I wrote this over the weekend, having retreated back home in an attempt to come to terms with a very transitory and tumultuous period in my life. Without wishing to get too graphic, I thought maybe if I looked at the changes my own life has undergone in the past few of months (and in light of the impending graduation, years) from my old room at the top of the stairs, thought about the future from my old bed, it might place my current situation in the context of something greater. What that was/is, I still don’t know, but I have found some relief (or rather, distraction) in writing what you see below. It originally started as a brief ‘overview’ of art rock (hence why you’ll see me refer to it as thus) intended to be under a couple of thousand words. As time wore on, that rapidly transpired to be a lie, as I found I couldn’t stop myself. I also began with pretensions of impartiality and thought, naively, I could talk about my favourite type of music without getting too wrapped up in my own involvement with it. I failed on that one, too (almost immediately) so you’ll find matted into the weave of this behemoth some of my own history. Perhaps that was inevitable concerning how the endeavour was born. I also feel a compulsion and a guilt at having kept this music to myself for so long (although it is by no means unpopular), when I have derived so much enjoyment from it. It would please me to think that ‘somebody’ had read this and felt a similar urge to spread this music and understand its intention. With that in mind, I ask you to persist when my language ties itself in knots and my sentimentality overwhelms my ability to stab out a cogent sentence on the keyboard.
‘Art rock’ is a relatively nebulous label to apply to certain musicians – it spans a great many different artists and musical approaches. Art rock is not something that can usually be easily defined in such a way that, for example, progressive rock can. Progressive rock has a multitude of bastions and famous faces; some of them represented here, but only for the purposes of illustrating how art rock, in what I would consider its most undiluted and fundamentally impressive era (’75–’85), evolved out of proto–prog and the larger progressive rock movement. If you want to be especially pedantic, all of the artists I am about to include in this little overview can be considered, at the very least, as somehow having some involvement with the colossal and multi–decade spanning behemoth that IS progressive rock. Having said that, the category of 'art rock' as it applies here exists in only in so far as the definition I am giving it by name–checking certain artists and albums. While progressive rock is characterized by long instrumental passages, multiple time signature changes and movements, the use of particular instruments (Mellotron, Hammond et al, the dreaded flute) and the like, art rock (as it is represented here) is characterized instead by an ideology, an approach, a commitment to something other than the album as a genre piece in its most conventional sense. Each artist (with the notable exception of one) has a distinctly individual approach to how they produced (and in some cases continue to produce) their music, but they are united in their attitude as to how the music should be treated by the listener. More often than not, it is with grave seriousness (of the work involved – not necessarily that the work itself is serious, but that they make demands to be understood and connected with). These are albums that make demands of the listener. These are albums with a message – sometimes a ludicrously contrite statement on 'human nature', sometimes worthless and too vague to be considered anything other than an accident, but in a very select few cases the few musicians involved become something greater than the sum of their parts and their efforts resonate with a universal significance to anybody who listens to them. Moreover, much of these albums are characterized by a very specific period of time in the artists' lives, and half of the intrigue and interest that stems from listening to them is to question the circumstances that led to the production of such works. It is important that when you listen to them you make an effort to understand them.
Much of my acquaintance with this music comes from half–remembered memories of my father wearing out his cassette tapes in his Golf GTI, 'Grendel' blaring out of wound–down windows as he raced me to the Co–op on a sick day to pick up some chicken soup (with no seatbelt on in the front seat). Essentially, fear and excitement. 'Grendel' isn't a particularly pleasant track to listen to in any case, but I remember feeling a combination of both mortal fear and profound dread at the 'voice' coming out of the speakers. Of course, while all this sounds a little too much like an associative response to a traumatic childhood episode, such events are discernibly remembered because of the music and not of the events that surrounded them (if it is possible to separate them out). Little did I know it at the time, but I was becoming indoctrinated in the ways of 'art rock'. My father's music collection spans some of the worst dirge ever to have crawled out of the depths of the minds of men, but also some simply sublime highlights that even as an eight year old I could appreciate (albeit with some degree of caution and to nowhere near their fullest extent). He also possessed some scratchy and snowbound videotapes (bootlegs) of some of these artists in live performance that I used to sneak on while he was out. These were, more often than not, overly theatrical and I barely understood their meaning or the lyrical content being sung about, but I was fascinated by their dramatics and power. I used to fish out the album sleeves and stare at them for hours, each of them a clue, a visual scratchpad, a means of coming to terms with the anomalous noise and magnetic stagecraft I was being exposed to. Viewing these events retrospectively, through the lens of memory, I realise that I have inevitably blown many of these events out of proportion from what 'actually' occurred, that my father in fact did not play these albums anywhere near as much as his (at the time) recently discovered 'Faith No More' albums and the suchlike. I'd like to remember that these albums were constantly on the turntable (“Stop jumping around! I'm taping!”) but instead they were relative rarities – and half of them he didn’t even own. I inevitably gravitated towards them, and as soon as I was sneaking the tapes into the VCR every day, my love of this genre was cemented.
Art rock's roots can be traced in the so–called 'proto–prog' movement, the likes of whom were producing their music in the mid to late 1960s. The ‘60s saw the birth of the concept album as a viable and workable format within which to present music (used most famously in this period, and in a slightly more insubstantial capacity, by the Beatles), and none were more committed to realising this vision than the Moody Blues. Leaving accusations of psychedelia behind (along with their conspicuously bombastic and shamefully 'profound' lyrics), their '67 album 'Days of Future Passed' is a collection of songs with a single aim, orchestral accompaniment (which was added after) and connected in its concept (forming the building blocks of what a concept album would come to comprise) and it flows remarkably well for what is essentially one of the first forays into unproven territory. It's still rather underdeveloped as a concept (if musically accomplished). Thankfully, their approach hardened with age, and their 1970 effort 'A Question of Balance' is a much more refined and sober affair, including some rather tasteful synthesiser use (as was the growing trend of the time), especially on the track 'Melancholy Man'. A personal favourite, it is perhaps the finest marrying of lyrical content with some of the more adventurous studio recording techniques of the time. As a treat, my father used to play that in the car park of Sainsbury's while my mother would be struggling across the rain lashed tarmac, the wipers humming left and right. As a result, the lyrics are permanently ingrained in my mind, burnt into the neurons somewhere safe and sound. Somewhat similar is the approach of 'Procol Harum', another group that made extensive use of orchestration on their albums (and, impressively, in live concerts). While their oeuvre is decidedly patchy, an awkward mish–mash of blues inspired rock riffs and delicate classically inspired mood pieces, their efforts reached their apogee in the most spectacular fashion on the album 'A Salty Dog'. Specifically, the first track. The soaring vocals of Brooker, stretched to breaking point, describe the trials and tribulations of a group of sea–faring gents buckling the swash with a passion, a sensitivity and dignity that screams a yearning for the adventure and sense of brotherhood experienced by all involved. It is also a track drenched in pathos, the closure of the song a mute, elegant reminder of the experience as related by an old hand. It also reminds me of Whitby, somewhere I have spent a lot of time throughout the course of my life, memories of the seagulls squawking and waking up to the sound of waves indelibly infused with images of fisherman returning with the day’s catch. While Procol may be more famous for 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', their hit single, this track remains their highlight. Live performances of 'A Salty Dog' are plentiful, but Brooker's voice was only up to the piece with the required intensity and attack on a select few nights, these performances being genuinely spellbinding. If you can, track down his Hollywood Bowl performance, thankfully recorded for radio (so you don't have the indignity of having the experience ruined with the muddy recording techniques bootleggers of the time employed).
However, both of these acts are located squarely in what would become the symphonic scale of progressive rock. Symphonic progressive rock is a uniquely English creation, many of the bands that utilised the hallmarks of the genre in their production are suffused with a sense of whimsy, the likes of which you can find imbued in a nursery rhyme or a folk tale. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the band Genesis. Stop right there with your brace wearing slapheaded, heavily processed drum backbeat daydreams of wailing to monochrome music videos and jackets flung idly over shoulders. That is resolutely not the Genesis I am describing to you, and certainly not the one that produced the albums bearing their name between 1970 and 1975. This is the Genesis of who is to become a pivotal figure in art rock, Peter Gabriel. Without Peter, Genesis, in their more progressive iteration, would have had nowhere near the amount of exposure or intrigue surrounding them that they enjoyed. It was PG who put them famously on the cover of Melody Maker, his increasingly and by–turns nonsensical and inspired plays for attention gathering a healthy press interest in their work. Said cover featured Peter clad in a fox–head mask in one of his wife’s red dresses, and as an introduction it tells you much of what you need to know about this part of his career. PG became steadily more theatrical as time wore on, and his tenure with the band was ultimately severed by his commitment to such pantomime. Any examination of performance footage of Genesis from this period is like looking into a Brothers Grimm fairytale, a bizarre mixture of fanciful innocence and a distinctly dark adulthood coloured with nightmare. They contain that same mixture of childish optimism and the barely contained appreciation of the more frightening connotations of what inevitably transpires. Listening to them is like hearing in a conversation something with a darkly sexual connotation that nobody else involved seems to have appreciated. While most of the lyrical content of their earlier albums are amateurish efforts, the result of a more democratic approach to song writing (particularly 'The Knife', from Trespass, an awkward inverse protest–song about violent ascensions to power), once Peter had wrestled control of the creative direction there was no limit to his imagination, in particular its most darkest recesses. 'The Musical Box', from their '71 album 'Nursery Cryme', has this juxtaposition in perfect ratio. For the most part, it is an unremarkable Victorian fairytale about a child who is killed with a croquet mallet (wait! Come back!) by his mischievous female playmate and who, begging for another chance, returns back down from the relevant authorities in the body of an old man. Suddenly in its last passage the song becomes an unflinchingly disturbing voyage of sexual frustration as the old man is the child with an adult's desires, an awkward combination in the stooped and crooked frame he resides in. Here's a live performance (staged for the purposes of filming, incidentally, with a favourable crowd of well wishers and family) from '73 at Shepperton studios, on youtube; here and note Peter's occupation of the old man in his entirety. It is grimly hilarious in all the right ways – this must surely be the only appropriate arena for pelvic thrusting.
Precisely what made Peter become so theatrical is a relative mystery – his apparent shyness as a child and bouts of insecurity during his Charterhouse private school years (which were apparently fiercely devoid of humanity) seemed to provide a potent mixture for stage–bound displays of extroversion. He made extensive use of face paint and most of the designs he employed early on in their live shows were chosen for their striking appearance rather than any significance – although this later changed in his solo career. Costumes and masks featured prominently, and in the song sets where Peter would be required to change his appearance in line with his role switching, he would be changing back and forth with impunity. His acting is caricatured but also captivating precisely due to the other–worldly menace he seems to command by being so completely distinct from anything that had happened before (and arguably, since). Peter could also captivate an audience with his meandering and usually improvised stories between songs that more often than not had sexual overtones to them (in common with most of his Genesis work). Peter's imprint can be felt on any Genesis track that contains a fanciful premise – Britannia bemoaning the diminishing traces of what was classically considered 'English' on 'Dancing with the Moonlit Knight', for example, or an account of a real–life gang fight that occurred in Epping forest over control territory on ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ – which is laced with the kind of fantastical paroxysm typical of Gabriel’s Genesis. There's some footage of ‘Moonlit Knight’ live, here; complete with Britannia costume. Evidently, he made it himself. Perhaps the best example of Peter's expanding influence in the band's early history is the track in which the lyrical content was his sole responsibility - 'Supper's Ready', from the '73 effort 'Foxtrot'. A side long 20 minute epic, it concerns the epic struggle between good and evil inspired by an event involving Peter's then-wife-to-be, in which she was inhabited by something ‘not of this realm’. Apparently. Regardless of how ridiculous that sounds, and how ludicrous the premise is in regards to filling 20 minutes of progressive noodling, it works. Somehow, it works. The whole playing of Supper's Ready was an event in itself, a show closer and an expedition throughout most of the instrumental techniques that contributed to the Genesis sound - particularly the excellent guitar work of Steve Hackett, playing his guitar in a very melodic and supporting role, almost like a backing vocal track, ready to emerge into the forefront of the band's sound when required. Of course, there's Phil on drums, and he's good and more than up to the task, but there are better rock drummers (who I will highlight in a minute) - a full performance, including opening story, from (again) the Shepperton show. Yes, that is a crown of thorns. And yes, that is the needlessly gimmicky 9/8 time signature that makes that whole section sound like an exercise in showing off rather than anything as frightening as an appearance from the manifestation of purest evil. BUT! It's not meant to be taken with the ultimate seriousness – it's a showstopper, a journey. You're not meant to feel like you've achieved anything out of the experience other than akin to that of riding a rollercoaster – it's exhilarating, a wonderful ride, but don't try to draw anything ultimately significant from it. Feelings of that nature were reserved for their best album, and the one in which the whole concept was Peter's from start to finish.
For the recording of 1975's 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', the band split into two groups – Peter isolated himself and worked on the album's creative direction, the rest of the band practicing to hammer out some catchy new melodies that would ultimately be included in the new project. Peter returned with the story of Rael, a Hispanic New York street punk, whose apparent death and subsequent series of trials measure him as a human being and more importantly restore his faith in humanity. It is with this restoration that Rael's mortality is restored, as is all that of humanity. It's something of a 'Pilgrim's progress', where the measure of one man at the fringe of society is used as the watermark for the rest of humanity at large. Rael is imprisoned, sexually tormented, frustrated, disfigured and ultimately forced to make a decision as to whether to save his drowning brother or go after his surgically removed penis flying away in the claws of a giant raven. Yes, you read that correctly. On the basis of that description of events, it seems no more expressive than that of Peter's other material, but instead we are treated to a double album's worth of story telling, masterfully matched to some of the best music that era of Genesis have ever produced. Rael's saving of his brother from the rapids is a spectacular catharsis from an album whose lyrics are some of the most imaginative and creative in their description you could ever hope to hear. They capture in the most acute fashion Rael's disconnection from society a large, the problems of conformity versus obedience, a young man's sexual frustration and insecurity (including the hilarious story of purchasing a sexual manual for his first time, mastering his motions and getting the time down to a mere 38 seconds, leaving his partner distinctly nonplussed), and the eventual resolution of his issues through trust and absolution of the self and its desires. A fairly lengthy story and a double album's worth of lyrics necessitated the repetition of certain musical themes for the first time in Genesis' history, and while alienating some of their previous fans, the approach was indicative of an ongoing piece and contributed to a sense of continuity about the proceedings. The stage show, of which video footage is unbelievably rare (most available to the public are silent super 8 rolls and an obscure section from a German news show – who were completely unaware of who they were filming). This is a tragic shame as the live show was the culmination of all the theatrics that Peter had refined in the group up to that point. Appearing in, again, face paint (as Rael) and leather jacket, Peter inhabited his character, at one with his creation. His whole attitude changed – Peter had the first punk on stage (although not the first punk in prog, as we'll see in a second), and relished the part, screaming out lyrics (such as on 'Back in NYC') and running around like a madman (by all accounts). Rael's transformation into a slipper man in the last third of the show was illustrated with the most off the wall costume change yet witnessed – a huge flesh coloured eyesore, with all kinds of deformed appendages hanging off of it, resulting from his romantic dalliance with the Lamia of the pool. Thankfully, footage of the Slipper man survives, so you can see exactly what the hell Peter was up to; hilariously, the costume was so elaborate that he couldn't even sing properly with it on! That was probably the point at which it went too far. In fact, Peter realised this and was already making his way off a rapidly sinking ship. Peter, as we shall see later, is a remarkably astute observer of the musical trends of his time and has the capacity to reinvent himself in an almost infinite variety of ways in order to escape obscurity. With punk, as a musical movement and societal trend making its way rapidly onto the musical scene of the late 1970s, Peter wanted to get out and reinvent his whole musical persona in line with these exciting new developments (particularly as Genesis had just started to become seriously successful), that ultimately almost killed prog off, which had become bloated on its own sense of grandeur and significance. The point at which capes are employed is the point at which you simply have to walk away for the sake of your own sanity. He was also reportedly deeply unhappy with the way the band could not understand that the difficult birth of his daughter meant that he couldn’t spend as much time in studio with them – their lack of understanding left him feeling alienated and angry. So out goes Peter, Phil leaves his drummer's seat and takes over and runs the band into the dangerous waters of mainstream pop. Nice one Phil, but without Peter, their efforts lacked most of the intrigue and theatricality that attracted so many of their fans to the band in the first place. The remaining members always claimed that Peter had taken the focus too far away from the music (which is probably true) but to respond with the production of bland and soulless musical travesties ultimately negates their point.