With the recent death of Keith Emerson it’s maybe a good time to take stock and ponder one of life’s eternal conundrums. Exactly why did prog suck?
I have to make a confession here. There are, I’m ashamed to say, prog skeletons in the Slender closet. Navigating the 1970’s was not always plain sailing and for every Jam album there were the bloated stormclouds of the Yes back catalogue hovering menacingly. Every riotous moment of Dr Feelgood was balanced by the dolorous self importance of Genesis. And even the presence of mind that recognised Joni Mitchell’s “Hissing Of Summer Lawns” as a lifelong friend is brought into question by the former ownership of a Judie Tzuke LP. That’s not to say that there’s nothing good about prog. I still maintain that Jon Anderson had a great ear for melody. Without Rick Wakeman, Bowie’s “Life On Mars” would be a bit of pleasant strumming on an acoustic. And an entire generation of Slender siblings have been grooving to Leicester’s criminally overlooked mavens of country-prog-folk-madrigal-blues, Family.
Revisionist historians would have us believe that punk was necessary to banish the idea that musical skill was crucial to good songwriting. I never bought this. Nor the supposed democracy of punk which claimed that anyone could do it – Lenny Kaye? Mick Jones? Viv Albertine? Tom Verlaine? – clearly not everyone was up to their standard. What was needed however was rock’n’roll kryptonite to rid us of the head-nodders. And it was this that was prog’s greatest crime. The feeling that fans of prog felt they were the guardians of proper music. The willingness of so many prog musicians to foster this belief. The suffocating joylessness of so much of the music. I’m happy to be a bit of a nazi about this – music should be a celebration. Craft and learning by all means but there MUST always be the eureka moment of a bunch of kids singing on a street corner and finding they can hold a tune. Even Joy Division managed that. Music at some level should always have the ability to enhance your euphoria or help you make sense of, or just wallow in, despair. To landmark your youth and to soundtrack love affairs. And here’s the litmus test. What kind of damaged individual would celebrate getting off with someone by spinning a bit of Wishbone Ash?
Has anyone ever stopped their car because they really needed to hear a Gentle Giant number? NO! Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas mind you once forced me to park a very large lawnmower. It was a Ransome. They’re made in Ipswich. The song was “Sneakin’ Around”. It rocks like an alp.
Once you get to your fifties (and believe me, I have), those moments when you have to stop what you’re doing and listen/dance/bellow tunelessly become few and far between. I know very little about Billy J Kramer but am forever indebted to him for providing one such unexpected moment well into middle-age. At the time I was parking the Ransome in the middle of a cemetary I knew nothing about him. Or them. Aside from the execrable “Little Children”. I now know that they were reliant on unused Lennon & McCartney numbers. I know that George Martin complained about the limitations of Bill’s voice which he frequently attempted to mask by punctuating each Kramer syllable with a single, and loud, piano note. I don’t care. George Martin, quite rightly, was concerned with quality control, with producing the best possible product for his clients. Not with directing an entire career towards birthing one, just one, faultless, sublime moment. Like a Saturn 5 blasting off from Cape Mediocrity we can forgive Billy J all his shortcomings just for giving us these beautiful, primitive, peerless 164 seconds.
And seriously, how do you expect me to resist the temptation to bark, in my baritone mumble, the words “You’re messing around with TNT”? Unfortunately it seems that Billy J Kramer did, as I have now discovered that my dodgy hearing has once again deceived me. Nevertheless, I shall plough on regardless, cocooned in the belief that I can improve upon perfection – I mean, “Tears, tears”? No wonder Sir George was so sniffy.
So there you have it. Prog versus Mersey Beat. A clear victory for the ramshackle scousers. ELP? They’re just Chelsea 2003 -2011. Never out of the top three, but really, who outside of a small group of Russian oil plutocrats will remember them with any fondness? The Dakotas? They’re Leicester City, mate. 2015-16. Sure, we’ll probably be struggling against relegation again next season. But just for a brief moment, us and Billy J, we’re top of the world.