It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, and I thought it would be worthwhile to check through releases during the golden era of prog for any passing reference to the horrors of warfare – I couldn’t think of a UK band who had written an entire concept album on the subject. I’d witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham in 2014 and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict and had resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of the Iraq war.
Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, which often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because inequality ingrained in US domestic policy wasn’t really addressed until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, along with the prevailing ‘Containment’ foreign policy from the 50s to the late 80s, employed to restrict the influence of communism. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.
The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; the track War and Peace appears on their first album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this relates more to the sonic imagery than as a reference to Tolstoy or as comment on war, as it had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.
When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album (1970) was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that I’m pretty sure can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation may have been retro-fitted; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam War had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with a policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.
Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Jon Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.
Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano bands with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently fully appreciated. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album (1972) contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, gave them free rein to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album (1973) features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’.
Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.
Maybe progressive rock thought it had outgrown the anti-war protest movement and didn’t need to write 40 minutes of music about the futility of armed conflict. Not Italian prog bands...