I’ve never heard Dark Side of the Moon – adventures of a Prog neophyte

Pink Floyd (Credit:Artists Facebook page)

Pink Floyd

Having never heard any prog in his life, Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield took a step into uncharted waters determined that 2018 would be the year for ELP, Genesis, King Crimson and the rest. 

For me, prog is completely unknown territory.

I know the names of some of the artists but have never listened to a full album in the genre, indeed cannot recall hearing any tracks at all by most of the well-known groups. Thus as the heavy winterlude between Christmas and New Year came to an end I devised a resolution for 2018: I would listen to 52 prog albums, one a week.

My musical history could easily have been very different.

I was a teenager in the 70s, thrilling to Bolan and Bowie on Thursday night TOTP, and the logical development once I could afford long-playing records should have been to progress to progressive, stick the headphones on and sail out onto topographic oceans.

At school, greatcoated sixth-formers were carrying around albums with weird science-fantasy covers, badges of sophistication hinting at a mysterious world of arcane knowledge and advanced musical taste. Strange electronic sounds emerged from their inaccessible Common Room.

Soon, I presumed, adolescence would end and I would be elevated to their number, able to interpret arcane lyrics printed on gatefold sleeves and be transported into higher realms by multi layered Moog-driven epics…

But then: punk.

Three-chord anarchy was where the action was, and all that was previous was swept away. The excitement of getting the bus into town to see X-Ray Spex and The Damned for £1.50 was more alluring than expensive treks to see supergroups configured from a musical aristocracy.

A string of 45s by completely new bands took all our pocket money, and evenings were spent  listening to mad and surprising Peel sessions on the radio. This spiky stuff effortlessly eclipsed all pre-76 origin material.

Punk seemed vital and immediate, compared to the immemorial hierarchy of the virtuoso progressives. It was easy to buy into a new orthodoxy in which ‘progressive music is pompous and irrelevant’ was an implicit rule.

So that’s why, fast forwarding 40+ years, I still have never heard Dark Side of the Moon for instance, despite it being one of the best-selling records of all time. The 1977 fork in the road has placed me in a timeline where prog doesn’t exist, a sort of Man in the High Castle scenario: hypothetically, I know there is a universe where men in capes play multiple keyboards, guitars have more than one neck and singers mime being lawnmowers, but I don’t know how to get there and anyway it looks rather scary.

But what if I’ve been missing out? What if, as my mate Alan says, prog is a genre that ‘celebrates musicianship, complexity and themes beyond boy girl love songs…with a sense of joy, occasionally mischief’. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

Hence my 2018 plan.

I’ve programmed my brain to like progressive music during the 12 months of 2018. Not sure what will happen when the magick wears off at the end of the year – maybe I’ll retain a taste for the genre, or maybe at 12.01 next Jan 1st I’ll don ceremonial bondage trousers, put on The Ramones and pogo widdershins around the stereogram as a banishing ritual, never to speak of this again.

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But until then, I’ve set my intention to experience a baseline liking for all things progressive for 52 albums at least, whatever they pour into my punk-blunted ears. The idea is to listen to an album a week, in roughly chronological order, with no preconceptions whatsoever, as if they are new releases.

The first thing I’ve learned is that there is no agreed definition as to what constitutes prog. It seems almost any artist or recording can be argued as being prog or not. Also, prog may or may not be short for progressive, so progressive music that isn’t prog might be a thing (or not). Maybe prog is a musical mirage, and the closer one gets the more elusive it is…

Despite these difficulties, friends have made lots of genuinely helpful recommendations (together with a certain amount of sympathetic headshaking, as if I’ve embarked on a terrifying ordeal) – so I already have too many potential albums to fill a year.

To get a workable set of recordings to listen to I’ve decided to adopt The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock as the project’s Bible – if it’s in there, it’s fair game, with no opinions from me about why or whether something is ‘prog’.

Other rules: groups rather than solo artists, studio albums only, no compilations. Multiple albums by one group may be consumed in a week according to whim.

In the first awakening weeks of the year I focused on albums that get cited as anticipating or influencing prog in some way. A month of foreplay, essentially.

This in itself has been a fascinating listening journey. Psychedelic rock transforming into jazz fusion or throwing up perfect moments of joyous pop. Redolence of things I never experienced: happenings and be-ins, hippy bohemianism. Assertive use of stereo. Odd resonances with much more recent music I have heard, as if I’m living backwards in time.

Already in the foothills of the prog mountains I had yet to climb, there were tantalising hints of how things might be going to develop: side-long suites of songs (eg Procul Harum’s In Held ‘Twas in I and Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother Suite); ambitiously-themed cerebral lyrics (e.g. The Soft Machine’s Why Are we Sleeping? inspired by the mystical philosophy of G.I Gurdjieff); space rock (such as Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun) and classical borrowings (The Nice’s Rondo pounding out some J S Bach.)

After a month of scene-setting I felt ready for the real thing and got a copy of In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. Although trying not to read too much of the lore in advance of listening to the music, I had picked up that this album is considered by many to be the start of it all. By turns terrifying, forbidding and elegaic, I can see why Pete Townsend called the album ‘an uncanny masterpiece’.

The music brings in jazz, classical and experimental sounds without seeming like a montage; rather it is a confident coherent whole. The lyrics seem to come from some sort of science-fantasy wisdom entity. The Mellotron-infused sound left me feeling emotionally moved and unaccountably shaken up…. Soft Machine had turned on ‘lights in my brain’ but this was like getting a whole new brain installed.

Feeling match fit for more of the real thing, the following week involved listening to Van der Graaf Generator’s early albums starting with The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other. These had always intrigued me – punks were cautiously allowed to like them based on approval from the likes of John Lydon and Mark E. Smith – and I was jealous of my wife seeing them live as part of the legendary ‘Six Bob Tour’ that also featured Lindisfarne and Genesis in a package offering ‘sound value for straight 6/-d [30p] anywhere in the house’. Now I was actually listening to them, walking to work though gloomy February dawns – intense vocals over saxophones, organ, drums – an angular, beautiful, dramatic art-rock racket.

Listening across a gulf of decades to Peter Hammill, a man in his early twenties, lamenting the place ‘where all days will someday end…’ is weird, like being in some kind of time loop. I listen on further, bingeing their first half-dozen albums, sometimes intrigued, occasionally baffled, too much too quickly, enjoying without understanding (and feeling that the music demands understanding that I cannot yet achieve.) Good though.

Then next couple of weeks were less exciting. Dutch band Ekseption’s Beggar Julia’s Time Trip was a pleasant excursion through rocked-up classical pieces stitched together with narrative and spacey sound effects.

Atomic Rooster’s first album was a muscular Doors-y hard rock album which for me didn’t live up to the promise of surreal transgressions made by the cover art, which featured a rooster with human breasts hovering above a chair in a transparent cube. (Apparently the Australian version had the breasts painted over with feathers.)

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Realising that I had now heard from Emerson (playing keyboards in The Nice), Lake (bass and vocals with King Crimson) and Palmer (drums for Atomic Rooster) the logical next step was to give Emerson Lake and Palmer’s self-titled first album a spin.

It’s a driving beast, a bravura spectacle; even the more tender reflective tracks have a powerful, assertive attack. However, now more than ever I was facing some of my greatest fears from this project: long solos; virtuoso show-off playing; noodling; lengthy musical meanderings. My worry was that encountering such things would repel me, that I’d be unable to experience anything other pomposity and pretension and the rest of the year’s prog-listening would become a living hell.

And yes, there is showing off and grandiose theatrics here (and on pretty much all the albums so far.) Furthermore it isn’t some kind of postmodern ironic version of bombast and in-your-face display of skill, it’s the real deal.

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However, I’ve come to realise how this works. It isn’t a spectator sport. Just like sex, drinking or meditation, there’s no point just watching; it’s only fun – it only works – if you participate. As a listener this means going along with the show, letting the long passages transport you for the duration, being in this world on its own terms.

So after two months I feel I’m ready to go in deeper. I have become attuned. Now I can listen to 20-minute-long tracks without being bored.

Man-gods of musicianship can show off at me without it being irritating. Changing time-signatures do not deter me.

My third eye – my PROG EYE – has partially opened and I can see the way ahead – a pathway through a fantasy landscape populated with strange creatures and flying robots, as wide and beguiling as the gatefold sleeve on a triple album – the coming months’ journey through Genesis, through Marillion, via Änglagård, all the way to Gandalf’s Fist