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Sunday, 4 January 2009

Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation In Three Movements, BBC4

Did we like it?
An exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, chronicle of prog rock, but which failed to escape the Charybdis-like whirlpool of history that justly condemns it as the worst music in the whole of humanity.

What was good about it?
• While the music was atrocious, an effort was made to analyse how such an appalling atonal, indulgent cataclysm ever became pre-eminent in music, often eliciting the same dismayed tones more often reserved for documentaries about the ascent of the Third Reich.
• It explained how prog was born of the fire of 1960s counter-culture, which was ironic given that it became the preserve of the cerebral conservatives. The progenitors of the music were, as is commonly the case, quite good – it’s what followed that has blackened the name of prog. Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper both sent out the first pioneering probes into the inky void of “intelligent music”.
• And it’s this self-appointed appellation, and an aspiration of musicianship and erudition, that most damns it, for example Pete Sinfield of King Crimson claimed, “If our song sounded too simple, then we made it more complicated.” Meanwhile Rick Wakeman, among many others, appear proud that prog was “thinking persons’ music” apparently unaware that if its possible to think during music then it isn’t enveloping the listener with its suffocating beauty – “thinking” during music should be akin to breathing underwater.
• The area in which intelligence can be a boon, emotive, acerbic, poetic lyrics, was also the area that has done most to ridicule prog rock. We were told that because most of Genesis had sheltered public school lives they were incapable of writing evocative lyrics that connected with the public, and so sought refuge in Lord of the Rings and pseudo-philosophical gibberish – think Kula Shaker – while Yes’s lyrics were worse than the inarticulate compositions found in txt messages scrolling across the bottom of the screen on Sky Sports News, where the illiteracy perversely becomes a badge of authenticity.
• What the programme brilliantly showed us was that in much the same way as the dinosaurs, an analogy frequently made to describe previous generations’ culture, were an evolutionary misstep by planet Earth, so prog rock was a misstep by popular music (and it was ‘popular’ music not some kind of mystical hybrid of classical, King Arthur and extraterrestrials), which was virtually annihilated by the seething comet of punk – which all but destroyed itself in the impact, leaving way for the more imaginative Kraut rock and post-punk to flourish.
• Although perhaps the Middle Earth musings appealed to the audience as “95% were men”.
• Each of the arrogant proclamations by such luminaries of the scene, such as ex-Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, was segued with excerpts from utterly, utterly bad songs. But at least we only had to endure them for about 30 seconds; some had durations greater than any Mayfly had ever lived.
• Richard Coughlan’s moustache that could enable him to snare a harem of 100 female walruses, while also making him an appetising target for any wandering polar bear.
• The thoughtful contribution of Mike Oldfield, whose decent Tubular Bells offered relief from the anti-music of Rick Wakeman et al.
• Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) proudly banging his British Steel-sponsored drums on a local news show. Palmer revealed that the set weighed 2.5 tons, and that concert stages had to be specially reinforced to withstand the burden.
• The amusing simmering bitterness of prog rock towards punk. Bill Bruford called it “a return to infancy” (if it was, it replaced a decrepit old man with a horn to his ear and flaking skin). Ricard Coughlan, meanwhile, spat “only the British Isles fell for punk” – this is because – for ill or good – the British Isles is willing to embrace new forms of music to vivify and stimulate what has become stale. Watch the Grammys or the MTV Europe Awards if you don’t believe us.
• Writer Jonahan Coe’s measured assessment of prog, even if we disagreed with his defensive statement that “prog is the one musical genre that people write off without embarrassment – it’s all shit”.

What was bad about it?
• Some of Nigel Planer’s commentary was occasionally too reverential. “A voyage to unchartered territories” was how prog was initially described; they may have been “unchartered” but it doesn’t mean someone had to go there. Similarly, Phil Collins defended Peter Gabriel’s extravagant stage shows because “no-one else was doing it”. Again, that’s not really any sort of reason for doing something so pointless.
• Bill Bruford: “The smartest thing I ever did was get born in 1949!” This made him about 18 in 1968, as the world supposedly changed, and able to be swept along with the ever so exciting culture of the era. But where are the figureheads of that “golden age” now? Broadly speaking they are either conformist politicians, innovators who now religiously practice appeasement and mediocrity or gibbering carcasses washed arbitrarily up on the beaches of retrospective documentaries importuning the audience that they enjoyed their prime in a time of change while simultaneously mocking them for being born too late to savour the same kind of substance by association.
• Prog was helped by the general shift in music away from meandering ditties towards pop music that was characterised by BBC Radio One. While this had brought much good to the nation, it sadly now stands as a rotund monolith of unkempt decadence under its standard of Chris Moyles.
• Phil Collins: “I wonder if I hadn’t cancelled my audition to be Yes’s drummer, what my life would have been like.” We wonder, too. Perhaps he would have been caught in the inexorable pyroclastic flow of punk that reduced prog musicians to ashen shadows, thus meaning 30 years later his music wouldn’t have been used on a chocolate advert seducing thousands of impressionable youngsters to his music.
• Tony Banks’ assertion that music offered public schoolboys, such as himself and other members of Genesis, “an escape from a pre-determined career choice” in the civil service. Most people at school wonder if they will ever get a job of any kind, and so don’t have the luxury of a “career choice”, pre-determined or not.
• Ian Anderson: “It’s not cool these days to play your instrument; play a solo, something that speaks. That’s not part of this age.” Sadly this is a generic example of an old man lambasting contemporary culture. Each era has good and bad music – the 70s had post-punk and prog rock.
• In fact, it’s quite difficult to convey just how atrocious prog rock really is, but imagine being strangled by someone with ticklish fingers, who has halitosis and the head glaring with the luminosity of the sun while the contents of a hippopotamus’s colostomy bag is pumped into your mouth. And acts as a warning from history to all those who believe that music can’t get any worse – it can, there could be a prog rock revival.


Anonymous said...

What an unbelievable tsunami of negativity: The writer of this piece should simply get some therapy: It's only a music documentary for goodness sake, what on Earth is the matter with you?

Anonymous said...

This website wishes for a happy 2009 at the top: How do you propose this, surely not with disturbing imagery such as in the last paragraph.....I would urge you to book into a psychiatric clinic next week: Seriously, I do not joke, I am genuinely concerned as to your present state of mind. I am happy to act as an advocate or intermediary if you need me toRegards, Philip.

Editor said...

I love a lot of prog rock but our reviewer finds it not to his taste. To say the least. And while I enjoyed BBC4's tribute to the genre, I'm still happy about presenting a negative viewpoint.

DAVE BONES said...

they may have been “unchartered” but it doesn’t mean someone had to go there.

that is really funny. I enjoyed a lot of this doco. These guys have a great sense of self. Some laughed at themselves, others were touchingly defiant of later trends.

It doesn't matter does it. It is good that music is as wide open now as it was then. Anyone can do anything.

What has been toally missed out by everyone is the reinvention of a lot of prog rock concepts into psychedelic trance in the mid nineties- where there was, and is no shortage of really gorgeous chicks and musicians who speak as much shit as this lot did back in the day!

Anonymous said...

You frikkin nob!

You reveal your total ignorance of the subject when rolling out the old myth that punk killed prog. Prog never went away. Yes, Floyd etc. still fill stadiums and selling 1000's of albums to this day. Punk killed punk because it was shite. Simple as that.

You've clearly read and believe 70's music history as rewritten by Q and NME.

I agree with anonymous; you need therapy,or you maybe your legover. That cold be the start on your road to recovery.

tony said...

Your irrational and erroneous diatribe confirms your ignorance and demonstrates that you fear what you don’t understand.

You contemptible pathetic pitiful pitiable disgraceful deplorable deluded reprehensible wretched fool.



Anonymous said...

The primitive fear and ignorance displayed by this reviewer provide an unsolicited and disturbing window into the state of his/her bleak, lamentable and worrying cess-pit of what may loosely be termed a mind. With kindest regards for your unlikely recovery, Phil.

Anonymous said...

You lost any pretence you had as to an argument on this topic with your comment likening the rise of Prog to that of the Nazis: You trivialising, truly disgusting, disturbing, odious half-wit!

Anonymous said...

Hysterical!!!!! The reviewer would rather uncharted teritories remain uncharted: What a blueprint for the natural curiosity of Humanity: Would you rather we were all still living in mud huts too, and we never bothered with all that highly suspect iron or bronze tool stuff? How self-indulgent were those early tool makers, back to basic wooden clubs I hear you say, tools of the honest Rock n Roll working class caveman! I happily leave you to the safety of your 3 chord 4/4 tempo punk, you champion of the mundane and utter mediocre twit!

sebastian said...

I live in Holland,and lived through these days of prog and punk.I must say that I have never come across such negativity as displayed here by this individual who calls himself a critic. Does he wants to get even with his unhappy relationship with his dad,who must have had a superior set of brains than his? At any rate,this person should not be in this position-I don't know what organisation CustardTV is,but I have a strong feeling that it is neither monitored nor edited by intelligent people.Sickening to the stomach,as too much custard would,and distinctly un-british,whilst lacking the smallest bit of self depreciation.Fire the poor bastard,I'd say.

Anonymous said...

To the little twat that wrote this, do you have ANY idea what you are whining on and on about? Or did you just read it in in Q or the NME? If you hate Prog so much, why did you watch a 90-minute special about it? Why don't you go pull the pod to your latest simplistic chart-friendly rubbish?

Anonymous said...

I love the way this conceited little poove uses all the cliches and revisionism bollocks, and clearly never once actually thinks for himself. It al always amazed me that the so-called "Punk" types claim that Proggers are pretentious, yet who in entertainment history has ever been more of a pretentious egomaniac than Lydon? Likewise, the standard "Tolkien" claims. Well, mate here's a challenge...name ONE Prog Rock song about Hobbits or Gandalf.

Darren Mc Master-Smith from Australia said...

The author of this article just doesn't get it.

When I want music to give me the biggest high(without the use of drugsI might add),I grab for my old prog records.

The world would be a bloody boring place without prog.

Don't listen to these fools who just don't get it.

I Know What I LIke!

Anonymous said...

One of Johhny Rottens favourite albums was Aqualung by Jethro Tull and I loved how a punk came up to Phil Collins and told him"I love everything you do" back in the 70s.

Didn't Johnny Rotten have a large love of Van Der Graaf Generator?

Anonymous said...

I think Bruford hit the nail on the head. The gist of what he said was that Rock music has always been about 4/4 time and 3 chords. Prog tried to expand that and try something new and creative. It didn't always work out for the best, but at least they were trying to do something other than the extremely tired boom boom chick three-and-a-half-minute pop song.

The "Punks" hated that because they had preconceived, rigid ideas about "what Rock music should sound like" and "How dare these weirdo Proggers deviate from the ABC formula?" All Punk was was a return to the most basic elemental form of Rock music. Originality it seems was bollocks.

It always makes me smile when some "Expert" waffles on about how Prog was formulaic and stuck-in-the-mud, and how original and creative Punk Rock was. The exact opposite is true.

Lastly, as some guy above said, if you don't like Progressive Rock, just ignore it. Or are you still terrified that somebody may "spoil" your 3-chord from-the-blueprint Rock music? Don't worry mate, 4/4 Rock music is going to be around forever. And even during the heyday of Prog Rock 4/4 was far more "in your face"!

Anonymous said...

Who's Sam Cruise?

Anonymous said...

Bah. Punk was for guys who couldn't sing or play more than 3 chords on their guitars, while making a lot of noise...and for excellent drummers who couldn't find a better gig. Check out how good the drummers are in "The Decline of Western Civilization" documentary. They literally drive every band and give most of them some sort of cohesion, save for "X".

Anonymous said...

As far as I'm concerned bands like the Sex Pistols, Clash etc were just corporate manufactured puppets. In the early 70's it was all about making good MUSIC. From about '76 on it was all about making MONEY. Now take Gentle Giant against the Sex Pistols. Gentle Giant made fucking great music, but it would NEVER get played on the radio, most magazines/newspapers didn't mention 'em, there were no obvious "hits", and imagine the cost of lugging all that gear around! Then the Sex Pistols made catchy, bubblegum songs that were played ad fucking nauseam on the radio(and the band appeared on Top Of The Pops), EVERY magazine whether "high" or "low" brow featured them on the cover every fucking issue, they were EVERYWHERE, rammed down people's throats. Their music may have been crap, but then so were the Spice Girls and THEY sold loads of records too. Now here's the funny thing...most twats today will say that the Sex Pistols were "Punk" or "Alternative" or "Edgy" or "Rebels" or "Counterculture" while Gentle Giant(if they've heard of them) will be said by the same morons to have been "establishment" or "traditional". My only question..."What the fuck have these people been putting into their bodies?' How can a platinum, Top Of The Pops bunch of grinning little dickheads without a single original idea be "Punk", while guys who made new, original music and were unknown by 90% of the record-buying public be the "mainstream" band? Is there anyone out there who can explain this to me? Or are you too busy listening to some crud like SumBlink 69 or whatever the hell they're called?

oscarverywild said...

Don't you think the documentary itself creates that sense of negativity? It shows Prog Rock as an unsuccesful experiment. The writer of the review just represents what was presented.

Anonymous said...

The "Reviewer" clearly has a prejudiced view concerning Prog Rock. He basically repeats every cliche and myth as though it's gospel truth, and clearly has no ability to think for himself. That's actually rather pathetic. The documentary says that Prog was heading into a cul-de-sac or words to that effect, rather than being a failed experiment. However, the changing nature of the Record Companies had more to do with Prog's demise. In 1971 (when record companies were run by people who love music) it was possible for a bunch of young guys to make albums like "Fragile" or "Tarkus" or "Pawn Hearts". By about 1977 the emotionless financial analyst types who still run Record Companies today decided that it mattered not how GOOD it was, it only mattered that it would sell lots of records. In the past Record Execs would brag about they had been the ones to give the green light to "Acquiring The Taste" or "Red Queen To Gryphon Three" even though those records were commercially unsuccessful. By the end of the 70's it was all bout the moolah. Records by the 4/4, conformist, TOTP-friendly bands(and yes that includes so-called "Punk" and "Gothic" bands) was all that mattered. Will it get onto TV? Will it be featured in Smash Hits etc? Watch the ELP documentary where they talk about the record company's different approach to the band making "Tarkus", and then later "Love Beach". or interviews with ex-Gentle Giant members where they contrast the executives' different approaches when they made, first "Gentle Giant", and later, "Giant For A Day!". Prog never entered a cul-de-sac, it wasn't a failed experiment, and Punk never killed Prog. Prog was killed by economics graduates who care only about the bottom line. Funny thing though, when it stopped being about the MUSIC, record sales fell. Not only for Prog either. Hard Rock used to be bands like Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The executives stepped in, simplified it, and gave us Motorhead and AC/DC. Jazz used to be Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. The executives stepped in, simplified it, and gave us "Smooth Jazz" like George Benson. Dance music used to be Funk. The executives stepped in, simplified it, and gave us Disco. Even Pop went from bands like 10cc and Supertramp to the Europop shite that was "catchier" and "cheaper to manufacture".

Anonymous said...

Back in the 70's you couldn't move for Prog Rock. Van Der Graaf Generator on the cover of Smash Hits every week, Greenslade playing in supermarkets, ELP playing the whole of Karn Evil 9 on Top Of The Pops every week. And the reviewrs of the NME were always kissing the backsides of every Prog artist, while heaping scorn upon the Blues-based Rockers. I have the utmost respect for bands like Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones for being able to eke out a living during those dark days when everything was Prog. Whenever you turned on the radio it was alwsys "Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers", "Bedside Manners Are Extra" or "The Advent Of Panurge". You could never just hear "It's Only Rock N Roll But I Like It" or "Proud Mary" or "Whole Lotta Love".

Thank God for Punk Rock, who revived the spirit of Cliff Richard And The Shadows and "Love Me Do"-era The Beatles with their straight-ahead Rock Music. If it wasn't for the organic, honest, underground sounds of The Skids, U2, 999, and Duran Duran we'd have been stuck listening to three-hour songs about Hobbits, Loon Pants and Star Trek for all eternity.

Anonymous said...

It's a testament to how great Prog was(and still is) that all these years later, insecure little losers like the guy who wrote this article/review feels the need to pull out all the cliches and mindless criticism.

If the guy who wrote this review doesn't like Prog, then fine, that's his personal choice(assuming it IS his choice, and not just to please his friends). However, then simply IGNORE it. Why whine on and on about how bad it supposedly was? I can't stand various forms of music, yet I don't make websites about that fact, I simply don't buy the CDs, don't go to the shows etc. This guy also claims his favourite music is "Post-Punk". Well, good for him. Why not listen to what you DO like, and try and steer clear of what you don't? Of course, good luck trying to steer clear of hip hop and American "punk" music, as that is everywhere....

Anonymous said...

Are the BBC ever going to repeat this? ???

Anonymous said...

I thought this programme was alright really. The complete lack of mention of Van Der Graaf Generator, Camel, Barclay James Harvest, Greenslade, and only passing mentions to Gentle Giant and The Moody Blues would have been fine, were it not for the insane amount of time talking about Sgt. Pepper's, Jethro Tull and Mike Oldfield(none of which is Prog). Likewise, the absence of any mention of the 80's Revival(Marillion, Pendragon et al) was rather depressing. Still, compared to the usual cliched bollocks(which one idiot here recites as though speaking from parroted memory), this was pretty good. I still believe the really definitive piece on Prog remains to be made however. Better than most, but still a little disappointing then...

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