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A proggy read

With Christmas not long past, I’ve been attempting to wade through the novels I received as gifts, and have just completed Hugh Howey’s Wool with the accusation that once I start reading a book I do very little else until it’s finished, though this wasn’t always the case. Shortly before I left junior school (former pupil: Liverpool FC and England legend Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes) I was called to see the Head Teacher and was told that I didn’t read enough. I ‘m not sure how he knew because I always did well in reading tests but I took his criticism on board, having originally been more interested in seeing how things worked, favouring visual representations backed up by technical descriptions rather than prose, before embarking upon a literary marathon which only slowed down when I reached my mid-20s. My fare took in young adult books, science fiction, poetry, esotericism, classics, and modern classics including We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin which provided inspiration for the Melting Clock track Vetro (from Destinazioni, 2019), Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, with the long-form track Gormenghast appearing on Fruupp’s 1975 album Modern Masquerades, and a clutch of Hermann Hesse novels, before I knew that Siddhartha (1922) was the inspiration for Close to the Edge (1972). Modern Canterbury quartet Syd Arthur would probably agree that Hermann Hesse is prog!

Some of the first examples of children’s literature that I managed to get my hands on were the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This form of fantasy fired my imagination and though I’m fully aware of the allegorical nature of the books which runs counter to my atheism, I still regard them highly. I was impressed that Steve Hackett should include the track Narnia on his second solo album Please Don’t Touch (1978) which, in keeping with the cover illustration by Kim Poor, lends a nostalgic air.

Kim Poor's cover illustration for Please Don't Touch by Steve Hackett

From CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien isn’t too much of a leap as they were friends and fellow Oxford dons and though The Hobbit wasn’t really challenging, the cartography and the runes aroused a deep interest. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, the three hardback books borrowed from Barrow library, it rapidly became obvious that there was an incredible depth to the story telling, clues to which could be found in the appendices at the end of the third part of the trilogy The Return of the King and along with some other school friends, I wasn’t ashamed to attempt to learn written and spoken Elvish. Tolkien was widely read by the counterculture generation who saw the works as anti-war, anti-materialistic and in tune with nascent environmentalism, so it’s hardly surprising that progressive rock bands should jump on the bandwagon, including Camel with their mini-epic Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider from Mirage (1974), Sally Oldfield with Songs of the Quendi from Water Bearer (1978) and Barclay James Harvest with Galadriel from Once Again (1971) – see for a more complete list of The Lord of the Rings-influenced prog.

Critics of prog often dismiss it as fey music about dragons and elves and the two genres, fantasy writing and progressive rock are now very much seen as being synonymous by commentators on popular culture, often aided by musician-protagonists themselves such as Jon Anderson who admitted to owning an Old English sheepdog called ‘Bilbo’ in the liner notes to Olias of Sunhillow (1976).

Bo Hansson released a complete album based on Tolkien’s masterwork Sagan Om Ringem on the Swedish Silence label in 1970, subsequently released by Charisma in the UK as Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings in 1972 and some of his ensuing work was inspired by other authors I was discovering, Alan Garner and Richard Adams. Following Watership Down (1972) and the rather less enjoyable Shardik (1974) Adams based his third novel, The Plague Dogs (1977), in the Lake District. Alf Wainwright contributed maps and the illustration for the cover but of equal interest was the site of an accident key to the direction of the plot at the beginning of the book, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road, Barrow-in-Furness.

Richard Adams' Watership Down and The Plague Dogs

Alan Garner remains one of my favourite authors but my adolescence was contemporaneous with one of his best known books, Red Shift (1973) where the modern day protagonist Tom listens to music through headphones:

"...When I get

Cross track,

I’ll be real soon.

Sweet is the morning, green is the rush

And all my loving is far away.

The stars are changed, and

When I get

Cross track, I’ll be

Real soon.”

Perhaps it’s because the book coincided with the golden age of progressive rock that I’ve always felt that this piece of imaginary song writing was inspired by prog rather than any other genre, though I have absolutely no proof that this is the case. I think the words could be interpreted as ‘green language’ and associate them with the spectrum that incorporates Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973); Garner’s Cheshire has parallels with Hardy’s Wessex where customs, folklore and dialect are important to the settings of the novels, so it should come as no surprise that Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton has been recorded as praising Red Shift as ‘very prog’ when asked by journalist Grant Moon to recommend a ‘proggy read’ and told Paul Gleason of Stereo Embers that Alan Garner was one of his literary influences, citing Red Shift and the Stone Book quartet. One of my early tweets elicited a nice response from Spawton when I posted something about Red Shift; Garner invokes Lewis Carroll’s word square to turn communication between two main characters Tom and Jan into code and an example appears at the back of the book. I managed to crack the code when I was 13 or 14 and sent the transcription to Garner via his publisher, one of the first people to do so.

A letter from Tom to Jan in Alan Garner's Red Shift. Encoded using Lewis Carroll's word square, my original hand-written transcription is on the right

I still have a copy of Alan Garner’s reply, written on a postcard featuring a black and white photograph of the Horsehead Nebula observed within the constellation of Orion and taken from Jodrell Bank close to Garner’s home, commending me on my efforts. This postcard links back to Red Shift, as Tom and Jan look at Delta Orionis (Mintaka) one of the three stars making up Orion’s belt at 10pm each night from Cheshire and London respectively when they’re apart. Jodrell Bank features throughout Garner’s work, most recently in Boneland (2012), the third part of his Weirdstone trilogy and if the radio telescopes aren’t proggy enough for you, the planetarium at the observatory used to be a venue for UK electronica gigs.

Alan Garner's post card to ProgBlog

I know appreciation of ciphers isn’t exclusive to prog, but I equate the two because my discovery of prog and this form of fiction were largely synchronous, and seeking to find meaning in words or symbols in Garner’s application of the Lewis Carroll code, Tolkien’s runic and Elvish scripts or setting out to translate the runes on the cover of Jethro Tull’s Broadsword and the Beast (1982) is challenging and ultimately rewarding, much like the time and concentration required to properly listen to prog. Though the book appeared at the end of progressive rock’s golden age, I can’t believe that there are too many 70s prog fans who weren’t intrigued by Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979), and I wonder how many others went out to buy Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (1940) after hearing Camel’s novel-inspired music.

My edition of Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose

Is it too much to suggest that Lewis Carroll has influenced prog? Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (1967) and the Beatle’s I Am the Walrus (1967) invoke some of the more trippy references in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) respectively but it’s most likely the association of psychedelic drugs with the text was simply a 60’s invention, though it certainly didn’t adversely affect the sales of the books. The prog-leaning Charisma Records label changed from a pink scroll to the John Tenniel depiction of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Syd Barrett whimsy is indebted to Carroll alongside Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Grahame; Germany’s Neuschwanstein recorded the symphonic prog concept album Alice in Wonderland in 1976; and Bill Bruford wrote Fainting in Coils for the second of his own band’s albums, One of a Kind (1979). It may be just the way I perceive things, but the word-play associated with the titles of works by ‘Canterbury’ bands, especially National Health (think The Collapso from Of Queues and Cures, 1978), seems very Carrollian.

I have read a fair amount of SF over the years and witnessed a blurring of the boundary between SF and fantasy though the trend can be traced back to at least the mid-60s in works by Michael Moorcock who forged an association with space-rockers Hawkwind in the early 70s. Much of the SF I consumed was simply because they were classics of the genre and some, like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), appeared on my reading list because of my nascent appreciation for progressive rock. Lyrically, the song appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel but Heinlein’s pro-military opinions were aired by characters within the book and there’s a possibility that Anderson and Squire were responding to Heinlein’s view with their own positive outlook. Yours is no Disgrace, also from The Yes Album (1971) is an anti-war song but it’s not unreasonable to imagine members of Yes reading SF.

Some of ProgBlog's classic SF

Rick Wakeman was an avid Jules Verne fan but was Verne’s output really science fiction? It can’t be disputed that Verne was a strong influence on the genre and he wrote about emerging technologies and incorporated the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the time. I’d accept that Verne was the grandfather of science fiction but I think his novels were basically books about exploration, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) describing an expedition but also taking readers on a journey through geological time. This suggests to me that Wakeman was not necessarily inspired by the strictly scientific aspect of the work but more by the possibilities of musical adaptation of a good story. No Earthly Connection (1976) is more new age than SF but Out There (2002), which revisited the quest for the origins of all music after a hiatus of 26 years, does come across more as science fiction. I saw Wakeman touring both No Earthly Connection and Out There around the time of their respective release and the latter struck me as a piece of science fiction theatre, mainly because of the NASA footage and a steam punk representation of the spaceship.

My favourite SF authors are JG Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, who approach the genre from very different angles. Ballard wrote about the ‘deep undercurrents’ of the present, exposing a dystopian psychogeography with his writing influencing post-punk synthesizer bands whose creativity circulated around the concrete walkways of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate.

I first came across Le Guin through her Earthsea fantasy trilogy (at the time) and then got caught up in her interconnected SF worlds of the Hainish Cycle. Her almost academic anthropological writing, her family background, made her stand apart from others but her portrayal of gender and race put her firmly in the progressive bracket. I personally think of Le Guin’s twin worlds of Anarres and Urras (from The Dispossessed, 1974) when I listen to Felona e Sorona (1973) by Le Orme though Peter Hammill’s lyrics for the English language recording Felona and Sorona suggest that some form of supernatural Being holds responsibility for the two planets. Le Guin collaborated with avant-garde composer David Bedford on Rigel 9 (1985), writing the libretto for a fairly straightforward SF play, resulting in probably Bedford’s most accessible work.

My favourite SF novel - Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed

Van der Graaf Generator acknowledge the influence of science fiction on the sleeve notes of The least we can do is wave to each other with a credit for reading matter: Asimov/Donleavy (JP Donleavy may have been essential reading for a 17-year old me, but he’s not an SF writer) and the epic Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, the Hammill nod to Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) on Still Life (1976) where he ponders the evolutionary course of humankind.

There’s a great deal of current interest in artificial intelligence, from poker playing computers to fictional television series, with London’s Science Museum hosting a major Robots exhibition in 2017. One of the classic SF books was a series of short stories, published as I, Robot by Isaac Asimov with its ‘Three laws of robotics’: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Asimov may have been a successful scientist but I always thought his writing portrayed cowboys in outer space, even in his best work, the Foundation trilogy. I, Robot is actually a whodunit played out in a future where our lives are enhanced by the presence of robots. The Alan Parsons Project comes under the general umbrella of prog on the art-rock end of the spectrum and their second album I Robot (1977) is inspired by the book but I find the music far from stimulating, ranging from competent AOR to almost disco, all of it very well produced. The instrumental tracks bookending the work are the best, though the drumming, rhythm machine or Stuart Tosh, however appropriate for the subject matter, detracts from some decent, keyboard dominated pieces. Radiohead, another band on the fringes of prog, referenced depressed robot Marvin from spoof SF The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a good friend of David Gilmour, on OK Computer (1997) with Paranoid Android.

This list of ‘proggy books’ is far from exhaustive, but I just have to mention Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as my final selection of books I’d describe as being a good prog read. It’s entirely coincidental that the timeline of publication of the series corresponds to that of the third wave of prog. Northern Lights was first published in 1995 (published as The Golden Compass in the US) but the scope and complexity of the novels, currently with two of three volumes of The Book of Dust in print, a prequel and a sequel, plus a couple of short companion books provokes engagement and delivers fulfilment in the same way that the best prog is able to; books to make you think, music to make you think. Proggy reads.

This blog utilised portions of two archive blogs, Books (posted 20th December 2015) and I, Robot (posted 29th July 2017)

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