As I’ve said from time to time, BBC4 is worth the licence fee on its own. The latest thing that had me enthused was the station’s recent prog rock season, which I’m pleased to report was well up to the standard set by the excellent Folk Britannia. By God, it fairly took you back to the grand old days of the three-day week, snooker in black and white, Spangles and Chris Harman’s sheepskin coat. Those were the days when you would sit down with a cup of tea in one hand and a gravy ring in the other and watch the Old Grey Whistle Test and it would be all
Whispering Bob: Mmm, nice work there from Camel. Coming up next, some more great sounds from Soft Machine.
Well, I know rationally it couldn’t have been like that every week, but it seems that way in retrospect.
The centrepiece of the season was the 90-minute Prog Rock Britannia documentary, expertly narrated by Nigel Planer and arrestingly divided into a three-act structure. This was powerful stuff. Plenty of live footage, enough context given to help it make some kind of sense, and interviews with the right people. There were some rather obvious absentees, but the participants were good enough for you not to mind. And, of course, the two recurring thoughts were always “I thought he was dead” or “My God, hasn’t he aged?”
What I think was rightly flagged up was that in some ways it’s wrong to see prog as a derivative of rock ‘n’ roll. Many of the most important people were classically trained musicians who, had they not come of age around 1968, would have gone on to careers in the classical or jazz fields. But in the late 1960s, apart from all the other exciting things going on in the world, psychedelia had opened up interesting new horizons, certainly more interesting than the rather decrepit British jazz scene of the time.
And, with the record companies being willing to give artists much more freedom than is conceivable today, you got a good half-dozen years when far-out and experimental sounds flourished. This, by the way, went a good way beyond what’s normally regarded as prog. Uriah Heep are usually categorised as a metal band, but the Salisbury album was prog to the tips of its toes. Likewise with folk-rock combo Jethro Tull, whose Thick As A Brick (an album I used to know pretty much note for note, and may still do) was a wicked spoof of the genre but still an accomplished example of it.
All this was shown via the archive footage and interviews. And often this was quite funny. Peter Gabriel’s onstage antics certainly look hilarious today, although I’m fairly sure Peter didn’t mean it that way. On seeing Carl Palmer’s enormous drum kit, I immediately thought of the story about his fondness of gongs – not just that he liked the sound, but also that Emerson’s knife-throwing wasn’t always accurate and it was nice to have a big sheet of metal between them. I was also particularly taken with Bill Bruford talking about his defection from Yes to King Crimson, an act likened by Planer to scaling the Berlin Wall to go into East Germany. Actually, that maybe understates it a bit – by Bruford’s account, the hippie democracy of Yes was so chaotic it was a miracle anything ever got done, while Fripp was such an authoritarian bandleader he didn’t even tell you what to do, you were just expected to know. (Not an ideal situation when you think how tricky the Crimson back catalogue is.)
And then came punk and killed it off, almost. The Floyd were too big to be much affected, Yes and Genesis devolved into commercial pop groups, Tull went back to their folk-rock roots and others just gave up the ghost. But this is interesting. The charge against prog was that it was overblown and pompous, and often it was, especially towards the end. But by God, it almost looks underground now compared to punk’s heritage industry. I like the Clash as much as anybody, but it’s hard to think of a band that’s more relentlessly mythologised. And a few years back I almost got into a fight when a mate, complaining about manufactured acts monopolising the charts, said “Bring back the Sex Pistols.” “What,” I said, “bring back a manufactured group from thirty years ago?” This did not go down well.
That’s why I liked the little clip of Ian Anderson talking about how he had bought Never Mind The Bollocks, liked it, and recommended it to his friends, but Johnny Rotten (as was) would have died rather than admit to liking Jethro Tull. And yet, many years later, Anderson had met Lydon, who said that Aqualung had been a great influence on him. And why not?
In the end, I think the passage of time has been kinder to prog than we might have expected in 1979. There will always be people for whom three chords and 4/4 will be the determiner of musical truth and honesty. But there will always be those, too, who get bored easily, and wonder what it would be like to add a fourth chord, or a fifth, or try playing the next section in 25/8. Frankly, we need those people, and the culture would be much poorer without them.
Rud eile: I know it’s just a number, but it’s nice (if a little mystifying) to see this blog’s hit counter has just passed the half-million mark. A big shout out to all readers.