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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, Jul 24 2016 05:20PM

Last week was the hottest of the year so far and it started very badly. Sometime during the middle part of Monday a sinkhole appeared underneath the railway tracks at Forest Hill, rendering this route and my back-up route, the London Bridge to East Croydon line, unavailable for my journey home.


The staff at Whitechapel Station could have been a bit more helpful, by telling the commuters that the service between New Cross Gate and both Crystal Palace and West Croydon was suspended, for instance; instead, they suggested that passengers should “board this train for West Croydon and Crystal Palace” even though the service was going to Clapham Junction. I asked a woman who had just been making arrangements for someone else to pick up children if there was a problem and she told me about the subsidence. I guessed that London Bridge services might also be affected, though I had no idea how badly until I eventually got home and, having already missed two opportunities to go to Clapham Junction, decided to adopt Plan C.


Unable to concentrate on the Mellotron-drenched Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (Edgar Froese, 1975) because of the requirement to listen to station announcements, I made my way on a relatively empty train to New Cross, but decanted onto a thronging platform to wait for one of the three South Eastern train services per hour to Hayes; the first of which was cancelled because of ‘signal problems’ at London Cannon Street. Since I began commuting by train through South London 38 years ago, there has been woefully inadequate investment in the railways, which despite privatisation continues to suck in taxpayer money through government subsidies to the tune of £3.8bn in 2015. The private train operators then pay out millions of pounds to shareholders while the travelling public have to put up with a fractured and fragmented service dogged by delays, infrastructure failings, cancellations and increasing ticket prices. Needless to say, the state of overcrowding on the train that eventually appeared, late, carrying twice as many commuters as normal, made the scheduled 20 minute journey to Elmers End in 30oC heat deeply unpleasant; it was further delayed by signalling problems at Lewisham and I had to repeat the journey, when it was even hotter, the next day. There’s a simple solution: Renationalise the railways; use public money (or through a re-jigged Green Investment Bank that doesn’t rely on commercial rates) to invest in staff, infrastructure and rolling stock that is fit for purpose; support British engineering. Failure to do so will result in an economy which, like the trains on Monday and Tuesday, is going nowhere.

It was a hot summer forty years ago, too. I had finished my ‘O’ Levels and took part in what can only be described as an epic mountaineering holiday with brother Tony and friends Steve Dickinson, John Ullock and Guy Wimble, camping on mountainsides between Bridge of Orchy and Fort William, bagging Munros. The planning for this event rivalled a Chris Bonnington Everest expedition though our chosen food supplies, Ryvita crackers and Vesta freeze dried meals had to be supplemented by free mountain fare, blueberries, which were accompanied by an attempt to concoct cream from dried milk powder, margarine and water from mountain streams, and a stop for takeaway haggis and chips in Kinlochleven. I was somewhat leaner and fitter at the end of the trip...

1976 was also rock’s ‘Year Zero’, the foundation of Punk in the UK which I first noticed when I started in the Sixth Form in the autumn. School friends were now showing interest in bands spearheading the scene around CBGB in New York and whereas school mates’ bands had only a few months before been plying covers of Focus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and even Fruupp, a trip to the RAF Club would result in having to listen to attempts at Ramones songs and scrawled in my ‘rough book’, the school exercise book used for making notes, was a picture of a penis with the words ‘Sex Pistols’ along its length; thanks, John Bull. The Sex Pistols had begun to gig in late 1975 (as support to Bazooka Joe at St Martin’s College) but only played cover songs. Even this early on the Pistols’ influence was spreading and by early 1976, a core group of fans that included Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin and Billy Idol had coalesced into the so-called Bromley Contingent, brought together by an accident of south London geography, music and fashion, the latter supplied by the Malcolm McLaren – Vivienne Westwood shop SEX. I may not have heard much punk when it first appeared but it was the fashion, specifically the appropriation of Nazi symbolism which really inflamed my dislike of the genre, rather than a musical form that was the antithesis of prog: short; simple; simplistic.

So what was prog doing at the time? The premier league of prog bands were on hiatus, effectively exiled by what their accountants would have told them was a punitive tax regime. Yes and ELP were huge acts, though even less commercially successful bands like Gentle Giant set up recording sessions outside of the UK to minimise how much of their cash went to the exchequer. The highest rate of income tax throughout the 50s and 60s was 90% but this was reduced by the Conservative administration to 75% in 1971. When the Labour government took over in 1974, the top rate of income tax was increased to 83% but the surcharge on investment tax took the top rate on investment income up to 98% and these rates applied to incomes over £20000 per year, affecting 750000 people, including some major prog bands. The absence from home turf for prolonged periods (there was an allowance for so many days residence without triggering the tax) deprived the music journals of prog-related copy and coverage of new bands, who wished to be seen to eschew the perceived overblown and self-indulgent nature of progressive rock, was fed by a new generation of journalists armed with sociology degrees who regarded prog as elitist. The Stranglers were already gigging in spring 1976 and The Damned were formed sometime around the middle of the year, famous for being the first UK punk band to release a single. Captain Sensible, born Raymond Burns, lived in Edith Road SE25, the location of my first flat as an owner-occupier. There’s a rumour that if it wasn’t the same property, it was next door to the Burns’ home.


It’s often been commented on that many original punks were into prog. The Damned had evolved from jazz improvisation; Johnny Rotten is often cited for his appreciation of Van der Graaf Generator after being invited to play his own records on a Tommy Vance show on Capital Radio in July 1977; He played some Can, The Blimp by Captain Beefheart, Fleance from the Polanski film soundtrack The Tragedy of Macbeth by Third Ear Band and The Institute of Mental Health (Burning) plus Nobody’s Business from Peter Hammill’s 1975 solo album Nadir’s Big Chance. Rotten also accused David Bowie (he played Bowie’s Rebel Rebel) of copying Hammill’s moves!

Punk didn’t really last very long and, apart from the legacy of bands like The Clash, the punk ethos became swiftly diluted, revealing itself to be nothing but an expression of fashion in the broadest sense. The snarling bands like the Sex Pistols, put together to generate outrage, burned with a very brief flame. Bromley Contingent leader Siouxse quickly branched into proto-Goth; Billy Idol dabbled in proto-Goth, too, and appeared to be obsessed with his own image. Were The Stranglers really punk in the first place? I’m disappointed to have missed them when they played Maxim’s in Barrow in March 1977 but I have a confession: I’ve seen The Undertones twice. Once at a free concert in Brussels in August 1980 and in 1983, supporting Peter Gabriel at Selhurst Park. Manchester-based Buzzcocks were always just a clever pop band and are now reaping in cash from What do I Get? being used in an advert for McDonalds. This is hardly punk-principle. It appears that every musician has to continue to make a living somehow...






By ProgBlog, Nov 29 2015 08:41PM

The scene: a dimly lit village hall around 7pm in a small rural town in Wiltshire. A group of middle aged men sit on chairs placed in a circle. After a period of silence I start to speak, stuttering, “Erm...my name’s, er 'John' and I like progressive rock music.” In a reassuring voice the bearded man with more than a slight paunch speaks reassuringly “Welcome 'John', it’s OK you are among friends. It is safe here.” That’s how it used to feel when you bared your soul and spoke the bitter truth about your musical interests. Records in gatefold sleeves with science fantasy artwork, intricate fiddly solos, weird time signatures, keyboard players with ten keyboards, drum kits so big they need their own articulated lorry, yep that’s what we prog fans like, but it wasn’t always that way for me.


So, my thanks to Baz for allowing me this guest slot on ProgBlog, and there’s another belated thanks due too. In 1979 we moved to Infield Park in Barrow, I was just 12 with two older brothers, and IP residents Baz and Bill Burford were away at Uni when we arrived, but in a couple of months they arrived back for summer. Now finding great music all by yourself can be pretty difficult and time consuming, so it’s very helpful when big brothers and their friends show you some of what’s out there and help fast track some of your learning.


That learning for me over those first 2 or 3 years included the delights of PFM, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Nice, “Crimso”, Camel, Yes and Jethro Tull. In fact Baz and Bill bought me a Tull compilation album for my fourteenth birthday, and thus started a life long interest in the band. It probably came back to haunt them because by the time I was 16 or 17 I was a full on Tull bore, following the band on several dates on the same tour, having Tull pen friends and gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the band which I just had to share with everyone. I can still be a bit of a Tull bore now but I’m more socially adept these days.


Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Postcard from Dave Pegg. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

So I was given a great grounding, but as brothers and older friends completed studies and moved away exposure to new and undiscovered prog become less and less, and my interest in other music started to grow. Flirtations with The Stranglers, Ramones, The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. took place, and they sat alongside my prog faves and jostled for attention.


In 1988 I left Barrow for the bright lights of Newcastle. I stayed there for the next eleven years and never again called Barrow my home. What Barrow lacked Newcastle had in spades – great music venues, record shops, pubs without gits, culture (!), a variety of wide minded people to meet, learn from and share things with. During my years in the Toon I bought an average of three albums a week, saw 80 – 100 gigs a year as a student, and expanded my musical horizons to places I never thought I’d go. I went on a proper musical journey and it was bloody brilliant.



Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
Tull ticket September 1984. Photo (c) Mike Chavez

Prog was forgotten, the old records mostly allowed to gather dust (although Floyd and Tull still got a regular airing). I found punk and blues, I then found Funk, Blue Note, Latin and Brazilian as my tastes veered towards black American music and great rhythms. James Brown, The Meters, Horace Silver, Art Blakey; Howlin’ Wolf; Gil Scott-Heron...they collectively elbowed out the polite English prog rockers. As my record collection grew and grew it was regularly taking twenty minutes to dig out the next album I wanted to play, so I decided to sort them out alphabetically - in two categories:- “black music” and “white music”. There’s only two sorts of music right?


Then one I day in the mid to late ‘90s I randomly pulled out Close to the Edge by Yes and put it on. I was propelled back ten years to the last time I’d played it, and it was like finding this thoroughly gripping music for the first time, but I knew every word! Perhaps this prog stuff was worthy of a re-look after all. Slowly prog reclaimed its place next to the rest of them, and that’s where it’s remained to this day – a treasured friend amongst other treasured friends.


So what to make of the musical journey? It’s been great, and it continues of course. The added joy of the musical journey compared with a ‘travelling’ journey, and I’ve done lots of those too, is that you don’t have to leave anything behind, you really can take it all with you. In fact I’ve got a 160GB iPod so I can actually take the majority of it with me wherever I go.


Now let it not be said that I have any musical ability whatsoever, I don’t. I can’t even clap in time for more than about four seconds, but as my musical experience has grown I’ve been able to better see the depth of all this music, to pick out the great bits, the subtle bits, the really clever bits, the bits where the simplicity is the key, and also the dross that should never be heard again. I’m proud to be a widely travelled musical snob, it’s taken a lot of time, effort and money to get there and I won’t be giving it up that easily I can tell you.


Nature always looks for the simplest and most efficient ways to do things, and it’s wonderful to hear something stunning in its brilliance, yet simplicity. John Lennon was the master of it lyrically, and I’d throw The Buzzcocks, Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly in there too (musically). But sometimes...sometimes you just need something a bit more than that, where the sheer intricacy and complexity of the music, and the level of skill needed for a group of people to work together in perfect understanding to navigate their way through it is what impresses and challenges us. That’s where yer Blue Note Jazz, yer String Quartets and yer Prog comes in!


So the journey has taken me full circle, to a degree, and I’m out of the prog closet. It’s a dear old friend again and not a dirty little secret, and now and again I even get to see some of it live - in recent years I’ve caught up with the likes of Tull, Yes, Focus and Roger Waters, as well as some non-prog too of course. And at this point in the musical journey, and with all that experience gathered, I can say there’s still only two sorts of music – but it’s good and bad, and it’s not always black and white.



In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez
In Nick Mason's garden, 2013. Photo (c) Mike Chavez



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