By ProgBlog, Feb 19 2017 07:51PM
The reappearance of Prog magazine, putting an end to a period of uncertainty for the staff, is most welcome and its unchanged format is very reassuring. I rarely get the chance to sit down and read it in one go so it normally takes a week or so for me to get through the articles I find interesting – no, I don’t read every word because some of the featured artists are from beyond the spectrum of my listening habits. I also have to balance Prog with other reading material: my physical copy of The Guardian which is mostly but not entirely completed on my commute to-and-from work; the occasional essay written by a colleague (Describe and discuss the categories of solid organ allograft rejection and the means by which they may be limited, and Describe the structure of MHC encoded antigens and their role in the presentation of peptides to T cells); and books received at Christmas or on birthdays. I’m currently struggling with William Morris’ News from Nowhere which, despite its socialist message and relative brevity is heavy going, meaning sessions are interspersed with getting through the prog-related literature that appeared under the Christmas tree.
I’ve already written about Yes is the Answer (and reviewed it on Amazon) but I’ve also completed Time and Some Words: The Anthology of Prog Rock Quotations 1969-1976 by Dave Thompson and just started Yes and Philosophy - The Spiritual and Philosophical Dimensions of Yes Music by Scott O’Reilly. Thompson’s quotations are frequently devoid of context or else have context imposed upon them by virtue of the chapter title; some are from author interviews and come with a degree of perspective. As much as I enjoyed reading the words of wisdom of my musical heroes, some of which I’d probably originally seen in the NME or Melody Maker in the mid 70s, the inclusion of pithy or equally, convoluted remarks from musicians I’ve never heard of and some who really aren’t progressive rock at all, ran contrary to the title. It may be that Thompson, a Brit who has lived in the US for some time who has far broader tastes than me, has simply over-estimated the true size of the genre during its first, golden period but at the risk of setting myself up in a glass house, I’m a firm believer in accuracy. There’s nothing revelatory in the book as we’ve moved on over 45 years since the first of the contributors aired an opinion which means that there’s been plenty of opportunity for their thoughts to be fully analysed in the intervening period; Thompson may have reasoned that the recent rise in prog-related publications was a good opportunity to knock out another book. It’s too early for me to say what I think about O’Reilly’s effort but the posted reviews are ambivalent or worse, the best of them criticising the typographical errors (a complaint I could raise against Thompson’s book where it appears that the grammar check has been deactivated.) I like the idea of a philosophical study of Yes, adding to the work of Bill Martin (a professor of philosophy) whose Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock has a logical, analytical approach which draws in political and sociological strands.
It’s almost as though my reading habits have been totally inverted. As a youth and during my early adulthood I read a fairly wide range of novels, from the classics to fantasy. I’ve previously written about the links between the authors I’d been reading and progressive rock but at the time there were no books about the genre. I’d only buy one of the weekly music papers if it had something about a band or artist I was interested in, so there were less than six years, from September 1972 when I first heard Close to the Edge to summer 1978, when there was any reasonable coverage of the genre; even the last two years of this period were becoming dominated by punk and new wave. I don’t read very many novels any more (the last, apart from my current tribulations with News from Nowhere, was The Vorrh by Brian Catlin) but there seems to be a new wave of literature relating to prog, of variable standard, which I am slowly amassing and authors like O’Reilly and Thompson are currently riding.
If we accept fantasy literature as a prog genre (Alan Garner, Richard Adams, JRR Tolkien), what can be said for science fiction? I have read a fair amount of SF over the years and witnessed a blurring of the boundary between SF and fantasy and though there’s an obvious association between Michael Moorcock and Hawkwind, Hawkwind’s brand of space rock was never really prog; on the other hand, William Burroughs may have had an influence on the thinking of Soft Machine but he was never really a science fiction writer. I read most of the SF classics and some, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, appeared on my reading list because of my nascent appreciation for progressive rock. Lyrically, the song appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel but Heinlein’s pro-military opinions were aired by characters within the book and there’s a possibility that Anderson and Squire were responding to Heinlein’s view with their own positive outlook; Yours is no Disgrace, also from The Yes Album is an anti-war song and it’s not unreasonable to imagine members of Yes reading SF.
Rick Wakeman was an avid Jules Verne fan but was Verne’s output really science fiction. It can’t be disputed that Verne was a strong influence on the genre and he wrote about emerging technologies and incorporated the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time. I’d accept that Verne was the grandfather of science fiction but I think his novels were basically books about exploration, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth describing an expedition but also taking readers on a journey through geological time. This suggests to me that Wakeman was not necessarily inspired by the strictly scientific aspect of the work but more by the possibilities of musical adaptation of a good story. No Earthly Connection is more new age than SF but Out There, which revisited the quest for the origins of all music after a hiatus of 26 years, does come across more as science fiction. I saw Wakeman touring both No Earthly Connection (1976) and Out There (2003) and the latter struck me as a piece of science fiction theatre, mainly because of the NASA footage and a steampunk graphical representation of the spaceship.
My favourite SF authors are JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, who approach the genre from very different angles. Ballard wrote about the ‘deep undercurrents’ of the present, exposing a dystopian psychogeography and his writings influenced post-punk synthesizer bands which was in tune with the feelings circulating around the concrete walkways of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. I first came across Le Guin through her Earthsea fantasy trilogy (at the time) and then got caught up in her interconnected SF worlds of the Hainish Cycle. Her almost academic anthropological writing makes her stands apart from others (her family background) but her portrayal of gender and race put her firmly in the progressive bracket. I personally think of Le Guin’s twin worlds of Anarres and Urras (from The Dispossessed) when I listen to Felona e Sorona by Le Orme but Peter Hammill’s lyrics for the English language recording Felona and Sorona suggest some form of supernatural Being holds responsibility for the two planets, a major detour from Le Guin. In fact, progressivo Italiano has a few science fiction-themed albums including Per... un Mondo di Cristallo by Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno (RRR) about the anguish felt by an astronaut when he finds that humankind has disappeared on his return to earth. Van der Graaf Generator acknowledge the influence of science fiction on the sleeve notes of The least we can do is wave to each other with a credit for reading matter: Asimov/Donleavy (JP Donleavy is not an SF writer!) and the epic Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, the Hammill nod to Arthur C Clarke on Still Life where he ponders the evolutionary course of humankind.
Robots are currently very topical. There’s a great deal of current interest in artificial intelligence from poker playing computers to television series and now London’s Science Museum has opened a major Robots exhibition. One of the classic SF books was a series of short stories, published as I, Robot by Isaac Asimov with its ‘Three laws of robotics’: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov may have been a successful scientist but I always thought his writing was like cowboys in outer space, and that includes his best work, the Foundation trilogy. I, Robot is actually a whodunit played out in a future where our lives are enhanced by the presence of robots. I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project is inspired by the book but the music is far from stimulating. I don’t own any of their albums, I’d not class the Project as prog and whereas I’d normally lump them in with art-rock, this particular release varies from competent AOR to almost disco; it goes without saying that it’s well produced. The instrumental tracks bookending the work are the best, though the rhythm machine drumming (is it Stuart Tosh?) however appropriate for the subject matter, detracts from some decent, keyboard dominated pieces.
ELP may have trodden familiar tropes about the future of mankind in Karn Evil 9 but the AI is a computer, not a robot; Radiohead may have referenced depressed robot Marvin from spoof SF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on OK Computer with Paranoid Android; but only Pat Metheny has built a robot orchestra for his backing band on his Orchestrion album. Despite the technological innovations associated with progressive rock, I don’t think technology-heavy science fiction has had any particular influence on prog. Rather, it’s strong stories and key philosophical ideas which have inspired artists to push musical boundaries.