16 July 2010

Some brief thoughts on Prog Rock Britannia - An Observation in Three Movements

Yes, I am that far behind the times. I know this thing aired in January of 2009. It’s taken me this long to finally get to it, and…ahem…acquire it. And now I’m going to talk about it.

This documentary, thankfully, kind of does what it says on the tin…it’s a look at the foundations of British prog rock, from the proto-prog days of the early Pink Floyd, Arthur Brown, and the Nice, through the opening salvos of the major bands that shaped the genre. This is very much a rise and fall of the British progger in every conceivable way, with some decent looks at the Canterbury scene, which seemingly gets glossed over all the time in favour of Yes/Genesis/Tull/Crimson/et.al. Unlike a fully scholarly study, much of this tale is told through first person stories from the musicians who were there; among those interviewed on screen are:

Steve Howe, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, Mont Campbell (Egg), Robert Wyatt (Soft Machine), Ian Anderson, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Richard Coughlin (Caravan), Mike Oldfield, Joe Boyd (record producer), Bob Harris (radio announcer/presenter), and a few others I can’t remember because honestly I wasn’t taking notes as I watched it, because if I did that I’d still be watching it, not writing about it.

My first impression when I started watching was that this was going to be a piss take on the genre, like so many are. We get rapid-fire clips of the musicians mimicking riffs and melodic lines from songs, and I was certain that the mocking was starting right from the get go. Thankfully, the mockery is kept at a respectful minimum, and much if it is from the musicians directed at themselves. Things start in the summer of 1967 as bands began to realise that they had reached the limit of what three chords and the truth were going to give them. It was time, as Bill Bruford would put it, to toss in a fourth chord and play it all in five. The first steps were tentative ones, of course…the gentle melding of a Bach-inspired melody with some typically trippy lyrics on a global number one single called ‘A Lighter Shade of Pale,’ a radical revamping of a Bernstein musical number as protest song in The Nice’s rendition of ‘America.’ Things rapidly progressed from there, as bands began to form here and there, drawing from the disparate influences that even a small island country has. A band from the public school system wasn’t even going to sound like a band from Canterbury, now were either of them going to come close to a group that actively opted to toss away anything that resembled traditional styles and formats in their search for the lost sound or chord.

Some wonderful, and not often seen, video footage accentuates things. Yes, we get some of the famous Shepperton Film Studios Genesis footage, but we also get some of the clips that survive from King Crimson’s pummeling of the 650,000 people in Hyde Park for the Brian Jones memorial concert. There are fantastic clips of Carl Palmer playing his 2.5 ton steel drum kit on a TV show, showing off his first generation drum synthesizers. The early footage of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster is errie and surprising…one might almost think the black metal scenesters 20 years later saw this footage and said ‘Yes! This is what we’ll do!’ Current interviews with the musicians give us insight into the era, the desires, the driving forces that made the scene something unique and unlike any that has come since.

Anyone who has been a fan of the genre long enough has heard most of the anecdotes…the post-prog interviews with Rutherford/Collins/Banks regarding their days as a prog band versus their salad days as international hit makers. Collins comes off very well here, actually, saying a lot of kind things that might be a bit of a shock for the devoted Collins basher. Wyatt is whimsical and fairly relaxed about the scene, years after being deposed from his own band, and bemoaning the group’s failure to score a hit and attract the girls. Mont Campbell’s ending interview bits are some of the saddest of all; Egg recorded three amazing albums, and then he basically fell off the face of the earth, a casualty of a lack of attention to his playing and work that affected him emotionally (NB: he seems much more at ease about it than I might have thought, and he is actively recording, mostly world music, under the name Dirk Campbell these days). Thankfully we don’t get to focus on some of the major ‘stories,’ such as the infamous curry eating incident or Wakeman’s King Arthur on ice; this documentary seems to actually be making an effort to stay away from those warhorses in favour of a more balanced, fair expose of the genre.

I do think there are weaknesses, some of them self-imposed. Obviously this documentary, produced for BBC, aired on BBC, and titled Prog Rock Britannia, is going to focus on British prog to the exclusion of all others. It’s a shame I’ve not necessarily found a comparable documentary to cover the other nationalities creating progressive music at the same time…no 90 minute documentaries on Italian prog, or Ameri-prog, or the French scene. Additionally, it kind of cuts off with the first salvo from punk in 1976/1977. This seems to be a common break point for a lot of video literature about prog…it’s as if the scene stopped and that was it. There’s no discussion of the New Wave of British Prog Rock…no Marillion or IQ or Twelfth Night or Pallas or Solstice or any of them. There’s no coverage of bands like Hawkwind or The Enid…bands with huge cult followings whose careers ran parallel to, and often intersected or merged with, progressive rock during this time. There’s also no coverage whatsoever of the third wave bands who are now making their name in the scene…the Tangent, Guapo, the Future Kings of England, Pure Reason Revolution, Magenta, Oceansize, and so on…or the bands that have integrated elements of progressive music in their sound, like Radiohead. There’s no mention of how this new sonic palate came to influence incredibly disparate and unlikely groups; without bands like Pink Floyd and their early explorations with sonics, I doubt Bauhaus would have found the sounds they made such good use of. Robyn Hitchcock’s musical meanderings would be much different without being informed by the madcap himself, Roger Keith Barrett. For all the mutterings about how prog is such a dirty word, its effects resonate today in many unlikely places.

Having made these criticisms, I will say that Prog Rock Britannia is one of the most even handed, fair looks back at a genre so many of us love that I have yet to see. The music is treated with kindness and respect, and genuine love from the producers, interviewers and interviewees. I’d say if you have not yet seen this, you should, because it’s fair essential viewing for new and old prog fans alike. One can only hope at some point that a way is found to get this released on DVD.


Roger T said...

"A Lighter Shade Of Pale" - don't know that one!
Everything you suggest in your penultimate paragraph needs a seperate program to itself methinks.
I did a short thing on the origins of Brit-Prog that may be of interest:


martine said...

As for addressing the later waves of proggy goodness, if they had done so you'd still be watching it. I found it to be a very interesting little documentary thingie.

Anonymous said...

"Lighter Shade of Pale" was a Procol Harem song ...
They were supposed to back up Wakeman one year but didn't show up!