By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 12:14PM
Many parts of the UK are currently under water, as a series of low pressure systems cross the Atlantic and pass over our islands. As a youth living on the coast in the north west of England I was used to relief rainfall as moist south westerly winds met the mountains of the Lake District. The past three weeks have been something else – frontal systems that have poured rainfall on already sodden land, swelling rivers that have subsequently burst their banks. We’ve had high tides and strong winds, too, causing widespread coastal flooding. This devastation has affected thousands of people and though the UK is a developed country with resources to mitigate the worst effects of natural disasters (compared to a country like Bangladesh, for instance) each event has an effect at a personal level.
Rivers frequently feature in prog; they are often used as a metaphor for life and for change. Peter Sinfield’s lyrics for PFM’s River of Life (from Photos of Ghosts) and the words of Gentle Giant’s River (Octopus) share some common imagery. Sinfield’s words remind me of Finnegan’s Wake: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay...”
However, Sinfield doesn’t simply describe the natural phenomenon of the course of a river, though he does include these physical properties. He refers to the use of the river by man and comments on progress, a simple environmental message that mankind pollutes. There’s a stark contrast between the language used to describe the source of the river: “Search and seep / Hollow stone / Issue and flow / Virgin stream / Meander free” and the approach to the end of the journey: “Ships and barges / Dark rusty hearts / Feed cranes along your banks. / Waste and poison / cloy where once men drank. / Forget the pain / From rain to rain...”
Gentle Giant indicate irreversible change and though they too hint at peril: “Trust the shallow virgin stream / Danger wild, beware the deeper it becomes” the language remains romantic throughout and in-keeping with physical geography.
The meaning of Firth of Fifth (from Selling England by the Pound by Genesis) is best left to individual interpretation by listeners. There’s allusion to the early Genesis staples of mythology (Neptune, the Sirens, Undines) but this isn’t allegory (c.f. Cinema Show, from the same album) and it’s not straight forward narrative (c.f. The Fountain of Salmacis, from Nursery Cryme.) It’s more of a “verbal landscape painting” (in the words of Edward Macan) and, as such, with its contrast of natural imagery (the domain of Neptune) and the more ugly man-made landscape (highlighted by the line “like a cancer growth...”) it encourages each listener to select their own meaning. Genesis may have been less spiritual, less cosmic than Yes but the lyrics of Firth of Fifth suggests to me a developed resistance to natural beauty in mankind, and though progress isn’t mentioned, there’s an inference to indifference towards natural beauty – a kind of closed mind. Most Genesis aficionados seem to regard Firth of Fifth as lyrically weak but it’s of little importance; the song is consistently regarded as being in the top three Genesis songs of all time thanks to the toccata-like piano introduction and the build-up to Steve Hackett’s guitar solo. I think it’s a mini-epic and it’s a highlight of Steve Hackett solo shows. Talking of Yes, the lyrics of Close to the Edge repeatedly recall ‘the river’ and the inner album sleeve reinforces the imagery. Cited as being inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddartha which concerns a spiritual journey of self-discovery, it may be that the river is being used as a metaphor for an agent of change.
There are a few references to rivers on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the Pink Floyd come-back album following the departure of Roger Waters. Sometimes criticised as a sub-standard Dave Gilmour solo album, I think this was a return to form, though it needed the support of some very able musicians. These references begin on the opening track Signs of Life with the rowing sound effects and reappear in the lyrics of the final song, Sorrow. Like Peter Sinfield, Gilmour uses the Joyce-sounding line “River roll”. Whereas Signs of Life depend on water (the river), Sorrow uses the river as a metaphor for the irrevocable passage of time.
What seems to me to be a purely descriptive lyric is found on Grand Canyon Suite by the often overlooked and totally under-rated Refugee. The music is grand and epic, as befits a natural marvel of the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Patrick Moraz uses a wide range of sounds to invoke the essence of this geological feature but Lee Jackson’s lyrics remind us that the canyon has been formed by a river, “the mighty Colorado.” In geological terms, the river is a destructive force and the music reflects the power and majesty of the river and the canyon. As a tourist attraction, the river could be regarded as being a creative force.
There are a couple of ‘biblical’ flood songs. Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood (the best version of which I believe is on Robert Fripp’s solo album Exposure) and Van der Graaf Generator’s After the Flood from The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other. In each of these songs, the flood waters bring about huge change and Mankind is wiped out in the VdGG song. There’s no prescience in Gabriel’s song, or any moralizing despite the tale of destruction on a biblical scale. Peter Hammill, on the other hand, seems to have glimpsed an environmental disaster that has been precipitated by human activity (“humanity stumbles”) and the ice melts causing the water to rise. Whereas Peter Sinfield showed ecological concerns about pollution, Hammill has taken man-made climate change to its inevitable conclusion – the extinction of all life on earth.
Prog for me has always concerned ecological awareness. The worship of commodity and the rise of neo-liberal economics and the pursuit of greed, the short-termism of the wealthy 1% who pull levers to protect their own interests without any thought for future generations; these are all responsible for climate change and form a powerful lobby of climate change denial. Floods are becoming an ever-increasing threat to not just the UK, but to millions of people in low-lying lands around the world. It’s time for the 99% to overcome the influence of the super-rich and music, prog, can be a vehicle to help make the change.