I really don’t mind if you sit this one out: Prog rock at the Beeb

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.

26 Comments

  1. prianikoff said,

    January 15, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Without really being much of a fan of Prog, there were some very good bands in this documentary. Being a regular at the Marquee in Wardour St, I saw a suprising number before I was out of my teens.

    I can remember Ian Anderson of the Tull very clearly, looking like an old tramp gyrating on one leg with his flute. King Crimson were musically an excellent band, if maybe a little lacking in spontaneity.
    I also saw the Nice with Keith Emerson on the free-festival circuit and always found his Hammond-stabbing act fun.
    Roger Chapman and Family were also a very good, if often overlooked band. Rick Grech, their bassist subsequently joined Blind Faith.

    I also saw the Floyd, quite early in their career at the Filmore East in New York. I even own a Yes album. But I would draw the line at Genesis.

  2. David Ellis said,

    January 15, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    ` 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.’

    not mystifying at all just great entertaining writing and insightful radical analysis until i disagree with you then it will be crap. Seriously though, it’s like reading a fire work display sometimes.

  3. Fubsic said,

    January 15, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    It’s been curious observing the rehabilitation of prog on the back of the collectors search for ever more obscure acts. Oddly enough it seems to have started with the import or reissue of South American prog bands – go figure.

    But rehabilitate it as much as you like most of it sucked and sucked bad. And some of the best prog bands barely scrapped by at the time. I’m thinking of T2 and High Tide for example.

  4. Doug said,

    January 16, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Family prog rock – really? I can’t remember the pretentious lyrics and overblown passages of instrumental ‘virtuosity’ which constituted bands that Splnty referred to. Punk was a breath of fresh air – don’t hold up the Sex Pistols as the epitomy of that – even at the time they were widely derided as manufactured sell outs. It isn’t The Clash’s fault they’ve been mythologised – they’re still the best live band I’ve ever seen and at least they committed to the ANL a lot quicker than most.

  5. Phil said,

    January 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Family prog rock – really?

    At their best (Doll’s House and Entertainment), definitely. Prog wasn’t just Tales from Topographic Oceans.

    Punk was a breath of fresh air – don’t hold up the Sex Pistols as the epitomy of that – even at the time they were widely derided as manufactured sell outs.

    Absolutely. But identifying the real true punks isn’t really the point. The really interesting thing about punk, looking back, is how soon it was over – once it had happened people wanted to move on almost immediately (look at Buzzcocks’ second album, or Magazine’s first).

    It isn’t The Clash’s fault they’ve been mythologised

    I’ve got very mixed feelings about the Clash. I was never lucky enough to see them live (I turned down a chance to see them in 1978 because I had an early shift the next morning – do I regret that now). On record, though, they always struck me as punk for old rockers – and by the time of London Calling they were basically old rock for old rockers.

  6. skidmarx said,

    January 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Leo Sayer also attended Sex Pistols gigs.

  7. Andy newman said,

    January 16, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Actually I think it WAS the Clash’s own fault that they were mythologised, becasue they were midwives at the birth of their own myth.

    And the paradox is that the Clash were the more obviously selling rebellion as a commodity than the Pistols, who depsite the aspects of artifice were actually genuinely unstable and therefore sub-versive.

    Not to mention that the Clash were so crushingly boring and so tediously left wing in a middle class politically correct sort of way.

  8. Andy newman said,

    January 16, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    I saw the Clash twice, once in 1977 and once in 1978, and even then they clearly saw themselves as mini rock stars, and there was little of the creative interaction between the stage and the auudience that you got with other punks bands.

    The Clash certainly were not as good at subverting the boundaries as much less fashionable bands like the Boys or Vibrators; and really stellar bands like X-Ray Spex or ATV were in another league to the Clash.

  9. Dr Paul said,

    January 16, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Let’s nail on the head once and for all this nonsense about punk putting prog-rock into the dustbin of history.

    It is simply not true. Prog-rock continued on its pompous way, as did those other genres of the early 1970s, heavy metal and droopy singer-songwriters.

    The only thing punk demolished was the pub-rock scene. That was because the venues — largely tawdry pubs (with rotten beer) — were attracting about a dozen blokes (pub-rock attracted very few women from my experience, which was a shame, but there we are) for a pub-rock gig could get a couple of hundred kids for a punk gig. Of course, the place had to be hosed out afterwards and the khazi repaired, but oh how the money rolled in.

    One by one the pub-rock venues went over to joyless punk, and I and my pals said farewell to a really enjoyable music, the first scene in the 1970s when one could get up dance to good, basic, gutsy music.

  10. prianikoff said,

    January 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    In some ways it was Glam, rather than Punk that killed Prog.
    The commercial side of Prog was the Zandra Rhodes outfits, the sychronised light shows and the Andrews Sisters harmonies.
    “Yes” begat Jon & “Vangelis” and “Queen”, which was an even more succesful arena and stadium act by the mid 80’s.
    Pete Sinfield moved from writing “21st century Schizoid Man” to “I believe in Father Christmas” and hits for Celine Dion.
    The serious musos, like Robert Fripp, Robert Wyatt and Bill Bruford just carried on.
    That’s what happens in every “New Wave”.

  11. Cian said,

    January 16, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I always think of Punk as more of a cultural legacy, than a musical one. The famous bands (The Clash, Sex Pistols) were not terribly innovative, while the innovative bands (The Fall, PIL, Magazine, etc) were really just carrying on in the Experimental tradition of bands like This Heat, Kraut Rock, Magma and the like.
    Oddly enough in the US where Punk didn’t leave much of a cultural legacy, its basically ground zero for indie music, Experimental music and even Metal (Slayer, Metallica, etc). And there was an original “Punk” sound with all the hardcore bands.

  12. Mike said,

    January 18, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Come on folks much of the debate amongst lefties regarding the merits of different genres within ‘rock music’ simply seems to depend on when the comrades were students and how pretentious they are. Hence the aversion from almost all to the dreaded Heavy Metal!!!!!

    And yet that music was and is massively popular with many working class youth, even worse for some comrades most such youth are white, and for the most part says virtually nothing that could be considered lefty.

    Perhaps more importantly it is today the only genre of ‘rock music’ where there is significant development to be found. In terms of ‘rock music’ it is then more progressive than the ossified forms of punk and indie that too many lefties have the misfortune to listen to.

    Frankly if we are going to build something worthwhile in the working class we might want to listen to a bit more metal!

  13. Karen Elliot said,

    January 19, 2009 at 11:56 am

    If Johnny Rotten had liked Jethro Tull he’d have said so. He made a notorious (at the time) appearance on Capital Radio to play his favourite records. His playlist on the day was:

    Tim Buckley – Sweet Surrender
    The Creation – Life Is Just Beginning
    David Bowie – Rebel Rebel
    Unknown Irish Folk Music / Jig
    Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown
    Gary Glitter – Doing Alright With The Boys
    Fred Locks – Walls
    Yabby You – Fire in a Kingston
    Culture – I’m Not Ashamed
    Dr Alimantado – Born For A Purpose
    Bobby Byrd – Back From The Dead
    Bobby Byrd – Back From The Dead
    Neil Young – Revolution Blues
    Lou Reed – Men Of Good Fortune
    Kevin Coyne – Eastbourne Ladies
    Peter Hammill – The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning
    Peter Hammill – Nobody’s Business
    Makka Bees – Nation Fiddler / Fire!
    Captain Beefheart – The Blimp
    Nico – Janitor Of Lunacy
    Ken Boothe – Is It Because I’m Black
    John Cale – Legs Larry At Television Centre
    Third Ear Band – Fleance
    Can – Halleluhwah
    Peter Tosh – Legalise It

    There’s not much sign there of a ‘prog cover-up’.

    (and, talking of Peter Hammill, it was pretty slack not to feature Van Der Graff Generator on that prog round-up.)

    Trots seem to have an extraordinary fondness for The Clash, who imho were not much more than a Rolling Stones tribute band. The idea that The Sex Pistols were a manufactured band in any meaningful sense is simply laughable – I assume that people only say this in order to sound punkier-than-thou. The Sex Pistols represented a break witht he past, while The Clash represented an attempt to to simply rebrand it.

    “King Crimson were musically an excellent band, if maybe a little lacking in spontaneity.”

    This seems unfair to one of the few prog bands who could genuinely improvise.

    “The famous bands (The Clash, Sex Pistols) were not terribly innovative”

    The significance of the Pistols was hardly at the level of formal innovation. At the same time, Robert Wyatt made a good point on the programme in question where he compared punk to a sort of DIY serialism. The Pistols revolutionised the popular music of the time because they stole rock music back from those who were trying to sell it on the basis of its ‘improving qualities’, and reassuring everyone that they were ‘real musicians’. Frankly, for raw musical / playerly skills *most* prog groups were laughably inept compared to the average jazz group. Anyone who looks back to prog as a haven of great musicianship is… mistaken. If that’s what you are after then you really shouldn’t be listening to, eg., Yes. Try Ornette, Coltrane or similar.

    Arguably the finest brit prog group were Henry Cow – still derided today as hippy inconsequentialists and noodlers even by those who have finally managed to come to terms with King Crimson. Check out their album ‘In Praise of Learning’ to hear what musically and politically ‘progressive’ prog rock sounded like at its best. Apparently they were invited by McLaren on tour to support the Pistols. The member of Henry Cow who told me this believes it was because Johnny Rotten was such a big fan, but I’m not sure that Maclaren wasn’t planning on some sort of ritual humiliation (if not worse) of the Henry Cow fans who dared attend.

    One major shortcoming of the documentary was that it ignored Zappa. Any Zappa band of that period would have blown away any of the groups on the documentary in question – but then, as I say, the documentary ignored Henry Cow. And what about non-Brit prog rock?

    [Pub Rock] “…the first scene in the 1970s when one could get up dance to good, basic, gutsy music”

    If The Militant had ever taken a line on popular music, this might have been it.

  14. Phil said,

    January 19, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    “Legs Larry”? I know those guys got around a bit, but I’d never heard of a John Cale connection.

  15. Dr Paul said,

    January 19, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Karen E: ‘If The Militant had ever taken a line on popular music, this might have been it.’

    That is probably the biggest insult I’ve ever seen aimed at Pub Rock. It’s also quite inaccurate. Say what you like about it, it was not boring, it was lively, unpretentious and good fun. That’s why it was such a breath of fresh air after the Nuremburg rally soundtracks of the heavy-metal bands, singer-songwriters rabbiting on about their latest neuroses, glam-rock posturing and emotionally-dead prog-rock epics.

    Music for the Millies? I’m not sure, perhaps a remnant of a second-rank Merseybeat group trying to recapture something of a long-lost past; or an unimaginative tribute band trying to do the same.

    What I really objected to with the punk phenomenon was not its musical ugliness (each to his or her own taste) and general misanthropy, or even that it wiped out the pub-rock scene (it probably wasn’t even aware of its doing so), but rather the way that fashionable music journalists and other trendy commentators latched leech-like onto it, making so much fuss about it and placing so much significance upon a relatively minor phenomenon, giving it a grand mythology that it never deserved. What your average punk thought of the pretentious verbiage issued by these writers is almost certainly disdainful, not to mention unprintable.

    I think that it was these people who gave the lie that punk finished off prog-rock, a lie that should be put to rest once and for all.

  16. Karen Elliot said,

    January 19, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I believe Legs Larry does the ‘vocals’ on that track, but it’s a while since I heard it.

  17. skidmarx said,

    January 19, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    # The Sun has got its Hatton
    Hip,hip,hip,hooray #

  18. Bryan said,

    January 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Doctors having nothing but condescending disdain for the “mediocrity” of the CWI only makes us chuckle.

    Obviously, no serious socialist has a “line” on music cuz these things are subjective. Didn’t stop the SWP’s punk paper with ultra-subjective bratty nonsense.

    Having a “line” on music would be like me having a position that Canada’s a crap country (I think it is).

  19. Dr Paul said,

    January 19, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Re Bryan; I was only having a joke about Militant and music; I remember when its supporters would try to assume Liverpool accents. Still, not a very good joke, I must admit. Actually, I could visualise the SWP trying to jump on the punk bandwagon a lot more readily than Militant would ever had done.

    I recall when I started working with the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (later Party) 30 years back, I was amused by middle-class lads and lasses in it banging on about how great and rebellious punk was, although none of them actually had spiky hair or safety-pinned clothes. Such things were frowned upon by the group’s leadership as scruffy; I imagine Ted Grant & Co shared the same feeling about that.

  20. Mike said,

    January 19, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    I rather like Henry Cow and Slapp Happy too. But surely they are RIO and not ‘prog’.

    Anyways I think all revolutionaries ought to listen exclusively to Japanese doom metal….

  21. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 20, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Now hold on, you can’t go far wrong with Swedish death metal… tho’ it hasn’t been the same since Quorthon died of course.

  22. prianikoff said,

    January 20, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    #13 “This seems unfair to (King Crimson) one of the few prog bands who could genuinely improvise.”

    Could be we’re talking about different eras! The documentary referred to them being “highly rehearsed”. I saw the original line up and it struck me that they did “Schizoid Man” almost note-for-note as per the record.

    Having checked out some old “Yes” videos since that programme, I’d say there was quite of lot of improvisation going on in that band.
    I’m getting into Steve Howe, a really original and talented guitarist. His little-finger is bigger than most people’s fore-finger! You can tell he’s influenced by Wes Montgomery by his playing style. He’s also a really good classical guitarist.

  23. Mike said,

    January 20, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Howe was good in Tomorrow but then… excuse me I must vomit.

  24. Karen Elliot said,

    January 22, 2009 at 10:54 am

    #22: improvisation and rehearsal are not mutually exclusive. on the contrary…

  25. prianikoff said,

    January 22, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Right.

    BTW that programme’s on Youtube in HD now.
    Start

    here

  26. CheechWizard said,

    January 15, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Johnny Rotten is not fit to shine Ian Anderson’s shoes. Who gives a shit what he thinks? Its like a turd criticizing the sunrise.


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