top of page
Search
  • Writer's picturegarethsprogblog

Born in the USA

I’ve always been something of a US sceptic and never bought into the American Dream. While entirely admirable, the Declaration of Independence line ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’ has never been universally applied and aspects of the Constitution are archaic, open to a range of interpretation and unfit for the present day. As a youth I preferred to watch TV programmes produced in the UK rather than the increasingly common bought-in State-side shows and Gerry Anderson’s portrayal of US military brass, ‘might is right’, in his different puppet series reflected how I saw America under Nixon and Ford on news footage. Later, I’d rail against the Reagan-Thatcher axis of neoliberalism and the US-centric free-market economics which were responsible for the global economic crash in 2008 and the inhuman application of austerity politics a couple of years later. I was no fan of Bush Sr., even less so of George W Bush and it’s wise not to get me started on failed businessman/sex offender Trump, the arsonist of democracy. Even if this sort of thinking informed my decision to ignore American prog, I’d previously noted that the ending of the golden age of progressive rock coincided with the commoditisation of music and a concomitant repression of creativity, resulting in short radio-friendly tunes all indistinguishable from each other. I believe that the blame can be laid squarely on the US market. 

 

The first time I visited the States was for the 16th American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) annual conference in Century City, Los Angeles, in November 1990. My original contract with Guy’s Hospital allowed me one international conference per year and I chose this one for its potential to provide an insight into the cutting edge of transplantation science. I may have been swayed by the fact that the Hipgnosis cover for Yes’ Going for the One (1977) features Century City but as this was pre-third wave prog, it wasn’t a good time for the genre and therefore pre-dated my habit of seeking out local record stores to explore music by local artists. I attended the conference with a couple of colleagues and we’d walk from the Holiday Inn (now the SIXTY Beverly Hills) on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Drive to the congress centre – and back again, not realising that a 2 mile (3.2km), 40 minute stroll wasn’t something locals did. Los Angeles is huge so some of the things I’d earmarked to see were impossible to get to. On my spare afternoons I walked up to Hollywood Boulevard and got public transport to Downtown Los Angeles. Even though I might now appreciate some of the city’s architecture, it’s not somewhere I want to revisit.

Century City, LA, November 1990


In fact, all my trips to the States to cities other than New York have been for symposia or workshops. I was in Dallas in October 1995 for another ASHI conference, an excursion that almost went disastrously wrong when the aeroplane I was on suffered mid-flight engine failure over the Atlantic. By the time we landed for an unscheduled stop in Boston, only one of the three engines was working but perhaps I shouldn’t have wished too loudly for an end to the improvised fleadh on the plane as passengers, off to a traditional music festival somewhere, took out fiddles and pipes and began to play before any of the drama unfolded. I was put up in the Hilton hotel at the airport and TWA kindly flew me first class from Boston to St Louis early the next morning for a flight on to Dallas. Unfortunately my room at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas had been given away and I had to stay in different but possibly more glamorous accommodation at the nearby Renaissance for one night. The walk between the two buildings would have taken less than two minutes as the crow flies but being on a busy freeway intersection with no footpath, it took a little longer and I had to cope with drivers abusing me for daring to walk. Apparently, walking on the street was dangerous, so when I attended the evening entertainment I stuck to the transport provided. As prog was beginning to re-emerge without attracting too much abuse from the public or music press, I asked the band providing the entertainment at the gala dinner if they’d play some King Crimson. They declined, suggesting that most of the attendees might not appreciate Crimson but they played some Talking Heads instead.

Dallas is also a huge conurbation but the potential for archetypal tourist activity was relatively sparse, centred around Founder’s Plaza where you could see (a 1930s replica of) Dallas founding father John Neely Bryan’s log cabin and the Richardson Romanesque style County Courthouse (designed by Max A. Orlopp Jr. in 1892), both a short walk from the Book Depository Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. I chose my reading material for the trip carefully, too - a copy of Don DeLillo's Libra.

The Grassy Knoll, Dallas, October 1995


If Dallas was another city I never want to see again, Seattle was a different prospect. Verdant, compact and interesting, I was there for the 2002 International Histocompatibility Workshop Conference held in the Washington State Convention Center [sic]. Aware that public funding was being used for my professional development, my accommodation was a world away from the Dallas hotels, a brisk walk from the WSCC at the Kings Inn motel where I felt pretty vulnerable because the ill-fitting steel door opened directly from a balcony with public access into my room, my first exposure to this kind of hotel. On the other hand, I was impressed with the city vibe, the seafront, the monorail and the Space Needle, however the trip was responsible for my lifelong distaste for Starbucks, which provided free coffee for the Workshop delegates, my first experience of the brand even though the chain had landed in the UK in 1998, taking over a Seattle Coffee Company franchise in the King’s Road, Chelsea. I had a look around the Borders store for CDs but didn’t manage to buy any music though I spend time at the rather good Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry-designed museum that had opened a couple of years earlier. Seattle has some high profile musician links such as Jimi Hendrix, Queensrÿche and Kurt Cobain but I was more interested in the Yes drummer Alan White connection; one of his kits was on display.

Washington State Convention Center, May 2002


The first US prog that I purposely sought out to buy was Day for Night by Spock’s Beard when I was in Miami in October 2003. I’d already stayed in the city in April that year for a training course, a memorable trip for the wrong reasons. I left a laptop and some CDs in the boot of the taxi that dropped me off at my hotel in Coconut Grove, one of these being my signed copy of King Crimson’s The Night Watch that I’d bought at the original playback in London. In my defence, I’d just been detained by US Customs and Border Protection and held for a couple of hours, without charge and without reason, after the nine hour 35 minute flight from Gatwick. On my return to the UK I emailed the Crimson-related forum Elephant Talk and asked American contributors to look out for my missing items. No one was sympathetic, some pointing out how stupid it was to carry original CDs around. Correct, but hardly helpful. Most of my time on the April visit was spent in a hospital laboratory but I managed to arrange trips to the Everglades to look for alligators and to the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Day for Night was bought on the October trip along with a copy of a cheap limited edition European version of The Ladder by Yes, in a slip case plus poster. I can no longer remember the store but I do recall you could scan the barcode and listen to extracts of the music. I quite liked the analogue sounds of that particular Spock’s Beard album and was seduced by the Yes-like structure of the title track with its trebly bass and the Gentle Giant homage Gibberish. I was there to present a paper at the ASHI conference, held at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. I took my son along as he was on half-term and treated him to a trip to the Kennedy Space Center [sic] in a hire car on a spare day.

Bought in the USA. Miami, 2003


Up until my first visit to NYC in 1998, my expectations had been modulated by film, TV and bits and pieces of music. I was quite taken by the steam vents that I’d heard described by Peter Gabriel around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a system for heating, cooling, cleaning and powering businesses in Manhattan where about half of the steam is cogenerated, thereby increasing the efficiency of fuels. I was aware of the historic reputation of the city’s record stores but the years I visited coincided with the period I was buying CDs.  In the five-year period covering my three trips I witnessed a change in store occupancy and usage, a trend that my wife tells me has continued, but I did find some essential CDs that I’d never seen in the UK, for example Exiles by David Cross and Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, at a time when the dollar-sterling exchange rate was very favourable.  

The trips in October 1998 and February 2000 were Manhattan-based and though all visits balanced culture, sightseeing and shopping, our vacation in 2003 was split between a week in the Hamptons on Long Island where we indulged in some relaxation, sightseeing, swimming and kayaking and Manhattan. My family still blame me for that summer’s power cut that affected many of the northeast states.

Bought in the USA. New York City

 

I’d listened to The Doors at a friend’s house and must have heard American rock music on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show but didn’t become interested in 70s US prog until the mid 2000s when I read about Happy The Man. The first US album to appear in the Page collection was The Electric Prunes’ Mass in F Minor, a concise psychedelic masterpiece by The Electric Prunes belonging to my brother. I liked the early prog-era instrumental Zappa and actually bought my Hot Rats CD in New York but I skirted around prog bands and picked up more obscure artists such as the United States of America, having read about them in Progressive Rock Reconsidered (2001, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson), The “American Metaphysical Circus.” Influenced by avant garde rather than 19th Century European composers, their 1968 eponymous debut has a distinct West Coast sound but there are plenty of pop-like melody lines mixed with electronics and manipulations and hints of radical politics. My wife bought me a copy in New York during her 2009 trip.

The United States of America by The United States of America


I then took the leap from psyche/pre-prog curio to modern prog with The Weirding by Astra who were obviously happy to reference Pink Floyd and King Crimson. I find it slightly spacey and there’s a lack of polish in the playing which, aided by a decent production gives it a kind of authenticity. I started to fill in the gaps with Glass Hammer’s Journey of the Dunadan at the end of 2013 even though I’d read that it wasn’t anywhere close to their best album. It contains some very nice keyboard work but displays a sort of naivety; attempting to cover The Lord of the Rings on a single, debut album was simply over-ambitious and received the more consistent Chronometree for my birthday in 2017. I was given Finneus Gauge’s One Inch of the Fall for Christmas 2014, with material on the progressive side of jazz rock, like an American UK. The vocals are clear and distinctive and the musicianship can’t be faulted, with uniform high quality writing. I think I can detect some Canterbury influences but it doesn’t really sound like anyone else. There’s more guitar than keyboards, some of which is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth. Three Tom Kelly CDs followed in January 2019 and featured in the ProgBlog ‘Discovery’ section which I hope provided greater exposure for some excellent music, and I was so impressed with Moon Letters’ debut album Until They Feel the Sun – this was another band featured in Discovery in October 2019 – I ordered the CD.

At the end of 2019 I was discussing US prog with Massimo Gasperini of Black Widow Records and he brought my attention to two one-shot bands, Babylon and Mirthrandir, and Pentwater who had a bit more staying power. They’re all relatively obscure and Genesis, Gentle Giant and Yes influences are evident in each case. Far more recently I indulged in Suffocating the Bloom by Echolyn but while I can’t fault the musicianship I find it hard going. It’s just too long.

US prog on CD


Though I bought a copy of At the Sound of the Bell by Pavlov’s Dog on vinyl in the early 80s it wasn’t because I’d suddenly developed a soft spot for American acts, it was because the album features Bill Bruford on drums and a bit of Mellotron. It was also worth a punt because it was being sold at a cut price in one of my old haunts, Our Price Records in Charing Cross Road (the £2.99 ‘special price label’ is still on the cover.)  No one could accuse the music of being derivative, unlike my next US LP purchase some 30+ years later, a pre-loved copy of Fireballet’s Night on Bald Mountain which I came across by chance at a vinyl fair in Spitalfields Market in 2015. The stall holder had bought it new from East Side Music & Video in Toronto but didn’t know much about it and evidently hadn’t played it much, either. I’d just read about the album in Will Romano’s Prog Rock FAQ and it proved to be an excellent purchase, with a high calibre of musicianship and great treatment from producer (ex-King Crimson) Ian McDonald; album opener Les Cathèdrales utilises the unaccredited Theme One by George Martin and second track Centurion could be Trespass-era Genesis. It remains one of the pinnacles of American progressive rock thanks largely to its undiluted European influence. My two Kansas LPs are theoretically the bands most progressive, Leftoverture and Point of Know Return but the mixture of radio-friendly AOR and prog actually turns me off. I bought them second-hand in the last couple of years based on their supposed importance to the prog canon but I much prefer the Kansas contemporary debut album from Starcastle, my most recent US prog purchase. Another Yes-influenced band I’m sure I heard on UK radio around the time of its release and noticed in the racks of local record shops, it’s been criticised because the influences are deemed to be appropriation, but I quite like it for the reason that there’s no overt serenading of FM disc jockeys. Almost as original as Pavlov’s Dog is Shadowfax, a band of wide influences and varied instrumentation who some have called ‘new age’, incorrectly in my opinion, based on the LP Shadowdance that I picked up second-hand on a recent trip to Milan.

US prog on vinyl


I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing, though I’m not a great fan of the sub-genre. Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the major influences included examples from the so-called ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ (NWOBHM) along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic. The sole representation of US prog metal in the ProgBlog LP and CD collection is one of the most respected, Dream Theater’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory, a present from a good friend and prog metal expert, but while there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog it doesn’t conform to my idea of metal. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. It’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Hot Rats. The delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if it was to be declared the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I wouldn’t argue.

Dream Theater - Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory


While I don’t intend to mention my US jazz-rock albums I should say something about my odd bits of electronica which fit within the prog spectrum. I’d seen adverts for Zygoat in a Virgin Records store catalogue from 1976, amused by the pun on the biological term ‘zygote’, and thought it worth investigating. 41 years later I found a copy of the LP in a flea market in Brighton, so I had to buy it, but my first US electronica purchase was actually a cassette of It’s About Time by British/American duo TONTO’s Expanding Headband which I discarded in the early 90s when the medium deteriorated. I replaced it with a CD of the duo’s first release Zero Time bought in Australia in 2012. Being a Peter Gabriel fan, I was aware of Larry Fast’s solo work as Synergy so I bought Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra from a charity shop in Worthing in 2017 and Cords from Amsterdam’s Record Mania in 2019. I’ve also been following Lore City, an experimental world music/chamber pop duo from Portland who had discovered the possibilities of the Mellotron and when they reduced their postal charge from the US to the UK last year I bought the Alchemical Task and Visitation LPs.

 

I’ve previously written about Jon Anderson’s announcement to a US audience during the Close to the Edge tour, asking those present to heed the message of ‘peace song’ And You And I. It was my hope that they wouldn’t have voted for Trump, and passed on Yes’ message of peace and harmony to their children and grandchildren – so it’s pleasing that most US musicians who contact me appear to share my concerns about the state of the planet, which gives me hope for a better future.

 

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment


garethsprogblog
garethsprogblog
Feb 05

I seem to have forgotten to mention my two Happy The Man CDs, both presents and both essential listening!


Like
bottom of page