In The Beginning – Part Four

In which the first wave of prog collapses under the weight of its own self referential pretension.


Part Four – “A waste of talent and electricity” or, Right, let’s get controversial and ruffle some feathers…


This famous quote by DJ John Peel was his description of ELP‘s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival after the band’s performance had included the firing of real cannons from the stage, a Spinal Tap moment years before doing such a thing would be considered ironic. ELP are often quoted by prog haters as the epitome of everything excessive, bloated, and indulgent about prog, and, you have to say there can be little argument that their complete lack of subtlety combined with an apparent lack of self awareness remains divisive to this day. Even amongst prog fans they are either adored or loathed, although the former probably outnumber the latter.

What is certain is that the sight of three massive lorries in convoy with a massive E, L, and P on the roof of each in succession as they trundled the contents of an orchestra round the States for the Works tour was enough to make any self-respecting teenage garage band spit out fast’n'furious three chord venom with suitable gusto. I should know, I was one of them.

The thing is, they didn’t care, and being so far removed from their audience, and from the zeitgeist of the time were unlikely to have noticed anyway. So, take a bow ELP for being the band that meant punk rock just had to happen.

At the end of Part Three I dangled the suggestion that there was a band who almost destroyed prog without realising. This dubious honour goes to Yes, and the album that encapsulates prog self indulgence, but in a good way, Tales From Topographic Oceans. Released in 1974, luckily for Yes and for those of us who think that although it is quite mad, it is also something of a classic, it came out when prog was only just beginning its descent from its 1973 zenith and so the abuse it received from reviewers who wanted a Close To The Edge MkII was, to use an English colloquialism “water off a duck’s back”.

Recorded over a protracted period at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London, infamously decorated with cardboard cut-out cows (or model cows with electronic udders if you believe the more extreme versions of the story) and farm scenery to give it a rural ambiance, one has to wonder why they didn’t just hire a rural studio like Rockfield in Wales for the job. Down to earth keyboard player Rick Wakeman grew increasingly disgruntled with the rest of the band’s classical pretensions, playing darts or ordering takeaway curries while the rest discussed the increasingly bizarre musical and lyrical concepts behind this very odd meisterwork. Of course Rick later proved he could be just as pretentious by staging King Arthur On Ice, but there was, and still is, an appreciation of the absurd with Rick one feels.

If Tales From Topographic Oceans had been made in 1976 it too, along with the Panzer-like ELP would have been the joint reason that UK prog MkI had to die.

By early 1976 as a teenager, although I was a fan of the usual prog giants, (as you may guess apart from ELP who I have never come to terms with) and a lot of prog minnows for that matter, the general feeling amongst my peers and I was that why the hell should anyone need a first class honours degree in musical theory in order to form what essentially was still a rock’n'roll band?

There were two people from the first wave of prog who understood this, both called Peter, and both came up with punky alter-egos on their respective albums in 1975. Gabriel came up with proto-punk Rael and with Genesis made the utterly wonderful Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, while Hammill with his garage rocker Ricky Nadir alter-ego made the spiky and aggressive Nadir’s Big Chance. It is no coincidence that one John Lydon has said Hammill and VDGG were big influences on him, and Gabriel left Genesis at just the right time to emerge largely unscathed from the UK punk revolution.

Those who believe that the 1977 Year Zero revolution had little or no effect on the Big Seven of first wave prog are being somewhat revisionist, as every big name group saw Punk have some effect on them, ranging from a change in direction to complete disintegration:

ELP

Lumbering through the popular music jungle of the late 70s like a wounded elephant, the behemoth staggered on before collapsing under the weight its own pretension and splitting for the first time in 1978. By then even they had changed to a shorter song based version of their former pomp on that year’s Love Beach, an album that nobody at the time would admit to owning if they wanted to maintain a morsel of street cred.

Genesis

As mentioned above, Gabriel saw what was coming and jumped ship, leaving Collins in charge of a band that sadly slowly fizzled out from a prog point of view from that point, eventually becoming a risible pop band before finally calling it a day as late as 1998, largely forgotten by this scribbler. I had to look that up and I was frankly amazed they lasted that long!

Jethro Tull

Probably the least affected by the UK Punk explosion as they were far more popular in the States than over here in the UK, so they carried on regardless. Even Tull, whether as a conscious result of the back-to-basics revolution or not, changed their style to a shorter song based version of their previous prog epic template, coming up with what is now known as their folk-rock trilogy. This started with 1977′s Songs From The Wood, which incidentally is still my favourite Tull album.

King Crimson

Robert Fripp either had remarkable foresight or was simply lucky in that he disbanded his group at the height of their powers in 1974, only to reform the band in 1981 as a cerebral left field indie-prog outfit with the utterly brilliant Discipline album. Incidentally “indie” back then was a far more radical prospect than the insipid soundalike version of today.

Pink Floyd

Always a band more prog in concept than musically in my opinion, 1977′s Animals was bought by the shed load by Floyd’s dedicated fanbase as if punk had never happened. Shorter songs were to appear on the Waters’ dominated The Wall two years later, with his version of uppity yoof being a school choir (!) on Another Brick In The Wall Pt2. Like ELP they carried on regardless before finally imploding under the weight of Waters’ paranoia soon after the awful Final Cut in 1983. Three albums in six years shows how they had run out of steam.

Van Der Graaf Generator

The other Peter also knew what was going down and finally dissolved the string driven version of band sometime before the 1978 live double album Vital was released. Hammill continued with his eclectic solo career, and like Fripp and Gabriel was largely respected by the punky crew.

Yes

If any proof of their desperation was needed, after critical slating for 1978′s Tormato, yet another example of a change to shorter song based writing, and the subsequent departure of Anderson & Wakeman, the band’s management bizarrely recruited Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, better known at the time as synth poppers Buggles and made the atypical rock-pop album Drama. If this is not conclusive proof of the musical times a-changing, then I don’t know what is.

All of that was of course entirely subjective, and disagreement from you, dear reader, is to be expected. The whys and wherefores of the Prog v Punk debate will go on forever!

…and so ends the tale of the first wave of UK prog. Let us not forget that Europe, and Italy in particular, were very quick to take up the prog mantle first picked up by the UK, and it is often said that had we not created the form then the Italians would have invented it anyway, but that’s a story to be written (please!) by someone with far more than my limited knowledge of that vast scene. Now, where’s that Acqua Fragile CD?

2 Comments

  1. Lee

    September 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    I’d say that it was AOR and commercially Radio-friendly rock that killed off the smaller Prog Rock bands while causing the larger ones to evolve. Punk Rock really wasn’t as big as everyone seems to think it was. The only way you could really kill off a band (without commiting murder) is by pinching its fanbase – well I seriously doubt that many existing Prog Rock switched allegiance immediately to Punk rock in Year Zero.

  2. The Author

    September 25, 2011 at 4:55 am

    Fair comment sir. I don’t know about you, but I was 17 in 1977 in the UK, exactly the right age at the right time in the right place so to speak! I lived through Year Zero, and, unbelievable as it may sound now, there was a brief time (about 6 months or so) when many established bands, prog or not, were actually seriously worried about their future. Some actually split as a result, and some did change their approach to shorter song based tunes.

    What you say about AOR may well have been true in the USA, but here in the UK AOR never really took off as we didn’t have the FM rock radio network they did over the pond. Punk may not have killed off prog, but in the UK at least, it definitely had it on the canvas for a while.

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