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. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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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