A Prog Awakening (Part 1)

I suppose it is inevitable that kids encounter music first through the filter of parents’ or siblings’ tastes. That was certainly true in my case. In the early 70s, the meagre set of records owned by my mum and stepdad was my only window onto the world of music. I remember several LPs by Elton John and Rod Stewart, the odd one or two by The Beatles and The Stones, also The Carpenters, John Denver, Mama Cass…

At some point, I began to assert my musical independence and sought out new sounds. At that time in the UK, the main channels for hearing new ‘popular music’ were Radio 1 and the TV show Top Of The Pops. Like most kids, I listened to ‘The Charts’ and had little awareness of anything else. Glam rock and disco had no appeal, but then punk and ‘New Wave’ came on the scene. Like many young people of that era, I found the energy and non-conformist attitude of these new genres incredibly exciting. For the first time in my life, I starting buying my own music: 7″ singles by The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, Siouxsie & The Banshees…

Yet the signs were there that I would soon move on to other things. In amongst all that punk were singles by rock acts such as The Who, Queen and Nazareth. Further clues were to be found in my fascination with three albums from my stepdad’s otherwise middle-of-the-road collection. The first of these was a cassette of Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side Of The Moon. I forget when I first heard this, but it was before I started buying singles: probably 1975, certainly no later than 1976. I used to sit in the corner of the living room with headphones on, bewitched by the stereo sound effects as much as the epic qualities of the music. I hadn’t realised just how well-crafted music could be until that point.

The second of these intriguing albums was a Focus ‘greatest hits’ compilation – one of Polydor’s ‘Rock Flashback’ series. The cover was awful – fluorescent yellow with the band name spray-painted in green above a skewed, oddly-tinted band photo – but the music more than made up for that. There was so much to enjoy here: Jan Akkerman’s incredibly fluid and inventive guitar playing, Thijs van Leer’s unhinged, operatic performance on Hocus Pocus… In its own way, this was every bit as exciting as the punk that would very soon inspire me to start buying records. Focus remain a favourite of mine to this day, and Sylvia would almost certainly feature as one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’.

And the third of these influential albums? None other than Tangerine Dream’s Atem, completely unlike anything else in my stepdad’s collection. I suspect he saw it going cheap somewhere and bought it on the strength of the artwork. I doubt that he liked what he heard! He played the track Wahn for me, probably in the expectation that I would be shocked by its weirdness. I certainly found it challenging, but it was also strangely compelling. It was a tentative start to what would eventually become an infatuation with TD’s 1970s and 1980s material.

The transition period for me can be roughly dated as late 1978 to early 1979. Before that period, I was a chart-listening, single-buying slave to musical fashion who occasionally managed to reach beyond such superficiality and touch something deeper and more meaningful in music; after that period, I considered myself a serious music fan – album-focused, interested in seeking out new music for its own sake rather than its popularity, ready for the transcendent experiences of witnessing my favourite bands performing live.

That daunting leap from punk to prog was made via the convenient stepping stone of hard rock, principally in the form of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The first rock album I owned was, in fact, Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same – a present from Christmas 1978, I think. I no longer recall the precise chronology of my musical discoveries, but I still remember all of the vinyl LPs that were added to my burgeoning collection over that period from Christmas ’78 to my fourteenth birthday in July ’79: the first post-Hackett Genesis album, And Then There Were Three; Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here; Paris by Supertramp; Mike Oldfield’s Exposed; and 2112 by Rush. The latter, in particular, had a profound effect on me. I think Side 1 of 2112 was probably my first encounter with a true prog epic. Rush have been one of my favourite bands ever since.

Coming up in Part 2: My own musical ‘Cambrian explosion’ of 1979-1981, and my first gigs…


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