Prog rock epiphany

Over at Slate, Dave Weigel has a series on progressive rock for which he admits a fondness, while quoting a description of it as the “single most deplored genre of postwar pop music.”. Thanks to the playing of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at the Olympics opening ceremony, there’s even talk of a revival. As it happens, this album played a significant role in my life – in fact, it was something of an epiphany, which changed my views on all kinds of things, though not in the same way as for Weigel.

I was a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s when everyone I knew took music, and particularly rock music, very seriously indeed. I can still remember listening to a friend’s newly purchased copy of TB and thinking “this is the most pretentious crap I’ve ever heard”. After that, I no longer assumed that, just because all the critics praise something, it must actually be good.

I gradually worked out that the problem was not just with the idea that rock music could and should be Art but with the whole idea of Art.  It’s a bit hard to recall now, but at that time the idea of Art as a unique and privileged kind of activity and the Artist as an inspired individual was in full flower. I

Not long after this, I came across three very different books that put these thoughts better than I could, and that I still re-read from time to time. They were

* Nik Cohn’s history of pop,  Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom

* Roger Taylor’s Art, an Enemy of the People

and, a bit later

* Raymond Williams Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

Cohn and Taylor made the point (obvious in retrospect but novel at the time) that sticking an Art label on to popular music forms like rock and jazz was a recipe for disaster.  Williams (and Taylor in a different way) showed how the  ideas of Art and Culture (as opposed to their lower-case forms, applicable to all kinds of activity) were 19th century inventions.

That’s a long way from Oldfield playing 57 different instruments, each introduced by name. But, for me, that was the first step.

28 thoughts on “Prog rock epiphany

  1. John, no wonder you hated it. Gary Oldfield’s version was clearly inferior. Mike Oldfield’s was the better version. It gave me goosebumps when I first heard it. It still does. Call it art or not but it is a masterpiece.

  2. I’m very surprised to hear Tubular Bells described as ‘rock’, of any kind. For me Disco is the most deplorable genre of music. It was surely a far greater blight on music and culture generally than poor old prog rock.

  3. I am not quite sure what Prof. Quiggin is saying about art and culture here. It seems to me he is almost saying they don’t exist, at least not when spelt with capitals. Let’s stick with uncapitalised “art and culture” which allows the phrase to refer to high, middle and low brow art/culture and also to official, received and propagandistic art/culture as well us underground, rejected or revolutionary art-culture. That is if all these forms exist.

    To state plainly and without qualification that there is no such thing as art and culture is probably to make a mistake as egregious as that made by Maggie Thatcher when she said there is no such thing as society.

    What is human society but cooperative action, shared experience and communication in its various forms? Creative expression (the arts) plays a role in this at all levels. To use a tired old 60s cliche, art expands your mind and it does so a lot more effectively and persistently than taking drugs (to round out the 60s theme).

    Taking issue with art and artists claiming privilege is being rather precious in itself. For example, I would argue that sports people and (most) economists are two groups who now claim privilege and rights to income far in excess of their real value to our society. For sure, there are “art” groups who are precious and pretentious (for example much of pop music) and claim “rights” to excess income.

    I would venture to suggest that if universities like UQ had much less of business studies and much more study in the arts, humanities, history and philosophy along with the traditional sciences then our society would be a whole lot better off. Economics, for example, belongs in a Political Economy Dept with input from the History and Maths Depts., not in Business Studies Dept. where it like every other worthwhile discipline is bowdlerised and reduced to the worst, lowest common denominator.

    The real problem in our society is the privilege claimed by corporate culture, business and finance to the detriment of the rest and the best of our culture and economy.

    Believe me, I am fuming and could have written much more. I have stopped myself.

  4. Perhaps JQ was only attacking High Art and Culture. Even if this is so, it is still a misconstrued attack. Prententious claims to uniqueness and privilege are made by aspects of High Art/Culture and aspects of low art/culture all the time. It is not High Art/Culture alone that is or can be pretentious. Its not a reason to tar all so called High Art with the same brush and reject it.

    And as I outlined above, prententious claims to uniqueness and privilege are not even limited to the arts and humanities. In the West, claims to uniqueness, specialness and privilege by the business and military classes and their supporters are of far more concern and are causing far more damage to our society.

    BTW, I don’t like Tubular Bells. It is both low art and pretentious. It is initially catchy in a typical pop music, sugar-coated, obvious melodic “hook” kind of way. However, its simplistic nature and failure to develop other than by completely repetitive overlay lets it down badly.

    High Art can be non-pretentious (like War and Peace for example) or pretentious (like Patrick White’s novels for example). Of course, it’s a big argument to illustrate why an ambitous, large-scale and consciously artistic work like W&P is still essentially non-pretentious. Obviously, that argument is too big for this blog. Pretentiousness inheres in pretending to deliver something and then failing. W&P does not pretend to deliver. It does deliver.

  5. Once upon a time there was no Rock, just plain old ‘rock & roll’ – a dance beat popularised on the West Coast, which exploded across the planet.

    A few short years later, the phenomenon of Beatles mania would cause an interesting change. The problem was this – for the first time ever, the sound of screaming fans in the audience was actually louder than the band they were there to listen to.

    In response, manufacturers began building larger and more powerful amps and pa systems – and in a vastly over-simplified nutshell, that was pretty much the birth of Rock music – ie. the sound of always needing to turn up louder than the space you’re actually playing in, and always desiring to play in a bigger space.

    Not much to do with Art, but already adopting a capital R in its own right. Rock, the noun. Not ‘rock & roll’, the verb.

    Rock & roll signifed exuberance/movement/freedom/fun/rebelliousness/youth/the new.

    Rock signified size/volume/weight/seriousness/authenticity/timelessness/the old.

    Prog Rock was the Rock ethos taken to its extreme. The pretentiousness that 4 people with amplifiers can, for all intents and purposes, do a passable job of replicating the compositional complexity, frequency range and volume of an entire symphony orchestra. Tubular Bells is Prog Rock taken to a ludicrous extreme – a one man symphony orchestra. (As a teenager in the late 80s, I used to love it :))

  6. Punk was a much-needed flip back to rock and roll, of course – to an energy and modes of expression that young adults could relate to – and, importantly, once again have a go at emulating themselves without needing to spend years at music college.

    It’s worth remembering that rock music, like classical music, is an expensive pursuit – large tube amps and heavy well-aged pieces of hardwood cost a lot of money. As Wiegel notes early on in his piece, it’s often only for those whose parents can afford to buy their way in.

    Not surprising then it never appealed to Fluxus and co who were about breaking down those kinds of barriers to art and music, as well as reacting strongly against the very same classical music establishment that prog was telling us it wanted to be taken seriously by…

    ‘What’s big right now’ in white western amplifed guitar/bass/keys/drums music has pretty much oscillated in a feedback loop between those two poles ever since…both informing/counter-informing/incoporating/seeking to distance themselves from the other.

    Beck ‘2 turntables and a microphone/where it’s at’, would spend the rest of his career churning out soppy lushly produced acoustic guitar driven 70s orchestral soft rock…go figure.

  7. Ikonoclast:

    “I would venture to suggest that if universities like UQ had much less of business studies and much more study in the arts, humanities, history and philosophy along with the traditional sciences then our society would be a whole lot better off.”

    I seriously doubt the first two. Sociology rounds off the gruesome threesome. The thought of a world where everybody talks about ableist right-handed white male privilege, gendered discourses in late 18th century French poetry and the anti-papist antecedents of modern Anglo-Saxon atheism is enough to make me want to gouge out my own eyeballs and fill my ears with cement. And I say that as someone who has a social science degree and who did a couple of lit subjects. Sorry buddy, but the woolly thinking that emanates from the modern academic wankocracy is of no use whatever.

  8. @Steve at the Pub
    Quite right, SATP. Branson went on to produce a whole lot of ‘new wave’ artists, building Virgin’s reputation as a fashion leader. But Oldfield’s dirge was the first big hit for the label, AFAIK.

  9. Branson later backed the Sex Pistols because punk was on the rise and he didn’t want the Virgin brand type cast as a hippy brand. Personally I quite like Tubular Bells. Apparently Branson had to do a real psych job to get Oldfield on stage for the first live concert. Oldfield apparently threw up afterwards and then disappeared from the public eye for eons, so horrified was he by fame.

  10. I confess I never thought of ‘Tubular Bells’ as progrock. It’s just a boring attempt to recreate Ravel’s ‘Bolero – novelty music. I played the long version once and have never felt inclined to waste another 45 minutes of my life playing it again. If you want minimalism there is plenty of more enjoyable stuff available (e.g. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, early John Adams, John Corigliano).

    Progrock is neither good nor bad per se; IMHO there are good progrock albums (e.g. quite a lot of Yes and PFM) and some awful ones. Just like any other genre really.

    Not having read any of the books referred to in the post I can’t comment on the point of the OP (assuming there is one 🙂 ). However I have always thought it is absurd to pretend that Art exists in a different dimension to popular culture.

  11. Yes are good? They don’t bear replaying. That was my epiphany, many years after the Prof’s.

  12. Yes JQ, that is the Epiphany to have. Finally recognising not to take on simple faith that your ‘betters’ have always got it right, even when they’re hunting in packs, and that there are plenty of royal pretenders out there, prancing around naked. Another Epiphany is that just because someone is loathsome and or a fool doesn’t mean in a particular case that they are therefore wrong and you are therefore right.

  13. As for comments on “Yes”, have to say Yes! YES! They weren’t close to the edge, they had fallen over it with their unbridled pretentiousness.

  14. In my (as always) humble opinion, the real art nowadays is in film, and often the great works of art are also blockbusters. That is, films of artistic merit are hardly only to be found in art house. Interesting how art has taken on so many pretentions.

  15. A sandpit or message board would not be amiss. That way there could be some discussion of the latest shakedown in the US. After having been found guilty of being a non-American company ii being sued by a US company with the aggravating factor of being a non English speaking non Caucasian company, a jury decided that Samsung should give Apple a billion dollars. True not a shakedown to rival the shakedown administered to BP but still impressive.

    An IP suit is now a classic mechanism through which cave man economics can be applied, and also provides a guise under which xenophobia can be practised.
    In ordinary economics I get something you’ve got by giving you something I’ve got. In caveman economics I get what you’ve got in exchange for the blow I’ve delivered over your head. (Heard the idea of caveman economics first from Rodney Hide).

  16. Prof Q, your opinion of “Tublar Bells” and its timing (ie, on first hearing) accord with mine. (I say this as a man with a perverse taste for Frank Zappa … )

    I thoroughly enloyed Cohn’s book when I read it, and was just thinking the other day I should try to find a copy (having reached an age I hoped I’d die before), as I recall it was extremely perceptive. Haven’t read the other two, though.

  17. Tubular Bells was Richard Branson’s first big money-spinner, I’ve been told by someone close to the scene at that time. So much so, that Branson called Mike Oldfield, “My Goldfield.”

  18. A representation is pretentious if, and only if, it fails to satisfy the claims that it sets itself.

    Just sayin’.

  19. @Mel
    Yes, well Mel, I’m sure there are plenty of dreadful examples of business speak that could be quoted back at you … but I’m not going t bother. I discovered TB in the late 70’s early 80’s and loved it from the start. The follow up “Hergest Ridge” is in the same vein but more repetitive. Fabulous. Also picked up on Philip Glass years later and thought that resonance with early MO was quite evident. I wonder if they every met?

  20. Close, kevin1, Branson made a motza with a national, in the UK, student newspaper, called, Student. He then lost that money somehow, I don’t know the details. By the time TB came out he was well on the way to making another pile with the record stores.

    Tubular Bells was I bit of an accident I think. The Bonzo Dog DooDah Band was supposed to be the first stars of the record label, they were reforming and some of their mates from Do Not Adjust Your Set were doing rather well with their new show. The singer Stanshall provides the intros to all the instruments.

  21. david bedford (1937-2011)
    english avant garde composer. communist. student of lennox berkely & later italian communist avant garde composer luigi nono in the early ’60s. influenced by aleatory compositional techniques of john cage and earle brown. later a colleague of Cornelius Cardew, one-time pupil of stockhausen, notorious communist (revolutionary communist party of britain (marxist-leninist)), founder of ‘the scratch orchestra”, and author of “stockhausen serves imperialism”. bedford has an extensive range of compositions for children pub’d by universal editions (schoenberg’s publisher) and composed several astonishing sounding avant garde choral works, setting words of kenneth patchen & arthur c clarke. bedford orchestrated tubular bells for live performance in 1973 and later collaborated with oldfield on the score for the film “the killing fields”, with oldfield billed as composer & bedford as orchestrator. how many degrees of 1973 separation between mike oldfield & raymond williams?

  22. alfred, I’d forgotten how much I like your highly informative music posts 🙂

    “A representation is pretentious if, and only if, it fails to satisfy the claims that it sets itself.”

    Katz, fwiw, when I use the word pretentious in relation to art, I don’t mean it pejoratively (though I realise JQ was). I mean it as something fundamental to the performance. ie. it doesn’t matter if the artist is believable or not, the act is always a pretense, and the pretense is the representation. Identifying the ways in which this is so (what they’re pretending), is a crucial part of working out what the artist wanted to say (what they were intending)…to my mind, that holds for stockhausen as much it does for muse or brittany spears.

    Re. is Tubular Bells prog rock? The dense layering of parts, heavy compression on every instrument, double tracked distorted guitar solos panned left and right, muted pick playing throughout, builds and flourishes drenched in reverb, are all classic rock production techniques – not those of minimilism.

    More than anything, I’d argue it’s just an enjoyable tour through the guitar sounds/styles/collaging techniques of Page/Beck/Harrison/Iommi/etc…glad I had a listen for the first time in years. The MC’s voice is as hilarious as ever – it’s like it was designed to be played at some World Fair for the Current State of The Art In Recording…or, alternatively, a piss-take of the BBC produced (iirc) classical audiophile records of the era, where a very British voice over person (pictured on the cover at a mixing console in front of a window overlooking a beautiful summer garden or some such) would solemnly tell you what instrument you were listening to right now, and what was the microphone and its placement, so that you could set up your stereo properly, check the phase, and also learn a little about what a mixing console does, and why flutes probably shouldn’t be close-miked etc. They’re actually very good.

    Something like that anyway. I could be way off!

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