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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, Nov 6 2016 09:12PM

I’ve just visited the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and come away very pleased that I made the excursion. Having arrived in London (the suburb of Bexley) in 1978 from what was then the parochial, cultural cul-de-sac of south Cumbria, I proceeded to take in as much art, music, theatre and as many museums as possible, but this was the first time that I’d been to the V&A. It had been a conscious choice to avoid walking through those particular doors but a decision taken because of my bias towards the sciences and ignorance in equal measure. South Kensington boasted the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum and what I understood to comprise the V&A collection or their special exhibits never appealed. It seemed to me that it was all about fashion, past and present, and it would be hard to imagine anyone more unfashionable than me, then or now, as I clung on to progressive rock music and the associated early 70s dress sense. I even branded it as imperialistic... Dressing like a dunce in a trench coat didn’t stop me attempting to broaden my horizons, seeking out things like minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII, better known as the pile of bricks by Carl Andre at the Tate Gallery, or going to see Warren Mitchell in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, though my more regular jaunts tended to be student concession seats at the Aldwych Theatre for Royal Shakespeare Company productions or the National Gallery where I could indulge in more mainstream culture without charge, but it was the galleries at the Nat His Mus and Science Museum which most interested me, where I was delighted to discover links to my home town: a large plug of haematite in the former and a Bessemer Converter in the latter.

How times change, because The V&A turned out to be a bit of a revelation. As far as I’m concerned the attractiveness of the venue increased under the directorship of Martin Roth so it’s a shame that he felt he had to return to his native Germany after reflecting on the decision by a tiny majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union. The building itself is quite stunning and whereas I’m not interested in all the decorative arts (things like the jewellery collection, for example) there are rooms devoted to architecture which are jaw-dropping. It would be impossible not to be impressed by the (closed off but still visible) gallery containing the enormous plaster cast of Trajan’s column.





You Say You Want a Revolution? was a sociological snapshot of 1826 days described through music, performance, fashion, film, design and political activism, a truly revolutionary five years representing a seismic shift in attitudes. Some of these revolutions remain unfulfilled but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this short epoch had profound effects on our present and will affect the way in which we approach our future. It was the music and the politics which most interested me: the advent of psychedelia, forerunner to progressive rock; countercultural values including the birth of ecology and anti-war causes; and the sometimes forceful rise of equality movements; all issues which continue to define my thinking. What the exhibition also highlighted was that the rise of consumerism was responsible for the unfulfilled promises of the times, neatly summed up by the deeply ironic (though not meant so at the time) quotation by Milton Friedman “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.”


A small proportion of the album covers spread around the exhibition reflect releases which make up the proto-prog of my own collection: Days of Future Passed; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Saucerful of Secrets; Ummagumma; Abraxas; Procol Harum; Shine on Brightly; John Barleycorn Must Die; The United States of America; Music in a Doll’s House; Stand Up; Hot Rats; Tommy; Trout Mask Replica; The Madcap Laughs; and Bitches Brew but the only true progressive rock album included in the display was In the Court of the Crimson King. Not having been terribly aware what was going on at the time, it was these items, accrued in the intervening years, which allowed me to relate to the experience. One unexpected article on display was a sales manual for a Mellotron 400-D!

Although it was the Pink Floyd connection which first drew my attention to the exhibition there wasn’t that much Floyd-related material on display – there’s much more in the exhibition book. However, I also went to see the Dr Strange film this weekend and that also has a Pink Floyd association. There’s a depiction of a ‘freak’ in one of the panels on the back cover of the late-1973 budget-price repackaging of the first two Floyd albums A Nice Pair, a man attired in hippy clothing holding a giant spliff and, whereas most of the outer sleeve is a series of visual puns (a different kettle of fish, a fork in the road, laughing all the way to the bank) I have never been able to grasp the significance of this photo, other than to challenge the stereotypical image of someone who listens to early Floyd. Anyway, scattered on the floor is a pile of comics and one, quite clear, is a Dr Strange magazine.




A number of my school friends were into fantasy books and some of the more esoteric comics and I asked one to source a Dr Strange for me. When I was much younger I used to buy DC comics on a Saturday morning from a newsagent on Salthouse Road, near my grandmother’s house, but they were all staid compared to the Dr Strange universe; a neurosurgeon who had lost the use of his hands and had become the master of mystic arts. The imagery of alternative dimensions fitted in with my adolescent world of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Arthur C Clarke, and I was pleased that rather than a simply possessing a super power, Strange’s ‘magic’ seemed to be derived from a more rational source, channelling the natural forces of the different universes. I was also developing an interest in mysticism, partly fuelled by the release of Tales from Topographic Oceans at around the same time as A Nice Pair. The character acquired counterculture acceptance, setting him apart from almost all other Marvel stable mates, as he wasn’t portrayed as patriotic in any way; one of the early gigs by Grateful Dead forerunners The Warlocks was at an event called Tribute to Dr Strange.




I enjoyed the film which contained just about the right level of humour, though the representation of a successful surgeon as arrogant is a rather tired trope; I’ve worked closely with surgeons and yes, some may be a little conceited or disdainful, but it wasn’t surgeons who caused the global financial crash in 2008. There are plenty of politicians, healthcare managers and even some bloggers who demonstrate self-importance... What was good was the deference to the comic book artwork in the depiction of alternate dimensions and in the poses of Dr Strange. There were scenes reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey placing it firmly in the psychedelic genre and best of all, director Scott Derrickson included a section of Interstellar Overdrive to accompany the clip leading up to Strange’s life-changing accident.




Two things worth going to see: Dr Strange is on general release; You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 26 February 2017






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