By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2015 08:19PM

I’ve just done something that on the face of it may seem to be hypocritical: I’ve filled out the Prog magazine readers’ poll for 2014. My stance on lists is that they’re lazy and how could anything as diverse as progressive rock produce a result that is in any way representative of anything. I occasionally fill out staff surveys at work because the NHS employs bullies and overpaid and under-qualified managers to run a service that really should be run by clinically qualified staff (the clue is in the ‘health’ bit); just because you may have broken your leg as a teenager and subsequently went on to manage a supermarket or a home improvement centre, or sold stocks and shares for rich idiots, it does not mean that you’re fit to run a hospital. I could have predicted what has just happened to Hinchingbrooke Hospital. I use the staff survey process to remind these people that cutting the salaries of nurses by £1700 per year during times of austerity, when housing prices and rent are spiralling out of control and rail fares shoot upwards with annual inflation-busting rises even though the service itself gets worse, is not only nasty but will lead to recruitment and retention problems, staff shortages, a demoralised workforce, a stressed-out workforce and clinical errors. This inevitably falls on deaf ears and the perpetrators of this mismanagement get rewarded in the New Year’s Honours list. Honestly. But I’m saving up each “I told you so” in the hope that it will give me cold satisfaction during my retirement.

As a youth I liked to look at the readers’ polls in (primarily) Melody Maker and (to a lesser extent) in the NME and Sounds. I’m not sure if this was an exercise in wanting to belong to the prog tribe or if it was simply checking to see if the bands I liked had received the recognition that I believed they had earned. It’s quite incredible that from 1973 to 1977, Yes were either top British band or International band or both in the Melody Maker poll and during those five years their lowest position was second. The news of their success was generally acknowledged with a large ‘thank you’ advertisement directed at their fans, accompanied by some Roger Dean artwork; I did particularly look out for members of Yes when I pored over the results though I was interested in prog acts in general. I feel that the recognition of prog bands and their members during this period, a time before the dreadful concept of celebrity, was testament to their musical ability and creative vision. It’s undeniable that the most successful of the 70s progressive rock bands shifted millions of albums and despite their penchant for a more cerebral approach to music-making, fans were evidently happy to indulge in odd time signatures, dissonance, lofty concepts and whatever else could be thrown at them in the name of high art. Whatever the reason for scrutinising the published results, the success of your favourite bands gave you bragging rights in the school playground, an important rite as punk and new wave made inroads on the musical map.

On reflection, I’m not sure why there were ‘British’ and ‘International’ sections and even more perplexed by the votes for miscellaneous instrument. The category seems quite sensible, asking the readership to vote for musicians playing instruments other than bass, drums, guitar and keyboards yet some of the responses were somewhat baffling. Reasonable votes were cast for Ian Anderson who usually ranked highly with ‘flute’ but why would Brian Eno be included in the list because he played a VCS3? I’d always classed the EMS VCS3 along with keyboards, based on my impression of the Synthi A, the VCS3 in a briefcase as used by Pink Floyd (featured in the Abbey Road studios footage of Dark Side sessions on Live at Pompeii.) If the VCS3 is classed as a miscellaneous instrument, then why not include exponents of the Mellotron or a double neck 6-string and 12-string guitar? Another common response was for Mike Oldfield who made appearances during this time for ‘everything’. However, a check of the instrumentation on Tubular Bells reveals just one instrument, the flageolet, which falls outside the remit of the other classes, being a woodwind instrument that was said to have been invented by Frenchman Sieur Juvigny in 1581.

The Prog magazine poll has been going since 2009 and adheres to a similar format to the old Melody Maker example, though there’s been a gradual evolution to the current format: Best album; best band; best male / female vocalist; best guitarist / bassist / drummer / keyboard player; and best unsigned / new act is equivalent to Melody Maker’s ‘brightest hope’. Prog also includes categories for best and worst event, best multimedia best reissue and icon. The reader’s poll allows personal choice, unlike the nominations for the annual Prog Awards where we are only able to vote for a shortlist of Prog magazine-approved candidates, and if you fail to vote for someone in one of the categories your votes don’t count. Perhaps the Prog team need a lesson in democracy!

Anyway, my votes were cast as follows, based on albums released in 2014 and acts that I saw perform live throughout the year, with the exception of Prog Woman of the Year:

Best band: Änglagård

Best album: La Quarta Vittima by Fabio Zuffanti

Best female vocalist: Sonja Kristina

Best male vocalist: Stefano 'Lupo' Galifi

Best guitarist: Steve Howe

Best bassist: Fabio Zuffanti

Best keyboard player: Agostino Macor

Best drummer: Chris Cutler

Best reissue: King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black

Best multimedia: Pink Floyd, The Endless River

Best event: Prog Resiste, Soignies

Worst event: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Royal Albert Hall

Best venue: Victor Jara Cultural Centre, Soignies

Tip for 2014: Fabio Zuffanti and the Z Band

Prog woman of the year: Kate Bush

Prog man of the year: Fabio Zuffanti

Prog magazine has also hosted other readers' polls, an early edition featured a ‘best albums’ poll which was repeated last year, the fifth anniversary of the magazine’s inception. Close to the Edge was second in 2009, pipped to the top position by Selling England by the Pound, but was promoted to the number one slot in 2014. I should think so! It was quite interesting to see how many albums I owned that made the top 100 (54) and relate this to the editorial remit of the publication. I did have 13 of the top 15 albums, not being at all interested in the two Rush albums that scraped in.

I also subscribed to a best Genesis track plebiscite, the results of which appeared in Prog 13 (January 2011) in the hope that my reasons for selecting my top three would get published because I spent some time thinking about it. My choices made the top three and in the correct order (3, Watcher of the Skies; 2, Firth of Fifth; 1, Supper’s Ready) but they didn’t quote me.

Even though I think publishing lists is lazy journalism, I’ll continue to submit my opinions in the hope that the editorial board takes notice of both my suggestions and my reasons. I'm not so stupid that I think they ever will.

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 08:41PM

By the end of 1974 Tony and I had a combined collection of just over 20 albums. This may not seem very many but money was fairly tight. Apart from a badly-paid newspaper round and a cancer and polio research newsletter collection we had to wait for birthdays and Christmas for cash to buy music. Time and again we’d go into Blackshaw’s and think about buying something different. I’d held Aphrodite’s Child’s 666 in my hands many times without buying it, seduced both by a line-up that included Vangelis and the subject matter, and influenced by hearing the track The Four Horsemen on Alan Freeman’s radio show, though I was never convinced about the cover art. This appears to be signed M. Jubre but lyricist Costas Ferris has said that the band forgot to ask (artistic director) Gerard Fallec the name of the artist. When it came to parting with money we were reluctant to take a shot in the dark, demonstrating an innate unease with gambling - the shortage of ready funds made us very selective, or closed-minded – five of our twenty albums were by Yes, three by Pink Floyd and three by The Nice.

Contrary to the perception that prog fans were sad and lonely but actually to enable us to investigate the previously unknown, we actively engaged in temporary album swaps with friends to expand our horizons. Loaning out albums to school friends introduced me to early King Crimson. Neil Hayton (whose brother Keith was in Tony’s year) lent me In the Court of the Crimson King. Up to that point we’d only heard Red and Starless and Bible Black, so this album with its stunning cover (and an assistant engineer called Tony Page!) and amazing music shifting between the manic horror-metal of 21st Century Schizoid Man and the gentle musings of I Talked to the Wind and Moonchild via the doom-laden mellotron chords of Epitaph and the title track was an eye-opener. It was my next purchase after returning the borrowed copy. As friends’ tastes changed it was possible to buy their unwanted records. John Woodhouse became more interested in the smooth jazz of George Benson, so I relieved him of his former favourites Voyage of the Acolyte and Pictures at an Exhibition for a reasonable price. He had conscientiously looked after his vinyl, so I was far from unhappy with the arrangement.

The ritual of listening to music included multi-listening sessions for new acquisitions, poring over the sleeve and lyrics until they were committed to memory, no mean feat when you consider that a piece of work like Yes’ much maligned (but equally loved) double LP Tales From Topographic Oceans from 1973 contains some of the most obscure lyrics ever written. If there were no lyrics provided we would constantly replay sections until we’d worked out what was being sung. For a long time my copy of ELP’s Tarkus still contained my hand written efforts of the interpretation of words for the title track. Looking for errors in the printed lyrics was a kind of game, but even better, my copy of Relayer (a 1974 Christmas present) has the caption above the band photo in the wrong order and there was a black highlight over the music publisher that obscured the original text, which might say Yessongs. The photo caption was corrected on subsequent pressings and on CD releases.

At other times a group of us would gather in one of our houses to listen to music. We had the stereogram and a new Philips stereo; Bill Burford had a mono record player fitted with a stereo cartridge; Guy Wimble had a fairly nice stereo turntable in an under-used room that was always freezing cold, even in the height of summer. We’d all stay silent and attentive to each record and review it once it had finished, comparing it to other pieces of music we had heard and rating the performance of the individual musicians. Once we’d assimilated all the pertinent information about an album we would turn the lights off and listen in the dark. Rubycon by Tangerine Dream was absolutely brilliant when played in the dark. I received a pair of almost decent headphones for Christmas one year, not realising that my parents were trying to tell me something (I’d quickly learned to ignore my father asking “what’s that racket?” as he walked by the dining room where the Philips stereo system was installed.) After finishing my homework I could sit and listen to any racket I wanted without disturbing anyone.

One of the notable events to hit Barrow was the screening of Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii. Directed by Adrian Maben and filmed in the amphitheatre at Pompeii in October 1971 the original edit only contained live recording. We went to see the subsequent edit, released in 1974, replete with footage from 1972 of the band in the cafeteria at Abbey Road studios and Dark Side of the Moon recording sessions. There were limited screenings and consequently the cinema was packed. Standing in the queue waiting to get in, I was genuinely worried that I’d not get a seat.

When I first travelled around Europe by train in the summer of 1980, Pompeii was a ‘must visit’ destination, so much so that I spent cold and clear night (according to my diary written at the time) sleeping on a platform bench on Pompei Scavi Villa Misteri station on the Circumvesuviana narrow-gauge railway. The idea was to enter the site when it opened at 9am in the morning, allowing a full day amongst the ruins. The buildings were very impressive, really well preserved and covering quite an extensive area and there were continuing excavations at various points around the site. The first stop was the amphitheatre, appearing slightly less well kept than in the Floyd film, with tiers of grass-covered steps. It’s staggering to think that we were witnessing a city that had been frozen in time for almost 1700 years, but I was also rather awestruck by walking through the stunning backdrop to Live at Pompeii which was ideally suited to the early, cosmic Floyd.

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