I’ve been reading one of my Christmas presents The Music’s All that Matters by Paul Stump (revised edition Harbour 2010), an engrossing examination of that most maligned thread in ‘rock’s rich tapestry’ Progressive Rock, or prog as it seems to be called these days. I have to confess that in my early teens, along with a large proportion of my male peers, this was my preferred listening from around 1971 to 1977 and I owned many of the records mentioned in the book. Memories were evoked of the soon-to-be-passed-around album (the most immediately recognisable being In the Court of the Crimson King) ostentatiously carried around school. It has to be added that during that time one or two school chums also introduced me to the Velvet Underground, Parliament/Funkadelic (I was in the stalls for their show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 - what a riot that was) and dub reggae; things really weren’t as black and white as they were often subsequently painted.
Since the turn of the century my tastes have gravitated back to some of this music – there is somewhat less critical opprobrium heaped upon it these days and many groups I’ve heard have definitely been influenced by it, some of whom I like: bits of Mew, Jaga Jazzist, Sigur Ros, some I’m not so keen on: Muse, Radiohead, Elbow.
Stump’s analysis of many of the lps (Prog was ‘album music’ par excellence) is informed by musical knowledge and a familiarity with twentieth century classical composers, many of whom are new names to this reader. He also makes the point that the vast majority of rock ‘music critics’ then, as now, are woefully bereft of any technical knowledge of music and retained a preference for blues based tunes; even today most of them prefer to analyse the lyrics rather than tackle the thorny issue of how the music actually sounds or achieves its effects; from their ranks, possibly the late Steven Wells succeeded best in his manic metaphor and adjective strewn hyperbole, unfortunately the records he championed were invariably awful – Skunk Anansie anyone??
Stump also makes a good case for prog as the perfect musical form of postmodernism, especially in its 80s incarnation (I had jumped ship by then, never hearing the likes of Pallas, Twelfth Night or IQ, although I did go and see Marillion when I was bored one night in Rome in 1985 – whatever you may think of them, and I was never a fan, I suppose you have to admire their audacity for flying directly in the face of fashion). The effect of Live Aid in boosting the careers of many rock bands that had almost been written off at that point and concomitant rise of the cd also initiated the remaster/reissue industry, which kept the music business solvent for a couple more decades.
He charts the crossover into rave and ambient, principally by Steve Hillage and Gong and the far dodgier rise of New Age music to light an aromatherapy candle to. His in-depth knowledge of foreign prog has made me keen to hear some of the records, but experience has made me more resistant to many of their period charms. From his extensive list I’m interested in hearing Germany’s Anyone’s Daughter and Japan’s Mr Sirius.
There’s also an interesting, but probably superfluous, section on ‘Progressive telly’, obviously a personal obsession, mainly about children’s programmes, which featured pastoral, pagan and hippy themes, such as The Owl Service, Ace of Wands and Children of the Stones, which I remember and Sky and The Moon Stallion, which I don’t.
The best music books not only incorporate biography and analysis but also examine the business side of the equation and attempt to situate the musicians in their historical context. Stump emphasises the importance of the economic situation of the mid-seventies and the now largely forgotten fact that many British musicians and ‘celebrities’ were tax exiles, distancing them from their home fanbase – a crucial factor in the rise of punk. The increasing emphasis on technology meant that the bigger groups were locked into a ruinous circuit of acquisition of ever-more expensive and flashy equipment (especially keyboards), lighting rigs, and amplification for playing the huge stadia in the US market and spent longer periods of time in the studio honing their audio ‘masterpieces’. I recently read a quote from Kevin Godley saying that he and Lol Crème had been ensconced in the studio for so long creating their epic folie de grandeur Consequences that when they finally emerged in 1977 the musical landscape had totally changed and ‘everyone was wearing bondage trousers’; unsurprisingly the triple lp didn’t do well.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact