Saturday, July 22, 2017

Complicated Romances: Great Progressive Rock Love Songs

Yes, yes, yes -- we all know the long-held rap against progressive rock in the 1970s: that the songs dealt with demons, wizards and dragons, usually in crazy 7/4 or 9/8 time signatures; albums with elaborate cover art featuring ornate compositions of faux-symphonic, epically instrumentalized, mellotronic noodling spanning 10 to 20 minutes in length; a genre that beckoned to middle-class college-educated nerdy guys who were more likely to complete a quest in Dungeons and Dragons or visit a comic-con in full Klingon regalia than actually go on a date with an actual girl.

But then again, we all know that false stereotype, foisted on the musical world by the same agendized rock journalists who soiled themselves in primal delight over the vacant four-chord strums, bed-head and unintelligible grumbles of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, or at the other end of the rock spectrum, pronounced Bruce Springsteen as the Second Coming, were as full of shit as their stained underwear bulging defecatingly under their baggy pants.

Yet the New York critics' heady prognostications of a revival of "real foundational rock" faltered nearly as soon as it was pronounced: punk rock-proper lasted for a few meteoric years before succumbing to music industry meddling, devolving into MTV marketable "new wave" pablum wherein "the look" trumped the music, and Springsteen's Dylanesque epics spawned a cottage industry of heartland crooners signing Midwestern ballads about the backseats of Thunderbirds and little pink houses. Save for a brief renaissance in the 90s with the grunge of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, rock never recovered; as a matter of fact, I read somewhere recently that hip-hop has overtaken rock as the most popular genre of music in the United States. I would argue the alleged musicality of auto-tune, mumbled doggerel verse, three notes plinking on a piano and drum machines, but I'll save that debate for another day.

Before my blood pressure rises to an unhealthy level, let us return to prog rock, and more precisely, songs that break the presuppositions and stereotypes. Let's shed the demonic, mysticism, sci-fi, Tolkienesque quests and Gollumization that is actually more a feature of 70s hard rock (Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Sabbath, Rainbow, etc.) than it ever was in prog. Let's talk about love songs, those plaintive tunes which have kept popular music...ummm..."popular" for centuries.

Certainly, the songs I will offer are from bands known for their progressivity, virtuosity and lengthy compositions, but, in the end, they were indeed superb composers who could craft love songs par excellence. Many of the songs themselves aren't necessarily "prog" in the strictest sense, but the bands I've selected couldn't really be pigeon-holed into narrow musical corners. I will also dispense with the stale debate over whether a band is considered "proto-prog" or "prog" based on the artificial belief that prog started officially with King Crimson's debut album in 1969. To say The Moody Blues, The Nice or Procol Harum weren't producing progressive rock in the 60s because the term hadn't been invented yet is superfluous and silly, given the compositions found below.

I will stick to albums running from the late 1960s up to the late 1970s, so as not to make the whole thing too cumbersome. I'll probably add a second part with later decades sometime soon. So, here's 25 songs of love, loss and romance from a progressive point of view. Enjoy, with a close, intimate friend. And for god's sake, take off those Spock ears!

From the Beginning - Emerson, Lake and Palmer
A big hit from ELP's Trilogy album. As I recall, the girls used to swoon over this song, so don't tell me prog ain't hip with the ladies. The song, mainly a Greg Lake vehicle, has that off-kilter Keith Emerson synthesizer section grafted on at the end.

C'est La Vie - Emerson, Lake and Palmer
From the Greg Lake side of ELP's album Works, Volume 1, featuring lyrics by King Crimson bandmate Peter Sinfield and a very French provincial instrumental feel. I could have easily added "Lend Your Love to Me Tonight" from this album, and "Still You Turn Me On" from Brain Salad Surgery, but I limited songs from each band to two. That's all you get.

And You and I - Yes
One of the most rapturous rock compositions ever made. Not much more can be said. So I won't.

Turn of the Century - Yes
Nice counterpoint between Steve Howe's acoustic guitar at the beginning and the electric at the end. One of Yes's lesser known classic tunes.

Wond'ring Aloud, Again - Jethro Tull
This song was actually released in two sections: the first half, "Wond'ring Aloud" appeared on Aqualung, and the second section "Wond'ring Again" (with its prophetic and somewhat bitter preamble) later offered on Living in the Past.  But here is the original version all nicely stitched together as it was first intended.

Reasons for Waiting - Jethro Tull
Featuring strings conducted by David (Dee) Palmer who later joined the band full-time as a keyboardist, this is one of the most lush and lovely songs Ian Anderson ever wrote.

Can't Get It Out of My Head - Electric Light Orchestra
This is ELO when Jeff Lynne hadn't yet become too pop to be prog any longer. I have always loved this song from the very first time I heard it.

Threshold of a Dream Suite (Featuring "Are You Sitting Comfortably", "The Dream", "Have You Heard", "The Voyage" and "Have You Heard (Reprise)" - The Moody Blues
A magnificent pastoral idyll with a mellotron interlude from the Moodies. As I mentioned in the preamble, if you don't consider this progressive rock, I am not sure I can take you seriously. The poem "The Dream" has been used during at least two weddings I have been to.

Nights In White Satin - The Moody Blues
One of the top ten love songs ever written in my opinion. On the superb album Days of Future Passed, the band and the London Festival take turns on separate passages, but on "Nights In White Satin" they finally join as one at the end for a tremendous finale.

En Pleine Face - Harmonium
My poor French translation is "In the Face" for the title of this song, but the line "C'est moi qui est tombé en pleine," is more like "It was me who fell on my face." Anyway, it doesn't matter. The great French Canadian prog band Harmonium could be singing about flies on shit and I wouldn't care.

White Queen (As It Began) - Queen
Again, not wishing to split hairs, but I consider Queen's first four albums (up to A Night at the Opera) as progressive rock. Symphonic, operatic choruses, wild time changes. Yep, all there. Here is an absolutely beautiful song from Queen II.

Love of My Life - Queen
A progressive recording writ small and precious in 3:39. The song was written for Freddie Mercury's girlfriend at the time Mary Austin. That's Brian May on the orchestral harp, by the way, which he learned for this song.

A Reunion - Gentle Giant
A song about a chance meeting after many years, hence the title.

Cadence and Cascade - King Crimson
A song featuring Greg Lake about a menage a trois. I think. It features a man named Jade where back at the hotel "Cadence oiled in love, licked his velvet gloved hand and Cascade kissed his name." I leave you to the inferences.

The Book of Saturday - King Crimson
A breezy song about the mind games two lovers often play, this one with bassist John Wetton singing.

Too Much Between Us - Procol Harum
As is much Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, the song has somewhat of a nautical theme, with the space between two people being "so much sea between us" when they're really sitting across from each other in a bedroom.

Ocean Gypsy - Renaissance
A melancholy plaint for love and freedom lost. I've always loved Annie Haslam's voice.

Pillow of Winds - Pink Floyd
One of my favorites from the album Meddle. Dreamy, mellifluous and certainly a song to listen to as you drift off to sleep with the one you love.

Stay - Pink Floyd
A Richard Wright piece from Obscured By Clouds. RIP Rick.

Hang On to a Dream - The Nice
From The Nice's third album Nice, or as it was titled for American release Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It.

Afterglow - Genesis
One of my favorite Phil Collins-era Genesis love songs, on this, the last Genesis album I really give a damn about, Wind and Wuthering. I didn't care for the direction the band took after Steve Hackett left. Few prog snobs did.

The Cinema Show - Genesis
Peter Gabriel narrates the first date of a modern Romeo and Juliet fresh from a London basement flat. Naturally, the love song devolves into an exercise in Greek mythology, but this is the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis, after all.

Lady Fantasy - Camel
Perhaps Camel and Andrew Latimer's best-loved song. Camel's Mirage also plays into the whole prog wizardry thingy with a suite entitled "Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider", my precious-s-s-s.

McDonald and Giles - Is She Waiting?
Ian McDonald and Michael Giles, which is not to be confused with Giles, Giles and Fripp, all of whom formed King Crimson. But then McDonald and Giles left.

Refugees - Van der Graaf Generator
If you can take Peter Hammill's operatic vocal concatenations, you will certainly love this well-crafted tune about the love affair of his ex-flatmates Mike McLean and Susan Penhaligon, herein referred to as "Mike and Susie".

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anthems for the Antsy: Fifteen Songs Under One Minute Long

Hello, so nice to be back after a brief hiatus. Well, perhaps not brief -- a few year hiatus, actually. Be that as it may, I have finally found some time to post an article or three in the intervening space between writing books, talking to publishers (an exercise in humility I despise), grudgingly maintaining a foothold on the corporate ladder, and acting as taxi and delivery service for my family.

And it is all about time, or lack thereof, in our post-modern, attention-deficited, instantly gratified, existentially bored society, isn't it? Heaven forbid we have time to listen to an album when it is so labor intensive to tax one's aural capacity with 45 minutes worth of music. So, in honor of everyone's complete and utter lack of patience, I've decided to offer Anthems for the Antsy: compelling songs clocking in at one minute or less so as not to take away precious moments from your Facebook or Instagram pages.

The only qualifiers I offer for these minute minuets is that they have what amounts to a complete songs structure - a start, middle and ending - are not spoken word poems, actual instrumentation is used, and the piece is not merely an adjunct or intro for a longer composition.

Her Majesty - The Beatles 
Twenty-nine seconds of Paul and his acoustic. McCartney never really gets credit for the short acoustic gems he released with the Beatles, "Yesterday", "Blackbird", "Mother Nature's Son", etc. Well, maybe he did. Never mind.

Grace - Jethro Tull
Like Paul McCartney, Ian Anderson always had a way with a well-written and compact acoustic tune. Songs like "Wond'ring Aloud", "Cheap Day Return", "Slipstream", "Only Solitaire" and "Nursie" are all around or under 1:30 playing time, but on "Grace" Anderson manages to compose a 37 second song complete with strings.

Old Mother Reagan - The Violent Femmes
Hey, a complete protest song in 32 seconds! This one always cracked me up.

Tommy's Holiday Camp - The Who
From the rock opera Tommy, "Tommy's Holiday Camp" features Keith Moon in his usual zany mood.

Hyperactive Child - The Dead Kennedys
No song title has ever been more apt. Thirty-seven seconds of mayhem.

Don't Start (Too Late) - Black Sabbath
"Embryo" from Masters of Reality may be shorter, but I think this song from Sabotage is more complete and less an intro than the former. Wonderfully creepy.

I Never Thought I'd Live To Be A Million - The Moody Blues
The 33 second book end to another very short piece "I Never Thought I'd Live To Be A Hundred" (clocking in at a mammoth 1:07) on To Our Children's Children's Children. Justin Hayward's voice and acoustic always conjured "visions of paradise".

What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise) -  Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
So many Zappa snippets to mention, like "Zolar Czakl" from Uncle Meat and "Amnesia Vivace" from Absolutely Free, but this one from We're Only In It For the Money is a favorite.

Five Per Cent for Nothing - Yes
A Bill Bruford composition, primarily for percussion. This is what one would refer to as "syncopated".

The Ballad of Wilhelm Funk - Green Day
Thirty-two seconds is perhaps too short for a proper "ballad", but I don't think Green Day has ever been considered proper.

Bookends Theme - Simon and Garfunkel
Beautifully rendered and complete in 32 seconds.

My Mummy's Dead - John Lennon
The "Plastic Ono Band" album was cathartic for Lennon. His experiences working out his demons via primal therapy sessions is vividly brought to the surface on many of the songs found therein.

Little Room - White Stripes
It's sloppy and Meg White cannot even keep a damn beat on the bass drum, but the song does have its charms and is considered a breakthrough for the White Stripes.

Clang Boom Steam - Tom Waits
A happy little tune from Tom about his baby.

Goodbye Cruel World - Pink Floyd
Listed at 48 seconds on the album (minus the bleed over from the previous song "Another Brick in the Wall, Part III"), this is a cheerful little song of suicide from Pink.


As I delved, I spanned, if I may paraphrase the Lollard preacher John Ball from the 14th century. Here are six short favorites under 1:30 for your further edification.

Pigs on the Wing, Part 1 - Pink Floyd
A quiet respite from the continual bitterness that pervades the Animals album.

Mercedes Benz - Janis Joplin
Alright, technically a few seconds beyond the limit, but I was never one to follow rules that comprehensively.

Only Solitaire - Jethro Tull
Perhaps the only acoustic tune that refers to V.D. and toilet seats in such a mild and unoffensive context.

Aisle of Plenty - Genesis
Listed at exactly 1:30 on the album.

Eyes of a Child II - The Moody Blues
Edited from a longer take, obviously, but at 1:20 this is exactly how it appeared on the album.

Penny for Your Thoughts - Peter Frampton
At one time, Frampton was in Humble Pie. People often forget he was a great musician and not just a pop star with nice hair.

Thanks for stopping by. I may, in the near future, do some pruning and clipping on some sorely neglected previous articles (never trust the internet to stay the same in regards to pictures and videos), but I'll simply ponder such actions for the time being. You see, I am perfecting procrastination through creative indecision (I'll explain tomorrow).