The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis (Revisited)

genesis1

There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis (Revisited)

genesis

There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

pf

It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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Taking It All Too Hard: Unironic Love For Phil Collins (Revisited)

phil-c

After taking on the “holy trinity” of classic era Genesis, wherein Phil Collins arguably got short-shrift (I mean we had to discuss Peter Gabriel!), it seemed appropriate to revisit my piece on PC from three years ago –almost to the day. So yeah, this:

There must be some misunderstanding.

Is he in or out?

(You’ve got to get in to get out…)

Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally –and correctly– inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio).

The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?

(Hello, I must be going…)

It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks.

Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.

Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting wise-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: did he have any. Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him mention having suicidal thoughts and expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.

Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punchline and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.

The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic –and erroneous– headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career” here. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condesenscion from this jackass representing our inviolable journalistic institution SPIN. For an exhibit of insufferable disrespect and what passes these days for hipster street-cred, check out this spectacle. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of places to suffer a fool that politely, and it hurt to read. Humble and well-mannered in the finest British tradition, he was too tolerant for his own good here and deserves better.

Really, you ask?

Really, I say.

And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ’83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing they did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ’80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic. (Full disclosure: I was never particularly fond of the soundtrack-ready “In The Air Tonight” so its subsequent ubiquity does not even provide nostalgia for Miami Vice, a show I never cared about.)

For anyone (like that snot-nosed punk from SPIN) who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-’80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home), here. As an added bonus, you can revisit –or appreciate for the first time– the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but –based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loudwell.

And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.

If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
Interesting, or not, I was just thinking of Collins the other week and this is what I had to say:
A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him.
Listen: thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ’70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assasination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here are five reminders of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up his spurs once and for all.
“For Absent Friends” (one of only two songs from the Gabriel era featuring Collins on lead vocals, demonstrating his impeccable falsetto):

“The Carpet Crawlers” (two words: backing vocals bitches):

“Dance on a Volcano”

“No Reply At All”

“Taking It All Too Hard”

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The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis

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There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect?*

It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

*First installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding”.

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Revisited)

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and (insert other sites here) are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

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Marvin Gaye!

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

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And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead meets Hitchcock:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Five (Revisited)

If you did not catch this series last year, the five-part exploration of the 25 “best” Prog Rock songs of all time has been been reposted during the past week. Naturally I put the obligatory air quotes around “best” because, as is the case with any endeavor dealing with rankings, it’s a very subjective business and there is seldom consensus. And this topic will be revisited, perhaps in more detail than is either necessary or healthy, at some point soon.

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t quite bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog-rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog-rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’ most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

Writing last year about my search for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of ecstasy that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog-rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it is a gold standard that was never surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On exceptional tracks, like the previously discussed “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise” there are individual moments—and musicians—that stand out and shine; on “Close to the Edge” everyone assembled works in service of the song and the result is a tight, unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick As a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

2. Pink Floyd, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics —- so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

1. King Crimson, “In The Court of the Crimson King”

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid are the same kind of simpletons who hear Charlie Parker and envision a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Three (Revisited)

15. Pink Floyd, “Dogs”

No band besides The Beatles departed (or progressed) more radically from their initial sound than Pink Floyd. After the kaleidoscopic whimsy of their early work and the meditative space rock that followed, Floyd followed up the unfollow-up-able Dark Side of the Moon with an album that may have been even better, Wish You Were Here. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten summed up the prevailing mood when he insolently scribbled “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. Whether or not any of this had to do with Floyd’s next album, lyricist Roger Waters shared one thing in common with the punks: he was pissed off. He was also erudite and technically proficient as a musician. The result is the darkest, most literate and (arguably) timeless entry in the Pink Floyd catalog, Animals.

The album’s centerpiece, “Dogs”, might represent the zenith of the always uneasy, increasingly tenuous creative alliance between Waters and David Gilmour. Waters writes some of his most scathing (and brilliant) lyrics and Gilmour sounds like a different person altogether than the man who sung “Echoes”; his guitar playing is huge, at times oppressive and then soaring. This indictment of greed and the “dog-eat-dog” social code that is endorsed in the workplace and venerated in such vulgar fashion on reality TV will never lose its relevance, because it will always describe the con-artists and crooks who come, inexorably, to distinguish each subsequent generation.

14. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Tarkus”

Debate still abounds regarding the great American novel. No such discussion occurs when it comes to the terrible British prog-rock album. Fans and foes alike have aligned and rendered a verdict: Tarkus. Look at the cover for Christ’s sake. Therein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror” and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (or idiots) like me call…the horror! (But in a good way.) Listen, some prog-rock bands (like Rush) had a penchant for reimagining or reinterpreting classical literary legends like Apollo and Dionysus (see #22) while others (like Rush) would create their own mythical heroes (By Tor, Snow Dog, etc.). Looking at this cover art, and seeing song titles like “Stones of Years”, “Manticore” and “Aquatarkus” (not to be confused with “Aqualung”), many music fans ask for the check, understandably. Here’s the thing, though: all the armadillo tank drawings and semi-preposterous titles—and lyrics—are just window dressing for the artistry that occurs once these well medicated, undeniably brilliant musicians throw down. And throw down they do, in ways that make myopic pinheads lament how a man with unparalleled keyboard skill— like Keith Emerson’s—might have made so much better use of his talents had he dedicated his life to playing Bach recitals in sparsely attended concert halls.

13. King Crimson, “Lizard”

The music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It is not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to defy trends and commercial-minded fashion often is created without any of those considerations in mind. King Crimson, like all of the best-loved prog-rock bands, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, and arguably created a whole new type of music. Take the title track from 1970’s Lizard (upping the progressive ante by featuring guest vocalist Jon Anderson, of Yes): nothing like this exists on any other record from any other genre. It is a seamless integration of jazz, classical and rock, the sum total making complete sense once you accept it on its own terms. At the same time ELP was mimicking Mussorgsky, King Crimson utilizes Ravel’s “Bolero”, employing session musicians to embellish the sound with trumpets, oboes and an English horn. The results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Led by the creatively restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; on this not immediately accessible but indelible track they transcend it.

12. Genesis, “The Battle of Epping Forest”

In between being the costume-wearing superfreak and the intensely worshipped solo artist he would become, Peter Gabriel did the best work of his career. By the time Genesis entered the studio to assemble what would become their masterwork, Selling England By The Pound (though some would maintain that distinction belongs to the excellent, if slightly uneven The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway), Gabriel had come fully into his own as a performer, singer and lyricist. Especially as a lyricist. His writing on the previous albums ranged from silly to sublime, but in 1973 Gabriel took things to a new level, and every song from this album spills over with wit, humor, social commentary and a poet’s eye for detail. Utilizing enough words (he could not help himself) to fill a full album, Gabriel creates a prog-rock novella with “The Battle of Epping Forest”. Featuring all the players (especially the criminally overlooked rhythm section of Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford) showcasing their dexterity and frenzied inventiveness, Gabriel pulls off an off-Broadway play of characters, voices and changes of scenery. It is an absolute tour de force, and the final, sardonic couplet about the necessity of flipping a coin to decide who “won”—since both rival gangs have killed each other out—is at once hilarious and distressingly dead-on.

11. Yes, “Awaken”

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going For The One. “Awaken” is, along with the aforementioned “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog-rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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Prog Rock is Never Dead; It’s Just Resting Until the Next Round of Reissues, or, Two from Gentle Giant

Reissues From An Era When Giants Roamed the Earth

For all the critical savaging Yes, ELP and Rush took in the early-to-mid ‘70s, they at least had the devotion of the masses (then, now). And no matter how much or how unjustly they were accused of mindless noodling, they could nod and wink all the way to the bank. Top Ten records can buy a lot of noodles (then, now).

So whatever else one can or should say about the front-tier progressive acts, at worst they had cache; they remain part of the conversation.

Gentle Giant has always been relegated to the second—or third—tier, worshipped by a select contingent. This of course is a phenomenon that imparts a certain aesthetic credibility; only the people who are really in the know are aware of them. Or, you have to work harder to find your way to this band. Et cetera.

So why didn’t Gentle Giant, a band with all the chops, ambition and awful cover art to co-exist with their better-known brethren, get their shot at superstardom?

Well, in some regards they tend to typify some of the worst—or least favorite—elements of prog rock: the ostensible pretense of literary allusions, the extended instrumental jams (oh, the horror!), the love it or leave it vocals, which, to be fair, are often a few shades more eccentric and inaccessible than even Trespass-era Genesis.

On the other hand, there is plenty to recommend about this band’s approach: Emersonian keyboards, Hackett-like guitar proficiency, King Crimson-esque quirkiness. But where ELP, Genesis and Crimson could balance the pyrotechnical overload and acoustic restraint (usually by relegating the pastoral numbers as shorter, more serene pieces), Gentle Giant tends to be either more ambitious or less dexterous. The medieval elements wash up, too often unsteadily, with the then-modern snythesizers, resulting in a sound that is jarring. Worse, it sounds dated in ways the better-known progressive acts do not.

Still, the musicianship is consistently top-notch, and it would be a shame if Gentle Giant did not receive another (or first) assessment, particularly for would-be fans who simply have not had the opportunity to experience their music. Fortunately for anyone who has awaited or is open to the chance, we have two reissues of early albums. 1972’s Three Friends and 1973’s Octopus are the third and fourth efforts from a band that was locking into an approach—confident and adventurous—that came as close as they ever did to establishing a “signature” sound. That the results are not easy to quickly describe or embrace is likely to make or break a first time listener’s reaction.

Three Friends is definitely the harder of the two, in many senses of the word. There is an extra edge that at times borders on abrasive, not that there’s anything wrong with that, which could make this tough going for first-time ears. It also boasts impressively complex vocal arrangements that at times border on boastful. These gents are definitely prog-rockers’ prog rockers, and in that regard the album is an unabashed success. Still, a song like “Peel the Paint” is a bit grueling to get through. It recalls Side One of Crimson’s Lizard but, for this listener, the vocals too often seem shrill where the wonderfully surreal vocals of Gordon Haskell, from Lizard are unsettling in all the right ways. In fact, the user-unfriendly singing might represent the issue that makes this material difficult to love then and now. One thing the aforementioned prog acts had going for them was across-the-board vocal brilliance. However much anyone might loathe those bands, few people could credibly claim that, say, Ian Anderson, Greg Lake or Jon Anderson were not, at worst, competent vocalists.

Octopus is not only more palatable, but ably matches the group’s lofty aspirations and their impeccable musicianship. Simply put, unlike Three Friends, it stacks up nicely with other prog masterpieces of the era, no mean feat. Typical period pieces like “The Advent of Panurge” (if you are going to get literary, don’t half-step!) and “Raconteur Troubadour” are stylistically and sonically all over the place but always in control. On this outing the band knows what it is after and is able to achieve it. On a more reflective piece like “Think of me with Kindness” we get more Gentle and less Giant.

Both albums feature re-mastered treatments and sound spectacular. More importantly, each release includes out-takes and live snippets, all of which are interesting and enjoyable. We get the original art work, liner notes and never-seen photos. This is the type of material that recommends itself for the faithful fan; it should serve as an ideal introduction for the newcomer. For anyone inclined to dip their toes in this murky but ultimately pleasant water, start with Octopus and, if you like what you hear (give it several listens before you make up your mind) you are encouraged to take a deeper dive into the catalog. Bottom line: full marks to Gentle Giant for their obvious indifference to mainstream acclaim and even accessibility. It may have damaged their commercial appeal but their integrity has never been in question. In the end, that should count for something that isn’t measured monetarily.

Three Friends Rating 6

Octopus Rating 8

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/151726-gentle-giant-three-friends-octopus/

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