Friday, 17 July 2009

How do we read the 70s and what followed?: two different worlds

I know I've always lived in one.

Let me begin by stating that I'm well aware I'm not a prog fan as such, I'm just someone who likes some music that could be considered part of it, just as I like large swathes of other music. I know entirely that this poll comes from a world other than mine, and that I'm not the man most qualified to comment on it. I know that my ideal poll would take a few cornerstones from this, redefine its criteria around art rock and genuine experimentation and Anglo-weirdness rather than prog (art rock inherently a more flexible genre because it's based around its own criteria of art, which anything can theoretically be, rather than someone else's idea of "progression"). But all the same, fuck it, and concentrating on British music alone so only touching the tip of the iceberg: the three most redundant and overexposed Floyd albums all in the Top 10 and no mention whatsoever of any of their 60s work or even Animals, the absolute heart of the 70s - cynicism over the machinations of business and the exhaustion of a crumbling elite tempered by genuine hope that an upsurge to overpower them is possible, the same bitter ennui we're living through today only now without that hope - and far and away their most satisfying, because most direct and least absorbed in the dead end of "hanging on in quiet desperation", post-weird work? More appearances for innumerable revivalists and pasticheurs than for Peter Hammill in any incarnation? No appearances whatsoever by Soft Machine or Matching Mole? A Genesis album from as late as 1980? Truly, even in an age when - as is commented on that thread - many of the old divisions (which were undoubtedly once necessary but in the end had become the death knell of ambition and an unintentionally conservative force) are no longer communicating themselves in the same way to the young, there are still two different worlds (one way of putting it - and certainly another way of expressing m the g's post in that thread - is that musically it's a little too Alan Freeman and not sufficiently John Peel, or in US radio terms too much what AOR radio became, with too few hints of its roots in freeform).

If Geir Hongro has served no other purpose, he provides a useful anti-me in terms of my assessment of almost any music - whatever he thinks was the peak I am likely to find desperately overplayed, canonical, pseudo-classical and drunk on notions of someone else's respectability rather than creating your own (in the case of prog), or pathetically deluded in dreams of mythical summers before you were born and justifying a certain leader's pseudo-politics rather than keeping an independent voice and capturing the tensions of your own time (in the case of 1990s British music), whatever I think is genuinely innovative, powerful, the epitome of all that is best about pop and that only pop can do, an expression of the actual Britain rather than his own heritage fantasy world he will consider to be "tuneless", degenerate, overtly "experimental", just plain worthless or, most worryingly, not even British at all. To say that he should simply not comment on hip-hop or latterday pop, and stick to the music he knows, would still be legitimising endless tedious anti-thoughts - he is the man who thinks King Crimson's best work was under Lake/Sinfield, that the "psych sound experiments" on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn should have been replaced with "more nursery rhymes", that Ummagumma is worse than A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and that the 1970s' greatest achievement - rather than, say, Red or Rock Bottom or anything from Germany (a country unsurprisingly wholly unrepresented) - was the entire territory of "symphonic rock", something that for all its occasional high points (the concert-hall hush of the second half of "The Cinema Show" does have something very special about it, the fields and farms of the shires huddling together and wishing the unions away, bonfires blazing in fear of coming socialist revolution) is ultimately a dead end, and could not have been anything else, because it was playing by someone else's rules.

The key albums in that poll undoubtedly are The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Rock Bottom and Red (gratifying that that is so high, not so gratifying that its two predecessors and USA aren't there). They have more in common than all being from 1974 and all being invoked here: all, in their wildly opposing ways, capture the feeling of a moment when everything seemed up for grabs, and thus have something to tell us about our own time, when everything should be but seems dispiritingly as though it isn't, and that a discredited elite will merely retake power through the most cynical and dishonest of means. They all show us, as little else before or since, that something else could have happened (something like Station to Station, which is at least as good as all of them and may be better than any of them, doesn't work in quite the same way, so internalised beyond the rest of the world is its very construct). The first of those albums is to me the most complete answer to the post-imperial dilemma of a certain class, and perversely weaves a wholly personalised art out of a state of desperate confusion so well that I'm not sure whether any of those involved, or the vast majority of their caste, should have tried again (unfortunately they would, on all fronts), the second - amid its many other dissolvings of sound, its unashamed loss of self (all you can do when half your self is gone, something which - I know from bitter experience - may equally apply when that loss is mental rather than physical) contains my favourite song of all time. But I think, if I wanted to take any part (I know now why I must not) I might well vote for the third. Because it rages within and without itself like precious little rock music before or since, because it desperately fights its own impotence and somehow manages to create its own fraught self-justification (which was all I could have in my own life, before edging tentatively closer to what Wyatt somehow managed to find for himself), because it's a band, and a world, on the brink of imploding for good. And because of Wimborne Minster, and the private armies, and the plots that lurked behind the Hallowe'en wall. All prog comes back to that in the end, maybe, even the bad stuff. But this, without question, was the good.

(and - I must now add - the poll went pretty well, and thankfully anti-Hongro)

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