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14 September 2001
PROG? JUST SAY YES
Rock Prog took itself far too seriously. So did Chris Campling. And now it's coming back
In 1972 I wore loon pants, hip-hugging trousers tight to the knee that then exploded into huge great bell-bottoms that consumed my feet. I teamed them with shoulder-length hair and a winter vest on which I had drawn the logo of my favourite band, Yes. God, I was lovely.
Thirty years on, my teenage daughter has a new pair of corduroy loons. Of course, she doesn't call them that, but that's what they are. They're in fashion again. Hurrah — if loons are back, can a revival of interest in Yes be far behind?
No, stop laughing. Everybody laughs when you mention Yes, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Jethro Tull or any of the bands that made up progressive rock. Prog is the musical movement it's OK, nay, compulsory, to hate. People who've never heard it hate it. People who weren't alive when it was popular hate it.
And it was popular. I remember going into town on the very early bus one day to be first in the queue for Yes's classic album Close To The Edge and finding myself at the end of a long line that straggled away from the record shop door all the way to the ... oh, it must have been the corner of the block at least. All blokes. All hairy. All wearing loon pants. And all very serious about prog. I loved the sound that Yes made, that huge, blasting, symphonic noise, all furiously fast guitar runs and great plunging-over-a-cliff bass lines that were born to be played extremely loud through headphones while I air-guitared myself into a stupor.
That was prog, you sneering doubters. It wasn't indecipherable lyrics or Roger Dean album covers or three-record concept albums or songs that went on for side after side after side. Well, OK, it was that too, but that wasn't the important bit.
The important thing about prog is that what its musicians did, and do, very few other people can. Johnny Rotten got it almost right when he scrawled "I hate Pink Floyd" on a T-shirt. What he really meant was: "I hate the fact that I'm not good enough to play for Pink Floyd."
There is an incongruity about the contempt in which the musicians of prog are held. You don't find people saying that it's all very well what David Beckham does, but the midfield dynamo down at AFC Sudbury is much more street, do you? So why should it be that some play-in-a-day thicko should be held up as the echt spirit of rock'n'roll, while a virtuoso like Steve Howe, from Yes, almost has to go about under an assumed name for fear of people laughing at him?
But all this could be changing, just as even the Dark Ages had to come to an end. Yes, for example, have a new album out. I am keenly anticipating hearing it, but may have to wait until my family are up visiting the grandparents. To appreciate the full Yes experience requires lots of space and volume, and not children coming in and telling you to turn that rubbish down, you aren't the only person in this house you know.
What is interesting — to a Yes fan, I'll grant you — is that Magnification has been recorded virtually sans keyboards. Instead, a real orchestra has been drafted in to beef up the sound. Furthermore, a 60-piece orchestra is slated to accompany Yes on their forthcoming English tour.
I fear for their finances. Those who do not remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer's economically catastrophic tour with a full orchestra could well be condemned to repeat it.
Meanwhile, the re-release of the first three albums by Jethro Tull is much-needed proof that there is a God. This Was, Stand Up and Benefit — the most recent of them recorded in 1970 — come with the usual folderol of bonus tracks (many of them the hit singles that, back in those more value-for-money days, no respectable prog band would consider bunging on an album). More to the point, they come with more than 30 years of memories.
There are things I hear now that I heard then — I listen, with my 48-year-old ears, to the Bach-jazzed-up of 'Bouree', from Stand Up, and agree with the 16-year-old me that that was something pretty special. There are things I catch now that I missed then — primarily the knowledge that Martin Barre, the Tull's guitarist, had swallowed whole the heavy-rock book of cliches.
Most of all, I marvel that, as a teenager, I seriously wanted to pursue an instrument as cool, as down, as bitching, as the flute. To the ignorant, Ian Anderson is a figure of fun, a prancing, leering, wild-haired and bearded character in tights and a codpiece who played the flute while standing on one leg. Ian Anderson — stands on one leg. The more you think about it, the more fatuous a description it becomes. Why, it's like saying: Fatboy Slim — plays records and calls it a stage show.