ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Apr 3 2016 06:21PM

As I begin to type I’m listening to Seconds Out, bought from Cob Records in Porthmadog during the HRH Prog 4 trip. This is relevant because on the return journey from Wales we (from now on to be referred to as 'The Committee') discussed the provenance of the bands performing at the festival, resolving to come up with either a scientifically derived formula (The Committee, at that stage, was comprised of scientists) or to autocratically pronounce whether a piece of music conformed to our naturally correct definition of progressive rock. Jim later went on to suggest that there could be two lists within the catalogue, so that Genesis would be included as a prog band, but their album Genesis (1983) wouldn’t make the list of progressive rock albums; the first tenet is that post-Hackett Genesis albums are not prog, so I’m listening to the last Genesis prog album.


The problem of hitting upon a comprehensive and logical catalogue has been documented in all books about the genre as well as played out on the letters pages of Prog magazine. Apart from perhaps Math Rock or some JS Bach, music is emotive and emotions are not controlled by logic, so though there can be some convention by which the definition is set, these rules are inherently fluid. There is a degree of agreement between most of the authors of the earliest academic or serious works on the subject, Bill Martin, Edward Macan and Paul Stump but their studies primarily relate to what Martin calls ‘the golden era’ of progressive rock (1968 – 1978), a time when there weren’t so many groups, albums or different genres; the advent of neo-prog in the early-mid 80s but more so the Lazarus-like emergence in the early-mid 90s really complicates the field as divergent influences and a propensity for the music business to come up with ever more labels to package their charges. I don’t believe that the original defining traits of prog can now be applied to exponents of the genre, because alongside virtuoso performances, ‘stretching out’ whether by improvisation or structured development including passages of divergent dynamics to create long-form compositions, the utilisation of technology to produce innovative sounds and the adoption of more thoughtful, often literary or philosophical themes that demanded some form of intellectual engagement with the audience, so called ‘head music’, was the absorption of multiple influences of musical style, central to which was the importance of European art music.

The jettisoning of blues-based American influences and the belief that a form of rock that borrowed from classical music could bridge the divide between high culture and popular culture were catalysts in the formation of progressive rock. Though the title wasn’t applied to music at the time (I called it 'techno-rock', to highlight the importance of the [mostly] keyboard technology and the technical dexterity required to play the music), progressive was an appropriate term because it was a musical form that seemed to actively push at boundaries. Keith Emerson hints at this in the sleeve notes to the proto-prog Five Bridges album and Emerson himself was one of the main bridges between the two schools, writing a piano concerto and continuing to play blues riffs during piano solos.

I think that politics and sociology also played an important part in the formation of the progressive rock movement, where the hippie ideals of the late 60s were carried on by musicians; 70s prog was generally positive, inclusive and questioning, all qualities that constitute a progressive form of politics, and some of the musicians explored what at the time were considered niche interests like vegetarianism. The progressive rock movement was incredibly successful, due in part to the ‘college circuit’ as higher education was opened up to more of the population in the 60s and student unions began to take responsibility for booking acts, bringing groups and their target audience together. When I was applying to universities in the late 70s, I placed considerable importance on the ability of a campus to attract bands though by the time I went to uni punk had come and largely gone.

Some commentators and musicians have suggested that playing the greatest hits from your 70s heyday is not progressive and that to live up to the term there has to be evidence of progression, a continual development. The Committee briefly discussed the use of the terms progressive rock and prog and maybe it’s best to apply the phrase ‘progressive rock’ to the music produced between 1968 and 1978 where there was a genuine direction of progress, strictly encapsulating a particular musical form within a specific time period. This leaves us with ‘prog’ which covers both progressive rock and idioms that used progressive rock as a blueprint: neo-prog and the music produced in the resurgent period from the early 90s to the present day. Prog is able to borrow from more sources, has some remarkable technology both in terms of the instruments and software available for recording, such that file sharing allows musicians to contribute to a recording remotely and their contribution slotted in without ever physically getting together with their collaborators, but while still boasting a healthy number of practitioners with amazing technique, the virtual studio allows less dextrous exponents to shine, ensuring that successful prog is more about concepts than mere execution, otherwise music-making would be reduced to an almost mathematical process devoid of emotion; there is even a new set of socio-political factors from which to choose a grand theme that will allow prog to remain relevant, rather than just looking back to the 70s for inspiration, including burning issues like the continuation of wars, the mass migration of peoples displaced by war, austerity and its flip side, the enrichment of the very few, the impact of globalisation, and the urgency of the need to accept and combat climate change. These concepts could be described under one banner: the Anthropocene era.



It goes without saying that original progressive rock is included under the prog umbrella but it’s the relationship between prog and progressive rock that is critical to the definition of prog; although progressive rock elements appear in other contemporary genres, the degree to which this music conforms to the principles of ‘golden era’ are crucial to whether or not the music is prog. This is where objectivity ends and subjectivity begins, so, with the terminology sorted out, it’s time for The Committee to compile the lists...




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



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



By ProgBlog, Oct 11 2015 09:38PM

The October edition of Prog magazine is obviously the best edition there’s ever been but not because of the feature content, good though it is (Peter Gabriel), it’s because the covermount CD includes Brocken Spectre, my tone poem from Shadows and Reflections (2012.) I submitted the track and it was accepted for the Prog Unsigned CD in 2013 but the finances were a little prohibitive; the cost of a covermount is much lower. The blurb that the Prog team have included next to my photo paraphrases a description by my brother Richard that appears on the Agnen Records website, a possible attempt to avoid plagiarism that comes across as pretty meaningless and not strictly true; Richard’s review covers the entire album, not just the opening track. Also, I hardly think “hauntingly unusual” is great praise but I‘ll take it, anyway! The actual recording isn’t very good, unless that’s just the system I’m using, but there’s some distortion and the volume is rather low. The next track on the CD, Kestrel by Scale the Summit is very professional (and interesting) modern prog but I think I detect some distortion on that, too. It’s somewhat embarrassing to be included on a promo CD that demonstrates the huge gulf between incredibly technically competent groups and my bedroom/keyboard/guitar/PC set-up but it is nice to appear on the same disc as The Enid. I’m going to check out the Scale the Summit album from which their piece has been taken, Von Prosthetic.

I’ve questioned the content of Prog magazine before http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/How-prog-is-Prog-magazine-(originally-posted-24-11-13)/7823668

but decided that it does meet the requirement for catering for unreconstructed 70s prog-philes whilst still managing to preserve a place in the competitive periodicals market. It’s something that I can’t really do without and, like my six days a week subscription to The Guardian, I read at least 80% of it (The Guardian maintains that rubbish like The Great British Bake Off is worthy of news content. No, it’s an awful TV show.) The frequency of Prog ensures that there is sufficient new or freshly reappraised copy and now that we’ve reached a time point where the current wave of musicians can reflect on the music played by their parents, it brings a new perspective to the genre, one of the reasons, I believe, that progressive rock found a new respectability in the 90s. Prog magazine somehow remains sufficiently niche, albeit with a spectrum that takes in progressive-minded metal, electronica, folk, jazz and ambient and though Classic Rock magazine (for instance) might overlap on some content, most likely material on a part-time progressive act like Pink Floyd (for instance) there are so many bands that they miss entirely, just because they’re either not filling stadia or aren’t seen as the next big thing. I used to buy Q or Classic Rock if there was a long enough feature on a band, or individual, that I was interested in; most often these occasions coincided with a lengthy journey, something to take away the boredom of a long flight. Contrast that with buying the second edition of Prog magazine whilst on the holiday of a lifetime in New Zealand: I’ve kept the Prog, the Qs have long gone. Though much music journalism now references progressive tendencies (Muse and Tame Impala come to mind, acts that are likely to be covered by mainstream media) these are handy epithets that confer a description of a group that doesn’t always follow the ordinary; conventional publications concentrate on image and advertising revenue, requiring an understanding of style in its broadest sense.

I’m not into style. When punk was spreading like an infection through the UK and new wave was migrating westwards across the Atlantic from New York clubs, I was growing my hair and wearing flared cords. Original cut-price jeans emporium Dicky Dirts, based in an old cinema in Camberwell, used to have a stall at Goldsmiths’ College every so often. They can’t have believed their luck when they found someone (me) to buy up Levi flares in the very late 70s and very early 80s. You could argue that in my ex-RAF trench coat I was conforming to the style of a hippie and on my first ever trip to central London as an impressionable fresher in search of culture I was accosted in Trafalgar Square and asked if I’d like to buy some dope. However, the hippie movement, and prog, had died out some time before. I was simply wearing clothes that I felt comfortable in.

I was somewhat surprised to see free copies of the NME available outside Whitechapel station on my way to work last Friday. Sporting an image of Taylor Swift, with a prominent yellow bubble appearing like a peeling sticker announcing MUSIC FILM STYLE, I realised that the long descent of the NME had finally come to an end, at rock bottom. Like other magazines handed out at transport hubs, NME has become nothing more than a listings magazine but hangs on to its former USP as a music journal. I’m not sure exactly when style became more important than the music. There had been obvious tribes, with their own form of dress in the past but it may have been glam rock, covered by the serious music papers at the time, where the manufactured rather than just the manipulated, became ascendant. It’s deeply ironic that anti-fashion punk should emerge from a clothes store though it was post-punk synthesizer pop that most benefited from the emerging concept of style magazines. It’s an interesting historical note that NME and The Face journalist Robert Elms used to write a column for one of the early free listings publications, either Ms London or GAT (Girl About Town) that was pushed into my hand at Barons Court Underground station on my way to work at Charing Cross Hospital during the mid 80s; now the newspaper Elms used to work for is given away free in a victory of style over substance. I always preferred Melody Maker over the NME and it’s a shame that the former had to merge with the latter at the end of 2000, at a time when rock music was once more becoming interesting.

Though electronic media has played some part in the demise of the printed word, the best strategy seems to be balancing both forms of medium. I’d rather hold a book or a magazine than hold a phone, looking at tweets or posts to Facebook. I recently read Armando Gallo’s early Genesis biography I Know What I Like on my Samsung tablet and found it deeply unsatisfying; I can only imagine that reading a magazine that way would be equally disappointing but I know that one of the secrets to commercial success is to mix formats.

Hats off to Prog magazine for not only publishing some of my music on a covermount CD but for keeping going, seemingly from strength to strength, in a fiercely competitive environment.



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Welcome to ProgBlog

 

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...

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