Lean years for prog (originally posted 17/11/13)

By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 06:13PM

I left the Transfusion Centre at Tooting in 1986 and joined the Tissue Typing department at Charing Cross Hospital. Situated on the Fulham Palace Road, the hospital may have been very handy for the Hammersmith Odeon but the mid to late 80s were a very bad time for progressive rock acts.

Part of my leaving present from staff at the BTC was a trio of albums: Peter Gabriel’s So; Paul Simon’s Graceland; and The Best of the Police. The Police weren’t exactly my sort of band when they first appeared in 1978 but the background of two thirds of the group was interesting. Stewart Copeland first managed, then played drums for Curved Air (and was married to Sonja Kristina from 1982 - 1991); Andy Summers had for a short time been a member of Soft Machine and had taken part in a number of ventures involving prog luminaries including Robert Fripp, with whom he recorded I Advance Masked (1982) and Bewitched (1984). Graceland was controversial because of the belief that Paul Simon had broken the cultural boycott imposed against the apartheid regime in South Africa. This accusation came from organisations such as the ANC and Artists United Against Apartheid and though Simon was supported by the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee because the album showcased the talents of the black South African musicians while offering no support to the South African government, the Ghanaian Ambassador to the UN was also critical. However, Simon received praise from prominent exiled opponent of apartheid and South African musician Hugh Masekela, who subsequently toured alongside Simon. I recently digitised my copy of Graceland after not playing it for many years and found myself disappointed with it – there are many observers who believe that it’s an album that transcends musical trends but it seems to me very much an album of the time and I don’t believe that it was in any way helpful to the overthrowing of apartheid.

So is a very different matter. The deliberate move away from Genesis (both musically and in terms of lifestyle – “I walked right out of the machinery”) and the experimentation of solo albums I through to IV was toned down for a more commercial sound. He’d even ditched the album title ‘Peter Gabriel’! This was a kind of return to his roots as Gabriel’s early musical influences shine through, allowing him to sing like Otis Redding on Sledgehammer. The opener, Red Rain, retains much of the style that he’d developed throughout his solo career, as do That Voice Again, Mercy Street and We Do What We’re Told; it’s the Daniel Lanois production that gives it a distinctive feel that at times tends towards ambient (rather than just atmospheric) but the unprecedented success of the album is mainly down to marketing, with two ground-breaking videos (Big Time and Sledgehammer.) Gabriel has recently revisited the album and has been touring with So this year. I feel I should have made a bit more of an effort to go and see him because I last saw him, post IV, at Selhurst Park in 1983. I also missed him playing an open air concert in piazza San Marco, Venice in 2007. We were staying less than 50m away in the Albergo San Marco but our flight back to the UK was a matter of hours before the performance – apparently Signal to Noise and Washing of the Water were played at the sound check in the early afternoon with Gabriel acknowledging the fans who had begun to gather around the square after realising that he was present on stage.

That this period represented a dearth of live acts that I thought worth attending is borne out by a look at my gig diary. Between Fairport Convention at Wimbledon Theatre in January 1985 and the unexpected but very welcome reunion of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe (Wembley Area, October 1989) I attended only two gigs: John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in March 1987, and a resurrected Pink Floyd at Wembley Stadium in August 1988. This latter gig was spectacular. The band used a number of the old props including a crashing Stuka and an evil flying pig but it was the music that stood out - I was one of those who regarded A Momentary Lapse of Reason as a return to form; it was true prog and not just rock ‘n’ roll.

AWBH were Yes in all but name, despite the absence of Chris Squire. The hiatus following the poor offering that was Big Generator led to the effective creation of two Yeses. The Squire-White-Rabin-Kaye remained in Los Angeles and Jon Anderson reacquainted himself with Steve Howe (fresh from GTR), Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford in London; Bruford even brought along fellow ex-Crimson bassist Tony Levin – a very suitable replacement for Squire. Their eponymous debut took off from where Tormato had left some good ideas back in 1978. Future Times/Rejoice, the opening two tracks of Tormato that segue into each other are reflected in ABWH’s opening two tracks Themes/Fist of Fire. Tormato is unashamedly cosmic but also takes in ecological concerns – Don’t Kill the Whale. ABWH recounts the injustice done to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia during the testing of UK atomic weapons and also addresses the Order of the Universe. The production on Tormato was quite poor with the drum sound particularly unimpressive but Bill Bruford brought a very contemporary sound to AWBH with his Simmons SDX electronic drums in addition to his acoustic kit. Steve Howe has expressed dissatisfaction over the final ABWH album mix which he described as ‘guitar light’; a result of none of the musicians being present at the final mixing stage. However, the four ex-Yes men brought a musical chemistry to ABWH that reflected what 70s Yes was all about. It was as if 90125 and Big Generator had never happened and, at the time, seemed to mark out a new starting point for Yes music.

Sadly, vested interests intervened. The ABWH live shows were accurately billed as ‘An Evening of Yes Music plus’ but the original advertisements incurred the ire of the LA Yes and threats of law suits ensued over use of the name ‘Yes’ on promotional material. Both Jon Anderson and Steve Howe have said that there was never any intention of calling ABWH ‘Yes’ even though in the eyes of the vast majority of fans, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe were Yes. I went to see them at Wembley Arena on the 28th October 1989 and, apart from the Teakbois section of Jon Anderson’s opening medley, the show was brilliant. The rendition of Close to the Edge was really special – I’d not heard this performed live with the original drummer before and I think that the sound was better than the performance from Birmingham four days earlier, subsequently released on CD in 2010. I also own the live CD An Evening of Yes Music Plus, recorded at the penultimate show of the US leg of the tour on 9th September 1989 where the sound is better than the Birmingham concert but still not as good as that I remember at the Wembley performance. It seemed like the lean years for prog were coming to an end...

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

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