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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, Jan 29 2017 08:18PM

One of my Christmas presents was Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. I’d added it to my wish list within the previous month, seduced by the very fitting looking cover (a watercolour illustration by Nathan Popp in the style of Roger Dean’s crash-landed and colonised mountains from Yessongs) together with some four and five star reviews on Amazon.com, there being no reviews, at that time, posted on the UK site. Though there wasn’t a great deal to be gleaned from the reviewer comments, the publicity quotation sounded promising: Progressive rock is maligned and misunderstood. Critics hate it. Hipsters scoff at it. Yes is the Answer is a pointed rebuke to the prog-haters, the first literary collection devoted to the sub-genre. Featuring acclaimed novelists Rick Moody, Wesley Stace, Seth Greenland, Charles Bock, and Joe Meno, as well as musicians Nathan Larson, and Peter Case, Yes is the Answer is a book that dares to reclaim prog-rock as a subject worthy of serious consideration.


Yes is the Answer
Yes is the Answer

The book is a collection of short essays by respected journalists, writers and musicians, each relating a personal progressive rock story in an almost ProgBlog-like manner, only I’m rather ignorant of US writers. It‘s a slim volume which fits the hand nicely and the quality of the paper used for the dust jacket is very pleasing. However, the standard of writing plummets immediately after a rather brilliant opening disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent. These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.


It’s not that I think it has limited literary merit; I instantly disagreed with the opinion of Weingarten in his introduction that the progressive rock fan fraternity frowned upon the exponents of jazz fusion because of their propensity for ‘noodling’ and that fusion adherents were sad for their obsessive appreciation of the instruments used to make the music. On the contrary, Brand X were a successful jazz fusion act who were fully appreciated by the prog rock crowd and, speaking as someone who came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk, part of the attraction for me was the ability to obsess over the instrumentation, because without the technological advancements the music would never have been created. I'm responsible for reproducing the console of a mini-Moog on my desk at school when I was 13 and later, when I first started work after university, spent a lunchtime in a local music shop playing a Mellotron 400D. I'm sure many would agree with me that the best album sleeves are those which list the make and model of all the equipment used to make the record.

I know that there have been factual inaccuracies in my blogs pointed out by readers, but my pieces are mostly opinions, streams of consciousness posted without any proof-reading. When I come across an unchecked fact in a publication (Jerry Lucky repeatedly calling David Gilmour ‘David Gilmore’ in his 20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock, new copies of which are selling for £68 on Amazon in the UK, or Dave Ling writing in Prog magazine that the opening chords of Watcher of the Skies were played on organ, for example) it offends my sensibility.


20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky
20th Century Rock and Roll - Progressive Rock by Jerry Lucky

Imagine my indignation when the first article, Here Comes the Knife by Seth Greenland states that Rondo (by The Nice) is on Ars Longa Vita Brevis. No, it’s on the first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. Why hasn’t anyone picked this up before it went to the printers? This lack of attention to detail is un-prog but it soon becomes clear that many of the contributors discovered this music at the tail-end of the golden period or later, that the majority of them have not remained fully committed to the genre and that their views have more often than not been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs. There’s no doubt that marijuana was the recreational substance of choice for some of the artists but many eschewed drugs either through ascetic lifestyle choice or because of the technical difficulties of playing a piece made ingestion unwise. The book highlights the American experience which is very different from the UK where progressive rock developed; traditionally, rock ‘n’ roll has been romanticised in a very Hollywood way as a rite of passage, a time of teenage rebellion. Progressive rock didn’t really fit into this scheme, because the exponents were attempting to legitimise their form of rock music, with Keith Emerson building bridges between the worlds of classical and rock and all of them were looking at other idioms to expand their musical vocabulary. This is what they exported and a small number of them did well in the US, the music and underlying philosophy chiming with a nascent ecological movement and a general feeling of hope. There were only a few proper progressive rock acts from North America during the golden era (Happy the Man and Fireballet spring to mind, those being bands with albums in my collection, but I think what I’ve heard of Starcastle who received air play on Alan Freeman’s radio show in the UK might also include them in that small club) and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. The short biography after each essay reveals a dearth of specialist music magazine contributors; if you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age presented in a sex and drugs and rock and roll context, you may like this book and the high-scoring reviews from Amazon US make perfect sense. However, there's nothing analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their emotional development have come across prog.

One of the articles is by British author Nick Coleman who was an NME journalist and has written a well regarded autobiography The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss after suffering sudden neurosensory hearing loss – totally devastating when your livelihood revolves around music. Though progressive rock evidently played a major part in his youth, his essay Hung Up on these Silver Strings (a line from the song Axe Victim) concerns Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe isn’t prog but fit in to the closely-associated Art-rock sub-genre. A vehicle for the talents of Bill Nelson, the band was favoured by prog fans and dutifully, though I don’t own any of their studio releases, I bought a copy of Live! In the Air Age in lieu of a ‘best of’ album.


Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe
Live! In the Air Age by Be Bop Deluxe

Part of the attraction for me was that Nelson was a northerner, forgiven for being from the wrong side of the Pennines, from Wakefield. The follow-up band Red Noise created an interest within my circle, possibly because they played Leeds University where my brother Tony and another of my associates were studying medicine but I wasn’t too impressed by Furniture Music, not really liking the shorter songs or the electronics. However, I did go to see Bill Nelson performing The Invisibility Exhibition at the Dominion Theatre in March 1973, an enjoyable gig where Nelson played guitar, synthesizer and percussion to backing video from 1950s art films. Shortly after that I purchased a copy of his solo album Quit Dreaming and get on the Beam, written as a second Red Noise album but held back by EMI because they didn’t like it. This is an album of clever electro pop but I had been under the impression that it came with a free LP called Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), a basic, home recording straying into ambient electronic territory, and that’s what I was really interested in.


Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition
Bill Nelson's Invisibility Exhibition

Nelson may have been the recipient of Prog magazine's Visionary award in 2015 but I still regard him as an exponent of Art-rock. Another Art-rocker, who has had a much heavier involvement with prog, is Brian Eno; these are the only two representatives of this form in my collection. From his Roxy Music beginnings, Eno branched out into progressive pop territory and collaborated with a wide range of prog luminaries on his accessible solo albums. This directly led to involvement with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and he also assisted on the Mainstream album Quiet Sun with former band-mate Phil Manzanera. His experimentation with tape loops and twin Revox tape recorders in collaboration with Robert Fripp for the ground-breaking (No Pussyfooting) began before the release of Here Come the Warm Jets and though dismissed at the time, it is now rightly regarded as a seminal piece of music. What makes Eno stand out is his way of thinking; from the bed-stricken origins of Discreet Music to the entire ambient genre where his modus operandi, subscribing to systems that once set into motion require little or no further input from Eno himself and divulged in the sleeve notes of Discreet Music, still hold true to his output today, neatly exemplified by his Bloom iPhone app. Musical collaborations and pathfinding aside, Eno was appointed the youth affairs adviser for the Liberal Democrats in 2007, at the age of 59. He’s also interviewed Yanis Varoufakis for The Guardian and caused something of a stir last week when a Guardian interview with him ran under the headline “We’ve been in decline for 40 years – Trump is a chance to rethink”; he was obliged to clarify that he thinks Donald Trump is a complete disaster.


Prog and Art-rock obviously have a degree of crossover but the latter has always been more respected by mainstream media. Part of this is inherent re-invention along the lines of fashion, whereas prog is deemed to have ossified, like a lumbering dinosaur without an original thought in its head, being wiped out by the brash, brightly burning punks. Prog resurfaced and, since the mid 1990s has been going pretty strong. That books like Yes is the Answer are being published is testament to its longevity.

By ProgBlog, Mar 13 2016 10:34PM

Already 2016 seems to have been blighted by more high-profile musician deaths than previous years. I was still reading articles about Sir George Martin’s legacy as late as Friday last week when news began to filter through about Keith Emerson. Is the death of a septuagenarian rock musician especially surprising? As I type this the single rumour that his death might have been suicide has gained more credence and though tragic for family and friends who might think they could have done something to prevent such an horrendous outcome, it comes across to this fan in the UK as shocking; the world of prog has lost a genuine pioneer.

After Yes, The Nice was the next band I became familiar with and though this was in late 1972, two years after their demise, it was before I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Page family Nice collection was acquired in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with either Elegy (1971) or Five Bridges (1970.) Tony was responsible for these purchases and it was only when I was a student in London that I bought my own copies. I remember that Nice (1969) was relatively difficult to come by; we called this album ‘red cover’ to distinguish it from the other releases as well as the group itself even though it had an ‘official’ alternative title, Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. My copy of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was a 1976 reissue on the Charly label with a Magritte-like cover illustration of a grand piano breaking through ice, credited to P Larue (Patrice Larue?)

I’d class most Nice material as proto-prog but the first two albums, Thoughts and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) are psychedelic, with a link to another early British psychedelic act, Pink Floyd, through guitarist Davy O’List who stood in for an incapacitated Syd Barrett. The short songs are largely throw-away, not as original or as good as the early Floyd efforts, but Rondo, War and Peace and Dawn hinted at the greatness to come. Keith Emerson’s ability to blend jazz, rock and blues with classical music was the basis of the success of the Nice and subsequently, ELP. Whereas Pink Floyd developed space rock and dallied with the avant garde, Emerson took another route: rocking the classics. Equal parts virtuoso and showman, Emerson stood out as the first important keyboard player in rock; having ousted guitarist O’List as unreliable he showed that a keyboard trio was equal to any guitar-based band and influencing a number of other fledgling progressive acts. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison were solid enough and would later show they were more than capable in Refugee with Patrick Moraz but the Nice was really all about Emerson. The Dylan adaptations were barely recognisable as songs by Bob Dylan, who I didn’t like but She Belongs to Me was a bit of an epic in the hands of Emerson, Jackson and Davison; Country Pie on the other hand was only acceptable because of the inclusion of Bach. The classical excerpts morphed into rock interpretations of lengthier pieces, so that the intermezzo from The Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, the tune used for the current affairs TV programme This Week became a staple live number and forms the track of main interest on side one of Ars Longa Vita Brevis, acting as a neat prelude to Emerson’s first recorded orchestral piece, the title track taking up the entirety of side two; there’s a naivety about this composition and it’s not really helped by poor production but I really like it.


If the Nice helped Emerson cut his arranging skills they were perfected early on, with more challenging compositions, in ELP. Their eponymous debut album remains high up in my personal prog top 10 and though I do like Take a Pebble and Lucky Man, it’s for the beautiful, flowing piano and the marvellous Moog respectively. Emerson may have dabbled with the modular Moog while still with the Nice and played the instrument from the beginning with his new trio but it’s on Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) where it makes its stunning first recorded appearance. Emerson’s ‘sound’ was defined as much by his synthesizer work as his organ or piano and the use of the ribbon controller allowed him to incorporate showmanship into his Moog playing, in the same way that attacking his L100 with knives and wrestling it to the floor or playing it from behind demonstrated his incredible ability on organ or sitting at a piano that revolved around in the air enhanced the live performances. School friend Keith Palmen was converted into a big ELP fan and it was probably at his house that I first heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), a brilliant example of both the excitement that the band could generate live and of the interpretative skills of Emerson.

In 1973 or ’74, when I started to become interested in ELP, I became aware how ELP divided opinion, such that my original vinyl collection included second-hand copies of Tarkus (1971), Pictures, Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Works Volume 1 (1977) as disgruntled friends decided they’d outgrown the bombast and turned to either punk or smooth jazz. It could not be disputed that the 1974 tour promoting Brain Salad was something of a monster because it was turned into a road documentary and a triple live album. The version of Aquatarkus on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974) remains one of my favourite ELP tracks; the solid rhythm of Palmer and Lake allows Emerson to really shine on organ and Moog, reminiscent of the backing provided by Jackson and Davison in the Nice.

The subsequent studio hiatus signalled the beginning of the end for ELP; while they toured and rested punk was hoiking over music fans. ELP came back strongly with a pretty good effort but the decision to allow one side of the double LP Works Volume 1 to each of the members and only one side of real group collaboration may, on reflection, have been the wrong approach. Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 is very enjoyable, building on his previous orchestrated pieces with the Nice and reflecting his admiration for Aaron Copeland but the ELP side has an updated sound, coming from the Yamaha GX1. Emerson is reported to have been quite smitten with this keyboard, eschewing Moog and organ on side 4 in favour of the new piece of technology. I find the sound thin, like so many late 70s and early 80s synthesizers, and would have preferred it if he’d stuck to his analogue instruments.

Having been unaware of the Royal Albert Hall gig in October 1992 that resulted in the excellent Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1993) I thought that I’d never get to see them play live. I’d managed to get to see the reformed Nice during a period of ELP disbandment in 2003 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, the venue for the recording of much of Five Bridges where the band were augmented by guitarist Dave Kilminster. Though at times the sound was quite poor and there were problems with Emerson’s Moog, it was a fantastic occasion, with the performance divided into a Nice portion and an ELP portion where Jackson and Davison stepping back to allow two other musicians to take over on bass and drums.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the debut album and though I’d have preferred a more intimate venue than London’s Victoria Park, it was an occasion not to be missed. The music was incredible and the atmosphere was rather special at this huge event. This would be the last time that the three would play together.



Jim and I went to see the Keith Emerson Band with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican last year, the highlight of which was an orchestrated Tarkus, but it was good to see Emerson taking the conductor’s baton for the encore Glorieta Pass. I believe this was Emerson’s last ever concert performance and though he seemed to relish his raconteur role as much as his musical contribution, he did appear somewhat unsteady. If it’s true that there were no more live concert appearances, I feel quite privileged that I attended two significant events, even though I missed out on classic ELP back in 1974 and only discovered the Nice two years after they’d broken up.



Emerson was an inspiration to keyboard players. He will be sadly missed.


Keith Emerson b. 2nd November 1944 d. 10th March 2016



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