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...
Thanks Baz, an interesting read! At the time it felt like a full on assault on prog, and people got very polarised by it. You were either in the prog or punk camp, or out, with nothing in-between. Only later did I personally let my guard down and listen (and enjoy) some of it. Like all forms of music the best stands up well, and the challenge is cutting through the dross.
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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.
The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...