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Prog and sexual equality

By ProgBlog, Jul 26 2015 10:57PM

There were a number of factors that combined to allow the development of progressive rock, not least of all sociological factors. Psychedelia emerged as the music of the counterculture and this, in turn, allowed the evolution of prog which, at its inception, retained some of the anti-mainstream ideals. The concept of ‘free love’ was closely associated with the hippie movement, being a rejection of established sexual mores. Greater sexual freedom (leading to the term ‘swinging sixties’) was catalysed by the availability of the contraceptive pill, described as one of the most significant medical advance of the 20th century because of the major role it has played in the women's liberation movement and emancipation, for the first time allowing women to plan and control their own reproductive capacity. The pill, a combination of hormones oestrogen and progestin which were synthetically produced to mimic the body's natural hormones, works by suppressing ovulation. It was developed by biologist Dr Gregory Pincus in the US during the 1950s and was approved for release in 1960, having been tested on Puerto Rican and Haitian women. Take-up was rapid: within two years of its launch it was being used by 1.2 million American women and the current number of users is of the order of 11 million. It was made available in the UK on the NHS in 1961 for married women only, a state that lasted until 1967, the height of the psychedelic movement; between 1962 and 1969 the number of users rose from approximately 50,000 to one million and it is now taken by 3.5 million women in Britain between the ages of 16 and 49. Worldwide, around 100 million women take the pill. While there are concerns over the safety of the pill in certain groups of women (heavy smokers over the age of 35, the obese, those with a risk of thrombosis, those with heart disease, those with a history of certain disease such as breast cancer) the pill has been shown to protect against cancer of the ovaries and the womb lining, and protect against pelvic inflammatory disease, a major cause of infertility in women. Sadly, even today there’s still a reactionary bloc that is unable to accept women’s sexual rights, including patriarchal organisations such as the Catholic Church and some of the more right-wing media empires. Self-styled moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, famous in the progressive rock world for incurring the ire of Roger Waters (Pigs [Three Different Ones] from Animals, 1977) formed the (short-lived) Christian grassroots movement Nationwide Festival of Light along with, amongst others, journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge in response to concerns over the development of the permissive society in the UK during the late 60s; Muggeridge frequently denounced this new sexual freedom on radio and television and particularly railed against "pills and pot", birth control and cannabis. Within the counterculture he became something of a figure of ridicule, such that early bootlegged versions of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky (to appear on Dark Side of the Moon, 1973) included snippets of his speeches, titled The Collected Ramblings of Malcolm Muggeridge.

It’s rather disappointing that the first wave of prog didn’t produce many bands with female musicians, building on the legacy of US psychedelic bands Jefferson Airship, later Jefferson Spaceship (Grace Slick) and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin), both of these groups having formed in San Francisco, the epicentre of the counterculture. The rock music business was another male-dominated industry and counter-intuitively it wasn’t until the rise of punk that women got to feature in more bands, though there have always been other genres that did have female stars. For prog, which tended to address issues other than ‘boy-meets-girl’, in the UK only Sonja Kristina and Annie Haslam, with Curved Air and Renaissance respectively, got to front groups; I’m not going to include Kate Bush, a solo artist whose oeuvre includes some prog-inflected material, other than to mention her strike for equality by demonstrating that she was in complete creative control of her work; Jerney Kaagman was singer for successful Netherlands prog band Earth and Fire.

Normally the preserve of glam metal acts, there a small number of examples of prog which I think come close to hinting at the exploitation of women, the clearest of which is probably King Crimson’s Ladies of the Road (from Islands, 1971.) It has been suggested that the lyrics to the song were an accurate representation of the early period of Boz Burrell's life as a young man on tour where groupies were readily available for casual sex, a phenomenon that burgeoned during the heyday of the counterculture. Caravan’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink schoolboy humour runs throughout much of their early work but in my opinion it’s not necessarily exploitative; Richard Sinclair comes across as quite sympathetic to the lead character on the title track from Waterloo Lily (1972.)

My acquisition of An Electric Storm (1969) by White Noise from a record and CD fair in Brighton a couple of weeks ago is the third example in my collection of a record featuring simulated sex noises. I accept it’s pushing the definition of prog to include this album but it’s an important release in terms of sonic possibilities; a very early example of tape effects and electronica. More au fait with Vorhaus’ White Noise II (1975) on which he used a synthesizer with a ribbon controller (I dubbed it an electric drainpipe) the original White Noise featured BBC Radiophonic Workshop employees Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The track My Game of Love was written with synthesized noises of an orgy but, according to the liner notes for the CD release, Vorhaus must have been dissatisfied with the results and mixed his electronic creation with a recording of a real orgy.

The first example that I heard of sex noises on a prog album was, appropriately enough, ∞ (Infinity) from 666 (1972) by Aphrodite’s Child – Aphrodite being the Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation. The record company, Mercury, objected to the double-album length and the musical experimentation, as well as the track ∞, because of the simulated female orgasm lasting over 5 minutes provided by Greek actress Irene Papas, who repeats the words "I was, I am, I am to come" over a sparse percussion track. This track in particular makes Je t’aime... moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin sound rather tame.

The second is a CD I came across in Metropolis Music in Melbourne when I was in Australia in 2005 – Masq (1971) by Catharsis. There was no Australian prog available and I felt I had to buy something from the store because the staff were incredibly helpful. I chose Masq because it was described as ‘the first album from a great French underground group, lots of weirdness with some folky touches, unique!’ It comes across as something like a psychedelic folk band though it does feature some dreamy organ and some free-form sections that could have been inspired by early Pink Floyd. The final two minutes of the second track, 4 art 6 features simulated sex sounds, the female parts provided by singer Charlotte.

These three examples are from early in the prog canon and, to a greater extent, reflect the period in which they were written, a time of sexual freedom and exploration. They come across as consensual and sharing, fitting in with the original philosophy of progressive rock as an inclusive, outward looking and anti-authoritarian movement. It’s strange that this non-threatening music was performed almost exclusively by males to an audience of almost exclusively males but happily, the third wave of prog features a number of excellent women musicians and the presence of females in the audiences is becoming more noticeable. Long live equality!



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