A night with Yes in the Philharmonic prompts Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield to file an update to his journey through Prog, we catch up with Jethro Tull, Caravan and a host more – it’s a little bit apocalyptic.
Walking past the Bombed-Out Church toward The Philharmonic Hall and the Friday night crowd gets decades older, I find myself adrift amid a shoal of grizzled characters and grey ponytails heading to see Yes.
Unlike those heading for the Hall sporting tour shirts from previous years, I’m new to the band, despite being old enough to have heard their music first time around.
In the week running up to the show I’ve binged on most of their back catalogue, in a series of eye-watering early-morning sessions, something I’ve done every week this year with a different, equally unknown (to me) prog band. This is my life now. How did this happen?
At the beginning of the year, I made a solemn vow to listen to one prog album per week for the whole year, by way of discovering a genre I had completely missed, as described in an earlier piece for Getintothis. We’re halfway through 2018 and so far, I’ve stuck to it.
Some weeks are beautifully mind-blowing, others infuriating, and some are simply baffling. But there is always some reward.
The music is often wildly ambitious, conceived on an epic scale, exquisitely grandiose. Sometimes it’s as if the optimistic, exploratory side of the sixties carried into a post 60’s psychedelic party. Prog is infused with classical, jazz, folk, electronica – everything’s allowed. And, perhaps too obvious to mention, the standard of musicianship is high (and no, it isn’t just noodling.)
I have discovered that it’s odd being an outsider exploring a long tradition with no reference points. Coming 50 years late to the party, the history of the genre is opaque to me.
When you don’t know your Steve Hackett from your Steve Hillage, lengthy accounts of changing line-ups, splits and reformations are little meaningless, like those long lists of ‘Someone begat someone who begat someone…’ in the Bible.
Perhaps before we welcome 2019 I’ll be infused with this knowledge by osmosis, waking up one day able to discuss the merits of Jethro Tull’s 10 drummers. But for now, I accept there is significant history here, and listen to the albums as if they came out yesterday.
Whatever, I’m enjoying the ride.
Progress has been good, following a roughly chronological approach, by mid-February I had worked my way through various proto-prog acts and started on big hitters like King Crimson, Pink Floyd and ELP.
Having reached the glory days of the early seventies I pressed on, listening to Yes, starting with breakthrough recording ‘The Yes Album’ from 1971 and making it to cosmological epic ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’. This is what I was expecting prog to be like – multi-layered, artful, lyrics reaching for transcendence.
What I wasn’t expecting was the lightness with which it’s woven together and the melodic pop sensibility on display.
Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink found its way onto the turntable next. This had me smiling with the deadpan quirkiness of Golf Girl then drawn into the rest of the stoned, whimsical feel – if this is the ‘Canterbury scene’ then I never want to leave.
After three months not hearing a female voice I felt like a prisoner, and so made Curved Air, fronted by Sonja Kristina, my next choice with Second Album, oddball art rock, enchanting in places, it comes at you with frenetic urgency.
For there to be any justice to a project like this, Genesis had to be included – the early version, with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.
‘Selling England by the Pound’ (1973) seemed like a good place to start, it’s an amazing piece of eccentricity, posh-boy pop pushed into a sometimes dark sublime.
Weird that references to Green Shield Stamps and Wimpy Bars, which at the time would have signified contemporary crass commercialism, now seem to come from a quaint antiquity.
After Genesis, I fell into eight arms of ‘Octopus’ by Gentle Giant, an album by a band who didn’t care too much if listeners found their music difficult. Complex, angular and baroque it’s a challenging listen and yet peculiarly entertaining.
Jethro Tull’s Aqualung closed out my 70s British prog selection – a heavy tour-de-force that inspired me to work through the rest of their back catalogue as far as 1978’s ‘Heavy Horses’. Of all the prog bands, Tull seems most able to channel a pagan vibe as if plugged into depths of old Albion.
The journey continues, week after week, widening the scope to expressions of prog from around the world, Le Orme from Italy’s lyrical concept album Felona e Sorona, ‘the story of two planets which revolve one around the other, without ever coming in contact’; Aphrodite’s Child’s apocalyptic 666, a retelling of the Book of Revelation in which a circus-show version of world-ending events is happening at the same time as the real thing unfolds outside the tent; Canadian band Rush’s 2112, a dystopian work controversially inspired by the works of Ayn Rand; Happy the Man’s exuberant self-titled first album, featuring titles such as On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs.
The time has come to move on from the 70s to subsequent decades. Will progressive rock progress, become exponentially better with each passing year until it explodes in an ecstatic musical singularity? Or will the landscape become bleaker as the musical timeships approach the mundane present?
I look forward to finding out…