Bandwidth had a hand in a unique exhibition based in Belfast Oh Yeah Centre. The project was called True Confessions and the idea was to record the musical memories of Northern Ireland’s gig going population for future posterity. Steven Rainey was dutifully dispatched to share his own.
I was sitting in a shed, lit by candles. The walls were decorated with clippings from the music press from the last ten years or so. A curtain was pulled back, and a cardboard cut-out of Fergal Sharkey’s face appeared.
The former Undertone’s voice crackled through a tiny amplifier, and I was instructed to reveal my musical “guilty secret”, the one band that is indefensible in my musical collection.
Stumbling over my words, I cast my mind through the hundreds of records I’ve owned over the years, struggling to recall the most horrifically embarrassing choice. Images of Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr wearing a white trenchcoat with the sleeves rolled up, releasing a white dove of peace into the sky, flashed before my eyes. Paddy MacAloon, the bard of the bedsit, singing the lines, “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”. Bob Dylan, struggling to cope with the stylistic changes of the 80s, wearing a grey suit jacket, looking lost, whilst mumbling, “Wiggle wiggle, like a can of soup.”
I’ve owned them all, and – in their own way – I love them.
Without thinking, I blurted out my answer:
Instantly, I recoiled. How could I tarnish my beloved Yes? What compelled me to say that this band, which has given me so much pleasure, is musically indefensible? A guilty secret? Was I implying that Yes, perhaps the greatest band on the planet, were somehow terrible? And – even more damningly – that I was EMBARRASSED of them?
In many respects, it’s hard to be a Yes fan. Most people only recall the phenomenally popular 1983 hit, ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, but the “true” fans (ie. Me) aren’t interested in that one. We delve further back through the mists of time, sailing on the Topographic Ocean, going Closer to the Edge.
These were the glory days of progressive rock.
It’s the year 2010, and in the last three years, I’ve managed to write not one, but two articles on this most derided of musical genres. One of them had an affectionate, yet mocking tone, whilst the other was an interview with the legendary album cover artist Roger Dean, and afforded me the opportunity to be a little more serious and analytical, treating the music with a degree of the respect I felt it should be awarded.
But even still, I felt the need to hide behind a masque of irony, never revealing my true feelings. There’s just something so unbelievably naff about the very idea of prog, that admitting to liking it in any genuine way is akin to revealing that your favourite pastime is masturbating whilst wearing a woollen cardigan, looking at a picture of Dame Thora Hird. Ie. Something that you don’t share with people in public.
After making my confession to Rev. Sharkey, I felt saddened that I had betrayed my secret prog rock heritage, and perhaps inspired by the golden spirit of Wakeman, a newfound pride swelled within my breast…
“Actually,” I started, taking my first steps upon the Golden Path, “I take that back. I’m not ashamed of Yes. They were amazing. And ‘Gates of Delirium’, from their 1974 masterpiece Relayer, is AWESOME!”
Or words to that effect. I was caught up in a moment of evangelical fury, and couldn’t keep track of what I was saying.
When push comes to shove, some of this stuff is brilliant, a pure distillation of all that is good and great in rock music. It gets a rough ride for being overblown and pompous, but in the right context, this is precisely what makes it great. Punk was perhaps the most seismic shift in Western musical history (on both sides of the Atlantic), and in its wake lots of what went before was instantly declared extinct, off limits –VERBOTEN!
And this musical climate continues to exert its influence today, with certain things being so inherently uncool, that they just don’t feature in the world of pop music anymore. With the all conquering dominance of the internet, music has never been more accessible, and the boundaries between genres have never mattered less. Bands can draw upon a seemingly limitless spectrum of influences, and mix them all together in one giant contemporary pot.
But you’d be hard pressed to find that many people shouting from the rooftops about the strong influence of ELP in their music. Or how the lyrical concerns of Rush are relevant in today’s society (possibly beacasue they’re not….sorry, Neil Peart).
Sure, some bands do risk it from time to time, but even then, it’s slipped in under the radar, as some kind of post-ironic gesture, to confound and irritate. And even then, they are rarely that vocal about it, lest someone actually call them on it, and they have to reveal that the primary motivation to form this new, uber-hip band, was Camel’s Music Inspired by the Snow Goose.
(That scenario would never happen, by the way.)
However, during the Stalinist purges that happened in the post-punk years, many pre-punk prog rock fans simply kept their obsession private, hiding a worn out copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis, 1974) underneath a brand spanking new copy of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, and Meat is Murder by The Smiths. The Jam sang of “Going Underground”, but prog fans actually lived it.
Thus existed a culture of surface level futurism, with people obsessing over new musical movements, the lack of pretention that punk had ushered in, and the DIY “anyone can do this” spirit that allowed gleeful amateurs – such as myself – to have a go at music, and be allowed to attempt creativity, without having the technical expertise previously required.
And all the while, we were listening to lightning fast guitar solos, sounding like they’d blasted on to the earth from outer space, whilst Rick Wakeman used Moogs, Mellotrons, and other strange and alien devices, to let us hear the VERY SOUND OF CREATION ITSELF!
Yes, Rick Wakeman – the Lord of Prog.
With his golden locks, his propensity for playing as many simultaneous keyboard solos as humanly possible (ie. Two), and his well documented love of beer and curry, he was an icon to many, reviled in equal measure. Wakeman was the personification of “Flash”, and that’s ultimately what led to him being written out of history, with the post-punk shunning of materialism and flamboyance. But this is precisely what made him great, a larger than life ability to be LARGER THAN LIFE, and innate understanding that rock music should be stupid – gloriously so – and an incredible musical alchemy that allowed him to take Yes in new and uncharted directions. He is a celebration of the ridiculous, in the purest possible way, and was smart enough to know that the best rock music shouldn’t be scared to be silly.
On the other hand, there’s the studied cerebral intensity of Robert Fripp, the man behind King Crimson. They’ve not suffered as much as some of their other astral travellers (stand up: Rush), perhaps because they had the good grace to split up BEFORE punk, and were therefore spared the cull. But much of their music still stands up today as incredibly vital, a dark pulsating beast of pure evil. Just listen to the surges of guitar and bass on their ‘final’ album, 1974’s Red (They reformed in the 80s and release a series of impressive, if inessential art-rock albums. Kinda like a more ‘arty’ Talking Heads, if such a thing were possible. Which it is, clearly). This was music made by men who had glimpsed a darkness that we mere mortals could only dream of in our worst nightmares. More importantly, there’s nothing bloated or pretentious about this music, giving lie to the claim that all prog was this flabby indulgent beast. Turn the lights off, bolt the door, and let Fripp and co scare the shit out of you.
And all along the way, there’s many moments of pure, unbridled musical enjoyment. From Chris Squire’s impossibly versatile and funky bass sound in Yes, to the throbbing electronic pulse and sludgy guitar dirt of Hawkwind, there’s always moments that are worth waiting for. And given the pure intentions of the majority of the players involved – a genuinely exploratory approach to music, a desire to push things forward, and a conviction that the thuggish sexism of yore should be left behind (although there are exceptions to this, it must be said…) – it appears that prog has been given an unjustly rough ride in the last 30 years.
So perhaps it’s time to throw off the shackles of ‘style’ (and perhaps even ‘taste’, if I’m being truly honest…) and re-assess progressive rock, giving it a second chance to peacefully exist in this supposedly ‘enlightened’ age? Its been many years since the Punk Wars, and perhaps it’s time to forgive? Looking out over the precipice of a new dawn, can we not just let the healing begin?
As for me, I’ll be leading the charge, flying above my armies using a gatefold edition of Tales From Topographic Oceans as a magic carpet, Wakeman-esque gold cape atop my shoulders.
Anyone care to join me?
True Confessions is currently showing 9am-5pm at the Oh Yeah Centre, admission is free