ProgBlog

Welcome to the ProgBlog

 

Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

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!





By ProgBlog, Dec 6 2015 09:34PM

I’ve now set up my new Rega RP3 and have started to put on vinyl in preference to my somewhat larger collection of CDs. My first record deck, bought from Comet within days of finishing work at Barrow’s Steelworks during the annual two-week shutdown in the summer of 1978 (when the UK still had a sizeable steel industry) was a Pioneer PL-514. This solid piece of kit had a heavy aluminium platter and a thick rubber mat and I really liked it. I wasn’t too fussed by the tone arm lifting at the end of an LP but it had a fairly basic design and I thought it sounded pretty good – I paired it with an Ortofon OM20 and though I passed this on to my brother-in-law in the mid 80s, I still have the original Pioneer screwdriver for attaching the cartridge.


The new Rega Planar 3
The new Rega Planar 3

When I was choosing my hi-fi I believed it important to stick to basics; there was a NAD turntable that came out shortly afterwards that could be played vertically but I thought that was rather gimmicky. The speed change on the Pioneer was a choice between 33 rpm and 45 rpm whereas the record player that I had been using, a sprung turntable in a walnut-finished stereogram, include 78 rpm and may even have had a 16 rpm selection. Neither of the two Regas I’ve owned have had speed selector and you have to manually move the drive belt if you want to switch between single and album formats; the default position is 33 rpm.

One of the defining features of progressive rock is that the music expanded beyond the constraints of the sub-3 minute single, allowing for development of ideas and sonic experimentation. It’s no coincidence that the time of progressive rock was also a golden period for album sales where the gatefold sleeve was a gateway to other worlds, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in intricate artwork and song words imbued with meaning.

I don’t believe I ever played a single on my old RP2 and I can’t play any on my RP3 because I don’t own any. I have bought singles in the past, the first of which was probably Solsbury Hill (1977) by Peter Gabriel, bought in lieu of his first album to see if I liked the material enough to warrant going to see him on his first solo tour. I did. My friend Bill Burford also dabbled in singles, though his first, And You and I, with Roundabout on the B side (1973) was played at 33 rpm. I seem to recall he later went on to buy Don’t Kill the Whale (1978) as a single because I was unimpressed with the B side, Abilene; it reached no. 36 in the UK charts. His next was Rock n Roll Star (1977) by Barclay James Harvest, from Octoberon, released the previous year. We’d been to Lancaster to see BJH during their Time Honoured Ghosts tour but Octoberon, like many releases by progressive rock bands at this time, had a more commercial sound than the earlier material. Rock n Roll Star reached no.49 in the UK single charts and earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops; though Wonderous Stories wasn’t really overtly commercial it was single-length and when Yes released that in 1977 it peaked at no.7 in the UK charts and appeared on Top of the Pops on more than one occasion but I had no need to buy the single because I already owned the album. There was also no need to rush out to buy Camel’s Highways of the Sun, the single released from Rain Dances (1977). This radio-friendly number was somewhat at odds with the jazzier and experimental tracks on the album but it still didn’t manage to climb into the Top 50. It was undeniably Camel at their most melodic and was only as concise as the other material yet, though the sleeve notes for the 1991 CD reissue suggest otherwise, it does seem to possess a commercial or accessible quality that’s not present on the other songs. What I did buy was the Genesis Spot the Pigeon EP, left-over material from Wind and Wuthering (1976) that reached no. 14 in the singles charts in 1977. The two tracks on side A are very throwaway, especially Pigeons. Match of the Day is slightly better and it’s these two songs that give rise to the title of the EP, a play on the ‘spot the ball’ football competitions. Side B is a very different kettle of fish, where Inside and Out, the only one of the three songs to feature Steve Hackett in the song writing credits, hints at early Genesis and includes enough changes of mood to warrant its inclusion on Wind and Wuthering in place of the uninspiring, insipid Your Own Special Way, a track that even more than Afterglow signposts the direction that Genesis would take following the departure of Hackett.

I bought Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (1979) from Elpees in Bexley when I was a first year student on the same day that I bought a Deutsche Grammophon release of Handel’s Water Music. I have claimed that I bought it for the use of the syndrum but I think that I had to get it because I’d threatened to buy it and friends Jim Knipe and Mark Franchetti probably didn’t believe me; I also attended an Ash Wednesday mass because I said I’d go as a joke and Mark didn’t believe me. I didn’t play Ring My Bell very often and it’s long since been despatched to a charity shop, though I can still sing along when I hear it on the radio...

I lived at various addresses in Streatham during my final undergraduate year and for the first couple of years as an employee of the National Blood Transfusion Service and picked up singles by The Enid and Marillion from the bargain bin an independent record store.



Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single
Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single

These were picture sleeve editions of Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean (from 1980) and Garden Party b/w Margaret (from 1983) respectively. Marillion managed to get to no. 16 but the humorous 665 The Great Bean, containing the lyrics “the discos in heaven all shut at eleven and they only serve pop in the bar, sir. I’ll put you at ease with some good Lebanese, a blue film and two or three jars, sir” and sung to the tune from The Devil (from In the Region of the Summer Stars) failed to trouble the singles chart compilers. Though not over-impressed by the live recording of Margaret I did rather like the attack on elitism in Garden Party, the lyrical content in general and some great musicianship. I could see where the accusations of imitating Genesis came from but that was really only a small part of the music; I loved Pete Trewavas’ trebly, staccato bass lines. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that it took me so long to buy any of their albums. Also in the bargain bin were copies of UK’s Nothing to Lose and I did feel that perhaps I ought to have supported the band by buying a copy, even though I already owned Danger Money (1979) and Night After Night (1979).

Throughout my youth I resisted the urge to by the odd prog single that I didn’t own on album, unable to reconcile their value and cost; I did splash out on two Asia 12” singles, at £0.99 each from the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1984 or 1985 that I gave to two girlfriends. They were the last singles I ever bought and one remains in my household; one went to my wife-to-be Susan. I think she might like Asia’s music more than me...


Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain
Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain




fb The blogs twitter logo HRH Prog 4 Line Up (F+B) Keith Emerson at the Barbican My Own Time