"But hubris is also compelling. We praise enormous, magisterial novels informed by the classic literary canon. We love huge movies that attempt never-before-accomplished technical feats. In music, though, many fans prize `authenticity` - the gritty allure of the untrained, instinctual rock star - more than they prize virtuosity or ambition. Say what you want about Icarus, but he was making an innovative use of wax and feathers. We`re too hard on the artists who try big things, show off their prowess, and occasionally screw it all up."

-David Weigel unfurling the banner of prog on Slate.

The cast of characters for his series is vanishingly small - your weird favs may not be represented (mine is Czesław Niemen) - but I’m still glad to see the piece, and happy to see the above spelled out. More experienced ears and eyes can spot the holes; I’m possibly more excited to read the responses.

(via the20000)

I have thoughts on this, and will be posting something later this week, when I have time to put it together.

Tags: Prog

Strawbs: “Autumn (i) Heroine’s Theme (ii) Deep Summer’s Sleep (iii) The Winter Long” (Hero & Heroine, 1973)

As I’ve worked my way through my UK Prog series, I haven’t bothered to break out any of the tracks I’ve included and do a full post on them, mostly because I have too much other stuff going on, and just putting these mixes and notes together has been pretty time-consuming.

But I do want to talk about this one at greater length. “Autumn” is one of my favorite songs, and really is the song that pushed me over the edge from shallow-end wading in the bits of progressive rock that crossed over to wider audiences and stayed stuck in the classic rock canon into the deep end, where I had to search hard to find bands I’d heard mentioned in a single sentence of an article about something else. Even today, with the cornucopia of the internet at my fingertips, some of the music I’ve tracked down has been difficult to find. 

Back then, Strawbs were a band that took looking to find in this country. I did my record shopping at the local Circuit City and Borders, and though they were both astonishingly well-stocked for what they were, they had their limits. It wasn’t until the summer after high school that my then-friend-now-wife and I took a road trip up Interstate 91 to Northampton, Massachusetts, a college town sprinkled liberally with record stores that got well off the beaten track with their offerings. 

There was one in particular that had a huge aisle of nothing but imports. I had heard “Autumn” on the best two hours of rock radio available to me at the time, Peter Z’s Sunday morning show on WPLR. I think Z was a legacy DJ, still hanging around from FM’s early glory days, when it was much more freeform than it largely is now. He played what he felt like playing, with no regard for the heavy rotation lists or what the station managers thought people might want to hear.

He played “Autumn” one Sunday, and I taped it, and scribbled the band’s name down on my ever-growing list of things to check out. Not long after, Rhino released its Supernatural Fairytales boxed set, a set of five discs offering a very light sampling of the variety of progressive rock sounds that existed across Europe during the 70s. It had two Strawbs songs on it, and they confirmed that this was a band I wanted to check out. 

So in that store in Northampton, which probably no longer exists—I only remember that it was in a basement—I combed the import rack until I found A Choice Selection of Strawbs, a single-disc best-of compilation released overseas in 1992. It was $25, but I looked at the back, saw “Autumn” and immediately bought it. I even borrowed $5 from Andrea to afford it. It was the most I’d ever paid for a single CD, and on some level it seemed absurd, but on a much more important level, I had to have that music. I had to know what else I was missing. 

I’m not nostalgic for the days when it was that hard to get your hands on music you wanted to hear. Seriously, it sucked not being able to find what you were desperate to hear. I understand what other oldsters are getting at when they talk about the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of the find, and I definitely loved both. But I’ll take being able to get what I want when I ant it in exchange.

These days, I have a bunch of Strawbs albums, and before I got those, I even replaced that first compilation with a better, two-disc one called Halcyon Days. “Autumn” is still unbeatable, the best song in a career that produced a lot of great songs. I think it was worth the search.

Stray note:

I don’t remember the name or location of that record store, but I remember the interior layout very well. Oddly, I also remember exactly where I parked the Toyota when we got into town. It was a single curbside space between the two driveways of a gas station.

A Prog Rock Summer

Here’s what I’m going to do this summer: Each week, I’ll be offering a British Prog Rock mix. I’ll keep the scope to the 60s and 70s, and I’ll choose whatever tracks I think work best and explain the reasons in each post.

I’m thinking I’ll divide up the volumes chronologically and keep each one about CD-length, because it’s good to have some kind of limit. I’ll try to keep a good balance of obscurities and top-level stuff. Should be fun.

 Edit: First mix goes up next Monday, April 16th. 

Tags: Prog Mix

Caravan: “Be All Right/Chance of a Lifetime” (For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, 1973)

I’ve been listening to a ton of old British prog rock lately. It’s music I’ve loved for a very long time, and music I go on a big kick with at least once a year, and it’s felt right paired with my schoolwork for the past month. 

I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it: this music was my first love. It was what spoke to me most in high school, first through Pink Floyd and Yes and King Crimson and later through dozens of other bands (my first concert: the Moody Blues. My third: Jethro Tull and ELP). 

As I started to go through all the British prog I have on CD, LP, and my hard drive, I was sort of astonished by the quantity. Some of it unfortunately lacks a bit on the quality end of things, but so much of it is really interesting or seems to lay groundwork for something that came later. I’ve made a special effort to check out the forgotten bands, investigate bands I’d spent little time with in the past and re-visit ones I’d soured on (hello, ELP) with an open mind.

One of the bands I’d never spent a lot of time with was Caravan, and I now wonder what held me back. Some of their more whimsical material still does little for me, but when these guys wanted to, they could bring some serious energy to an odd-metered jam.

These guys are a pretty foundational prog band. Caravan formed in 1968 from members of the Canterbury scene who had all played at various times in a local group called the Wilde Flowers, a band that also incubated musicians who went on to Gong, Soft Machine, Hatfield & the North, National Health and others. (The other major Canterbury incubator band was Arzachel/Uriel.)

The band never had a very stable lineup—cousins Dave and Richard Sinclair came and went and came back, and the backbone of the band was really guitarist/vocalist Pye Hastings and drummer Richard Coughlan, the only two members of every version of the band (woodwind player Jimmy Hastings was also a fairly constant presence). 

My favorite Caravan LP is 1973’s For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, which I think does the best job of uniting all of the band’s many tendencies, from jazz-ish improv to hard rock to poppy ballads to classic pomp to dry wit. “Be All Right/Chance of a Lifetime” is a two-part pop suite written by Pye Hastings that contrasts a sharp, aggressive opening movement led by Geoff Richardson’s electric viola with a much more conventional song in the second half, the kind of juxtaposition that made a lifelong prog fan in the first place. 

Genesis: “Eleventh Earl of Mar” (Wind & Wuthering, 1976)

Once more, I’d like to compliment Jake Mohan on his outstanding series of posts on Peter Gabriel-era Genesis over at One Week One Band. In his final post, he wrote this:

Critics who point to Gabriel’s departure as the point where it all went pear-shaped are, frankly, full of it; A Trick of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering, both released in 1976, are gorgeous albums every bit as sonically and thematically ambitious as their predecessors. After these two, Steve Hackett will also depart, and I’m more inclined to pinpoint that as the pivotal moment when the band made an overt shift to a smaller-scale, pop-oriented sound.  

With the caveat that I like Genesis’ pop era, I agree with that assessment 100%—Genesis’ first two post-Gabriel albums are among my favorite prog albums, and they are really proggy. My favorite song between the two LPs is this one, “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” which is all the proof you need that the band’s lyrical concerns hadn’t changed much.

Mike Rutherford’s lyrics are pretty specifically about the Jacobite uprising of 1715 (aka “The Fifteen”), in which the 11th Earl of Mar, John Erskine, played a pivotal role. The Fifteen was one of a series of abortive and failed attempts to return James II of England/VII of Scotland (his number varies depending on the territory we’re talking about) to the throne after he was deposed and sent into exile. James was the last Catholic monarch of Britain, and the Stuart line ended when his daughter, Anne, died on the throne in 1707.

Anne was succeeded by George I, the first Hanoverian monarch of England. That’s a lot of background to get to the bit the song is about: Erskine’s involvement in the uprising. The Earl, whose nickname was “Bobbin’ John” because of his constantly shifting allegiances, was James’ point person in Scotland, and it was Erskine who raised an army in rebellion against George on James’ behalf. 

The song actually includes a verse about James’ arrival in Scotland:

See the Stuart all dressed up

He’s got eyes in the back of his head

Who came in a cockleshell boat

That could only just float,  couldn’t even lift a sword

dressed too fine and smelling of wine

Otherwise, the song chronicles Erskine’s progress (and setbacks), but it does it with such emotional language that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Actually, it feels like a pretty damn kickass rock song, from the ominous opening theme to the thundering “you promised” refrain.

This is what made the pre-pop Genesis such a great band, or one of the things, anyway. here, they have some pretty esoteric subject matter, especially to a non-British audience, but they turn it into something thrilling and filled with memorable melodic turns. And while Mohan is right to point to Hackett’s departure after Wind & Wuthering as the real turning point for the band, you can here a little of the increased directness to come in this song, with its straightforward synth melodies, big chorus and harmonized lead guitar. 

I think the band’s transition was helped by the fact that Phil Collins sounds non dissimilar to Peter Gabriel singing this stuff. Over on his solo records, Gabriel himself evolved almost exactly in parallel to his old band, and they both reached their points of maximum fame simultaneously in the 80s. 

Prog rock was some of the first music I ever loved, and I still listen to a lot of it, so it was a treat to see someone do such a great job talking about some of the best of it. And it got me to listen to pretty much the entire Genesis catalog again (up through Invisible Touch, anyway), so thanks again, Jake. It’s been good listening.

Oh, and 11th Earl of Mar, John Erskine? Mar is in northeastern Scotland, but the Earl died in Aix-la-Chapelle, France (present-day Aachen, Germany), having lost the trust of most in the British political system, and even James and his descendants. Could’ve been worse, really—the leaders of earlier rebellions were executed, drawn and quartered.

Atomic Rooster: “I Can’t Take No More” (Death Walks Behind You, 1971)

In the UK, the jazz scene and the rock scene were never very far apart—both embraced American music and made it their own, for one thing—and at the end of the 60s, when the psychedelic scene was transmogrifying into the prog scene, jazz pretty naturally found its way into the music. There was another similarity between the two musical worlds in the UK, though. With a few exceptions, British prog bands functioned more or less like jazz combos, with members coming and going, starting their own things, coming back, going again. 

Look at King Crimson, for the perfect example.  If they were signed to Blue Note, their albums would all be credited to the Robert Fripp Quartet, or the Robert Fripp Quintet. He’s the only constant. Atomic Rooster was like that, too. Vincent Crane is the only constant in a lineup that shifted from album to album and year to year. His organ (and piano) is the throughline connecting all the different singers, guitarists, drummers and bass players that passed through the ranks as the band veered from album to album.

Death Walks Behind You is their second LP, but already Crane was the only one left from the first one. Original drummer Carl Palmer, with whom Crane had also played in the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, had left to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and new guitarist John Du Cann also took over the lead vocals from original bassist Nick Graham (who left to join the great Skin Alley), so you essentially have an entirely different band on this album. 

It’s a proggy record all over, but on the second side, there’s this song, which is a pretty straightforward hard rock song that’s also weirdly predictive of Electric Light Orchestra’s 1979 hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.”  Du Cann has a workmanly voice for hard rock, so it’s really up to the band as a whole to make this compelling, and they do, with those dual organ/guitar riffs, kinda evil piano drops, and general sense of careening, wild-eyed roughness.

I’m an eclectic person by nature, but I think if I was allowed to listen to nothing but vintage hard rock for the rest of my life, I’d get by.  

Emerson Lake & Palmer: “From The Beginning” (Trilogy, 1972)

Almost a week ago, I resumed my Cold Cassettes series with this post, but never had time to follow it up with a song post from the tape. So here’s the follow-up.

Emerson Lake & Palmer sold millions of records. They were huge in the 70s in a way that music that sounds like their music never will be again. They also inspired a huge amount of opprobrium for their completely over-the-top and unabashed displays of musicianship. they were pretty much the epitome of the self-serious superiority that drove prog into its grave, and I say this as someone who cut his teeth on prog rock and loves a lot of it to this day.

ELP made some great music, though, let’s not forget that. I love their cover of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” because of its ridiculousness; their first album is really pretty good, too.

I saw these guys live, on a double bill with Jethro Tull, when I was 16, and I was kind of blown away at the time. Here was Keith Emerson, knocking his organ on top of himself and playing “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” backward, then stabbing the keyboard with knives and rubbing a ring modulator on his leather-panted, fifty-something ass, and then Carl Palmer changed his shirt while playing a drum solo, and this one dude a few feet from me on the lawn kept yelling “Tarkus!”

And then there was Greg Lake. Each member got a big showcase. Emerson and Palmer used theirs for big displays of virtuosity. Lake pulled out an acoustic guitar and played “Still, You Turn Me On” and “From The Beginning.” I’m convinced now that this, and not the instrumental volcanics, was the highlight of the show, if only because it revealed the beating human heart at the center of all these fireworks.

"From the Beginning" is probably ELP’s best song, as atypical for them as it is. It uses the same musical template that their first hit, "Lucky Man" used a couple years earlier, except that instead of a story that reaches for profundity (to be fair, lake wrote the lyrics when he was twelve) and a big, towering, bombastic Moog solo (done off the cuff in a single take), it’s a much more understated and moody piece of music.

These guys didn’t make a whole lot of particularly atmospheric music. They were mostly going for something very direct, and pretty much any time they started to build a mood or let some air in, it was when Lake was singing or playing guitar (his great solo on the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” is a good example). “From the Beginning” is sharp, catchy, and subtly complex, and Emerson’s closing synthesizer solo is memorable and melodic, closer to Pink Floyd than the usual ELP modus operandi.

I get that this kind of thing isn’t really what ELP was all about, and that people really loved the rock arrangements of “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “The Nutcracker”. It must have seemed exciting when it was happening. I do wish they’d spent more time in this gear, though. It looked good on them.

Peter Gabriel: “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel (car cover—1st solo LP), 1977)

Yesterday’s Cold Cassette, for your reference. Funny that both “Solsbury Hill” and the main title from The X-Files are on that tape. If you don’t get the connection, let me explain:

Back in the 90s, The X-Files was one of my favorite shows. I lost interest in those last few seasons when the conspiracy arcs took over everything and the actors started changing, but for its first few seasons, the show was one of the best on TV. It had just enough of the lurking conspiracy/aliens stuff to keep you on your toes, but it was centered around two very well-developed, compelling characters with a complex, nuanced relationship, and offered a lot of great chills for a Friday (later Sunday) night.

One of the show’s signatures was the cold open. You’d be treated to some sort of scene where something spooky, gross, tantalizing or just plain freaky happened, and it was always written tightly with a nice little stamp on it. Then, Mark Snow’s creepy theme with the sampled whistling and echoing piano would play, and the atmosphere of the episode was sealed. It was a great set-up.

Recently, I’ve found some old X-Files episodes online, and I’ve been watching them when I need mental health breaks. And I’ve found that it is virtually always hilarious to mute the X-Files theme and replace it with “Solsbury Hill” after the cold open. The disconnect in tone is absurd and always amusing.

There’s also a disconnect in tone between the song and the music Gabriel had just been making in Genesis, the band he’d sung for since the late 60s and only recently left. His last album with the group was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a dark, weird double concept LP that would have been hard to follow had he stayed in the band.

"Solsbury Hill" is a sharp turn away from the darkness and murk of Lamb. It’s ebullient, assured, celebratory. Gabriel has freed himself, creatively, and though he sounds a few notes of uncertainty, it’s clear there’s no looking back.

It didn’t represent a totally clean break from Genesis. The song is mostly in 7/4, and its b-side, “Moribund the Burgermeister” has much more the feel of Lamb, and the rest of his solo debut LP is more tangled and proggy. It was, however, the beginning of something new for Gabriel. This is the moment of his transformation into a pop star.

King Crimson: “Lament” (Starless And Bible Black, 1974)

Back in high school, my love of progressive rock crystallized around a few bands. One of those bands was King Crimson, who seemed to do prog just a bit nastier than everyone else.

On no album did they play it nastier than Starless And Bible Black. This album is a strange one. A lot of it was improvised live in concert, and included on the alum with the applause edited out. In a business where “live” recordings were often faked in the studio and then dressed up with canned applause, this approach comes off as a bit contrarian, and I’m sure Robert Fripp wouldn’t mind.

"Lament" is one of two songs on the record (the other is "The Great Deceiver") that were recorded entirely in the studio. The lyrics, written by the band’s then-lyricist Richard Palmer-James (and original member of Supertramp), are written like a typical post-fame whine session, but sung as they are by John Wetton for King Crimson, they come off as more a hideous parody of that kind of song than an actual entry in the canon.

The song does a good job of faking you out in its opening verses—the little melodies David Cross plays on his violin behind the second verse are almost hilariously serene. Robert Fripp is in a fighting mood, and does basically nothing but punch from the second verse onward.

Fripp is a such a strange figure. He’s a guitar virtuoso. He has a professorial air about him—I’m seen him do a very patient Q&A after a solo show, and was funny and engaging. And then out of this guy comes some of the most pulverizing guitar playing and willfully ugly music. He leads this song to its sudden ending on a headlong riff that ends without resolving at all. Beneath his manners and calm exterior there appears to lurk a Fripp that wouldn’t mind tearing up a hotel room or two.

I’m glad he just wrote “Lament” instead. He seems to me like the kind of professional and thoughtful person you’d want to have working on your project. and he has worked on a lot of projects, producing and playing on so many albums you could make a hobby out of collecting only work he was involved in. Recently, I think his intellectualized approach has taken the latter-day Crimson lineups in directions that are more technically than musically interesting, but I still respect it.

Igra Staklenih Perli: “Pečurka” (Igra Staklenih Perli, 1978)

There’s no organizing principle to this blog other than posting songs and writing about them. I might do four related posts in a row or a whole three weeks without relating anything to any other post. Depends on how I’m feeling. This week was a smooth progression, until now. For reasons obscure to me, I felt this talking this monstrous slab of Yugoslavian prog rock today, so I am.

I worry sometimes that most Americans just think of the former Yugoslavia as a place where horrible things happened. It’s a really interesting part of the world, and I’ve been fascinated by its music scene for years. This is partly because of how prolific that scene was—Tito’s Yugoslavia was the only country in communist Eastern Europe to have a basically open music scene and mostly unrestricted access to music from Britain, the US and West Germany. The musicians could travel westward if they chose to, and many of them did.

Still, the way the music scene worked there was different. Igra Staklenih Perli, whose name is I believe a translation of “the Glass Bead Game,” played their first gig in an amateur theater festival, and built a following with free shows at student cultural centers and similar venues. Their Wikipedia article mentions a show at the College of Dentistry in Belgrade. They didn’t really have the same kind of Underground London did in the 60s, for example—there was no Yugoslavian equivalent of the UFO Club that I know of—but they didn’t let that stop them from acting as though they did. Igra Staklenih Perli had a light show, slide and video projection, and a sound that was modeled heavily on Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Tangerine Dream.

In fact, “Pečurka” borrows pretty directly from King Crimson’s “Starless” for the buildup in the middle of this song, where the guitar plays those tense chords that keep creeping up a half step until it finally releases and takes off into the next section. The band was led by Zoran Lakić, a keyboardist, and it shows: his organ dominates a couple sections of the song, though the show is stolen a bit by the guitar during the initial vocal section.

There’s nothing overtly flashy about the playing, though, which is another reason I think the King Crimson, Floyd and Tangerine Dream comparisons work—those bands all had their moments of proggy overreach, but all three did it in an engaging, musical way that emphasized the group over the individual. That’s what I hear in this—skilled musicianship used in pursuit of something bigger.