Lean years for prog? No, actually
By ProgBlog, Sep 12 2018 10:01PM
On a recent trip to my local retro-fashion and second-hand vinyl emporium Atomica, I bought a classic piece of 70’s electronica Timewind by Klaus Schulze and also picked up Kate Bush’s Lionheart from 1978. David and Nicky, who own Atomica, are into 60’s psyche and 70’s prog so, while I flicked through record sleeves and In the Court of the Crimson King was playing on a retro record deck, the conversation turned from Kate Bush sophistipop (their term) to the paucity of progressive rock in the 80s.
In common with some other commentators, I believe that the golden age of progressive rock ended in 1978, although that’s not to deny some good progressive rock music was produced afterwards; it’s simply that the industry and the market changed. Writing in a 2014 blog, I addressed what I called the ‘lean years for prog’ and referenced my gig diary; between Fairport Convention at Wimbledon Theatre in January 1985 and the unexpected but very welcome reunion of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe who I witnessed at Wembley Area in October 1989, I attended only two gigs: John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in March 1987, and a resurrected Pink Floyd at Wembley Stadium in August 1988. It’s possible that the stunning presentation of the Floyd live show, complete with crash-diving Stuka bomber and evil flying pig reinvented the concert as rock music spectacular but from a personal perspective, it was the music that stood out. Their descent to mainstream rock (albeit with appropriate sentiment) covering parts of Animals, all of The Wall and The Final Cut was thrown into reverse with A Momentary Lapse of Reason which I’ve previously stated was a return to (progressive rock) form. Although I commented on what I was buying in lieu of prog I didn’t cover, and have never really written about, neo-prog.
The demise of progressive rock at the end of the 70s was inextricably linked to free market dogma, the predominant ideology at the time and one that was opposite to the counter-cultural beliefs that had inspired the movement. Punk may have briefly surfaced between 1976-8 as reaction to the perceived excesses of some of the established bands and musicians but it was quickly hijacked by the nascent publicity machinery, a major part of the UK’s replacement for a decimated manufacturing base.
Punk can be seen as a discontinuity (if you’ll forgive the geological pun); progressive rock was the dominant style in the preceding years and new wave would follow. For existing artists, moving away from prog was less a conscious decision and more of a drift towards conformity under pressure from a music business that was changing from an ethos of supporting artistic freedom (that somehow still managed to sell millions of albums) to one of commodity. Examples of record company interference might include the imposition of external producers to capture the immediacy of punk, or simply the insistence that a band produce a hit single or get dropped from the roster.
Punk may also have illustrated the bleakness of ordinary lives but in reaction, this readied the world for a bit of glamour: Fashion and music, the rise of style over substance. Fortunately, some of the next generation of musicians, those born in the late 50s and early 60s who had grown up listening to progressive rock, made a conscious decision to emulate these groups, sometimes injected with an attitude borrowed from punk or the fashion of post-punk. However, before the appearance of these neo-prog acts, King Crimson were making a reappearance as a cross between polyrhythmic progressive rock and new wave sophistipop, thanks to the inclusion of former Talking Head Adrian Belew in the line-up. The Discipline-era King Crimson lasted from 1981 to Sunday 12th July 1984, the morning after the last show of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, during which time I managed to see them live on two occasions, the first as the pre-King Crimson Discipline.
Asia had also convened in 1981, releasing their eponymous debut album in March 1982. An easy target for critics, they were seen as yesterday’s musicians with nothing new to give but fortunately for the band, millions of ordinary members of the record-buying public disagreed and somehow Asia managed to ride the zeitgeist for a few years. At the time, I was happy to buy Asia without having heard a single bar of the music, simply based on the line-up. The end product was undoubtedly slick but it wasn’t progressive rock and I really wish they’d taken a different approach. Though it wasn’t terribly adventurous, the musicianship still manages to shine through despite this inability to challenge the listener. I also think the lyrical content conforms to the prevailing political climate of the time, where the subject matter is primarily about relationships, love, and sung in the first person. It’s inward-looking, what the world is doing to the singer, putting the individual at the centre. These were the new world values where the politics were far from progressive.
Out of some misplaced sense of loyalty I also bought the second Asia album Alpha when that came out in 1983 and a couple of months later handed over my cash for Yes' 90125. This proved to be a qualitative move away from classic Yes music, incorporating MTV- and radio-friendly tunes from which all traces of analogue keyboard had been eradicated. The shift towards more accessible music affected the existing Yes fan-base more than it did the fans of band members who made up Asia. Asia was a new band with no previously defined sound of its own whereas Yes had considerable history and, despite sometimes seismic personnel changes they had always maintained a particular world-view; 90125 is radically different, with a combination of guitar-heavy material from Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn’s brash production. It may have become the best–selling Yes album but it divided existing Yes fans, with substantial numbers, like me, who could barely relate to the overtly commercial sound of a compressed sonic palette and what felt like a retrograde step towards generic 80s rock.
Yet hidden beneath the clamour created by the surprise continued success of some big names from the progressive rock genre, there were a few acts with a loyal live following struggling to get the attention of record labels, plying a music very closely related to classic 70’s progressive rock. My dalliance with neo-prog consisted of prevaricating about buying Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear when it was first released in 1983, ‘Marillion’ being a shortened form of the band’s original name, Silmarillion, after the JRR Tolkien history of Middle Earth; buying the Garden Party 7” single (b/w Margaret) because it was cheap; recording a live radio broadcast of the Fugazi tour from Golddiggers in Chippenham in March 1984; buying the 12” single of Kayleigh b/w Lady Nina (extended version) sometime in 1985; and going to see The Enid with a variety of neo-prog support acts including Pendragon and Solstice at the Ace in Brixton on 11th May 1983.
The absence of column inches dedicated to my old favourites meant that I no longer regularly bought anything from the music press and therefore missed out on seeing the two best neo-prog bands, Marillion and IQ. Someone gave me a copy of Marillion in Words and Pictures by Carol Clerk for a birthday in the early 90s and around this time, when seconded to work in Saudi Arabia for a few weeks, I bought an unauthorised Marillion compilation on cassette. I reappraised the lack of Marillion in my collection in 2008 and got Misplaced Childhood on CD, and downloads of Script and Fugazi; having read sufficient good things about IQ and seen Martin Orford play in John Wetton’s band, I also bought a download of The Wake (1985) at the same time, and received the 30th anniversary Tales from the Lush Attic after that was released in 2013; I’ve since bought vinyl versions of Tales from the Lush Attic, The Wake, Script for a Jester’s Tear and bought a download of IQ’s Dark Matter (2004). Also, while looking for Spanish prog on holiday in Barcelona in 2010, I came across a second-hand copy of Pendragon’s Masquerade Overture (1996) in Impacto for €9.95.
Subsequent to my rediscovery of UK neo-prog, a trip to Milan earlier this year turned up a book about Italian prog, Rock Progressivo Italiano 1980-2013 by Massimo Salari (Arcana, 2018) which covers neo-prog and the 90’s progressive revival, quite different from the other progressivo Italiano books that tend to concentrate on music of the late 60s and 70s. My decision to buy Italian vinyl whilst visiting the country means I’ve unwittingly started to collect Italian music from the neo-prog era, the most prized being Ancient Afternoons (1990) by Ezra Winston, voted the best Italian album of the 90s by Prog Italia magazine, followed by Dopo l’Infinito (1988) by Nuovo Era and Heartquake (1988) by Leviathan, which were number 2 and number 7 respectively in Prog Italia’s Italian albums of the 80s – Ezra Winston were first with Myth of the Chrysavides from 1988.
One of the criticisms hurled at Marillion in particular, was that they were just a rehash of early 70’s Genesis. Fish’s predilection for greasepaint and costume changes must have added weight to that argument but it is actually guitarist Steve Rothery who comes across as being most influenced by Genesis with a playing style based on Steve Hackett and Dave Gilmour and Andy Latimer. It’s also well documented how much Gabriel-era Genesis influenced the Italian progressive rock bands but that influence also affects Italian neo-prog, with much of Ancient Afternoons referencing the pastoral charm of Trespass; however, both Heartquake and Dopo l’Infinito have a more modern sound, more akin to UK neo-prog than 70’s classic progressive rock. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that there are a number of different Marillion tribute acts in Italy – I saw Mr Punch perform an accurate recreation of Misplaced Childhood last year at the Porto Antico Prog Fest.
Another Italian band that I follow who came together during this time are Eris Pluvia. They released Rings of Earthly Light in 1991 and later reformed as Ancient Veil; both versions of the group, with Alessandro Serri and Edmondo Romano as core members, play a broader range of styles than Leviathan or Nuovo Era, demonstrated by jazz phrasing along with Serri’s Hackett-like guitar, and some very prog-folk moments thanks to Romano’s use of a full range of wind instruments.
My previous contention that the 80s was largely devoid of interesting music was totally misplaced. 70’s style progressive rock may have disappeared but both the industry and the market had changed when I didn’t. I was dimly aware that something was going on but declined to fully engage, spending my time and money seeking out albums to fill the gaps in my 70’s-centric collection, consequently missing out on a range of bands that I should have embraced. I do now.