Saturday, January 03, 2009

Prog & Poetry

I watched the programme, Prog Britannia, on BBC 4 yesterday, and it was interesting that there were some of the same problems you get with people who are "non-mainstream" in poetry. In some ways, it confirmed my prejudices: a lot of them were public school boys or music school graduates who were often very good musicians, playing as many notes as possible and coming up with "concepts" to do with Tolkein and fantasy rather than real life. And its demise was as much to do with the bombast of its attempt at a Gessamptwerke (total work) involving overblown theatrics and lots of dry ice. But then one remembers U2's Achtung Baby tour...

But what struck me was that here again were a bunch of highly intelligent people being - well - highly intelligent. That old bugbear of English anti-intellectualism began to rear its ugly head. Though shalt not have any big ideas... And the other bug bear of not wanting to be bored. If you're capable of writing a work that lasts 20 minutes, involves several key changes and references everything from TV theme tunes to Schoenburg, why limit yourself to the 3 minutes blues/rock riffathon? Some of the people involved were not only considerably good musicians, but actually wrote challenging music that actually utilised new ways of working: Robert Fripp, in particular.

Others, of course, such as Caravan and the Canterbury bands, were plugging into a vein of English romanticism that includes Vaughn Williams and Britten, as well as utilising that peculiar ly whimisical strain of British surrealism that includes Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. And they were bringing this into rock music. Bands like that were, in many ways, the very opposite of the bombastic strain of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; which, frankly, even now just looks like a low-rent Wagner.

There were many things wrong with it, of course. Often, the ideas were not all that original: concept albums around the theme of Tolkein are a bit, well, jejune. Sometimes all the twiddly guitar and keyboard solos were less virtuoso and more self-indulgent posing. A little restraint would have avoided some of the pitfalls. But then, they were young, smoking a lot of wacky backy and no-one was actually stopping them.

It all reminds me a bit about the avant garde poets of England in the '70's: no-one was really stopping them do what they liked, because not many were actually listening. No doubt, if a non-biased way of reading such poetry ever happens, we would sort out the really good stuff from the not-quite-acheived and the overblown. But the fact that lots of people were trying things out, experimenting, making odd noises, going in wrong directions to see where they led, that wasn't a bad thing, was it?

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