PROG ROCK AND OTHER GREAT BIRMINGHAM EXPORTS
Richard Nevin ©
I’m going to talk about Prog Rock. No! Don’t run away! Unlike the genre, this article should be easy to digest, not overly long and in no way self-indulgent - well, hopefully.
To say Progressive music and more particularly Progressive Rock is an acquired taste is an understatement. Its image of studious, hirsute types bashing out overlong compositions featuring impenetrable tales, incomprehensible lyrics, instrumental sections and solos that span time zones - being watched by studious, hirsute types nodding along with serious concentration - is a well-worn cliché. While not entirely untrue, it represents only the rock side of Prog. That P word can really be used to describe a wide range of music, from those early concept albums of the late 60s through to the rock giants of the mid-70s and other genres such as electronica, dance, rave and even rap music.
My introduction to Prog Rock came via the Jag at Castle Bromwich, or as it was known in those days, Pressed Steel Fisher. My dad had a mate on the track, very much his junior, who took an interest when he learnt of my musical taste, which at that time was focused on the Judas Priest-inspired New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. On a visit to our house to see my old man, his mate handed me a cassette that would change my life. Breezing in and out in a cloud of denim and patuli oil, he left me with a magical piece of plastic that had “2112” scrawled on it. This 1976 album from Canadian outfit Rush had a single track on side one, something I’d never come across before. I must confess on first listen it wasn’t particularly immediate but then that’s the point with progressive music - you have to put in a bit of effort but the rewards are there. By the third or fourth listen I was hooked. From there it was onto the rest of the Rush output, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake and Palmer (Palmer being a son of Brum) and a new band (at that time) Marillion. There were two things I was particularly enamoured with: the concept of the concept album and the unique sound of the Mellotron. Both of these, and indeed the very, ahem, genesis of Prog can be traced back to Birmingham.
Although there are many schools of thought regarding the origins of Prog Rock, it is generally accepted that the first album of the genre is “Days of Future Passed” by The Moody Blues. A concept album recorded with The London Festival Orchestra, it was one of the first to have a single theme running through it and became the template for dozens of others. It even spawned a hit - “Nights In White Satin” - the sort of success that would be frowned upon by the more serious fan as Prog developed. You can link many concept albums back to that particular LP (ask your Dad). The following year saw another ground-breaker in “S.F. Sorrow” by The Pretty Things, then you have “Tommy” by The Who where concept became Rock Opera, a trick they repeated with Quadrophenia. The aforementioned Tull had “Thick as a Brick”, Genesis weighed in with “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, Marillion had no less than 3 hits from “Misplaced Childhood” and Prog metal got a look in with “Operation Minchryme” by Queensryche. But they can all be traced back to that sweeping opus born on the mean streets of Tysley, Erdington, Small Heath and, erm, Stourport.
And it was a different suburb of our Second City that spawned another benchmark in the grand and pompous world of Prog Rock. Streetly was the unlikely birthplace of the Mellotron, a Heath Robinson forerunner of the now familiar sampler, where a single key would activate a pre-reordered tape producing an almost orchestral or choral sound, so warm and utterly atmospheric, ideal when you are telling a story or setting a scene. It was heard on “Strawberry Fields”and “Space Oddity”, and used by Brummies Traffic and The Move, but it was Prog where this cumbersome, difficult to transport and unreliable instrument came into its own.
That extraordinary wall of sound was used to great effect by the likes of Genesis, King Crimson and Yes and became a staple of any decent prog outfit in the early 70’s and was integral to the Moody’s “Satin” hit single. As technology developed the Mellotron was shunted into the rock and roll sidings but many modern acts still appreciate its wonderful sound. Those of us with a keen Prog ear can spot one a mile off and it never fails to draw a smile.
But as I said at the outset, Prog doesn’t have to mean rock. Surely any music with complexity, length and ambition can be described as Progressive? Kraftwerk can never be called rock but “Autobhan” is a fine example of Prog music. Plenty of soul and funk is lengthy and ambitious; Funkadelic went Prog with the 10 minute Maggot Brain, even Isaac Hayes cover of “Walk On By” was a drawn out, almost 15 minute affair. Kate Bush had a best seller with the album “Hounds Of Love”, the b-side of which was a single piece of music under one theme. Lovesxy by Prince is one 40-odd minute sweep of music, The Prodigy topped off “Music For The Jilted Generation” with the Narcotic Suite, and more recently on hearing “Introvert” by Little Sims the only description that seemed to fit was Prog Rap.
This sort of ambition and inventiveness is still as vital today as it was 50-odd years ago and as if to prove the point, the penultimate, climactic scene in the last ever episode of Peaky Blinders was played out to the soundtrack of Prog-influenced Radiohead/Sons Of Kemmet side project The Smile. Pana Vision, their latest release, a mesmeric piano-led piece provided a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere to this dark, intense drama that brings us right back 'round again. There at the beginning, be it classic or contemporary, Brum is inextricably linked to the wonderful world of progressive music.
Prog, whether rock or not, is unwieldy and unfashionable, complicated with impossible to dance to time signatures, impenetrable and preposterous stories, endless self-indulgent solos, ridiculous outfits, overblown and much of the time, frankly unnecessary. It’s never played at parties, and when courting a potential partner you are better off keeping it quiet for some time before confessing that you have a liking, but it is endlessly rewarding, thrilling, entertaining and brilliantly creative.
I love it.