06 January 2009

BBC4 Goes Prog-Rock! (Mayan Long Count)

My first post of the new Gregorian calendar year. I hope you all enjoyed your holiday season. I've got lots of stuff to get to. First, though, my mate Singing Bear hipped me to the scene over on BBC4. Seems there's a week-long celebration of UK progressive rock, which started last Friday night.

The main docu, called Prog Rock Britannia - An Observation In Three Parts (how's that for a title?!), runs about an hour and a half and contains some great footage and interviews. My only (slight) complaints would be that the focus was too much on 'The Big 4' (Yes, Genesis, ELP & King Crimson) and the last section, which purports to cover from 1978 through to 2008, just peters out after the punk explosion. There's a bit of footage of 80s Yes and some mentions of Genesis' transformation into chart-toppers, but that's it. As far as prog's 70s heyday, Henry Cow and the 'RIO' scene don't get a look-in, neither does the medieval-folk prog of Gryphon, nor Third Ear Band's acoustic drone-prog. Perhaps the latter two didn't 'rock' enough for the docu-maker's tastes..but the Cow definitely did a bit of rockin', i.m.h.o. The 80s prog-rock scene of Marillion, IQ, It Bites, Twelfth Night & Pendragon aren't given any air time and the 90s are equally ignored (leaving out Ultramarine's prog-rock techno experiments with Robert Wyatt & Kevin Ayers seems a shame). Wyatt features in some of the most entertaining interviews, though Richard Coughlan, drummer of Caravan, has a great moment lamenting that Caravan's audience were "all chaps". Robert Fripp is once again conspicuous in his absence, but he's never made any secret of his disdain for the term 'progressive rock' and never liked seeing Crimso lumped in with the other prog-rock bands. Despite the 'skimming the surface' nature of "Prog Rock Britannia", it's still worth checking out. You can watch it here, but only for the next three days (unless the BBC release a DVD version, or you've got a DVD recorder).

There was also a one-hour prog special on Time Shift (unfortunately not available to view on the iPlayer). It covers a lot of the same ground as "Prog Rock Britannia", only it has interviews with members of Gentle Giant and Steve Hackett (of Genesis)..along with 'music-journo-talking-head-for-rent' Charles Shaar Murray and 'Whispering' Bob Harris, host of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Decent viewing, but not really essential, especially when Murray trotted out the tired story about Greg Lake's Persian carpet as an example of prog's excess...oh yeah, that and Rick Wakeman's "King Arthur On Ice" show. I'm surprised no-one ever mentions Mike Oldfield's decision to employ 30 nubile young women as a choir on his 1979 tour, but I guess that reeks of sex and so doesn't fit in with the media's image of progressive rock. Stuart Maconie, host of the excellent Freak Zone radio show on BBC6 Music, was also on-hand to half-heartedly defend prog's virtues--as a sort-of counter-balance to Murray's smarmy commentary. The night I tuned in, the 'Time Shift' episode was followed by an 'Old Grey Whistle Test' programme from 1973, showing a film of ELP's European tour of that year.

BBC4 are broadcasting one-off specials during the week as well. They've showed a docu about Genesis' 2007 reunion tour and an interview with Phil Collins (I skipped those), a docu about Pink Floyd called Which One's Pink? (available for the next week on the iPlayer) and a collection of live clips entitled Prog On The BBC. I've watched a bit of "Prog On The BBC" and it looks pretty good--I've seen The Nice playing America (a black and white clip from 1968) and The Moody Blues playing Question (in colour from 1970). Just tonight was a 1974 film of Oldfield's Tubular Bells being played live in the studio. Hopefully that will be made available as well.

There you have it--soak it up while you may. I'm not sure when this will happen again. I hope this doesn't mean prog is becoming fashionable. I doubt it, though I did read that one of the characters on the deplorable Sex & The City was wearing a Yes T-shirt in one of the episodes. For the love of all that is good...


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and agree with everything you say. The criticisms of prog are just so jaded now. Something that may of the 'hipper than thou' journos seem to miss is the glaring fact that there is an awful lot of humour in prog. Equally, music, like life itself, comes in many forms and things like excess, entertainment and fantasy are all important parts of life, just as valid is singing about 'anarchy', 'da blooze' or 'the dole'. I love punk, R&B, jazz and soul and all sorts of other groovy sounds but what's wrong with enjoting progressive rock as well? Nothing. Yeah, some of it was daft but who'd be without Wakeman's knights on ice? Only a completely humourless prick (enter Mr Charles Shaar Murray...who I actually respect greatly a lot of the time). It was onlt right that punk came along to shake everything up but, ultimately, that can never invalidate everything that came before.

I was very disappointed by the almost apologetic tone of Stuart Maconie. We all know he adores prog (probably above all other types of music) but he couldn't quitew bring himself to admit it...he's still trying to be hip.

As for the absence of Henry Cow/Slapp Happy, VdGG and others - their inclusion would have made prog a far too valid musical statement, so could not be considered. It was clear it was OK to like German bands, though.

Re: Prog in the 80s - didn't Yes become absolute gits with their hair, latex and 'lonely hearts'? Haha!

Did you hear about Ron Asheton? Gutted.

The Purple Gooroo said...

Agreed on all counts, Bear. I can even admit that, yeah, some prog seemed to be excessive and daft (I've only listened to "Tales From Topographic Oceans" all the way through probably three times total, same with ELP's "Works - Vol. 1")--but there's plenty of prog that's just as accessible as any other type of music, i.m.h.o.

I thought that about Maconie, too. He plays *tons* of prog on "The Freak Zone" every week, but when he's under the glare of the teevee lights, he becomes this meek prog apologist. I just want, for once, for someone to say "I fucking LOVE it..Caravan, Camel, Gentle Giant, Gryphon, Floyd, Crimso, Yes..all that stuff...crank it up...20 minute songs with keyboard solos...yep, love it!"

Yes and Genesis did appear to become berks in the 80s. Personally, I think it almost would have been better if they'd followed Gentle Giant's lead and split up in 1980. They would've left most of their legends intact. Unfortunately, they started smelling the big chart money and caved in to the temptation...it seems to me anyway.

I did hear about Ron Asheton..that is sad news. At age 60 as well--a lot of good ones dying too young.

Anonymous said...

I was chatting to a colleague at work yesterday and her mentioned 'Prog Britannia', so we then went into this 3 hour exploration of all things musical. He reveals to me he saw the folloowing bands live - Fairport (with RT), Edgar Broughton Band, Kevin Ayers, Quintessence, Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green), Man at the bloody Padgett Rooms, Hawkwind...and there were many more. I just couldn't take it...I'm so envious! He is just a little older than me and got into music in his teens and, consequently, caught many incredible acts live. I never ever thought there were three Quintessence fans left!

Toby said...

I remember seeing/hearing the Third Ear Band at UFO (back in the daze) and feel delighted to know that anyone else still remembers them!

The Purple Gooroo said...

Hey Toby!

I'm a big Third Ear Band fan - I wish I could've seen them at UFO. I wasn't but a twinkle in my old man's eye at that point...not even a hippie fetus ;-)