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Like something out of Edgar Allan Poe

30 June, 2013 (18:57) | Music | By: Ian Burdon

This post is inspired by a couple of things – some thoughts on the bus home from a corker of a gig by Van der Graaf Generator in Glasgow this week and a silly article in the Independent today based on Rick Wakeman’s plans to tour “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” next year with band, orchestra and choir.  He’ll be playing in Glasgow the night before Yes play there and, full disclosure, I’ll be at both gigs.

I’m going to start with the opening assertion in the Independent piece, that:

Prog, a bombastic mutation of rock and classical genres typically performed by highly skilled musicians in outrageous capes, could once be heard echoing from student halls and stadiums across the land.

This is the kind of lazy repetition of received wisdom that bugs the hell out of me. It has been received wisdom since the hip young penslingers of the late seventies bought into the punk aesthetic and established a cultural ground zero that is now so familiar as to stand unquestioned and reinforced by constant repetition.  The problem is that it is bollocks.

Back in the early seventies when I was at High School and began to get involved in appreciating music the main divider was between commercial acts (“they’ve sold out man”) and what was still called the Underground music scene.  This had its own problems of elitist snobbery but was a real enough divide.  Back in those days there was no generic noun “Prog” but there was occasional use of “progressive” as an adjective to describe an approach or an attitude. “Prog” was a catch-all term of abuse coined by the likes of Sounds and NME when they tried to market a yoof zeitgeist they were simultaneously trying to create.

This was not a homogenous monoculture. Those of us who liked Yes and ELP also liked Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Neil Young, Rory Gallagher, Tangerine Dream, Roxy Music, the Allman Brothers, Gong, Hawkwind, Budgie and the like. A sizeable number would also go out to see Status Quo at the Glasgow Apollo then go home and listen to Pink Floyd. Bob Marley was recognised in this scene long before No Women No Cry hit the charts. My first gig was Camel at the Glasgow Apollo but my second was Dory Previn.

The linking factor was some intangible notion of “authenticity” or commitment to art rather than commitment to commerce. Of course some of it was duff but that doesn’t negate the attempt.

The notion of the Underground was important. Sure there was a strong psychedelic streak in the underground but there was also investigation of folk, blues, jazz, heavy rock and the avant garde. Fairport Convention could move in the same circles as Soft Machine and Pink Floyd and not turn a hair. Paul McCartney could take time out to explore musique concrete and tape manipulation with Delia Derbyshire. Sandy Denny recorded with Led Zeppelin.

And some acts explored theatricality on stage – The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, Zappa and the Mothers, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band to name only the ones that spring to the memory. The only person I actually recall wearing an outrageous cape was Wakeman, although the original members of Roxy Music had their share of flash stage gear as did David Bowie. (Incidentally there is a strong argument for saying that the best album Wakeman has ever been involved with is Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”). Does Alex Harvey’s importing of ideas from Brecht make him “Prog”? No, but it was a deliberate attempt to be “progressive” in presentation of material, including  a memorable translation from Jacques Brel.

Still, claims the Independent,

In the end it was punk that swept away those highly designed concept albums with their epic or medieval themes and ostentatious, lengthy, and, some would say, self-indulgent displays of musical proficiency.

Er, no. Not really. Yes managed their only real hit in the eighties and pulled in huge audiences in the US; Genesis and Peter Gabriel enjoyed massive success. The reformed King Crimson made waves wherever they went and Robert Fripp worked with Bowie (there’s that man again).  Not only did ELP grab a surprise hit with Fanfare For the Common Man, Greg Lake is re-released every year with “I Believe in Father Christmas”. Steve Howe of Yes turned in important contributions for both Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Queen (and it is worth revisiting Queen’s first two albums to see where they started out). Souxie and the Banshees reworking of Dear Prudence sounds pretty damn progressive to me as do substantial chunks of the output of the Stranglers.

Still don’t believe me? Check out the top hits of 1977, the top spot going to foul-mouthed punk urchins Abba. The Stranglers and the Sex Pistols creep in at numbers 59 and 60 respectively. 1978? Not a whole lot of hardcore punk as the newly radicalised record buying public flocked to Bony M and the soundtrack from Grease.

1977 Albums? Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols hit number one for two weeks – but so did Going For the One by Yes. The two biggest album hits in the UK of 1978 were the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever and the soundtrack from Grease. Even by British standards that’s a fairly eccentric approach to anarchy.

Wrapping this up, let’s get back to Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill, notoriously (cliche alert) namechecked by John Lydon and others as not quite such “boring old farts” as the others.  Loads of great bands came out of the Underground: what is significant about VdGG is that they never left it. They continue to release and perform new material with a healthy disregard for commercial accessibility and an utter commitment to creativity and performance.

Much as I like Yes (particularly the sequence of releases from The Yes Album through to the magnificent Relayer), and fun as it will be to relive the past and sing-a-long-a Rick, it is VdGG who keep alive the flame – always progressive, never “Prog”.

Added postscript. What could this possibly have to do with “Prog”? Answers on a postcard…



Comment from Alex M
Time June 30, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Ian; But what about “new” country?

Comment from Ian Burdon
Time June 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with old country… I like Steve Earle though