In the early ‘80s I was an archetypical post-punk. I played in a quirky three-piece band (Serious Young Insects), had a foppish fringe and wore black jeans and retro golfing shirts. I played at places like the Seaview Ballroom in St Kilda. I spurned anything rockist, bluesy, hippie — 1977 was ground zero. David Byrne was a hero. Jon Anderson, the singer from prog progenitors Yes, was a dinosaur.
But scratch under any post-punk art-rocker and you’ll probably find someone who was into prog. Recently an old school friend, Sam Sejavka, contacted me about an impending concert by Yes at the Palais. The group would perform two of its classic albums: Fragile and Close To The Edge. Sam also plied his trade in the post-punk milieu and was far more of a punk enfant terrible than moi.
“Why go?” I asked.
“It’s irresistible,” he replied.
I’ve run from my prog past for too long. I got Yessongs for my 13th birthday and learnt to play guitar not from the licks and swagger of Jimmy Page, but from the sinewy noodling of Yes’ Steve Howe. It ruined my chances of being a rock-god lead guitarist. But it led to art-rock and thinking about the guitar and music from an elaborated, skewed angle. With Sam’s prompting I figured it was time to explore how this strange, complicated music got into our bones when we were adolescents — before fashion, irony, ego, aesthetics, careers, sex and common sense modulated our sensibilities.
Prog was born out of the ashes of the mind-expanding 1960s. Many non-prog artists explored the context of the music: its relationship to society, aesthetically, socially, politically and in terms of gender. Think of the nihilism and social realism of the Velvets, the gender bending of Bowie, the anti-war stance of the Woodstock generation, the free-love-on-coke ethos of the Laurel Canyon crew.
Prog, on the other hand, looked inwards, expanding the text of the music: the expressive possibilities of notes and chords. Lots of notes and chords. It connected to the European tradition of 19th-century classical/Romantic music. Music is organised in complicated ways that only have something to say about music itself — the ultimate inner journey. Imagine Paul Keating in his armchair, eyes closed, swooning to Mahler, his mind expanding (leading to the opening up of the Australian economy) as notes and chords are fashioned into monumental formal shapes. Now add moog synthesisers, mellotrons and dippy lyrics and you have prog. Its primary protagonists were Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson and Genesis (with Peter Gabriel — not the tepid 1980s version).
Because prog was concerned with inward signification (the music) and neglected the outside world (everything else) its outward signifiers were goddamn awful. Lyrics were about pixies, sci-fi scenarios and impenetrable Hindu scriptures as seen through hippie sensibilities. As a sop to show-biz, proggers wore capes and looked like wizards. They had multi-necked guitars and mountains of keyboards. These men (yes, all men) made sexless music. And it appealed primarily to young men in anoraks who had never had sex. This is where I came in.
We now skip ahead 40 years or so to the Palais last night. I’m there with Sam. We are in our mid-50s. Who knows how old the Yes-men are? They charge into Close To The Edge with it’s atonal overture. Immediately I notice that the attack isn’t there. The early ’70s live version of Yes was ferocious. Their songs were planet-sized — their playing was rocket-fired. Drummer Alan White lead this charge in 1972. Sadly he’s reined it in. I wish he’d just hit those damn things harder.
Guitarist Steve Howe is also somewhat attenuated from his younger self: a tiny little guitar amp and clean guitar tone rather than the big sound and spilling-all-over-the-place effervescence of 1972. Still, he was nimble of finger and sprightly in his elder-professor-of-guitar persona. He was putting in, giving a master class in his wholly idiosyncratic sound and style. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as he noodled out the strangest guitar solos in rock. He’d give you this look, mid-lick, as if to say, “how was that?”.
Bassist Chris Squire was still living the dream. While Howe’s sound was cleaned up, Squire had his full vintage trademark throb’n’growl — a bass amp so big you could see it from the moon and a sound to match (notice, at this stage, the focus on equipment, a feature of prog). He prowled the stage. At the end of his bass solo (there are two words you don’t hear often) he looked like an uncle who had just pulled off an exemplary barbecue.
Intense riffing was followed by ambient stillness, followed in turn by by a great melody and then a bass solo — often in the one song (which was 15 minutes long). The effect was cumulative immensity. Still there were moments that needed to hit a height of symphonic pomp but didn’t make it. It almost happened during And You And I. I thought the band needed a director to remind them of the dramaturgy of these epic songs. “Guys — forget the fiddly notes. This is when you just go for it! Hit the drums, Alan!” Bands like Muse and many prog-metal bands can play this sort of music — music that Yes invented — with a ferocity and attack that eclipses Yes.
What was really on show here was the legacy of this band’s work. These … compositions (I’ve gone fully prog now) show amazing scope and breadth. What incredible ambitions these guys had as young men. While others wrestled with verses and choruses these guys went “verse, chorus, journey-around-the-solar-system-into-another-dimension … then one more chorus”. Sam was jumping out of his seat, and I kept giggling at the audacity of it all. No one else around us was giggling. They loved it and were clearly moved. For all of us there was a sense of “thank you for going to the trouble of coming here one more time”, a royal visit of sorts. I sat 30 feet away from my adolescent guitar hero, and he can still play like lightning, while arthritis lurks darkly in my hands. Suddenly we are in the realm of memory and mortality, “do not go gentle …” stuff.
For years I viewed ’70s prog as a cultural and aesthetic dead-end. The truth is many of its innovations have persisted: elaborate staging, pop tunes orchestrated with multiple contrasting instrumental lines and textures rather than sludgy monochromatic folk guitar chords, drama, colour, agility. Prog blew apart established notions of how instruments behaved in rock bands. Why does the bass have to just play low notes? Why can’t a keyboard player play four different keyboards in a song with distinct roles and sounds rather than just sitting at a piano? Keyboard players, stand up! (Robert Fripp, sit down!) Prog cross-pollinated with art-rock (via Fripp to Eno and Bowie) to produce experiments in process, texture and aesthetics that still sound fresh today.
Attending Tuesday’s Yes concert was not just about what happened in that room. Like many good concerts, the past is brought into the space. It made us alive to the musical and cultural legacies that have shaped us — a bunch of white, middle-class people (yes, there were women!) who grew up, predominantly, in the ’70s. There was a time when some of us came alive to something beyond ourselves and our drab suburban lives, not just escapism but an audacity — the precursor to the transgressive behaviour that lay ahead for many of us. Sam said: “Melbourne was such a desert in the ’70s. We craved something different.” Prog helped open those pathways. The world flooded in, and we madly started swimming.
*This article was originally published at Daily Review