Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)

24 January 2012

‘If the British Prime Minister’s Cabinet could co-operate on the same level as the great Miles Davis quintets, we’d be experiencing a different form of government altogether.’ (page 142)

This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is a rare example of an autobiography by a musician who’s got something interesting to say – about making music, about his own feelings and ambitions in music, about the bands he’s played with, about the enormous changes he’s seen over the past 40 years in the music ‘business’ and wider society – and who says it with intelligence and dry humour. The only comparisons I can think of are Mile Davis’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, but Bill’s has intelligent and thoughtful points to make about a much wider range of subjects. And he’s English (hooray!)

If you’re interested in the music of the 70s, if you’re interested in progressive rock music, if you’re interested in jazz, if you want to know how albums are actually pieced together, how bands behave on the road, how the recording studio works, what managers are like, the cost to a person’s private life of being a working musician doing gruelling foreign tours, if you want tips on how to survive in the music business, or if you’re just interested in the social, political, cultural and economic history of the last 40 years, then buy this wonderful book!

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More

Review

Bill Bruford, son of a vet from Sevenoaks in Kent, was a teenage prodigy of a drummer, as soon as he could taking the train up to London to see American jazz drummers performing at Ronny Scott’s and other Soho jazz clubs in the mid-60s and learning from everyone. By 1968 a series of chance encounters led him to land the gig as drummer in the new progressive band, Yes, his extraordinary technique propelling the band through their first five albums: Yes, Time and A Word, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971) and their masterpiece, Close To the Edge (1973).

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

At which point, just as Yes were about to tour the album round the US and go supernova, Bill left the band to join their rival in progressive rock, the far darker and more experimental King Crimson. Led by guitar maestro Robert Fripp, the Crim had had chronic difficulty keeping a stable line-up since their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King back in 1969. Bruford’s arrival heralded the third incarnation of the band, much heavier and more guitar-driven and without the pseudo-medieval lyrics and elaborate song structures of Peter Sinfield. This darker sound came to the fore on the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless And Bible Black (1974), Red (1974) and the umpteen bootlegs and live albums from the time.

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

At which point Fripp surprised the band by dissolving it, and Bruford embarked on the next 35 years forming his own rock combos, sometimes with former Yes-men, sometimes with a reformed Crim (which Fripp undissolved in 1980), but increasingly moving into the area of jazz which had been his earliest love, forming the groups UK and Earthworks, as well as recording with numerous jazz greats in the US and UK, and a constant schedule of touring across Europe, America and Asia. In 2009, after a long and varied career, Bill announced his retirement and, later the same year, published this, his autobiography.

Format Bill has had the brilliant idea of structuring the book around chapters answering the questions he is most frequently asked at cocktail parties, some of which drive him to distraction: So how did you get started? Why did you leave Yes? What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? But what do you do in the daytime? and 15 others. The chapters themselves consist of stories, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections skipping around in time and place but all relating to the central question.

This is a great format because it’s so flexible: it allows him to focus on luminous moments or funny anecdotes or challenging ideas rather than being tied to a chronological list of his activity since, as Bill emphasises, the working musician’s life often boils down to a pretty boring litany of rehearsals, recording and touring. It is a “best of…” Bill’s thoughts and reflections.

Drumming He leaves the details of drumming until well into the book. Personally, I could have done with understanding more how a drummer decides which of all the available rhythms in a piece of music to pick out, and why, and on which drums or percussion instruments? But there is still plenty about the business of drumming, the setting up and the testing, in the studio or before a performance, as well as lots about the business side – attending drumming conferences, fronting ads for specific manufacturers and so on:

‘When I first pick up the sticks, I feel stodgy and slow. I need to warm up. Simple, powerful strokes eventually get some blood circulating in wrists and fingers, and soon the strokes come more easily. Drummers usually practice the rudiments, a codified set of sticking patterns with colourful onomatopoeic names such as flamadiddle and ratamacue. There are traditionally some 26 of these, mostly derived from military drumming, and it’s like practicing the correct fingering for your piano scales.’ (page 294)

There’s a wonderful meditation on the physical, musical and philosophical differences between rock drumming and jazz drumming on page 172 which sheds light on the purpose and structure of the two different genres.

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Prog rock Bill has numerous insights into the history and development of the genre music to which he contributed so hugely – after all he worked with the giants of the genre, Yes, King Crimson and, briefly, Genesis. Passages of pure insight like the following are scattered throughout the book:

‘Robert Fripp had stopped King Crimson, rather smartly I thought, in 1974, and we were able to leave the scene relatively unsoiled by the excesses that were fast entrapping the unwary… The history of progressive rock since about 1976 can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1976 to 1982, a watered-down, simpler version limped on as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, but no new ground was being broken and the older bands started to lose commercial viability… The Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd groups of 1972 became the lighter, more consistent stadium rockers such as the Journey, Styx or Kansas of 1978…  By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie extension of the counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally runs its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic…Perhaps that lasting innocence, a refreshing anecdote to modern times, is where the attraction lies for the remarkably large group of listeners it has managed, over many turbulent years, to retain.’ (page 125)

As someone fascinated by the historical context of all types of art, these passages are, for me, pure gold.

Jazz Jazz was always Bruford’s first love and the book makes clear that, throughout the 70s, he felt like a jazz drummer masquerading as a rock drummer until he felt confident enough to set up his first jazz group in the 1980s. Having experienced both worlds he is uniquely well-placed to comment on the enormous disparity between the two musics:

‘If I threw a party for my greatest 20 musical friends, past and present, the room would divide down the middle with 10 on one side and ten on the other. The ten on my right would be millionaires with salaries so unaccountably large that more time would be spent in charitable dispersal of the stuff than its actual acquisition. The ten on my left would be among the finest jazz musicians in the world, with an average salary approximately equal to that of a supermarket checkout girl. And I would be standing in the middle.’ (page 199)

The music biz Bill describes himself and his band mates in Yes as being astonishingly naive about every aspect of the business when they started out. They were on a weekly wage of £25 well into their period of greatest success. He gives vivid vignettes of the band, memorably recalling Jon Anderson in the band’s communal flat in Fulham, yelling down the phone at promoters and agents, doing everything necessary to keep the band going. Bill’s anecdotes give a good sense of the various managers Yes and King Crimson went through, and an unnerving insight into the chanciness and dodgy dealing which accompanied so many of the ‘business’ arrangements.

Our hero - older and wiser

Our hero – older and wiser

But behind the anecdotes about this or that manager, about the constant squabbling over money (and everything else) which characterised Yes, about the hussling for gigs, the sordid contractual realities which lay behind the making of the albums the fans loved and the tours they sold out – it’s the confidence with which Bill sets his own story within the much broader context of the day which makes the book so rewarding. He explains key facts such as the music business’s turnover tripled each year in the early 70s. Money seemed to be pouring in in uncountable amounts for the successful groups which managed to make it big in America, the platinum albums, the sellout stadium tours, the private jets, the hotel suites which they felt free to trash. The bands, the managers, the promoters and the record companies thought the gravy train (which Pink Floyd sing about with such disgust on 1975’s Wish You Were Here) would never stop, but…

I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same, the epic film of Led Zeppelin live, at the Odeon Leicester Square in October 1976 and being blown away; but then I was an impressionable 14 year-old. Led Zeppelin hadn’t played in England for two years to avoid paying supertax and most of the other megagroups – Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Pink Floyd – had become similarly rich and distanced from their ‘fans’. Earlier that year a couple of new bands had been touring England creating a grass-roots movement wherever they played. They were The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols. Though they would lumber on into the 80s and increase their turnovers, the era when the prog rockers represented youthful idealism was over. Increasingly they just represented their own need to make money.

New technology Bill’s book sheds fascinating light on the way the music industry has changed and evolved not only during the period he’s been active, but throughout the entire 20th century. Again he places his own personal story in a much wider context:

‘It is an industry for which the  constant stream of technical innovations – phonogram, wireless, recording, vinyl, cassette, long-player, multi-track recording, CD – has been both the lifeblood and a constant source of disruption and disturbance that threaten the established ways of exploiting musical materials to yield a profit. If the music industry was all about banging out bits of black vinyl on an assembly line and delivering to a vast number of retail outlets, then its modern replacement, the music business, is about the never-ending war waged by record companies, composers, and publishers to establish and then protect copyrights on their material and collect royalties for its use.’ (page 181)

I’ve rarely read anything so thought-provoking about popular music, its place in all our lives, in our Western culture, and in the vast tentacular capitalist economies which control us. He sees the big picture:

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market – sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn’t get it – that it doesn’t really want any new music, that it’s stuffed with the music it’s got.’ (page 181)

Something I think about all the time. I chatted to a student at Pierrot Lunaire the other day, and she told me about a few gigs she’d been to recently, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Good God, why them, Lou’s first album is nearly 50 years old! People at work are getting excited about a series of gigs we’re staging with Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Blondie and the Human League. The biggest selling music tours of last year were Madonna (first single 1982), Bruce Springsteen (first single 1975) and Roger Waters’ The Wall (1979). Where’s the new stuff?

When everything, all the written and recorded music of the past is immediately available at the flick of a few buttons, anywhere with wifi or 3G, what value does that music have? What meaning? It certainly has lost all ability to shock or subvert or change. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. Ollie Murs doesn’t worry me. And with recorded music so ubiquitous how can the new young performing musician compete? With so many avenues of exploration so thoroughly mined, where can the ambitious musician begin to say something new?

These and lots of other issues, ideas, questions and concerns are raised and discussed by someone who has really been there and done it, in this marvellous and marvellously thought-provoking book.

All quotes from ‘Bill Bruford: The Autobiography’. Used by permission of the author.

A Postscript from Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp has been lovingly remastering, repackaging and reissuing King Crimson’s LPs as well as issuing a host of live recording, and accompanying them with fascinating commentary, on the group and the times. In the notes to ‘The Great Deceiver‘ double live CD (a fascinating record of the group in 1973-74) he makes comments which supplement Bill’s and Paul Stump’s:

‘The record industry in the period 1968-1978 was a seemingly unstoppable growth industry. The early amateurism surrounding the rock business had professionalised by about 1974, although this increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Records became ‘products’ and ‘units’ which moved, audiences became consumers whose ‘behaviour patterns’ were charted by ‘demographics’. Something went terribly, terribly wrong in our sense of values. Pragmatics replaced Principle. Quantity demonstrated Quality.’

(Sleevenotes to ‘The Great Deceiver, volume 1’. Copyright Robert Fripp)

In 1978 when I was buying punk singles and albums I still thought music was some kind of rebellion, had something political to say, and could change things. By 1982 I realised the New Romantic movement was deifying the Triumph of Money and the comprehensive defeat of everything the 60s stood for. In the 1990s I got to be series editor of a TV arts programme, and was quietly appalled that the clever 20-somethings who produced the music items for it made their case for who should be on the show entirely in terms of units sold, gold, platinum records achieved or Mercury or MOBO awards. The entire sector had been comprehensively corporatised. The student I chatted to at Pierrot Lunaire said she’d been to see Radiohead at the O2 last year and was disgusted by the cost and the spectacle and the merchandising and the special lifts to the VIP boxes where bankers and property developers could enjoy this so-called ‘subversive’ music in luxury.

Not unlike Bill (though as a humble fan, not a premier league performer) I also abandoned rock music in the 80s for more musically interesting jazz – and then progressed on into 20th century classical music, much of which is still so uncommercial and difficult that it resists corporatisation, assimilation and denaturing to fit the infantilised tastes of the ipod age.

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock by Paul Stump (1997)

20 January 2013

Stump’s thesis is that Pr0gressive or Prog Rock – think Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer – has been unjustly vilified and eclipsed from ‘histories’ of rock and pop and needs to be reinterpreted and restored. This book was written in 1996 and a lot has happened by way of rehabilitating old rock bands in the past 17 years. I see from a quick surf of Amazon that there are in fact plenty of books on the subject, and plenty of these bands’ LPs are being rereleased, or rerereleased in remastered format or in expensive box sets etc. In fact, quite a few of these bands are still recording albums and touring!

Whatever you think of it, Prog certainly has a place in the social and musical history of the UK. This book sets out to shed light on both and more. First, what characterises Prog? In fact what does Prog mean?

  • Progressive. It meant Progress. It meant that sometime around 1967 the pop song was unzipped: the model of the pop chart, the album of pop hits and the concert where the performer performed his or her pop hits, was blown wide apart. Young pop musicians in many countries began experimenting musically – incorporating elements of modern jazz or classical music; lyrically – exploring the use of modern poetry, avant garde textual experiments etc; sizewise – recording ever longer songs or recording ever longer improvisations and jams; product-wise – forming small, fugitive record labels, marketing and distributing records themselves; performance-wise – bypassing the old club circuit to perform to halls full of drunk students and warehouses full of stoned hippies.
  • Progressive The assumption was that all of this experimentation, on every level, was moving forward. New forms, new multimedia, new sounds, new instruments, new combinations, new ways of thinking about songs or tracks or jams or sounds – it was felt all this was leading forward, onwards and upwards towards some great new musical synthesis.
  • “Progressive rock was the soundtrack to the counter-cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and the period’s gallant pipedream of thoroughgoing societal and cultural transformation.”
  • Progressive The jam and the solo were about extensive self-expression and the accompanying hippy movement was about finding yourself, dropping out of the rat race, returning to the country, finding deeper meaning and spirituality etc
  • Progressive So the musical experimentation went hand in hand with personal, psychological, social and political experimentation. The music was the soundtrack to a social and cultural movement. Arguably, the social movement reached a dead end around the time the music did – sometime in 1974/75 depending on where you were sitting.

Characteristics of Progressive Rock:

  • Traditional rock music instruments – drums, bass, guitar, singer, generally with an organ or early synthesiser thrown in; onto this base might be added any number of new instruments, sounds and colours…
  • but stripped of blues structures or inflections. Surprising given that they started out in blues bands, but there are no blues structures or licks in Genesis or Yes. It’s very white music.
  • Blues were replaced by jazz or classical influences – either the organised chaos of Free Jazz (The Soft Machine), or the adaptation of classical to Rock rhythms (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) or just the use of actual symphony orchestras (Moody Blues and then everyone else)
  • Long numbers, sometimes very long numbers, often spreading out to become ‘concept albums’ on a single theme or story. Classic concept albums include:
    • The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966)
    • The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966)
    • The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • The Who’s The Who Sell Out (1967)
    • The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967)
    • Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus (1971)
    • Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972)
    • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
    • Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
    • Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
    • Wish You Were Here (1975)
    • Animals (1977)
    • The Wall (1979)
  • … and characterised, especially live, by long jams and long individual solos
  • Pretentious subject matter – think Yes’s incomprehensible hippy fantasies, Peter Gabriel’s art school stories, ELP’s shocking bombast, Dark Side of the Moon ‘tackling’ the themes of Life and Death
  • Drugs like marijuana and LSD were widely used and encouraged the creation and consumpton of a particular type of music – one that was long, repetitive, developing changes and variations over repetitive structures
  • Spiritual. The drugs also encouraged both the bands and their fans to believe that the creation and consumption of this long, freeform experimental music was akin to a religious experience. The hippy movement set great store by the idea of self-expression and personal liberation, to be achieved through sex, drugs and great rock music. Fans and musicians alike hankered ” after a rock-derived Sublime which forms the core of Progressive rock music.”
  • English. It’s very English. With quite a lot of well-educated public schoolboy English men, led by Genesis almost all from Charterhouse (one year boarding fee £32,000)
  • White – not a black face in sight. Stump quotes various performers saying it wasn’t overt racism, but many of these bands wanted to incorporate Western classical forms which had zero  black input or performers.
  • Male – after all consumers of Prog and Rock tended to be (often university-educated) young white men – while consumers of chart pop music tended to be more downmarket young women, apparently.
  • Snobbery. Prog’s overwhelmingly white, often college-educated, male fans tended to look down on all other forms of rock and pop as junk, as not ‘serious’, ‘demanding’, difficult’, as too commercial, as having ‘sold out’ to The Man etc. This trope of an exclusive cohort of male initiates can be found across virtually all societies in all times. I revisited the Tate Britain exhibition of the PreRaphaelites this morning, another gang of young English men determined to reject the mass-market art and the exploitative industrial society of their time in order to create an Art which was more ‘demanding’, more ‘true’ etc. And who, of course, ended up being the Grand Old Men which a younger generation was to rebel against…

Stump’s book starts with jazz and the longhair Bohemian scene of the early and mid 1960s. You had to really tuned in to have heard let alone understood the New Thing, the free jazz being played by everyone’s hero John Coltrane and – further out into abstract music – Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders etc. These guys had taken jazz improvisation into wild new places, as a listen to Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ makes clear.

John Coltrane There’s a recognisable band – drums, bass, trumpet, saxaphone – and a structure of sorts – ensemble playing and solos alternating. But everything after that – the ‘tune’, the ‘melody’, even the rhythm, seem undetermined, in flux, leading to a raucous listening experience unlike anything else that had probably ever happened. This track is 40 minutes long and has to be listened all the way through to get the full disorientating affect.

‘Ascension’ by John Coltrane on YouTube

Improvisation and soloing had been a part of country and blues for the whole century – but the New Thing took it to new heights of virtuosity and aural demandingness. What’s impressive at this distance is how close behind the most advanced rock acts were. Ascension was recorded in 1965 and released in 1966 by which time a young Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead were, in their different ways, ready to do similar things – long soloing improvisations frequently bordering on chaos.

King Crimson You can hear some lovely electric band chaos at the end of the title track of ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Stump dates the start of Prog to this album, released in October 1969. King Crimson – brainchild of guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp – shot to fame when they supported the Rolling Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, in front of 500,000 people.The contrast between the delicately orchestrated whimsy of most of the track and the superloud distorted guitar of the choruses, the pretentiousness of the lyrics and then the pure chaos noise at the end, is pure Prog.

‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ on YouTube

Crimson’s first four albums contain traditional songs of hippy tweeness, about knights and ladies etc which burst into episodes of heavy guitar rock. The latter three albums become more musically uncompromising, with freer improvisation, delivering a more intense aural experience. After ‘Red’ in 1974 Fripp dissolved the group, believing he’d reached the end of the road. Though they reformed three years later, and continued releasing albums through the 80s, 90s and 00s, they never recaptured the Zeitgeist, the sense of surfing the wave and shaping its direction, which they had in the early 70s. They were Prog Rock without the confident sense of exciting Progress which you can sense in the exuberance of the early albums. Prog without the Progress.

  • In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
  • In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
  • Lizard (1970)
  • Islands (1971)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
  • Starless and Bible Black (1974)
  • Red (1974)

KC maintained a formidable commitment to aural experiment and difficulty. But most of the other famous Prog bands came from pop or blues backgrounds and were saturated in conventional harmonics and songwriting traditions. Very few of them could begin in apparent chaos and carry on for 40 minutes as the Coltrane track does. Most gave some kind of nod to the structures and cliches of pop. The most hidebound, traditional and, uncoincidentally, by far the most successful, is…

Pink Floyd Although Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) is probably the most famous ‘concept album’ of all time, Floyd themselves stand a little to the side of Prog. Most Proggers tried to be musically more adventurous and sophisticated than Floyd’s fairly basic tunes and harmonics. Most of us can play Floyd’s simple 3 or 4 chord structures on piano or guitar. What they pioneered was sophisticated use of studio technology at a time when the technology was changing at breakneck speed. The songs are passe and use childishly simple changes of dynamics (first soft – then loud – then soft again), but the way they are extended and segued using sound affects, and the band’s skills in the studio, meant they pioneered techniques and technology which created new possibilities for their epigones.

‘Us and Them’ by Pink Floyd on YouTube

  • The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
  • A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
  • Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)
  • Ummagumma (studio and live, 1969)
  • Atom Heart Mother (1970)
  • Meddle (1971)
  • Obscured by Clouds (1972)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
  • Wish You Were Here (1975)

Many of the longer tracks are improvisations around a simple modal pulse played by Roger Waters’ bass, generally an octave of E or D, for example the famous ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ (1968). Child’s play compared to anything by Yes, Genesis or Crimson.

‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ performed live by Pink Floyd on YouTube

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Greg Lake played bass and sang on the first King Crimson album (1969) but then left a band he thought had no future to form a ‘supergroup’ with Keith Emerson, the manically extrovert organist from The Nice and Carl Palmer, the hyperactive drummer from Atomic Rooster. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) was born and quickly released a sequence of albums which became a byword for pompousness, pretentiousness and bombast. Long, long tracks with heavy thumping rhythms, dominated by Emerson’s demented Hammond organ and Moog synthesiser, lyrics about the end of the world, or heavyhanded adaptations of popular classics (Fanfare for the Common Man, Pictures at an Exhibition, Jerusalem). They became one of the most successful acts in the world, pioneered stadium rock and earned a fortune.

  • Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970)
  • Tarkus (1971)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
  • Trilogy (1972)
  • Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

The track ‘Tarkus’ from their concept album of the same name illustrates what was so so wrong with this band.

‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube

Genesis Maybe Genesis are better known than Floyd to the general public because of the crossover pop hits they had when fronted by Phil Collins in the 1980s and 90s. But purist fans hark back to the earliest years, 1969-74, when the band was fronted by Peter Gabriel who also wrote many of the songs:

  • From Genesis to Revelation (1969)
  • Trespass (1970)
  • Nursery Cryme (1971)
  • Foxtrot (1972)
  • Selling England by the Pound (1973)
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Genesis’s music has almost no blues or soul or rock and roll techniques in it at all. Of course it has a rock layout – drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, singer – but the music is extraordinarily inventive without resorting to anything people thought of as blues cliches. Genesis are often thought of as a very English band. Stump seeks to explain: partly it’s the subject matter: Peter Gabriel’s songs, which dominate the early albums, convey a kind of essence of English 6th form/art college whimsy – songs about a magical music box, the giant hogweed as invader England, a song about a Rachman-type rackrent landlord (‘The Knife’), or the thrilling song based on Arthur C Clarke’s very English sci-fi classic ‘Childhood’s End’ (1973).

‘Watcher of the Skies’ by Genesis on YouTube

I knew that the band had met at the elite public school, Charterhouse. Stump adds the fact that Charterhouse has a famous musical department and choir. All the band were soaked in the English choir and hymnal tradition. This explains their musical style with its tendency for the guitar and keyboard to elaborate chords with arpeggios and fugue structures, giving a stately, classical air to even quite raucous passages.

Yes The personnel of these bands were often very fluid. (Floyd again stands out as an exception for the group’s stability; after Dave Gilmour joined in 1968 they stayed with the same 4 musicians up to their Live 8 reunion in 2005). King Crimson, on the other hand, changed personnel and sound with every record, something which hampered them developing a steady following. Yes had a fairly stable memberhood formed round the core of singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (although their drummer, Bill Bruford, who had joined Yes in June 1968, left in the summer of 1972 to join King Crimson.)

Yes are as famous for their album covers by the artist Roger Dean as for their music, like this cover for the 1971 album ‘Fragile’.

Their early albums are striking for the long tracks very carefully arranged from numerous small fragments which are seamlessly joined, for the sound of Jon Anderson’s falsetto vocals and the driving bass of Chris Squire, for Chris Howe’s prodigious virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitar. and for the hippy incomprehensibility of the lyrics.

  • Yes (1969)
  • Time and a Word (1970)
  • The Yes Album (1971)
  • Fragile (1971)
  • Close to the Edge (1972)
  • Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
  • Relayer (1974)

‘Siberian Khatru’ by Yes on YouTube

The End of Prog There were three ends:

1. Punk 

The first punk singles were released in Summer 1976 and suddenly a younger generation of performers and punters realised you didn’t have to be a virtuoso like Robert Fripp or Rick Wakefield or Chris Howe to get on stage and perform a song which spoke to you and your hearers’ lives and emotions. Also songs didn’t have to be half an hour long with extended solos, and be all about the end of the world or knights and fairies or Starship Troopers. They could be short and punchy and about nicking cars, finding a job, about the boring, drunk, sometimes violent urban scene which most English people actually inhabit. Culturally, Punk Rock destroyed the imaginative worldview which underpinned Prog. It was like the Emperor’s new Clothes: once one person pointed out the emperor was naked, the whole artifice with its pomp, its pretentions and its sacred cows, came crashing down.

On the street, vast numbers of young people wanted other sorts of music, whether it was soul, disco, heavy metal, ska, two-tone, reggae, the  chilled-out Californian sounds of the Eagles or James Taylor – and then suddenly the completely new worldview of Punk burst onto the scene. Punk wasn’t just a music but an aesthetic. It made the gritty street scenes, the urban decay of developed countries, it made poverty, aggression, loutish thuggish je m’en foutisme, cool and stylish. The editor of punk fanzine Sniffin Glue famously threw any single which lasted more than 3 minutes out the window.

2. Death of progressive politics

Progressive politics collapsed. Whether it was hard politics of post 68 revolutionaries or the soft utopianism of the hippies, both were strangled by the economic collapse of the early 70s. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab countries quadrupled the price of oil plunging the developed world into a depression which lasted nearly a decade. Radical politics and hippy druggy alternative lifestyles dragged on, but without the confidence with which they’d begun back in the booming 1960s. In one sense Punk was just being honest about the crappy urban world of unemployment and street fighting which it saw out the window. The bands became multimillionaire tax exiles phoning in their solos from Switzerland and arguing about royalties. Whatever idealism they had at the start had vanished by the mid-70s.

3. Out of steam 

Stump’s book suggests that Prog was running out of steam before well Punk exploded.

Peter Gabriel left Genesis in June 1975, exhausted by writing most of the big ‘concept’ album ‘The Lamb lies Down on Broadway’, and a long American tour. Robert Fripp dissolved King Crimson in September 1974, exhausted and disillusioned by the ‘rock’ world. Pink Floyd‘s multimillion smash album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) was followed by the less-popular ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) which is a sour meditation on the band’s embittered alienation from their fans and the exploitative music business. There’s a big gap between Yes‘s ‘Relayer’ (1974) and its successor, ‘Going for the One’ (1977), as if they’d run out of inspiration. In 1974 Emerson, Lake and Palmer, at one stage vying with Led Zeppelin as biggest grossing rock band in the world, released ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973), toured it in 1974, then took a sabbatical. It turned into a 3 year break and when they returned with Works I in 1977 the world had moved on and they were never to recapture their success. The Incredible String Band, the influential experimental folk band which had issued hugely successful albums since their 1967 debut, broke up in 1974. In summer 1975 Gong, maybe the archetypal hippy band, lost founder member Daevid Allen and two other core members.

On the broader Rock scene, John Lennon, a Master presence who helped oversee the transition of pop from Royal Variety entertainment to experimental Rock, retired from music in October 1975 after the birth of his son, Sean, and after delivering diminishing returns with his solo career. And a real Giant of 20th century music, Miles Davis, also retired in the summer of 1975, exhausted from decades of substance abuse. If you listen to his musical progress in the early 70s it’s hard to avoid the conclusion he had painted himself into a corner with increasingly rackety electronic jazz. In his last concerts he stopped playing trumpet altogether and leant his elbows on an electric organ, glaring at the audience.

Bit of a sweeping conclusion, but it is suggestive that somehow the explosion of creativity which began sometime in the 1960s, around 1966/67 – which saw widespread experiments in musical form and structure, in instrumentation, in crossing over genres, the transformation of recording technology, the transformation of venues from sweaty clubs to vast American stadiums –  these enormous changes in the creation, marketing, selling, performance and consumption of the new genre of Rock Music, had taken place and been consolidated. The experimental phase was over. A new phase of stadium rock, an established genre with its own expectations, populated by transAtlantic rock gods, was well in place by about 1973. The open-ended experimental progressiveness these bands had pioneered had ground to a halt.

4. Or… did Prog die?

The thing that strikes me most about reading this book and revisiting these old bands is – they still exist! To my surprise, they either reformed later in the 70s or 80s or just continued writing and recording music. What else could they do? In the 80s, swept aside by Punk, new Wave, then the New Romantics not to mention hiphop and World Music, they must have seemed a forlorn hope and I imagine sales collapsed. But they persisted, and recorded and toured through the 90s and into the 00s. The invention of the CD must have been a boon for musicians who liked making album-long tracks of music – and better digital quality must have helped people understand the subtleties of composition and instrumentation which had been muffled on vinyl. But then the advent of the internet must have also been a lease of life – allowing as it did the establishment of worldwide communities of fans, the publication of concert footage or rare tracks – the creation, in other words, of a whole new online audience.

Now there are annual Prog awards, festivals, magazines, and newer young Prog bands, and from all sorts of disparate countries. Back in 1980, who on earth would have imagined that Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, the various bits of Pink Floyd, would still be recording and touring over 40 years after most of them were formed.

Big caveat

I’ve only discussed the most famous Prog bands, the ones I’m (over)familiar with. Stump’s book is extremely useful for listing and describing and analysing music by a host of other bands of the period, including:

  • The Moody Blues
  • The Strawbs
  • The Incredible String Band
  • The Nice
  • Soft Machine
  • Caravan
  • Gong
  • Gentle Giant
  • Henry Cow
  • Renaissance
  • Van de Graaf Generator
  • Tangerine Dream
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