ProgBlog

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, Jan 25 2015 11:12PM

Edgar Froese, the founder member of Tangerine Dream died unexpectedly last week from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 70.

Froese was born in 1944 in a region of East Prussia (now the Russian city of Sovetsk) and settled in West Berlin where he went on to study art and sculpture in the mid-60s. He formed a Beat group called The Ones who toured widely playing songs such as soul classic In the Midnight Hour. It was during this time that he visited Salvador Dali at his villa in Cadaqués where he was inspired to reject the Anglo-American confines of popular music. On his return to Berlin, he dropped into the newly founded Zodiak Arts Lab and adopted the moniker Tangerine Dream. The first TD album Electronic Meditation, made with drummer Klaus Schulze, unconventional musician Conrad Schnitzler (who played dried peas, typewriter and manipulated taped sounds), organist Jimmy Jackson and flautist Thomas Keyserling, was not really ‘electronic’ but treated conventional instruments.

Their third release, Zeit, a double album from 1972, is a bleak, minimalist masterpiece from the rather dramatic cello quartet opening through to the very end. Based on the philosophy that time is motionless and only exists in our own minds, the shifting sounds, overlain and treated, make me imagine that I’m lost and alone in deep space. There’s a hint of strummed guitar in part 3 (Origin of Supernatural Probabilities) but, apart from the cellos, that’s the only discernible instrument; Zeit is also notable for being the first TD album that brought together seminal line-up of Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann.

DJ John Peel and Richard Branson were primarily responsible for the popularity of TD in the UK after Peel named Atem (1973) his album of the year and, following their signing to the fledgling Virgin Records, Phaedra (1974) reached no 15 in the charts despite only selling a couple of thousand copies in their native Germany. Despite Phaedra being my introduction to TD (thanks to school friend Alan Lee) I prefer Rubycon (1975) and, though I haven't heard Ricochet for nearly 40 years, I think I also prefer that to Phaedra.

Some commentators think that the term ‘progressive’ should not be applied to Zeit, partly on philosophical grounds – how can you progress if time doesn’t really exist? – but the output of the Virgin years is a maturing of the Kosmische sound that fully embraces the spirit of prog where the sequencer comes to the fore. Whereas Zeit with its subtle sonic shifts could be called ambient in the same way that Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are ambient, the subsequent TD releases are something more. I’m struggling to find a suitable term but I guess ‘atmospheric’ will do. Though inherently rhythmical, sequencers weren’t used to provide rhythm; their pulses weave in and out of the sonic washes like snapshots of important moments in time, mayfly fragments in the history of the universe.

The band may not have been virtuoso but that’s why they didn’t emulate British prog; they became virtuosos of technology and Chris Franke applied the influence of the minimalists and modern composer György Ligeti. Their use of haunting Mellotron flute is classic but they also used the instrument to great effect on Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares from Phaedra to emulate staccato violin, something that contradicts the 'ambient' tag. In fact, their use of Mellotron is quite different from that of the symphonic prog bands, something I’d ascribe to the sonic territory that they inhabited. I’m one of those people who believe that the mid-70s TD were a defining sound of prog and rushed out to buy Rubycon when it was released. I loved the cover of Phaedra more than Rubycon, but the inside gatefold of the latter was brilliant, in gorgeous chocolate colours, with the cameo of Monique Froese. TD cover artwork was pretty special and as immersive as the music itself, another reason to define them as classic prog. Rubycon was an album that was fantastic for listening to in the dark, through headphones, a pure escapist experience whether you were exploring outer or inner space.

The next studio release, Stratosfear, makes too many concessions towards mainstream rock for my liking. Why on earth did Froese use a harmonica? Friend and Electronica aficionado Neil Jellis opines that Stratosfear is much more polished than their live material of that year or even 1977’s Encore. I think that the studio material is all very well produced but I’m not particularly au fait with the live material and interpret Neil’s comment not as a criticism as such, rather an indication that TD were becoming more industry-friendly. I imagine it was difficult to find new things to write in the idiom that they’d created. We both agree that Song of the Whale (from Underwater Sunlight) is their last great track and Neil points out that Chris Franke left the band one studio album later and believes there is a direct correlation between the (declining) quality of TD material and Franke's exit. He says there are long-standing rumours that Franke is sitting on a pile of live recordings from the 1970s and 80s. It may be that following the death of Froese there is a chance that these recordings may now see the light of day as the relationship between Froese and Franke was pretty poor following the latter’s departure from the band.

I was somewhat surprised to find that George Wells, one of my brothers-in-law, was a TD fan because much of his record collection was made up of Neil Diamond records! He’d been to see TD play live but as I only met my future wife in 1984 I’m not sure if he was present at the concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (23/10/1975) where much of Ricochet was recorded. I didn’t mind buying him a couple of TD albums as birthday presents in the mid-late 80s before the disappearance of vinyl but I would have been embarrassed if I’d had to hand over money in a record shop for anything else he liked!




Edgar Willmar Froese b. 6 June 1944 d. 20 January 2015



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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.

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