Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Prog, Metal, Glam And The Velvets: A Musical History, Part One

To continue this week's "Get To Know You" theme for Blaugust, and since this blog is currently featuring a number of musical drop-in posts, I thought I might delve into my musical history a little. I imagine most regular readers will by now have built up a fairly clear impression of my MMORPG experience and tastes but I'm well aware that my musical preferences probably seem to have been drawn out of a particularly commodious and bizarrely-stuffed hat, entirely at random.

And that's not so far from the truth. I am something of a cultural magpie, swooping in on shiny things, stealing them and stashing them away in my nest. It's a serendipitous approach, for sure, but perhaps not quite as random as it seems.

I first became interested in music - popular music - at around the age of twelve or thirteen. Before that about the only notice I took was in novelty songs and anything related to TV shows I watched, like Stingray or Dr. Who.

The first proper pop record I bought with my own money was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", the Joan Baez cover of a Robbie Robertson song that was a hit in 1971. I had no clue who Joan Baez was, let alone that it was a cover. I just liked the tune and her voice.

Buying that single opened the floodgates. My mother used to buy a lot of things from the Freeman's catalog, a mail order outfit that sold everything from clothes to household goods to records. The catalog was the size of a phone directory and landed on our doormat regularly. From it I bought my first two albums, "Abbey Road" by The Beatles and "Motown Chartbusters Vol. 6". You  can see the eclecticism was there from the beginning.

That would have been towards the end of 1971, by which time I was thirteen. The teenage revolution was beginning. Within weeks of my thirteenth birthday popular music blew up to become my primary and overriding interest in life.

I began buying the weekly music papers, specifically The New Musical Express and Sounds. Occasionally I'd try Melody Maker but it seemed very stodgy and old fashioned compared to the NME, which was at that time becoming the home for all kinds of exiles from the collapsing underground press, and Sounds, which was very much the new kid on the block with young writers to back that up.

My best friend, Chris, was every bit as obsessed with music as I was and together we competed to find and introduce each other to new bands, artists and genres. We both went through a short but intense heavy metal/hard rock phase, almost inevitable since that was the genre of choice for most of our peers at our all-boys private school.

Black Sabbath were my favorite band of that period, closely followed by Deep Purple. I liked a handful of Led Zeppelin songs but most of their output seemed plodding to me. In retrospect it's obvious that what I was responding to in metal and rock was speed. I loved "Paranoid", "Highway Star", "Fireball" and "Immigrant Song", which all either sound like pre-punk tryouts or have a relentless motorik.

Heavy metal and hard rock soon gave way to prog. I was a big prog fan until about 1974 or '75 and I still like some of the bands even now. By 1972 I was going to Live gigs. Yes, unaccompanied by adults, at the age of thirteen. It truly was, as Lana del Rey unforgettably describes it in the magnificent "Brooklyn Baby, "the freedom land of the seventies".

The first gig I went to was Hawkwind, supported by Noel Redding's (ex of The Jimi Hendrix Experience) new band, the unfortunately-named Fat Mattress, plus a German band whose name I forget. Fat Mattress didn't turn up, supposedly having broken down somewhere on the M4 motorway, an excuse I was to hear a few more times when bands didn't make it to the gig on time.

Their slot was filled by local folk-comedian Fred Wedlock, who came onstage in front of a an audience of hippies, rockers and random degenerates (Hawkwind at the time being almost as famous for their "exotic dancer" Stacia as for their booming space-rock). With just an acoustic guitar, a laid-back stand-up comedian's polished patter and a set filled with genuinely funny and catchy songs, he went down a lot better than Fat Mattress ever would have. I bought his album the following week and it still amuses me on the odd occasion I remember I have it.

The eclecticism and randomness of that, my first ever live gig, set the standard I would both expect and get for the next 25 years, before I finally retired myself from the live scene in the late 1990s. Live performance should be vital, strange, unexpected. I have never had much time for the gig as worship or confirmation of expectations. Go see people you don't know because they have an interesting name and you're as likely to have a great time as you will if you see a band whose material you know inside-out.

My second gig set the lessons of the first both in context and in stone. I owned several albums by Yes by that point, "The Yes Album", "Close to the Edge" and particularly the triple-live album "Yessongs", which I played incessantly. I sat in my second-row seat at the Bristol Hippodrome, a proper theater occasionally used for rock shows, excited by the prospect of hearing all my favorites.

Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and the rest opened with three selections from Close to the Edge, which was great. Then they launched into their unreleased double-album, "Tales from Topographic Oceans", an epic eighty-minute conceptual work in four suites.

Almost no-one in the audience had ever heard it before, unless they'd been following the band on tour. Yes played the entire thing, in full, without a break. It was awesome. Those two gigs convinced me that, while the familiar could be fun, the unfamiliar might be thrilling. I've carried that belief with me ever since.

Even as I was buying prog albums by Uriah Heep, Gentle Giant and Emerson Lake and Palmer, my musical taste were changing. I put some of it down to the music press but the most significant lever of change was the Johnnie Walker show on Radio One.

Johnnie Walker, who had a very rocky relationship with the BBC, leaving under several clouds then returning years later each time, was never taken particularly seriously as an influencer along the lines of John Peel or Steve Lamacq but he had a habit of playing tracks on daytime radio that weren't on the notorious playlist. He introduced me to David Bowie's back catalog, particularly "Queen Bitch", and more importantly to Bowie's influences on that song, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.

Hearing "Waiting for the Man" on national radio at two o'clock on a weekday afternoon was a seminal event for me. It was the first time I'd heard something that sounded so utterly different from anything I'd heard before, an experience that was to be repeated infrequently but with enormous impact, many times over the next 45 years.

At the time, music radio, which meant BBC Radio One, was ruled by the charts and the charts, while wildly eclectic by today's standards, were dominated by glitter and glam rock. I loved hearing this on the radio but I didn't buy many of the records. As a peer-presssured teen it wasn't quite the done thing in my all-male school environment to confess to a love of mainstream, throwaway pop.

My cousin, however, who went to a mixed comprehensive school, had no such qualms. He lived a minute's walk from me and we spent much of our teenage years hanging out like brothers, but brothers who could get away from each other whenever we got on each other's nerves. Through him I heard a lot of the glam stuff that wasn't on the radio, the album tracks, and also, weirdly, some Krautrock he was into, particularly Faust.

When Lou Reed released the Bowie-produced solo album "Transformer", featuring his biggest chart hit "Walk on the Wild Side", I found a legitimate entry-point for glam. Lou became my favorite artist and something of an obsession for me for more than a decade. He was the first artist whose every album I bought on release, from the indescribably brilliant "Berlin" all the way through to "Mistrial" in 1986.

The only exception was Metal Machine Music. I went to Virgin Records the week MMM was released and asked to hear it. I put on the headphones and sat in the comfy seat provided. The record began and my head exploded. I lasted about five minutes. I was sweating, my heart was racing, I felt like I was having a panic attack. I tore the headphones off and ran out of the shop. Lou would have cracked a sardonic smile, I'm sure.

I can appreciate Metal Machine Music now. I own it and I have listened to it. The girl I was equally obsessed with in my teens as I was with Lou Reed did buy it back then. We used it very successfully to clear stragglers out at the end of a party.

Through 1973 and 1974 my tastes were a peculiar mix of prog, hard rock, glam and underground experimentalism. Some folk in there, too. Increasingly, though, my preferences were moving to the faster, the more driving, the more repetitive, the more musically simple but conceptually complex. I loved the relentless drive of The Velvets, of Iggy and the Stooges, of Sparks and Alice Cooper and Roxy Music and Hawkwind. Two or three chords and a lot of drone, with a singer who intoned more than sang. That was my bag back then and still to large extent is now.

And then came punk. Which is a story for another day.


  1. '...the indescribably brilliant "Berlin."'

    ...and here was me thinking I couldn't love you any more than I did already. :-)

    1. Thanks! Berlin's reputation has waxed and waned but it's finally settled as the absolute classic it always was. Scary as hell, too.

  2. Back in the 90's I used to be able to whistle the fax machine accept codes well enough to trick a miss-dialled fax or modem into beginning its send sequence. I'm pretty sure what happened next is Metal Machine Music!

    1. Lol! I remember a movie where someone did that whistling trick. I didn't realize it was actually possible!

      As for MMM, after I put that video up I left the "music" running in the backround. I can actually hear the melodies in it now. I still can't take more than about ten minutes at a stretch but I'm certain there's a lot more going on than I originaly thought. Of course Lou didn't help by constantly contradicting himself about his intent and execution in various interviews but I think he probably did intend it as a serious work, not just a contract-breaker.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide