(A guest blog by Mike Chavez)
The scene: a dimly lit village hall around 7pm in a small town in rural Wiltshire. A group of middle-aged men sit on chairs placed in a circle. After a period of silence, I start to speak, stuttering, “Erm... my name’s, er “John” and I like progressive rock music.” In a reassuring voice the bearded man with more than a slight paunch speaks reassuringly “Welcome “John”, it’s OK you are among friends. It is safe here.” That’s how it used to feel when you bared your soul and spoke the bitter truth about your musical interests. Records in gatefold sleeves with science fantasy artwork, intricate fiddly solos, weird time signatures, keyboard players with ten keyboards, drum kits so big they need their own articulated lorry, yep that’s what we prog fans like, but it wasn’t always that way for me.
So, my thanks to ProgBlog for allowing me this guest slot, and there’s another belated thanks due too. In 1979 we moved to Infield Park in Barrow, I was just 12 with two older brothers, and Infield Park residents Baz and Bill Burford were away at Uni when we arrived, but in a couple of months they arrived back for summer. Now finding great music all by yourself can be pretty difficult and time consuming, so it’s very helpful when big brothers and their friends show you some of what’s out there and help fast track some of your learning.
That learning for me over those first two or three years included the delights of PFM, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Nice, “Crimso”, Camel, Yes and Jethro Tull. In fact, Baz and Bill bought me a Tull compilation album for my fourteenth birthday, and thus started a life-long interest in the band. It probably came back to haunt them because by the time I was 16 or 17 I was a full-on Tull bore, following the band on several dates on the same tour, having Tull penfriends and gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the band which I just had to share with everyone. I can still be a bit of a Tull bore now but I’m more socially adept these days.
So I was given a great grounding, but as brothers and older friends completed studies and moved away exposure to new and undiscovered prog become less and less, and my interest in other music started to grow. Flirtations with The Stranglers, Ramones, The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. took place, and they sat alongside my prog faves and jostled for attention.
In 1988 I left Barrow for the bright lights of Newcastle. I stayed there for the next eleven years and never again called Barrow my home. What Barrow lacked Newcastle had in spades – great music venues, record shops, pubs without gits, culture (!), a variety of wide minded people to meet, learn from and share things with. During my years in the Toon I bought an average of three albums a week, saw 80 – 100 gigs a year as a student, and expanded my musical horizons to places I never thought I’d go. I went on a proper musical journey, and it was bloody brilliant.
Prog was forgotten, the old records mostly allowed to gather dust (although Floyd and Tull still got a regular airing). I found punk and blues, I then found Funk, Blue Note, Latin and Brazilian as my tastes veered towards black American music and great rhythms. James Brown, The Meters, Horace Silver, Art Blakey; Howlin’ Wolf; Gil Scott-Heron... they collectively elbowed out the polite English prog rockers. As my record collection grew and grew it was regularly taking twenty minutes to dig out the next album I wanted to play, so I decided to sort them out alphabetically - in two categories: “black music” and “white music”. There’ are only two sorts of music, right?
Then one I day in the mid to late ‘90s I randomly pulled out Close to the Edge by Yes and put it on. I was propelled back ten years to the last time I’d played it, and it was like finding this thoroughly gripping music for the first time, but I knew every word! Perhaps this prog stuff was worthy of a re-look after all. Slowly prog reclaimed its place next to the rest of them, and that’s where it’s remained to this day – a treasured friend amongst other treasured friends.
So what to make of the musical journey? It’s been great, and it continues of course. The added joy of the musical journey compared with a ‘travelling’ journey, and I’ve done lots of those too, is that you don’t have to leave anything behind, you really can take it all with you. In fact, I’ve got a 160GB iPod so I can actually take the majority of it with me wherever I go.
Now let it not be said that I have any musical ability whatsoever, I don’t. I can’t even clap in time for more than about four seconds, but as my musical experience has grown, I’ve been able to better see the depth of all this music, to pick out the great bits, the subtle bits, the really clever bits, the bits where the simplicity is the key, and also the dross that should never be heard again. I’m proud to be a widely travelled musical snob, it’s taken a lot of time, effort and money to get there, and I won’t be giving it up that easily I can tell you.
Nature always looks for the simplest and most efficient ways to do things, and it’s wonderful to hear something stunning in its brilliance, yet simplicity. John Lennon was the master of it lyrically, and I’d throw The Buzzcocks, Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly in there too (musically). But sometimes... sometimes you just need something a bit more than that, where the sheer intricacy and complexity of the music, and the level of skill needed for a group of people to work together in perfect understanding to navigate their way through it is what impresses and challenges us. That’s where your Blue Note Jazz, your String Quartets and your Prog comes in!
So the journey has taken me full circle, to a degree, and I’m out of the prog closet. It’s a dear old friend again and not a dirty little secret, and now and again I even get to see some of it live - in recent years I’ve caught up with the likes of Tull, Yes, Focus and Roger Waters, as well as some non-prog too of course. And at this point in the musical journey, and with all that experience gathered, I can say there’s still only two sorts of music – but it’s good and bad, and it’s not always black and white.
1981 The Wall poster and ticket (photo: Mike Chavez)