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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, Dec 25 2018 10:15PM

There were a couple of articles in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month (December 8th, 2018) that hinted of prog. The first was a piece by Alexis Petridis in The Guide listings supplement ‘I hate playing this song’: When rock stars go disco www.theguardian.com/music/2018/dec/08/noel-gallagher-rod-stewart-beach-boys-when-rock-stars-go-disco which was prompted by Noel Gallagher’s recent announcement that his next album would have a ‘70’s disco feel’ but developed into a history of rock musicians who attempted to harness the commercial benefits of the disco genre, some of whom created deeply regrettable releases when they should have known better. From a prog perspective, the article cites a version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue recorded for Rick Wakeman’s 1979 double LP Rhapsodies and Jethro Tull’s Warm Sporran, an instrumental from 1979’s Stormwatch released as a single backed with the David Palmer-penned Elegy, the only other instrumental on the album. The inclusion of Warm Sporran by Petridis is a little controversial when you consider some of the other contenders who didn’t make his list; yes, there are moments where you can detect a beat that might not seem out of place at a late 70’s disco but the composition is overwhelming a piece of folk rock, simply infused with a little bit of funk. This is one of the tracks where Ian Anderson plays bass, John Glascock having stepped down from involvement in recording due to deteriorating health even though he’d only just returned to the fold after his initial illness. It’s clear that drummer Barrie Barlow and Anderson formed a cohesive rhythm section, unsurprisingly not too dissimilar to the Barlow-Glascock pairing, but Barlow has suggested that Anderson recorded his bass parts too loud. Despite its autumn release, the front cover image of a hooded and mitted Ian Anderson figure sporting a snow-flecked beard, together with the badly drawn polar bear on the rear has always suggested to me that Stormwatch is a ‘winter’ album, so somehow its mention in an article in December seems quite fitting.



Giving a song the title of Warm Sporran also seems to imply winter, as protection (for something) against the cold. In my opinion the rhythmic diversity of Warm Sporran separates it from disco music although I don’t believe that same can be said of Another Brick in the Wall (part 2), absent from Petridis’ article but which, according to Gilmour, was turned into a disco single by Bob Ezrin after the producer had suggested that the band check out what was happening in clubs. Despite misgivings, describing Pink Floyd as a band that didn’t release singles, they recorded a version of Another Brick in the Wall with a four-to-the-bar bass drum part which was subsequently edited into a hit, reaching the number 1 spot in the UK singles chart almost exactly 39 years ago. The members of Pink Floyd are unlikely to regret the recording of Another Brick in the Wall but I have always felt, however good Waters’ concept, the music had declined in standard from a peak of the Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here eras to something that was no longer progressive rock; a result of a less collaborative approach to writing.

Ignoring glaring omissions and forgiving inappropriate inclusions, Petridis’ coverage of Rhapsodies is fully warranted. Following the progressive rock of solo albums White Rock and Criminal Record (both released 1977) and Tormato (1978) with Yes, Wakeman remained in Switzerland and put together Rhapsodies, produced by Tony Visconti, before band rehearsals for a follow-up to Tormato began (and ended with Wakeman and Jon Anderson leaving.) One of my friends bought it at the time of its release when I heard it in its entirety for the first and only time. Wakeman has said that A&M exerted considerable influence over the content and imposed Visconti as an external producer. Fortunately, Wakeman and Visconti got on well but the range of styles covered on the LP created something of a mess. On reflection, the album is full of Wakeman humour and amazing playing, albeit with a more uniform sonic palette than on his earlier solo material; anyone who has witnessed a Wakeman one-man show mixing music with his raconteur persona will understand the genesis of Rhapsodies. However, I’ve found it difficult to get beyond the cover of the album and as much as I like subtle or subversive comedy, I prefer my prog to be serious. The disco beat Rhapsody in Blue, included on the wishes of his record company and arranged by Visconti might be a joke but it’s certainly lost on me; I suppose that the album cover is also fitting for an article about music appearing in December.


The other Guardian article was Lyric poetry by the novelist David Mitchell which appeared in the Review supplement, about his ‘decades of Kate Bush fandom and the songs that have been the soundtrack to 'his life and work’. I read this with interest because when Bush hit the airwaves in January 1978 with Wuthering Heights, it was immediately obvious she stood apart from the usual suspects you’d hear on UK pop radio stations or see on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops and I immediately became a fan. There were a number of intriguing things about her, from the Emily Brontë literary reference which I’d thought was a progressive rock trait, to the story of her ‘discovery’ by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and her performance of Wuthering Heights on TV was certainly something of a revelation. At the time, the sobriquets ‘sophistipop’ and ‘pop-prog’ had not been coined but that was the style she was developing. My dose of Kate Bush was delivered via the jukeboxes of the pubs we used to frequent; one that is indelibly etched in my memory was at the New Commercial Inn at Newton, a brisk half hour walk from home via the ascent of Yarlside, a site of former haematite mining littered with industrial relics and pock-marked with collapsed shaft entrances. Other hazards included cow pats but the effort was rewarded with well-kept beer, a log fire in winter, and Wuthering Heights.


When I moved to London to study at Goldsmiths’ College later that year, Kate Bush was in residence at 44 Wickham Road, Brockley, which happened to be very close to one of Goldsmiths’ halls of residence. I moved out of halls in my third year, sharing a flat with my friend Jim and a friend from my Barrow school days, Eric Whitton, who owned the three Kate Bush albums available at the time: The Kick Inside, Lionheart and Never for Ever. My first Kate Bush album was The Whole Story, a compilation from 1986 which covered the essential singles including my personal favourite Breathing, largely for John Giblin’s brilliant fretless bass (I was listening to a lot of Brand X at the time) although the video for the song was totally captivating and the anti-nuclear war message was something that I related to. Bush herself described the song as her ‘little symphony’ and I’ve always admired the way it was constructed, borrowing a page from the Pink Floyd song-writing book and getting label-mate Roy Harper to help out, adding spoken words from the UK government’s Protect and Survive public information leaflet. With a running time of 5’ 30” on Never for Ever (the single was a little shorter), this might not be her longest song but it certainly pushed the boundaries of conventional pop. Apparently I have a first pressing of The Whole Story, indicated by the stated release date of Wuthering Heights which it cites on the inner gatefold as being November 4th 1977, when it was actually James and the Cold Gun, originally selected as Bush’s first single which had been scheduled to be released on that date. Wuthering Heights, Bush’s preferred initial release, finally came out on January 20th 1978.


Along with sometime collaborator Peter Gabriel she was a prime exponent of the Fairlight CMI, marking her out as an innovator. In fact, every release held something of interest and, as David Mitchell suggests in the Guardian article, her lyrics have become progressively more mature and the imagery more challenging. It’s not really surprising that she gets associated with prog with her choice of collaborators and approach to music but as the first woman to have a self-penned song reach number one in the UK singles chart and later the first female solo artist to top the UK album charts, with Never for Ever, she was genuinely progressive and has acted as an inspiration for a number of women in the current prog scene. The length of time between album releases was something of a concern for some of her fans, especially John Mendelssohn, whose 2004 novel Waiting for Kate Bush mixed real-life and fiction, screwed up some facts and was comprehensively panned by amateur critics. I read some of the book when I was thinking of buying it as a present but I’d encourage anyone tempted to leave it well alone.



I didn’t actually buy any Kate Bush albums after The Whole Story until the early 90s, when I was in Jersey on a family holiday and picked up The Sensual World (1989) on CD. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to buy second-hand copies of the original releases on vinyl, having also bought downloads of both The Kick Inside and The Hounds of Love in 2014.


Thanks to The Guardian, Alexis Petridis and David Mitchell for providing some prog- and prog-related coverage.











By ProgBlog, Oct 9 2016 08:29PM

Every so often I allow myself the odd hour or two when I fully relax, when I don’t want to listen to anything epic or watch anything that engages, when I watch a fairly mindless film just for fun. Suffering from a heavy cold at the beginning of September (which delayed this blog), I chose to watch the DVD of School of Rock (2003), starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman, directed by Richard Linklater. Though formulaic and predictable the film requires absolutely no thinking and is still moderately enjoyable. One of the great surprises is the chalk board feature of the history of rock which Dewey Finn (the Jack Black character) is teaching to his 10 year old pupils. This scene, lasting only a few seconds, manages to neatly encapsulate the relationship between (rock) musical genres, listing some of the major exponents of each. It must have taken someone some considerable thought to produce and, quite impressively, includes ‘Prog Rock’ with examples Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis (the) Residents and King Crimson. The aspiring keyboard player is given Fragile to listen to as homework, with the instruction to pay close attention to Wakeman’s work on Roundabout. The film wasn’t aimed at the age group featured but it still must have been the first exposure to progressive rock for many of the viewing public.


Watching the DVD coincided with the start of a new school year. As a youth at school, I used to get annoyed at the airing of TV adverts for back-to-school paraphernalia the moment the summer holidays started. (I was similarly dismayed by the start of the season for pushing summer holiday destinations, which started over Christmas…) I don’t know if this was a reaction to commercialisation, a chaotic lifestyle or merely innate laziness, but the bombardment from supermarkets flogging school clothing and stationery stores plugging pencil cases was a major turn-off, as though the six week break was already over when it had barely begun. And anyway, I had far better things to do than think of preparing for a new term.

The start of this school year was heralded by the government indicating that they wanted to reintroduce selective education. There are so many reasons for not returning to the grammar school system and none for the reinstatement of the 11+ but this crazy policy announcement has galvanised a broad range of teaching professionals, education experts and parents, becoming united in opposition to the plans. It’s not even popular with all Conservative MPs, though it does appeal to the more reactionary types. Social mobility has become something of a political mantra and it’s this notion that is behind Theresa May’s idea of the expansion of the grammar schools system, incorrectly attributing the academic success of less affluent pupils to a grammar school education. It’s been pointed out that most children will lose out in a selective system but it’s evident that dogma is at work because there has been next to no thought behind the proposals, just the in-vogue trashing and rejection of objections raised by experts. Not only was there no mention of children with special needs or disabilities, they hadn’t considered the effect on teacher recruitment. I don’t really need to reiterate that the comprehensive system showed it is possible to provide a high quality, inclusive education for all children because the statistics speak for themselves: 86% of state-funded schools are currently rated as good or outstanding. This figure will be at risk if there’s a return to selection. The evidence shows that the educational advantage received by those selected for grammars is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. I’m the product of the grammar school system, the child of teachers and someone who has a history of active trade unionism. I know that selection is unfair and that teachers, one of the most recognisable groups of public sector employees, while tasked with educating the nation’s children, are frequently placed in unpleasant positions by politicians.


The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.
The demise of the genre at the end of the 70s has been at least partly ascribed to the charge of elitism. Some of this, I’m sure, is down to the suggestion that musicians associated with progressive rock were well-educated. It’s true that Rick Wakeman, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland and Kerry Minnear had all studied music up to degree level and Genesis were founded at public school Charterhouse but equally there are those who were very prominent in the movement who didn’t benefit from further, higher or priveledged education. Success in any field of study or work depends on application, with the indisputable magic created by the 1971-1972 line-up of Yes coming from a broad range of backgrounds, boasting the Royal College of Music drop-out Wakeman, Bill Bruford who quit his Economics and Sociology course at Leeds University in 1968, Jon Anderson who left school at the age of 15, Chris Squire was suspended from school and told to get his hair cut when he was 16, never to return, and Steve Howe who embarked on his musical career at 17.

Prog doesn’t really do songs about school, which tends to be straightforward rock subject matter (c.f. the film School of Rock.) I started to become interested in music in 1972 and one of the first songs I heard was Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) which captured the anarchic mood at the end of a summer term with its anthemic guitar-heavy structure and the immortal lines: School’s out for summer, school’s out for ever, school’s been blown to pieces. I recognised this as something I’d not heard before, a form of musical theatre (Cooper brandished a rapier during his performances on Top of the Pops) but it was not something that necessarily convinced me it was worth pursuing, as it was relatively simplistic. That particular single vies with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (part 2) (1979) for most memorable school-themed song and it’s not really surprising that I consider this offering as outside of the Floyd progressive period. When The Wall was released and both the album and single became successful, I was torn between celebrating that success (as a band I’d followed for eight years) and disappointed with the quality of the material; the single in particular calls to mind a disco beat, something I’d been decrying for the preceding two to three years. Equally theatrical, it has been misinterpreted as anti-education when it's really an attack on a particular form of educational system within the UK, based on Waters’ own school experience, which he described as detestable: "I hated every second of it, apart from games. The regime at school was a very oppressive one ... the same kids who are susceptible to bullying by other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers.” This comes across very clearly in the film of the album.


One partial exception to the rule appears on Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant, a concept album that follows three school friends through their subsequent, somewhat less than satisfying career choices back to their reunion as friends. Following the introductory Prologue school is referenced as the starting point of their friendship in Schooldays where, along with sound effects of a schoolyard which according to Ray Shulman are intended to invoke nostalgia, are suggestions of a care-free existence before the three protagonists begin to question how long they will remain friends. The concept is relatively simple but the album is a forgotten gem in the Giant canon.


Education is about releasing potential. The evidence suggests that high-quality support in a child’s early years improves educational outcomes, as an infant ’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, rising to 80% formed by the age of three and this is where gaps open up between children from different backgrounds. That’s why the argument about social mobility and selective education is spurious - children from poorer homes are already playing catch-up by the time they start nursery. If there’s going to be any form of government intervention in education it needs to concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, the home environment and parenting skills. Just say ‘no’ to more grammar schools.







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