Sunday, 21 March 2010

Prog Britannia

It's inevitable I guess that the BBB would follow up Heavy Metal Britannia with Prog Britannia covering - you guessed it - prog rock. Once again I was tumbled back in time to a suburban New Zealand adolescence in the eighties. My musical tastes are based on a mix of what Mum and Dad had lying around (show tunes light classics, occasional Beatles LPs) and records passed down to me by my older brothers Matt and Al (classic rock, prog and metal). Formative experiences involve Graham Newport's basement on a rainy afternoon playing D&D or those little board games from Dragon magazine with Al and a bunch of his hairy mates, while in the background Yes, Hawkwind, Sabbath and King Crimson noodled away. Al bought me Jethro Tull's Aqualung for my fourteenth or fifteenth birthday and I taped Steve Vai and Frank Zappa records from Matt's sparkly new CD player in the early eighties.

One thing they touched on during the documentary was the nature of the album art and construction. I owned Thick As A Brick in LP form, complete with newspaper, but it was also the age of high concept Sci Fi album covers by guys like Roger Dean and Hygpgnosis. I was amazed the documentary never looked at the Alan Parsons Project or Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, which inspired my brainy and bookish little sci fi mind when I was twelve or so. War of the Worlds was the first LP I ever owned, complete with booklet of art and lyrics.

Some of the music managed to live up to this imagery. King Crimson's Twenty-first Century Schizoid Man remains compelling, despite the ugliest cover artwork of the era, and Keith Emerson playing I Like To Be in America is still an enjoyably angry take on a classic song. A lot of it, however, comes over as very flaccid and directionless to me. Even as a kid I wasn't convinced by Yes or Genesis. I liked some of their ideas, but the creamy soft rock sound just rubbed me the wrong way. I liked it to be shrieked or shouted; most of the records just crooned on without ever hitting any emotional high.

In the Court of the Crimson King - hard to look at for long, I find

An important element missing from prog is sex. Metal has a strong libidinal element, testosterone expressed in all it's manly ways, while prog is a more intellectual pleasure. It uses clever words and literary allusions, cunning musical forms and novel changes of tempo and key to engage us, where metal just strives to be old fashioned rock and roll. I think it was Phil Collins who talked about how he noticed (at about the time Peter Gabriel left) that the audience for Genesis was all young guys in great coats and fisherman's hats with stacks of albums under their arms.

I think the backbone of the prog imagery and approach is the kind of placid English intellectualism that first found expression in nonsense verse of the Edwardian era. There's a love of wordplay and imagined worlds, pastoral utopias that inspire an Edenic child-like innocence, but there is no urgency or immediacy. Metal, on the other hand takes directly heroic or dystopian elements of horror and swords and sorcery and aims for high drama. Prog is the music of Wind in the Willows and the Hobbit, while metal is the music of Dennis Wheatley and Conan the Barbarian.

The classic prog bands seem to be mostly public and grammar school boys, some from the Trinity School of Music, they weren't the same as the blues rock influenced metallers. It was rock music for undergrads in the same way, I guess that modern jazz had already become a kind of blues for undergrads, separated from the basic drives of its source material in favour of a more intellectual exploration of form and content.

Typical prog rock fan

In 1983 I was absolutely one of those guys in great coats, although I wasn't much into Genesis (they'd already turned into Phil Colllins, if you know what I mean). It was a useful uniform that was quickly adapted to upcoming goth uniform – same great coat, different accessories – as I discovered Bauhaus, The Birthday Party and alternative rock. Those, of course, are also music for undergrads, and I think there's a connection between those audiences that only comes out over time – Phil Collins wheeled out his old anecdote about Rat Scabies whispering to him that he was a huge fan as evidence of this.

I still like quite a lot of prog, not least the greatest prog band of them all, Pink Floyd. Oddly, the Floyd were only mentioned a couple of times in Prog Britanni in relation to prog's psychedelic precursors. What the Hell is up with that? It was interesting to hear about these other bands, but I thought they should at least mention Pink Floyd. Tubular Bells was big, but if anyone really brought prog to the masses it was Pink Floyd! Come on BBC, why oh why etc...

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