperatures at Selhurst Park for Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa peaked at over 30oC prompting the first water breaks in a Premier League fixture. With a cold front from the Atlantic over the north of the UK and unstable, hot air pushing up from the south or south west, there was the potential for heavy thunderstorms where the two weather systems met; strong winds associated with the jet stream help organise thunderstorms and play a part in their severity. This latest forecast came with a degree of uncertainty, something that’s become increasingly prevalent in our televised weather bulletins where over the last couple of weeks the prediction for the next day has inevitably proved to be inaccurate.

It seems that the British like talking about the weather. It serves as a common topic when individuals are thrust into a situation where it’s uncomfortable not to talk. It helps that UK weather so changeable and unpredictable, part of the beauty of living in a temperate marine climate; it also gives us the right to moan. As a youth in the North West I became used to rain. The relief rainfall that was a major feature of the western Lake District didn’t really affect Barrow very much but moisture-laden air from the Atlantic had a habit of dampening our plans one way or another. I was very much at home when I stayed in Seattle for a week in 2002 where there were a number of dedicated, accurate weather channels on the TV.

Weather may seem a bit prosaic as a topic for prog but weather and the British go together like tea and crumpets. After a childhood in Barrow I feel as though I’ve got fifty words for rain... In fact, the water cycle and our understanding of the principles of weather processes, such as drought, flood or monsoon, is very much the stuff of prog. Furthermore, the ability of humankind to distort weather patterns through extracting and burning hydrocarbons and the detrimental effect of pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is something that the adherents of the counterculture warned us about; the origins of the progressive rock movement had strong links to environmental groups. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s no definitive album about the physical geography of weather or its myriad facets, just a straightforward interpretation.

Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch (1979) may come closest to revisiting the old hippie theme of global environmental disaster and a form of gloom pervades the entire album. Largely referred to as the third and final part of the Tull folk-rock phase, when I listened to the album recently I didn’t think there was much folk to detect; there’s a reference to pre-Christian themes (on Dun Ringill) which might fit the tag but it’s more an association of convenience, marking the last of the stable Tull line-ups. Stormwatch uses the concept of a storm as both metaphor and as literal description, picking up from a theme in the title track of Heavy Horses (1978) where Ian Anderson predicts that the magnificent beasts will be required once more when the oil has run out; North Sea Oil recognises the commodity as a quick fix for the economy and one that wasn’t going to last. Dark Ages and Something’s on the Move hint at energy shortages and long, cold winters and subsequent rioting while Flying Dutchman bemoans our inability as a nation to accept immigrants. In a recent Prog magazine interview, Anderson admitted to being politically left of centre; Stormwatch was released in September 1979 at the tail end of the first era of progressive rock; the political and social landscape was changing with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister four months earlier as she commenced the dismantlement of the state and used burgeoning oil revenues to fuel her rewards for the selfish (North Sea oil had come on stream in 1975.) The dark mood of the album was no doubt partly down to the illness of bassist John Glascock who died two months after its release, having only played on three of the tracks. Though the (David Palmer) penned track Elegy was written for Palmer’s father, at the time the only section remaining of the Anderson/Palmer/Barre ballet The Water’s Edge, I felt it also served as a tribute to Glascock.

Camel’s Rain Dances (1977) isn’t weather-related. The short, melodic instrumental title track that closes the album doesn’t call to mind rain but merely reprises the beautiful, melodic opener, First Light and could be called anything because the album doesn’t have any cohesive concept; at least the title track from Gryphon’s Raindance (1975) which begins and ends with the sounds of rain and thunder has a keyboard backing under the main melody line that is reminiscent of flowing water and the album’s cover depicts the effects of playing the record.

The strong Red Rain from Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) is supposed to have been inspired by a terrifying dream. Some ascribe the imagery to acid rainfall (Gabriel is well known for his environmental concerns, appearing at the People's Climate March in London last September) but it seems to me to be about the nightmare of genocide; a number of African nations were in the throes of civil war in the early – mid 80s including Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Rain is represented on this track by hi-hat, played by ex-Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland. More up-to-date, Anathema’s prog metal-lite Weather Systems (2012) is full of nice melodic touches and contains some interesting sonic experimentation and passages that remind me of Porcupine Tree but despite its title, the album only uses weather as a metaphor for events during a life.

I think some band should attempt a concept album based on the science of meteorology, whether it’s a series of interpretations of particular examples (think Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.) Fabio Zuffanti’s Hostsonaten project covers some of this ground on the excellent symphonic prog Winterthrough (2008) with tracks called Snowstorm and Rainsuite but I still believe classic British prog bands missed out on an easy topic with a captive audience.



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