Hype and existential questions
By ProgBlog, Feb 6 2018 03:45PM
BBC Four has just shown a new, three-part series Hits, Hype & Hustle: An Insider’s Guide to the Music Business where the timing of the last episode, Revivals and Reunions, coincided with the announcement that the Spice Girls, who appeared in the programme, are reuniting for the second time for a reputed £50 million.
I found the whole series enlightening and enjoyable, despite the cherry-picking of featured artists who were represented in some capacity by the three different presenters, Emma Banks (episode 1, Making a Star), John Giddings (episode 2, On the Road) and Alan Edwards in the last episode. Banks deals with the publicity side of the music business and her film revealed the mechanics of record deals, what I consider to be a rather unsavoury world where the artist is simply a medium for the record company to make money. She’s an award-winning music agent and head of the London office for Creative Artists Agency and clearly exceptionally good at her job, exposing a diverse roster of musicians to the right audience using every conceivable lever at her disposal. Having recently been asked to listen to, review or otherwise publicise new music from upcoming and unsigned bands like Process of Illumination, Gaillion, Groundburst, Amber Foil, Servants of Science, Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, Dam Kat and Zombie Picnic who all have to resort to self-promotion, I now have a clearer idea of the difficulties faced by new acts, getting heard amidst the sea of noise, despite being responsible for some incredible music.
The Banks piece didn’t touch on prog but the second episode with John Giddings, a music agent and tour promoter covered a couple of progressive rock stories. There was film footage of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, including some of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour, an interview with Phil Collins, and Ian Anderson relating tales of Jethro Tull tours, from being one of the headline acts at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where they didn’t get paid, a gig where someone poured a glass of urine over him from above as the band was waiting to go on stage and another where a blood-soaked Tampon hit him in the chest. These last recollections were accompanied by a clip from the Stormwatch tour which began in the US in April 1979, and shows the returning John Glascock on bass. Glascock had been too ill to complete the previous tour so ex-Stealers Wheel and Blackpool contemporary Tony Williams was drafted in to deputise. Williams appears on Tull’s Live at Madison Square Garden 1978 DVD, a concert aired on TV at the time and widely regarded as a great performance.
Concentrating on his own artists, Giddings neglected to discuss any Pink Floyd tours which seems to me to be a rather glaring oversight. Alan Edward’s guidance through the third episode Revivals and Reunions also concentrated on the groups he’d represented so although there was overlap with the two preceding documentaries, there was no mention of anything prog and the chance to discuss the Floyd reunion at 2005’s Live8 was missed. What it did cover, sometimes during candid interviews with the protagonists, was the reunion tour money generated for the artists which they didn’t always benefit from when they were first active. During On the Road Ian Anderson revealed that in the early years when Tull toured with Led Zeppelin, four road crew between the two bands meant overheads were kept to a minimum and playing 15000-seater venues was very lucrative. Led Zeppelin may have gone on to great acclaim, but increasing the size of the entourage and running your own aeroplane can’t have helped the accounts. Singer Clare Grogan from 80s pop group Altered Images and the two remaining members of Musical Youth, Michael Grant and Dennis Seaton all remarked upon the absence of money in their heyday, despite their chart successes, compared to their satisfaction with remuneration from touring in the present.
The programme highlighted the success of ‘heritage’ acts, opening with a piece about the UK’s first revival concert, The London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in August 1972, where a number of performers from the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll revealed the potential of musical legacy to make a great deal of cash. According to trade magazine Pollstar, classic rock dominated lists of revenue-generating tours during 2017, topped by the reformed Guns N’ Roses playing a ‘best of’ set; Forbes suggests Roger Waters’ The Wall is the fourth highest grossing tour of all time and tops the list for a solo artist. This then poses the question: Is there anything wrong with so-called ‘heritage’ acts who play a ‘greatest hits’ set? I’d also like to ask another related question: How many original band members do there need to be to continue or reform under the original moniker?
Having missed out on seeing almost all bands during the golden age of prog because I was both too young and geographically isolated (it took an hour to get to Lancaster, the nearest University City by train and then another trek by public transport to get to the campus), I’d only ticked off Fruupp, Barclay James Harvest, a Jan Akkerman-less Focus, Rick Wakeman, post-Gabriel Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Gordon Giltrap before moving to London as a student. My arrival in the capital coincided with the demise of prog when punk and new wave were riding high. My first London gig was the classic line-up of Yes performing on the Tormato tour and, as the band contained two original members and had continued to release roughly one new studio album per year (apart from the hiatus between 1975 and 1976), it would be difficult to argue that incarnation, subtly different to that at the start of the band’s creative peak, should not be called ‘Yes’. What about Focus? The group had already demonstrated a degree of fluidity between debut recording In and Out of Focus (1970) and Hamburger Concerto (1974) utilising four drummers (including Akkerman’s younger brother) and three bass players. Their fifth drummer was recruited halfway through recording Mother Focus (1975) and in February 1976, a couple of days before I went to see them at Lancaster promoting the album, Thijs van Leer asked Akkerman to leave the band.
The distinctive sound of Yes is the product of a group effort, most recognisable in a highly developed form from Fragile onwards though present from the self-titled first album in 1969. The music of Focus was reliant on roughly equal contributions from van Leer and Akkerman and it was obvious when I first heard portions of Mother Focus on the radio that all was not well in the Focus camp; going to see the band without Akkerman made the experience bitterly disappointing. I’ve now seen Focus a number of times but on the next occasion after Lancaster, in October 2009 and subsequently, I’ve really enjoyed their set despite the lack of the original guitarist, with first Niels van der Steenhoven and then Menno Gootjes providing some very sympathetic lines. I think there’s an increased sense of legitimacy to the group with Pierre van der Linden on drums alongside van Leer but it’s also the fact that the newest members seem to have an appreciation of the original Focus legacy.
Over the last three or four years I’ve now managed to see most of the classic progressivo Italiano acts and many of them split up because of insufficient support from their record labels, rather than the trappings of fame and success tearing them apart. PFM are one band who are committed to making new music where there’s only one original member remaining, though Franz di Cioccio is joined by long-term amico Patrick Djivas plus 1980s recruit Lucio Fabbri; Banco del Mutuo Soccorso also have only one original band member in Vittorio Nocenzi, but the addition of technically gifted and musically sympathetic associates makes both PFM and BMS well worth seeking out for live versions of some of the best compositions ever committed to vinyl. It seems that the resurgence of an interest in prog in Italy, aided by traditional publishing, the rather adventurous reissue of Italian prog classics on 180g vinyl and a well-organised network of gigs and festivals has allowed some of the more esoteric single-album bands like Semiramis and Alphataurus to reform with the participation of many of their original members. I consider the reformation of any of the 70s Italian bands a good thing because it means I have a good excuse to take a trip to Italy!
The issue of who has the right to the band name was raised in the Hits, Hype & Hustle series using Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as an example. In their case, the record label held the rights to releasing music under the OMD banner and said they’d decide which of the two camps, Andy McCluskey or Paul Humphreys, to give the name to depending on how much they liked any forthcoming songs but, as Andy McCluskey was the face of the band, it seemed more sensible to allow him to use the name. Both Yes and Pink Floyd have found themselves in legal battles over ownership of the name of the group and in the 1989 case of Yes vs Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, I think the music suffered as a result of not just compromise, but because the musical ‘spirit’ of the band was fractured, exacerbated by the unwarranted sacking of various members. ABWH played modern Yes music which in my opinion is an updated continuation of some of the better material on Tormato (1978) and I don’t think any of the new material written since then, maybe with the exception of some of Magnification, lives up to the standards of their 70s output. Even the excellent Fly from Here suite (on Fly from Here, 2011) was a product of the 1980 line-up.
The death of Chris Squire in 2015 left Yes without an original member but even before that they’d taken up the role of a heritage act, certainly in the UK where they performed The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One in their entirety in 2014, and Fragile and Drama in 2016, omitting anything from 2014’s Heaven & Earth. I was happy to see the band on both of these tours and really enjoyed the performances; I like that music more than anything which came afterwards, even though I went to see them on the 90125, Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification and Fly from Here tours. The inclusion of Billy Sherwood as a replacement for Squire fitted in with the idea of a Yes family and I think it’s the association of long-standing and former members coming together again with the occasional new face that means it’s perfectly valid for the band to retain its name, even without an original member. The appearance of Anderson Rabin Wakeman, now calling themselves Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman might have alerted the lawyers but so far, two bands each with a good claim on the name are providing fans with renditions of some of the best recorded music, ever.
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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.
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