Selling Progressive by the Pound - October 09

Steve Hackett - Photo by Tina Korhonen

Steve - Photo © Tina Korhonen

Whilst the Prog genre is currently being reappraised to the extent where it's arguably hip once again to admit to having had a record collection that included a Yes album or two, not to mention the occasional Procul Harem (or was it Progul Harem?). Readers, it's nice to no longer be in my twenties at the mercy of Punk critics hailing ignorance as virtue and I don't feel reactionary for saying that. I admit to buying the Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks as I found it funny on a Derek and Clive What's the worst job you ever 'ad level all those Peter Cook and Dudley Moore years ago.

So who was the first Progressive artist? It seems the term was coined in the early 1900s by Richard Strauss to describe Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius which even sounds like a double sided concept album title. I remember the term 'Progressive' was in common parlance used in the 1960s to describe the free jazz salvos of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Roland Kirke and many others goading Hendrix into some of his wilder moments. I welcomed improvs designed to shake off the tyranny of melody and the shackles of harmony. To hell with form. All we needed was pure spirit on a journey into the abyss to see if we could keep flying.

To make it work, jazzers needed great chops. Miles pulled it off with Live Evil (ironically a studio album) where quite by chance you had the added bonus that you couldn't tell what was guitar, trumpet or keyboard which were all imitating each other... Thus each instrument successfully coveted and cloned its colourful cousin.

This is where I came on board with Genesis. Our guitars sounded like keyboards, keys impersonated guitars and 12-strings were the axeman's answer to the harpsichord. We used masses of 12-strings in the band - a tuning nightmare designed to ruin any hint of a backstage evening soirée, but like the mellotron, whenever they behaved themselves the effect was bloody marvellous. Now touring with a mellotron MII was another matter... it required four men to lift and was an extremely hairy experience in more ways than one! Because of voltage fluctuations the tuning of it was impossible to predict unless you had a stabiliser. Condensation on the tape sometimes grinding the sound to a complete halt was also an issue. Mel players had nervous breakdowns rivalling those of their instruments. I'm sure it was a Mel that pushed Gollum over the edge; it wasn't the ring at all. "The Mel, the Mel" was the agonised cackle that broke from foaming mouths of musos throughout the land. You could age horribly in the space of one tormented gig. We should forgive all keyboard players their trespasses, for we know not what they endured...

I once read a description of schizophrenia which described the illness as 'delusions of grandeur'. Many English Progressive bands from the Beatles onwards made those delusions their musical calling card. Where does Progressive end and World Music begin? That's a whole different kettle of glass onions, and the answer may well be buried with the young and brilliant George Harrison, whilst the ghost of his guitar gently smokes for a whole new generation...