ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road bills itself as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’ and is basically a synthesis of a gallery and a museum that displays an eclectic mixture of medical artefacts and original artworks exploring ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art. I first visited Henry Solomon Wellcome’s former museum in Wigmore Street as a Botany/Zoology student, sometime in the late 70s or early 80s and though the collection has both moved and expanded, the concept of treating art and medical science as equally valid subjects remains true; it’s an institution that appeals to my sense of the value of medicine and medical research which reflects my professional life, but also satisfies my appreciation of the arts, though I subscribe to the belief that the Wellcome Trust should divest its investments in fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. I attended a British Transplantation Society Ethics symposium in its new home last December which concluded with an evening debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby, open to transplant professionals and the general public. The building itself is impressive, with a neo-classical façade and modern interior; high ceilings, clean lines and a spectacular steel and glass spiral staircase that hints at DNA, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and costing over £1m.

I was there yesterday with my family to visit the first instalment of the States of Mind exhibition, an installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, yellowbluepink where the exhibition space is filled with a dense mist coloured by lights, giving the impression that it’s the colour itself that is held in a state of suspension as you make your way around the gallery. Rather like the feeling when you’re caught in a white-out on a mountain, you lose your sense of depth and you can’t detect any detail in the surface you’re walking upon; I’ve been known to fall over in conditions like these when skiing, even standing still. The effect of the artwork is to make you concentrate on the process of perception itself and, as your environment has an apparent embracing fluidity comprised of colour, your normal cognitive processes are deconstructed and you find yourself working out a different way of seeing.

Psychedelia and early progressive rock were very much keyed in to expanding consciousness. Lysergic acid, LSD, was seen as one route and meditative practice was another; I don’t think it can be disputed that LSD and eastern thinking had an influence on the output of the Beatles and it’s very likely that at least one of these had some bearing on Procol Harum (In Held 'Twas in I from Shine On Brightly, 1968) but while acid would become associated with space rock, inner space as much as outer space, an interest in the philosophy of eastern religions was more mainstream, inspiring (amongst others) John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes. Bill Bruford jokingly suggests he’s responsible for Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) because it was at Bruford’s wedding that King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir introduced Jon Anderson to the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Transcendental Meditation was fashionable when I was at school and a number of my good friends went off to a lecture hear about the practice; the parents of one of them were concerned that the event was some form of brain-washing exercise. Though I read widely around the subjects of expanding consciousness including a trio of books by Carlos Castaneda and the obligatory The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, I was never tempted to meditate and the only hallucinogens I ever ingested were Psilocybe semilanceata, freshly foraged from Streatham common, and seeds from home-grown Ipomoea violacea (Heavenly Blue Morning Glory.) Both were chosen because they were natural, unadulterated products and, in the case of the magic mushrooms, as a former botany student I was unconcerned that I’d pick something unpalatable. During an InterRail tour of Europe in 1980 with fellow botany student Nick Hodgetts, we were on the lookout for Lophophora williamsii, the peyote. I may have been influenced by the almost lounge-jazz of Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from In and Out of Focus (1970) but despite some promising signs on barges in Amsterdam, we didn’t find any. Back home, the Ipomoea didn’t work at all and the result from the fungi was mildly disappointing; I succumbed to finding everything very funny and though I thought that my smile was going to spread so wide that my head was going to fall off, there were no chromatic or sonic effects. This contrasts with the coverage of use of magic mushrooms by youths in Barrow’s Evening Mail which described tales of visions of dragons. How prog is that? Perhaps I should have stayed in Barrow...

I have found that live music can lead to transcendental experiences. The dreamy soundscapes of Sylvian and Fripp played havoc with my temporal awareness when I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, despite the cramped seating conditions. It felt as though I was transported to another time and another place and, as I’d not previously heard any of the material, it came as something of a shock to find that one of the tracks was called Twentieth Century Dreaming (A Shaman's Song). When I used to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon (1975) in the dark and through headphones I used to imagine other possible worlds, with the flowing, amorphous sounds conjuring a dynamic spectrum of colours. Though I appreciate stagecraft and thematic stage design, I’d always wanted to see Tangerine Dream in a dimly-lit church. The nearest thing I ever came to them was witnessing Node earlier this year, at the Royal College of Music. The pulsating sequences and sonic washes were mesmerising; the musicians were mostly static but when I closed my eyes the effect was to take me on a trip into inner space, equating the sequences with racing heartbeats or neuro-synaptic transmission.

This effect isn’t only associated with soundscapes or electronica; two years ago watching a reformed Camel performing The Snow Goose in its entirety, I was carried by the music to a dream world where I played out the piece, somehow anticipating and embracing the changes required for the composition when realised without an orchestra. The effect seems to occur when I’m most relaxed, undisturbed by theatrical elements and allowing the musicians to weave their magic. Only prog seems to have that magic.



By ProgBlog, Sep 13 2015 10:15PM

I was offered, and accepted, a new job this week. There’s a redundant section at the bottom of CVs that appears on resume templates: Activities or Interests. In an effort to ensure that all candidates are treated equally, this paragraph is rightly ignored during the interview process but mine is still there and three of the items I list are ‘progressive rock’, ‘bass guitar’ and ‘architecture’.

This last listing is relatively recent and was put there because my son Daryl did an Architecture degree and I took an interest in his studies. In a curious twist, he blames his parents for setting him down that path; we must have dragged him around every National Trust and English Heritage property in the South East and many more elsewhere. Now, family holidays invariably include seeking out some example of architectural vernacular, some special building or a World Heritage site.

Architecture is one of the most visible displays of wealth. Corporations inhabit huge edifices, the super-rich live in characterless high-rise Thames view apartments and old money resides in country retreats. This is rather ironic because, according to the Architects’ Journal (AJ), architects tend to vote Labour. I think the publication itself reads like The New Statesman; last week’s edition was singing the praises of Jeremy Corbyn!

I’m particularly fond of modernist architecture which, fairly early in the twentieth century, set out in a radical new direction when Auguste Perret (1874 – 1954) began to build structures out of reinforced concrete without any ornamentation. His idea was for the exterior to reflect the inner structure, rather than hiding it, a concept of design integrity that was initially inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Based on the analysis in Music of Yes and Listening to the Future by Professor Bill Martin, I wrote a letter to Prog magazine which was published in issue 24 (March 2012) pointing out the link between progressive rock and socialism, via William Morris.

Brutalism, one of my favoured schools of architecture, has been described as an uncompromisingly modern form of architecture able to generate extreme emotions and heated debate. Characterised by large forms of often asymmetrical proportions, the use of unadorned concrete added to its misplaced reputation for suggesting a bleak, dystopian future. I think this is far from the truth and there are others who agree with me. An item on BBC Breakfast (September 8th) with architect Harriet Harriss and Joe Watson from the National Trust explored this myth; Harriss pointing out the touchy-feely nature of the buildings because of the imprint left on the concrete surfaces by the timber formers and Watson expounding the opinion that this was utopian architecture and that the NT, as an extension of their role, was going to open up these buildings for special tours. Put in context, this was a heroic architecture, with local authorities addressing the requirement for decent housing in the years following the Second World War. The planners and architects were visionaries though it would be foolish to suggest that there weren’t failures. Harriss pointed out that this was cutting-edge and that it did involve some experimentation, because of the acute need for housing; issues regarding damp are now able to be addressed and examples of the idiom preserved. The most interesting point was made by Watson, who commented that architecture indicates where political power lies in our society and illustrated this notion by naming the Church and the aristocracy, which agrees with my earlier point about architecture as a display of wealth. He believes that during the 50s and 60s there was a shift in power to the people through local councils and they responded with this heroic, sublime architecture; the accommodation provided indoor bathroom suites, defined kitchen areas, fully wired and ready for appliances, and central heating, things that tenants couldn’t previously have imagined. Harriss made the point that the National Theatre (by Denys Lasdun, 1914 – 2001) was successful because it fulfilled one of the main aims of this school of architecture, namely ending the exclusivity of the arts and making it far more accessible, opening it up to a new, wide-ranging audience. The external appearance, with its many decks that can be interpreted as a series of performance platforms, reflects the function of the building. The music that accompanied the archive footage was chosen for its dystopian feel: the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis (1982.)

The connection of this form of architecture to prog is precisely the same as Harriss pointing out why the National Theatre is a success; ending the hegemony of the rich over the arts. The seeds of progressive rock emerged during the ‘Massive’ period of Brutalism (defined by Alexander Clement as running from 1960 – 1975) when society was changing rapidly spurred on by technological innovation; the technology behind construction was changing and, in music, instrument design and recording techniques were rapidly developing. Not only did concert halls such as the Royal Festival Hall, part of the same South Bank Complex as the National Theatre and the Barbican Centre (officially opened in 1982 during the Brutalist ‘Transitional’ period) provide culture to a wider range of the population, institutions like the University of East Anglia, a famous Brutalist structure opened in 1963, were attracting a wider social range of students and it was the new Universities and Polytechnics that provided a circuit for touring nascent rock acts which contributed to the success of the genre. My first forays to see bands outside Barrow were at Lancaster University (Barclay James Harvest, 1975; Focus, 1976.)

Prog attempted to take high culture and make it accessible to the masses through the medium of rock music. European art music was critical to the success of proto-progressive acts such as The Nice, the Moody Blues and Procol Harum and these gave rise to symphonic prog bands. This form was initially praised by critics and the budding genre became accepted by some of the more forward thinking institutions; Pink Floyd played the Royal Festival Hall in April 1969 during their experimental The Man and the Journey tour. This relationship with the critics changed when some of the exponents of prog undertook massive projects that were beyond the comprehension of many and led to charges of pretentiousness and overblown self indulgence. This period of prog, the end of the ‘golden era’ coincides with a rejection of Brutalism by planners and the transition to less monumental forms, an increased use of brick and the uninspiring Neo-vernacular. As prog played out councils were reducing investment in their concrete estates, former beacons of hope for a fairer society, and the misplaced idea of the dystopian landscape took hold. It’s good that there has been a re-evaluation of progressive rock and a re-evaluation of this egalitarian architecture.


Post Script:

My local concert hall, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (opened 1962 and based on the Royal Festival Hall) features some great acoustics and was another favoured haunt of successful prog acts during the early 70s as commuter towns developed and grew.



By ProgBlog, Jun 21 2015 09:35PM

The recent Page family Milan trip involved a trip to Expo 2015 and the tickets, bought on-line with a 48 hour travel pass, included free admission to the Arts and Foods exhibition at the Triennale di Milano. This display of more than 2000 pieces of work featured a wide array of visual idioms, from models, through objects to entire room settings that revolved around the world of food, nutrition, and the way people eat together. The idea was to examine the relationship between art and the many rituals associated with eating, with special reference to how the aesthetic and functional aspects of what we eat have impacted creative expression. Though much of this was in the form of installations and painting, amongst the artefacts and Andy Warhols was a display of album sleeves, each one depicting a food theme.

The closest this piece came to including a cover from a prog artist or band were Frank Zappa’s Overnite Sensation which shows some crumbs in McDonalds packaging, a half-eaten donut and a piece of rotten fruit bearing the legend ‘Roadies Delite’; the Zappa-Captain Beefheart collaboration Bongo Fury; and an Island Records budget-priced compilation album from 1969 called Nice Enough to Eat which includes 21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson and We Used to Know from Stand Up by Jethro Tull. I came across this album in a Brighton flea market last week so I had a chance to get a close look at the material that was included but apart from the Crimson and Tull, the remainder wasn’t all that inspiring. Also present on the same market stall was another prog album with a food-themed cover, not present in the Milano Triennale exhibition but a record I used to have in my collection, Exotic Birds and Fruit by Procol Harum.

One obvious prog-food related band is Egg. Not only is the first album called Egg (1970) but the cover photograph by David Wedgbury shows an egg-cracking machine beautifully constructed by Peter Chapman that could have come from my old school physics laboratories. The Civil Surface (1974) also features an egg on its cover, this time strongly reminding me of the British Egg Marketing Board’s TV advertising theme, Go to Work on an Egg which began in 1957 and was certainly still running in some form when I was young. It may be that this association is entirely fabricated, possibly due to the presence of an iconic British Lion mark on the Egg that graces The Civil Surface. This was the first Egg album I possessed, a Caroline Records release that sold for around £1.50. I wasn’t too aware of the Canterbury connection at the time and subsequently sold it to my friend Bill Burford before buying it again, this time on CD, from Cover Music in Berlin in 2005. Now that I have all the Egg releases I think that it’s their best record despite Dave Stewart’s warning about the drums being too high in the mix; the recording seems much cleaner than Egg and The Polite Force (1971) and the interpretation of the compositions more mature. Some commentators have questioned the presence of the two wind quartet pieces, suggesting that they are just filler but though these aren’t being played by Egg the band, I think their inclusion is legitimate because they seem to fit with the mood of the album. Calling a record Hamburger Concerto (1974) is obviously suggestive of food and the neon-style writing used for the title fits in with the image of a US burger joint but the side long title track, based on a piece by Hamburg-born Johannes Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, is evidently a Focus pun. The track was conceived as a sequel to Eruption from Moving Waves (1971) and evidently had nothing to do with hamburgers, beginning life as Vesuvius, a portion of which appears on the odds and ends Focus album Ship of Memories (1976) as Out of Vesuvius; the six subsections Starter, Rare, Medium I, Medium II, Well Done and One for the Road make up the three movements of a concerto if you take the first four parts as the first movement comprising exposition, double exposition, development and recapitulation. Though I’m very fond of Moving Waves I prefer Hamburger because of the greater range of instrumentation and sounds, even though Jan Akkerman’s guitar is much less to the fore on the later album’s concept piece.

Gong’s Camembert Electrique (1971) could have been included in the Milan exhibition though there are only written references to cheese on the cover: the album title; ‘Cheez Pleez’ and ‘Strong and streamin mate!’ thought and speech bubbles respectively; plus the small ‘Cheese Rock’ and much larger ‘Fabriqué en Normandie’ tags. I probably bought this album when I was too young to appreciate it, but at £0.49 it was pretty irresistible. You have to remember that I took my prog very seriously and I liked my prog to be serious; the anarchic humour and Dadaist leanings were fine as long as they didn’t pretend to be progressive rock and this was more psychedelia or space rock than prog, with my favourite track being Fohat Digs Holes in Space. The title and cover of England’s Garden Shed (1977) is a play on Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade but the relative subtlety of the reference and the relative unknown status of the album meant that it would never have got a look-in at Milan. This is a late golden-era classic, easily accessible to Genesis devotees but incorporating influences from other classic prog bands without coming across as an imitation. I updated my 20th Anniversary edition with the 2005 Special Edition Booklet and CD from the England merchandise stand at last year’s Resonance Festival.

The nature of much progressive rock music, with grand themes and concepts and cover images to match, is almost the opposite to the prosaic topic of food though the Milan exhibition showed that the notion of ‘eat to live’ has been overtaken by the concept of ‘live to eat’, certainly in Western cultures; perhaps Pink Floyd should have included a track about (the popular but erroneous meaning of) Epicureanism on Dark Side of the Moon. I can’t think of any prog rock song that highlights famine in the same way that Yes penned a song relating to a global concern when they requested Don’t Kill the Whale and perhaps it’s only Genesis who highlight the arrival of rampant consumerism which they compare with an England of folk lore and conservatism (with a small ‘c’) notably its association with food, in Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and Aisle of Plenty from Selling England by the Pound (1973).



By ProgBlog, Dec 7 2014 05:57PM

The headline for a review of a Procol Harum gig in The Independent last week suggested that Procol Harum should be considered on an equal footing to Pink Floyd http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/procol-harum-dominion-theatre-gig-review-poised-to-reclaim-their-rightful-place-alongside-pink-floyd-in-the-prog-rock-pantheon-9882262.html?origin=internalSearch but I’d have issues with this even if I held The Independent in any regard. Founded in 1986 by disaffected Daily Telegraph journalists, The Indy (as it liked to be known) maintained the banner "free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence" until 2011 but always retained a pro-market predisposition. Fellow Barrovian Chris Blackhurst became editor in 2011 after circulating around the business pages of a number of Tory rags; Blackhurst was a student in my form at school whose father was a Conservative councillor and, though he says he originally was in favour of the comprehensive school system, wrote an op-ed for his paper in 2012 asking for the resurrection of Grammar schools. Owned by oligarch and former KGB Foreign Intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev since 2010, the standing of The Independent plummeted further in my eyes.

Forget my issues with the newspaper’s ownership and editorial bias. Procol Harum (named after a Burmese Blue cat that had been misspelled, the cat was meant to be called Procul Harun, ‘beyond these things’) do have a potential claim to a place in progressive rock history: In Held Twas In I, from their second album Shine On Brightly released in December 1968, is an almost side-long multi-part suite that some might consider to be the first prog track. Procol are obviously most famous for A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song on UK radio, a track that was released before but didn’t appear on their first (eponymous) album. The most striking thing about this single which came out before the album, is Matthew Fisher’s organ figure, a loose approximation of Bach’s Air on a G String and there’s nothing like it on the entire debut LP. Fisher, from South Croydon, had spent two terms at the Guildhall School of Music but had decided musical studies didn’t suit him. However, I think the best tracks on Procol Harum are those which most feature Fisher: the excellent Conquistador; the instrumental Repent Walpurgis (which was written by Fisher but does include some nice guitar); and She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, where the organ is gospel-jazz. Not even the classical motifs can hide the blues that dominate the rest of the album; the lyrics are almost all throwaway despite the strong vocal performance from Brooker but the playing is always solid. With the possible exception of Conquistador, none of this is prog, or even proto-prog territory. The more psychedelic songs sound a little bit like the shorter Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack offerings from The Nice but compared to Piper-era Floyd, there’s no sonic exploration and even Syd Barrett’s lyrical whimsy, set within the context of the dawn of psychedelia, comes across as something new and different. Perhaps this is because the Floyd were less established as musicians; intending to become a song writer, Brooker had originally ended his playing career (with The Paramounts) in 1966 when Pink Floyd were only just settling on a steady line-up and managing to get paid bookings. Both bands played to their strengths: Procol were a very British R&B group and Pink Floyd were plotting their course towards space rock.

Much of Procol’s second could have been written for their first album. The exception is the near 17 minute masterpiece In Held Twas In I which, though it wasn’t the first side-length track (Ars Longa Vita Brevis had been released a couple of months beforehand), it incorporated a broader sonic palette, utilising sitar and harpsichord, absorbing musical and theological influences from the East. It was both thought-provoking and fun and one of my student day party pieces was to recount the opening section Glimpses of Nirvana: “Well, my son. Life is like a beanstalk. Isn’t it?” The piece was a composite; shorter songs very neatly segued together to produce the full track but it is, nevertheless, a pretty successful and fulfilling piece of music. Matthew Fisher was again invited to provide material and he also sings on the section that he penned, In the Autumn of my Madness, which has a very memorable melody.

I first heard this song on Live In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, owned by one of Tony’s friends; with a much revised line-up and released in 1972, it coincided with my discovery of progressive rock. I bought the live album from Our Price in Lewisham in 1980 because apart from the epic In Held, it also has a really good version of Conquistador. This and a copy of Exotic Birds and Fruit that I picked up very cheap somewhere in the first few years after my arrival in London were my only Procol Harum albums for a very long time. I subsequently gave my copy of Exotic Birds away to a local charity shop having only played it a couple of times in twenty odd years and deciding I didn’t really like it. I had heard Something Magic (1977) on more than one occasion, an album owned by Infield Park Gang associate Mark Baker which, though not brilliant, wasn’t too bad mostly due to the side long track The Worm and the Tree. Those were the dog days of prog and the music on Something Magic reflected a lack of musical adventurousness. Exotic Birds and Fruit had been bought without a prior listen but at the time I figured that an album from 1974, from a band many consider to be a founding member of the progressive rock movement, would be ok. It wasn’t because they’d abandoned orchestrations and returned to more blues-based rock.

Meanwhile, Pink Floyd had gone from strength to strength, embraced long-form composition and recorded (a studio album) with an orchestra and choir (Atom Heart Mother, 1970) and gone on to break records with the chart longevity of Dark Side of the Moon. The Floyd were outward looking, Procol Harum were inward looking.

In 2005, former organist Matthew Fisher launched a legal battle against pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker over the musical copyright of A Whiter Shade of Pale. His initial success recognising that he had written the organ introduction and counter melody and therefore deserved royalties was challenged by Brooker at appeal and it wasn’t until Fisher took the case to the Law Lords, where he argued that a win without royalty money was never going to be recognised as a win at all, that Fisher emerged victorious. Baroness Hale, one of the five Law Lords involved in the hearing said in her contribution to the rulings: "As one of those people who do remember the Sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."

Just because A Whiter Shade, Conquistador and In Held Twas In I were prime examples of the direction of travel of rock music in the late 60s, it doesn’t make them prog. A quick scan of articles by Pierre Perrone, the author of the Independent’s review, does not include much about progressive rock. More disturbingly, he had previously given the musical Rock of Ages a four star review. I assume his headline was referring to the recent release of The Endless River after a gap of 20 years but Perrone needs to do some better research if he's going to write about prog.


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