Heavy Lifting: Adventures in the Metal Underbelly
1983 was a good time for heavy metal, and a good time to roadcrew in the San Francisco metal scene. Along with Britain's metallic rebirth of the early 80s, the Bay Area was home base for the first serious stirrings of 'progressive' metal in Kurdt Vanderhoof's Metal Church, its cousin Anvil Chorus, Metallica, and Exodus. It had also become a favorite stopover for important dignitaries such as Angel Witch founder Kevin Heybourne and neoclassical shredder Yngwie Malmsteen. S.F. was the place to be if you were an American headbanger, particularly one with an ear for complex music. So when Anvil Chorus guitarist, fixer and all around cool guy Doug Piercy asked one day if I wanted to help out with a gig that night and as he put it, "get backstage and party with the band afterward", an ice storm couldn't have stopped me from accepting. As a fledgling 16 year-old guitarist myself, it seemed like a great back door into the local scene. Besides, how could anything go wrong?
The band's rehearsal space was a dungeon located underneath the street in the city's Tenderloin district, a seedier part of town I do not know. Urine puddled on sidewalks like autumn rain, vomit flowed in the gutters with fashion model-like frequency, small drunk men in pea coats got their asses kicked by large drunk men in pea coats, and every undesirable hooker in Northern California seemed to regular the sticky pavement. The 'studio' was down two flights of stairs and at the end of a long, poorly-lighted hallway that smelled of all number of bodily fluids, smoke, and crushed dreams. The graffiti covering the hallway was impressive but nothing like the cornucopia of twisted and disgusting hand-drawn images gracing the rehearsal room itself. Dripping sex organs and unnatural acts that would make National Lampoon blush; Ugly people doing uglier things; Flatulence canonized like a religion; Rival bands being defecated on by willing groupies; Pathetic losers getting their well-deserved comeuppance; Piles of reeking mystery substances surrounded by eager flies; And furiously scribbled song lyrics the singer hadn't had time to write down on paper. It was a sort of museum of rock 'n roll vulgarity and was the coolest room on the floor where Anvil Chorus shared space with other local groups like Bleu Food and Vicious Rumors. The floor was covered with equipment boxes of all sizes, bundles of thick orange and black cables stacked on top of each other, instrument racks, cases, and an indecipherable maze of power cords duct-taped down and suffering. Effects, disassembled speakers, drills, bits, solder & irons, and old set lists – a prized collectible for fans – preserved for posterity. Taking home a set list that’d been used at a show, taped down onstage for the players to refer to and filled with their best material, was a small but comforting trophy of that evening’s performance and a nice keepsake.
Getting up & down the two flights while carrying amplifiers and keyboards with mass close to that of Pluto was a challenge even for several teenagers. But the visions of greatness, of heavy metal dreams and the chance to truly be a part of things, pushed us on. We'd carefully load everything into one of three vans, squeeze into whatever small spaces were left in back and drive to the club that had booked the band, unload it all to the backstage only to move it onto the stage before or between other bands' sets, remove it all after our guys had played to whatever alleyway or side street was available, and reload everything into the vans before finally arriving back at the studio and hauling it down two floors. It was hard work and as I and the other wide-eyed roadies began doing these gigs regularly, the time, opportunity and energy to actually enjoy this unique situation seemed to be shrinking. "Getting backstage and partying with the band" wasn't panning out as hoped, and it was all us roadsters could do to make it home by 2 often without a ride, tired, hungry, stinking of sweat and smoke and rock music. But we loved it.
Recently the featured album at a well known Prog website was synthpop artist Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle. Unusual but not so surprising as the site in question has a generally liberal membership and a big tent that includes musicians who were in some way innovative if not terribly progressive. Indeed Numan's bizarre, mechanical, startlingly new sound was mesmerizing and attracted those who'd otherwise be listening to Bowie or The Police. This is not to suggest Gary Numan was a 'Pop artist' in the traditional sense and though he was quite en vogue for a time, would not fit into the same genre as true Pop songwriters like Elton John or Paul McCartney. But he did, at least on the cusp of the 1970's/80's, have popular appeal to the extent that he wrote carefully recorded, high-energy, often catchy songs that were generally under four minutes. His stuff was both different and digestible, edgy but economic. He even influenced (and was influenced by) some of the Art Rockers in Europe and Britain, his minimal approach to composition and lush timbre on synthesizer proved to have wide impact. The Pleasure Principle may even come to mind when one thinks of the synthpop and 'New Wave' of just a year or so after the LP's release in 1979, helping such groups as Human League and Depeche Mode to find bigger audiences.
So; is popular music - specifically the style recognized as "Pop" with its lean simplicity, low common denominators and quick fix intentions - capable of being considered serious music? More importantly, is it just as difficult and require just as much depth of skill and feeling to write, and perhaps appreciate, a good ditty as it does a 10-minute opus? To my shock and horror, I began to suspect the answer might be yes. Yes it does.
There’s plenty of evidence, after all: Dylan, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, the list is a long one. Others as well who made their mark a bit later, like Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Tori Amos. Even Peter Gabriel, long exiled from Prog and with at least one foot firmly in the charts. A chameleon who transcends musical genre, able to somehow bring the appealing and the intellectual together without anyone noticing, and selling millions of albums while he's at it.
This is of course utter blasphemy to most correct-thinking musicians, at least on my tech-ier end of the block with our 'chops' and 'killer changes' and 'screaming attacks'. The notion that Neil Young might actually be a highly skilled player with more musical knowledge than anyone realizes is, well, not taken seriously. In fact it may not even be true. But it is possible, isn't it? Don't tell me you haven't discovered stranger, more unexpected things. It doesn’t have to be Neil, either. Let's use someone I happen to know was trained in classical piano and singing at an early age; Tori Amos. Amos, a gifted and winsome pianist/composer whose difficult past led to some of the most engaging and beautifully troubling songs in modern times, is essentially a pop artist in that her songs are relatively brief, have seen some mainstream recognition and success, and are as much based on emotion and the honest conveyance of those emotions as they are on form or technique. The emphasis is on the song, and that requires a direct rendering rather than a gradual development of structure and theme. The simplicity is important, part of the music itself, allowing a feeling or story to exist as an individual entity. As Bob Dylan put it: "A song is anything that can walk by itself." I don’t know if anyone could’ve said it better.
This ability (or perhaps desire) to present a single musical/lyrical statement unadorned by too many extra elements; to strip away material rather than add more; to crystallize something basic into something special and memorable by emphasizing just the right aspects in just the right way, is what seems to separate the songsmiths, the great ones, from other recording artists. The Beatles did this better than anyone and is evident throughout their catalog. The Beach Boys too, The Stones, even Queen and Ozzy Osbourne show this particular talent for songsmithing. Unexpectedly, Pink Floyd were able to achieve this in a more stylized and theatric way on their smash Dark Side of the Moon and later with the astonishingly popular The Wall. In fact Floyd were one of the few progressive-psychedelic bands of the 1970's to really nail a successful blend of popular tastes with arty rock.
I suppose ultimately the value of an artist's work, particularly music, must be measured on its own terms -- by the medium in which it resides, the genre to which it alleges, as opposed to what we as listeners desire. Put another way, it may not matter whether you like Michael Bublé or Metallica -- the question is, do they do what they're supposed to? From what I’ve seen, the answer is yes in both cases.
It did, y'know, for a brief and shining moment. When released in the U.S. in early 1971, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's first record peaked at number 18 on the Billboard charts. Yes's Close to the Edge (1972) reached #3. Jethro Tull's monster child Thick as a Brick -- one continuous cut that spanned both sides of an LP, something almost unheard of even then –- made it to #1 during 1972. As did A Passion Play in '73. That's right, numero uno for an album many consider to be the most overblown and pretentious piece of music ever put to record. Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, too, in '75.
It barely seems possible. Was this the same planet we currently reside on? A place where today such albums would be considered by the general public more as theater than modern rock music, seen as a novelty, or worse, a gimmick. A selfish overindulgence by groups who thought rock had become high art, and with the temerity to actually sell it to people. What was occurring in the post-psychedelic landscape of the early 1970s, and what had happened to individual perception that caused such ambitious breakthroughs to become marketable?
In many ways, it isn't terribly surprising when one considers the sheer quality of the music; Thick as a Brick with its catchy melodies, storybook lyrics, clever cover, and very digestible mix of acoustic folk with hard rock and classical. A winner before it was it was ever heard. The newness and palatable art-pop on ELP's first, sophistry and challenging structures in Close to the Edge, and the elegance and crystal waters of Wish You Were Here. All pinnacles of where rock had been and how far it had come, and each one further inspired and improved upon. A true progression of both form and of quality. As well, other smaller prog artists were able to follow on the coattails of these successes, eking out a living if only in their own countries. That's not to say The Stones, McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Chicago and Elton John weren't the undisputed kings of sales, but the British Invasion hadn't ceased with The Beatles' break-up. No, it had expanded, morphed seemingly overnight into something altogether new and extraordinary that took not only from rock's past, but from the best the western world's entire musical history had to offer. The rules had exploded, the sky was limitless and people seemed ready for an era both marvelous and maddening in its creative spirit. It was clear: Progressive Rock was a movement, and by the time it was over would produce some of the most startling, meticulous and difficult popular music the world has even known. And all during the course of about ten years.
And people were buying it, listening to it. A few even seemed to be enjoying this masturbatory nonsense, apparently lauded only by beard-stroking academics with no girlfriends and a little too much time on their hands. Even more unexpected was that this new 'art rock' was an extension of what had come just before, a much further push into territory The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Moody Blues, Doors, The Who and others had only hinted at. It was unusual because most new musical forms are a reaction against their siblings of the old guard, a turning away of the past fueled by a desperate need to be expressively different. But a few mavericks in Britain, Europe and North America, some of whom had formal musical backgrounds and larger visions of what was possible within a rock format, decided to raise those stakes, not change them. It was a time when the bigger the concept, higher the ambition and finer the skills - the more a musician was willing do and farther able to go - the more people seemed interested. The audience had grown-up and instead of rejecting its history, wanted more. The timing was right and the artists were ready-- a fleeting convergence when everything that had been accomplished in the previous decade, the inventive and free spirit of those times, had set the stage for something far greater.
The record-buying public weren't the only ones charmed. Commercial music, that pool of anonymously recorded and publicly owned stuff you hear slapped on a cheap TV show, pasted to endless radio spots or piped-in at the local mall had suddenly adopted a space age & synthesizer motif, sounding remarkably like a watered down ELP. Pretty soon everything from the local news to the current season of In Search Of ... sported music undeniably influenced not by Pop, Rock 'n Roll, Folk or the other popular genres, but by what the Prog musicians had been offering for years.
Then things changed. Some say Disco killed Prog with its polyester, new haircuts, and hijacking of symphonic arrangements. Others think it was Punk, its 'rebellion' against the rock establishment and bloated acts that system supported. In fact the truth isn't so simple and frankly neither Disco nor Punk had much hand in progressive rock's recession. Time moves on, generations grow out of their past and new replaces old. And though music journalism's passionate love affair with Punk rock and tenuous relationship with Prog probably hastened its demise, the press wasn't the culprit. All three musical styles developed around the same period, paralleling one another much of the time. Each provided a unique voice in modern music and an alternative to the massive Pop market, and each eventually succumbed to its own weight.
Thankfully progressive rock survived. Just barely. A handful of bands scattered around the world didn't give-in to the pressure and kept making rock for the thinking person, playing to an oblivious world caught up in the Reagan era. A few veterans like Yes and Pink Floyd re-emerged in the 80s and offered some quality music to a thankful if tiny audience. Still others such as Rush just kept going, some feel at the price of their artistry, making many more albums and even getting a few radio hits along the way. Luckily in our time, the internet has saved Prog from going under and offers not only an easy way to find the music of these new and old bands, but a worldwide community filled with likeminded lovers of the rock progressive. So enjoy, and Prog on!
If you were in the Bay Area in the 1970's and 80's, The Grateful Dead were more than just a rock band. In fact, one didn't have to be a fan to get pleasure from the rich, earnest music and the loyal scene that followed the group to the ends of the earth. This was the true flower culture, the real thing that would survive the death of the movement, the Reagan era, and a change in musical tastes Nostradamus couldn't have foreseen. A change that barely resembled the warm, almost spiritual blues, folk and acid rock of the era from which The Dead had sprung.
To us, it was all quite normal. Fun and colorful to be sure, but somehow the brilliantly dyed and swirled t-shirts, aging VW bugs and vans, huddled pairs of backpacked youth, air tinctured with cannabis and distant sounds of conga drums between knees was a typical day during the cusp years of the late 70s/early 80s. San Francisco was still a free-spirited rock and roll town, and The Dead were a part of that. More, they were the musical personification of the ideal, and their cool Uncle Sam meets Dennis Hopper image would eventually become irresistible even to non-fans -- the headbangers, punks, folkies and popsters, everyone secretly liked The Dead, or at least were curious. After all, it was fun. And on a good night if each member was playing well, they were the finest live rock act in the world.
And this is coming from someone with a hard rock background. I was no Deadhead. And the first two times I saw them I was less than impressed. Let's face it; here was a group of aging, pickled men doing a dull blend of bluegrass, rock, country and folk with freeform acid jams sewn throughout. Further, it was a "street party" form of psych rock, much different and far more spontaneous and trance-induced than their peers in the S.F. scene such as Jefferson Airplane or Santana. Besides, I was much more interested in the dynamic precision of Rush or spine-tingling thrills of Jimi Hendrix than I was this din of hippie dance music.
Then quite unexpectedly, during a particularly good Christmas performance, I got why they are so loved. And it has little to do with amazing solos, innovative arrangements or novelties. What The Dead did better than anyone else was play together. After all, they had been The Warlocks back in 1965 (from the remnants of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions in Palo Alto) and then The Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia noticed the term in a dictionary. And of all the San Francisco bands, they were the most accomplished. "Their music", wrote Lenny Kaye, "touches on ground that most other groups don't even know exists". Progressive Rock? Let me think ... yeah, I'd say so. And an evening with The Dead was one of the most progressive experiences a music lover could have.
"Dead"icated to the memory of Jerry Garcia.
Day of the Armadillo
Back in 1975 when I was about nine years-old, a friend and I happened upon his dad's copy of ELP's Tarkus. For a Star Trek / Sinbad / Godzilla-loving kid, the Tarkus cover - that gorgeous, colorful depiction of a sci-fi Armadillo battle tank with its clockwork-orange mechanics - was irresistible. The father, delighted by two little kids who showed interest in this modern rock music, grinned with the anticipation of a peddler who could smell a sale and gleefully played us the first cut. The music, it turned out, was far too sophisticated for me and my buddy (even for some adults!) -- we just liked the artwork and all it evoked. But it got me curious about this music and a rock band that would want a space-age Armadillo on its cover. Twenty-five years later it would be one of my favorite records but on that day, it was just a tiny seed that would slowly grow into something much more.
As an adult, my musical interests had extended to about as far as Pink Floyd or John McLaughlin for progressive stuff. Oh I liked the others, too. King Crimson's quirky masterpiece Discipline had impressed me no end, and Yes' albums kicked some serious ass. I had also developed a taste for fusioneer Al Di Meola and the hot jazz-rock of Colosseum II. But somehow these acts seemed only like interesting afterthoughts to the big rock 'n roll picture, a second tier of modern music not to be confused with the greatness of rock dreadnoughts Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
Luckily by my mid-30s, my sage old friend Dan Halas, a more musically open-minded individual I do not know, not only got me listening to classical music seriously (to the point where I can ID many composers -- no small feat in classical), he was single-handedly responsible for my reinvigorated interest in progressive music, prog rock in particular. No, he is not a big progster. He likes his Genesis, Yes and Tull but not to the exclusion of all the other recording artists he samples. He also happened to have edited (film and sound) a very important and long-lost movie called Fillmore about the final concert at the Fillmore East.
One day in Dan's living room looking for a record to play, I noticed Tarkus. I had listened to the album several times since my initial childhood fascination with the cover but the music hadn't done much for me. I had no way of knowing my musical life was about to change -- not slowly but instantly, like an unexpected downpour. From the moment I put the dusty old vinyl on his ancient turntable and heard that first barrage of keys with its angled, semi-classical attack, I was hooked. I knew this was the stuff I had been waiting for, that I'd been missing all this time. Suddenly this absurd, brazen, over-indulgent "Tarkus" record with its tempo-changing, rule-breaking pace was just about the greatest thing I'd heard. Finally ... finally the cover and the music came together and I was able to appreciate all of it as the singular vision the band had intended, ostentatious as it may have been. One doesn't have a lot of breakthrough moments like this and I knew something had begun. I had to investigate further; Genesis, U.K., Bruford, Camel. You name it, I wanted to hear it. Newer acts too, and weird stuff; Univers Zero, Philharmonie, Cartoon, Tortoise, Planet X, each better than the last and bursting with just the sort of musical sensibility I was craving.
Nothing was the same after that. I stopped listening to classic rock almost entirely and to pop music altogether. I just couldn't do it anymore. Arrogant? Yes, but not by intent. It's just that after a few years of prog, regular music sounds bland. It's like having to eat TV dinners after coming back from a trip to Hong Kong ... can you blame me?
My dear friend Cliff Lundberg died on August 27, 2006. He was only sixty-six but had ALS ("Lou Gehrig's Disease") which attacks the nerve impulses that govern muscle control and breathing, though few really knew and so his death was quite a shock. One has fewer good friends as the years pass and the sudden loss of one leaves a terrible deficit I don't wish on anybody. In certain ways, the death of a compadre, especially one you see or talk to every few days, may be more deeply felt than that of a family member whom you don't interact with as often.
Though not a serious musician, Cliff loved music and played acoustic guitar. He had been roommates with Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s, the definitive San Francisco trips band that was, along with The Moody Blues and others, part of the new symphonic-psych sound at the time (different from the more R&B based acid rock of The Doors or Cream). He was there, and had a fondness for what he described as "the real stuff, the original and pure expression of a musical form at (and just after) its birth". Rock 'n roll, jazz, blues, folk, 20th Century pop, psychedelic, bluegrass -- whatever it was, he liked the genuine article, the young and true version by the cats that started it all, man. In particular, the early bluesmen; Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Willie Dixon. What I appreciated was Cliff's attitude. That firm allegiance to the authentic, both because he liked it best and because it represented an important musical genesis.
"What's progressive rock?" he inquired one evening, trying to get an intellectual handle on this thing I was so into.
"Well," I began carefully, "it's rock music that continues to develop, with an emphasis on complexity, modern and traditional instrumentation, and the use of classical and jazz themes. Its golden age was in the 1970s." There was a cavernous silence.
"And some of the bands are...?" he pressed.
"Umm," I muttered. Which prog rock artists would he know? Jethro Tull? Yes? ELP? No, I would go with King Crimson. Well-known but without the reputation of pomp many of the other acts have, Crimson was formed by two of the biggest names in the scene, Robert Fripp and Greg Lake and is still quite active today. "King Crimson," I answered with a tentative upswing in my voice, not knowing if he would recall the band's music.
Without much thought he said, "I claim King Crimson for the 60's."
Now, there was a debate worth having. Factually, he was correct. In the Court of the Crimson King-An Observation by King Crimson was released in 1969 and is considered by many to be a classic psychedelic rock album with its orchestrina atmosphere and arty cover. In addition, the group had emerged from Giles, Giles & Fripp, a very kitschie English band that took its cues from The Beatles and early Pink Floyd, sharing more with the British Invasion than the space-age sound of the following decade. You couldn't get more 60s than those boys, and early Crimson revealed the roots of that era. Further (and unknown to Cliff), prog rock had in fact been born in 1968 (a year after the sonic breakthroughs on Sgt. Pepper's) with Keith Emerson's The Nice, all leading to Crimson's debut album which was perhaps the first truly Progressive Rock record with all components in place.
Cliff was right; King Crimson was a child of his beloved 60's and a splendid early example of a new form of music, one never to be quite as intriguing or unique after that. A quintessential and un-improvable statement that deteriorated from that point on. He had already won the argument without even knowing it. I was left with little to defend my ideas that progressive rock was a separate, high-tech creature of the synthesizer age not to be confused with the paisley and patchouli sounds of the flower years. Prog rock - the first, real incarnation - was, to my shock, rightly claimed for the hippie era and I couldn't say another word about it. As with some deft Sun-Tzu maneuver from The Art of War, I had been slain before I'd even struck a first blow.
But that was Cliff -- a meticulous thinker and formidable arguer who knew almost everything but wanted to hear your case, and admired you for it, too. He was brilliant without being arrogant — a rare and generous quality that his friends and family will sorely miss. See ya, buddy.
The roadie; a coveted position for a practicing young musician with visions of rock 'n roll greatness -- a connection to a real band, one you admired and wanted to be around. Being the movers, assistants, mechanics, errand boys and general advocates for one of these bands was not only fun, it provided free admission to the shows, full backstage access and practical experience in the topsy-turvy world of rock. I mean, who could resist working the endless late night shows, the loading and unloading of staggeringly heavy equipment at 2 am in the worst parts of town, meals at Denny's, and the low-rent studio funk of mildew, sweat, cigarettes, beer, ozone, urine, cleaning fluid and vomit? What more could a self-respecting sixteen year-old metalhead ask for? Plus, it was a chance to be a part of all this at a time (early 80s) when the San Francisco music scene was still happening, especially for metal, and a new form dubbed 'progressive metal' was just emerging with a small number of local bands that were as influenced by Saga, Rush and Yes as they were by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the Scorps.
My band, the one I roadied for, was Anvil Chorus. The name itself suggested something a little more than the typical hard rock band; something intelligent and complex, even sophisticated -- and they were. Each of the five members, drums, bass/keys, singer, and the twin lead guitar attack of Thaen Rasmussen and Doug Piercy loved heavy music but insisted on creating a more intricate version of it. Not grand like Rush, commercial like Saga or as heavy as Maiden, Anvil Chorus made a thinking man's metal. There was such a thing -- I witnessed it and it wasn't thought of as a style, just good music that put some structure and challenge into a normally repetitive form. The result was very little like what is labeled today as prog-metal, i.e. Dream Theater, Tool, etc. More digestible and less theatrical than those acts, Anvil Chorus impressed with tasty, chiming guitar harmonies, keyboard pyrotechnics and catchy melodies, and we were proud to be the road crew for such a cool group.
Everyone liked an Anvil Chorus show, especially at an intimate little club like the Old Waldorf (closed in the mid-80s). The true headbangers, the Old Ones who'd been listening to Sabbath and Hawkwind before your father was walking, liked the heavy chunks of rhythm the band churned out. The newer metalheads, people under nineteen or so, liked the updated version of intelligent, well-versed metal they offered. Younger and older, guys and gals, stoners and speed freaks, it was a time for all of us to get together on something good, and local talent as well -- these were our guys. Some would, when the band played a favorite tune, begin bowing repeatedly at the foot and sides of the small stage. After all, Anvil Chorus had picked up the torch from the original Metal Church, a very important early prog-metal band as well as from groups Vienna, Vyking, and Cobra. It was the best the Bay Area hard rock milieu had to offer.
Eventually, the band recorded a mediocre single with two of their worst songs and a cheesy production. They continued on for a few more years but the excitement seemed to be fading and the opportunity to capitalize on the growing metal boom was slipping. Besides, their music somehow wasn't capturing people on a large scale. The World was not shown the band's best hand and no one else seemed to hear the same sounds we fans had. They eventually broke up but would play the occasional reunion show, and I still run into an old member now and then.
Would I do it all again? Sure, what else are you going to do on a Saturday night hopped up on teenage energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Frankly, it probably kept me out of trouble though I'm sure my mom would have liked me to avoid such involvements. She always wanted me to call her by midnight and I'd have to try to explain how difficult that is when your breaking down a stage rig and loading ten-thousand dollars worth of equipment into three vans. But she let me do it because she knew it was important to me. Thanks, Mom.
Progressive Rock Moments
When I was fifteen and starting to do music seriously, a friend and guitar mentor played me U.K.'s Danger Money LP. As he held the record cover he looked at me and said with a kind of quiet giddiness, "they're progressive ..." In the early 80s, 'progressive' was still a musician's word, a term of both style and of endearment not yet widely utilized by the music press as a phrase of convenience meant to signify a certain sound. And to him it meant something special, a respite from the pop pervasions of the time and from his own Ozzy Osbourne power-rock background. At the very mention of a prog-rock act his eyes would widen and the air around him would seem to calm. A secret was about to be passed -- something important. After all, there were still so few of these artists, especially those that emphasized an appreciation of a complex but heavy rock sound instead of the affected pomp of ELP or pastoral strangeness of Yes. He knew -- he knew that U.K. was something unusual in our horrid Wham/Madonna/Poison world and cradled the album like he would an heirloom, only to be brought out and shown to certain people, people that might appreciate what these players were doing.
He also loved Rush and got me listening to Permanent Waves which was, as he put it, "more sophisticated than Hemispheres." Was that possible?, my young mind thought. But his real ace in the hole, the album that by then everyone had forgotten, was Colosseum II's Electric Savage. Here was a music I had not known existed. It seemed to have all the best elements; great musicianship, the flavors of jazz and classical, and the heat of modern rock. Jon Hiseman led his band tenaciously and spewed fire on the traps like no other. John Mole thundered on his Fender bass, Don Airey Mooged something fierce and Gary Moore turned in a performance that he would never again equal. It was a thrilling record to listen to, it still is. Now granted, this memory is based largely on my age at the time, the era, and my young musician's impressionability. But that doesn't take away from the fact that these albums were great, are great. The quality holds up even if the sounds are dated. To some they represent a time of arrogance and indulgence but in reality, most knew better and though they might go see a Metallica or Police show, they privately admired the really serious musicians who'd been serving a mind-boggling repast for years.
I mean, what an amazing time. In the 1970's it was not uncommon to see Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, Mahavishnu or King Crimson on the charts - the Billboard music charts – sometimes at the same time, hanging in the top twenty for weeks, inexplicably selling albums to an otherwise Elton John, David Bowie and Black Sabbath loving population. It's not that there wasn't pop music, there was plenty. But somehow the progressive stuff was holding its own, having found some ethereal audience willing to quietly seek out these treasures. I know people who were excited about Bill Bruford's first solo album in 1977, who looked forward to it and gladly paid good money for it over anything else at that time.
And they weren't the only ones. Eddie Van Halen always said his main guitar influence was Eric Clapton. Well, maybe it was when he was sixteen but by the time Van Halen were a struggling L.A. band, Eddie had clearly been listening to Steve Hackett on the Genesis albums and to Allan Holdsworth with Jean-Luc Ponty or Bruford. C'mon, Eddie, fess up; it was prog that influenced your playing style the most, not Clapton or Hendrix. Or how about Pink Floyd; sure The Wall is a great record but have you listened to Selling England By the Pound lately? You can't tell me Roger Waters wasn't deeply influenced by the sounds and expressions of a young Peter Gabriel snorting and waffling his way through what was one of the first truly theatrical rock concept albums. The Beatles and The Who may have started it but Genesis finished it, and like no music has ever been finished. And all by 1973.
The fact was, the combined musical and conceptual achievements made by a handful of British and North American musicians between about 1969 and 1979 was so spectacular, so staggering in its breadth, brilliance and facility that had the Beatles still been together, they'd have been overshadowed by these astounding breakthroughs. It had become quite clear: these were the Beatles if they had been great instrumentalists and not hooked on a two minute song format. It was a logical continuation of what had come and people knew it but by 1980, the deep musical adventure was over and the cold water of the Reagan era was splashed in our collective face. Some stragglers like Cartoon and Rush tried to hold on for a few years but it was all over, and it is sad that kind of time won't come again.
But there is some light for those who look for it and while 'neo-prog' has proven disappointing, there is a lot of wonderful new progressive music out there and thanks to the internet and sites like the GEPR, you can find it.
David Marshall (photo by Cliff Lundberg)
David Marshall lives in San Francisco, CA and is a frequent contributor to both the GEPR and Prog Archives. He has been teaching martial arts to adults and children since 1993.