British prog fans are a hardy bunch of rockers who tend to follow the music wherever it may lead. So while hundreds of prog fans were enjoying the warmth of the Mexican sun at Bajafest and others were basking in the afterglow of the Cruise to the Edge in the Caribbean, a select gathering got a taste of prog in a cold climate.
Let me explain. The weekend before last saw the inaugural staging of Hard Rock Hell’s (HRH) Prog Festival.
It was running alongside the first ever AOR Festival so, effectively, it was two festivals for the price of one. Both were being held in a former Yorkshire steel mill, now Magna, a science adventure center which is one of the UK’s flagship Millennium projects opened in 2000.
There had been a certain amount of hoo-ha over here last year when the festival was first announced, due mainly to some clumsy messaging by the organisers which gave the impression it was the only festival happening for proggers. Of course, we are blessed with great prog festivals over here, among them the established and much loved Summer’s End and the newer kids on the block, Danfest and Celebr8. However, to cut a long story short, another brand new festival, Y-Fest, which was due to be held just along the road in Sheffield a month before this new behemoth took place, had to be cancelled.
It was not our intention to go, the festival being a good four hours’ drive up country but when we were offered a couple of tickets by a competition winner, well, it would have been rude not to! First and foremost, it presented an excellent opportunity to come and observe how the new bad boy on the prog block would perform.
Well, for the benefit of those not familiar with the venue, it is a huge black monolith, a catacomb of interlinking areas which, in some places, look like something from a sci-fi film set from where some may have not successfully escaped at closing time! http://www.visitmagna.co.uk/science/
As the families arrived to do the usual adventure tour, the various musical tribes began appearing to enjoy two days of non-stop music from a stellar cast of bands. Now, the reason why I say prog fans are a hardy breed is because in the great scheme of things within Magna, while the AOR crowd had a lovely warm arena with a large stage and good acoustics in which to enjoy their music, our “space” was an area adjacent to the loading bay through which instruments and other nefarious musical accessories were being delivered and retrieved throughout the day, resulting in the bay doors being constantly left open. Add to that the very high industrial cathedral-like ceiling and the concrete floor and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a weekend for thermals, scarves and woolly hats.
However, such was the good natured humor, one of our number, Richard Thresh, turned up in a Hawaiian shirt but had not gone as far as A N Other who was bravely sporting a pair of shorts. And whereas the lady members of the bands appearing would usually opt for something skimpy and appealing, thick tights, overcoats and furry boots were the order of the day.
Why? Because on that day, the first wave in the tsunami of brilliant new British prog rock will be available to the discerning listening community in the form of Lifesigns.
Let me tell you a little bit about it. First, it is another prog-ject following on from Kompendium’s Beneath the Waves and Genesis Revisited II that both had guest lists straight out of prog central casting. Also, three of the main players from those albums, Steve Hackett, Nick Beggs and Jakko Jakszyk will be appearing on Lifesigns.
Heading up this album is John Young, the classically trained composer, keyboards player and vocalist whose CV includes stints with Asia, the Strawbs, Greenslade, Fish, Uli Jon Roth and his own John Young Band. He also tours with Bonnie “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Tyler.
After such an illustrious career, John decided six years ago he ought to write a prog album which would draw together all the musical influences in his life including classic bands of the 70s such as Yes and Focus.
To cut a long story short, John moved to the delightfully named town of Leighton Buzzard in the Home Counties of England where his next door neighbour was music producer Steve Rispin to whom he started playing some of his musical ideas, usually late at night. Nick Beggs is also resident in this town and John invited him to be a central collaborator to Lifesigns. Frosty Beedle, drummer with Cutting Crew, who had a huge hit with (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight, became the third musical member of the core Lifesigns group with John and Nick.
So where is this all leading? Well last January, John and Nick invited Martin Reijman, my prog partner in crime, and me to come and hear an early version of the album.
By way of explanation, Nick and I go back a long long way – over 30 years – back to when I was working as a reporter on the local paper in Leighton Buzzard, but that’s a story for another time.
We had also met John both via Facebook and at a gig so it was an real honor to be among the first to hear the genesis of Lifesigns. Eighty five per cent of the album had been completed then and we were both struck by its classic British prog style, full of uplifting melodies, harmonies and instrumentation. By then, Steve Hackett had also added a couple of his signature flourishes to the arrangements.
After that, John also secured the services of one of his heroes, the legendary Thijs Van Leer of Focus who provided some lovely flutelines, then guitarists Jakko from King Crimson and Robin Boult, who has played with Fish.
The months passed and John got back in contact to say the album had been completed and Esoteric Records would be releasing it. He invited us back to hear the finished article but unfortunately Martin was unwell on the day in question and is still to hear it. So I returned alone to Steve Rispin’s studio in a beautiful part of rural Buckinghamshire to hear the album and meet Frosty, and John of course.
Well, the finished article was sensational. It was quite mind-blowing to think of the various processes and mixes the music had been through to achieve the final sound. Lifesigns is one of those quintessentially classic British prog albums (with a dash of Dutch artistry) which takes you on a long and memorable journey through some very special sonic landscapes.
The opener Lighthouse nearly knocked me off my chair with its wall of sound that conjured up crashing waves. As John is keen to point out, the theme of the album is life itself and is open to any interpretation the listener may want to put on it.
The three of us ended up at the local bar in the neighboring village where John recounted an extraordinary story of a meeting he had with another of his heroes, the brilliant Patrick Moraz of Refugee, Yes and the Moody Blues in the bar of the Los Angeles’ Hilton Hotel. Maybe one day, I will take a verbatim note from John of the story and share it with you here.
Anyway, that’s the background to Lifesigns which I hope you will all hear and adore, made by a group of incredibly charming guys who genuinely love making the music. It was a real privilege to have been a party to its progress last year.
[Ed. note--I'm thrilled beyond words to share webspace and writing space with Alison. She's been one of my favorite prog writers for a long time, and I've found through correspondence she's as spunky and witty as she is kind. So, thank you for joining us, Lady Alison. The pleasure is all ours.]
It never ceases to amaze me to this day how very few ladies love prog. Even in these “enlightened” times, it still seems as though we continue to be an endangered species but well worth preserving.
Though there is a thriving private Ladies of Prog Facebook group, here in the UK, the physical and spiritual home of prog, there is a relatively small group that make up the Sisterhood of the Prog. We all know each other, we get on really well together and we all share a passion for a very diverse range of bands. From conversations I have had with fellow lady proggers, it seems that IQ and its offshoots are a particular favourite along with Frost*, It Bites, Steve Hackett and of course Rush (though the debate still rages on as to whether they truly are a prog band).
My long standing joke is that there is never a queue for the ladies’ washroom at concerts: in fact at the classic Transatlantic concert at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London two years ago, I would guess there were less than 100 lady attendees among the 2,000 strong audience.
So I can only go by my own personal experiences of prog which started longer back than I care to mention and can be traced to a chance meeting with an older man on a family holiday in Majorca. I was 12: he was 15 for the record. He was a huge fan of Curved Air who had just announced their arrival through their debut sensation Air Conditioning and on the strength of that, my first record purchase was Curved Air 2 from the proceeds of six weeks’s baby sitting. It was simply the whole package which appealed – that classic edgy sound with Darryl Way’s haunting violin and Sonja Kristina’s sultry singing being the real appeal.
So while my school friends getting steamed up over David Cassidy and assorted Osmondpersons, my prog world became full of astonishingly beautiful men with long hair and languid features who played just as spectacularly as they looked. I also had a platonic male friend into prog who played me Meddle by Pink Floyd after which I wrote a very long prose poem based on Echoes involving a stranded submarine and astral projection. How I wish I had kept hold of it.
Along came Fragile and suddenly, life made perfect sense. Here was the music on which to build the soundtrack of your life. So I retreated to my bedroom for the best part of three years to listen and learn from this extraordinary music, and tuning in every Saturday afternoon to Radio One for the weekly gospel of prog according to the Rev “Fluff” Freeman. He even wrote me a letter starting “Dear lovely Alison” after I sent him an essay about the virtues of Patrick Moraz joining Yes.
So the foundations were set in prog stone in an early age, crystallised by going to see Yes for the first time on the Relayer tour and the subsequent seven or eight times in the various permutations. They will always be my prog torchbearers because of the way they have fused so many styles and influences to produce something totally original and memorable, well, at least until before June last year but that is another story.
There have been some long intermissions since because life does have a habit of getting in the way but the prog ideology within was always there, albeit temporarily snuffed out by circumstance. However, Yes have always been there when the going got tough. I do remember listening to The More We Live/Let Go from Yes’s Union album and crying for the first few times I heard it because it reminded me of where I wanted to be rather than being in a very destructive marriage. And when that marriage broke up, Jon Anderson was there with In The City of Angels to tell me it was all going to be okay through Top of the World, For You and Hurry Home.
So prog has saved my life, restored my sanity and informed my reality every step of the way since.
In conclusion, how do I explain this eternal love of prog? Easy, really. The best music takes you on a journey and offers an experience which is both personal and profound. It lets you decide what you want it to be and every definition you give is right, because there is no wrong. It is all down to perception and interpretation, and the wonderful musicians who provide it never tell you how you should think or feel while listening to it. That makes all prog fans free thinkers who find their own level in the music and then celebrate it with other aficianados. It is a totally unifying force of expression.
And there is so much more. Without Sonja Kristina, I could never have had an early perception of what it means to be a liberated, independent and creative female. Without Jon Anderson, I could never have understood and interpreted the wonders of life then re-arranged them into a lifelong philosophy. In his words and part of my mantra, “I count my blessings, I can see what I mean”. And in Keith Emerson, and I shall keep it clean, I got to appreciate the more physical side of prog – and at last I finally got to see him with Lake and Palmer two years ago. That is now more or less the full prog set seen live.
Prog has been my life, my philosophy, my fun and my passion. That I can write about it now is a dream come true and also getting the chance to finally meet some of the legends that make it. It has been so influential in shaping who I am and the way I think. And so far as I am concerned, prog rock chicks will always like it over 20 minutes long with a three weird key changes, an undanceable time signature and an organ solo. My case rests!