New Songs?

“To The Bone is Steven Wil­son’s hat tip to the hugely am­bi­tious pro­gres­sive pop records of his youth (think Peter Gabriel’s So, Talk Talk’s The Colour Of Spring, Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love).” So boldly states the press re­lease that ac­com­pa­nies Wil

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Just over 30 sec­onds into Steven Wil­son’s new al­bum To The Bone, there’s a squall of har­mon­ica. It’s one of the many metic­u­lous de­tails that has made Wil­son the undis­puted leader of his gang. But this is not any old har­mon­ica squall. It’s the play­ing of Mark Feltham, the man who did sim­i­lar on Talk Talk’s three great­est al­bums, The Colour Of Spring, Spirit Of Eden and Laugh­ing Stock. Re­leased in 1986, ’88 and ’91, th­ese records were un­doubt­edly prog – in the truest sense of pro­gres­sive mu­sic.

Wil­son has lo­cated this 80s prog suc­cinctly on To The Bone, making a record that sounds like the sum of its in­flu­ences – Talk Talk, Kate Bush, So-era Peter Gabriel and, most im­por­tantly, Tears For Fears. Th­ese were the artists who, aside from Gabriel, had no vis­i­ble prog past, but were adept at wear­ing their in­flu­ences on their sleeves in a man­ner far more con­comi­tant with the glossy yup­pie decade than the stan­dard­bear­ers for prog in those years, such as Mar­il­lion and IQ, who were unashamedly em­u­lat­ing their he­roes.

As Wil­son says, th­ese were records “mainly made by mu­si­cians who’d come out of the cru­cible of in­no­va­tive, ex­per­i­men­tal 70s mu­sic but still wanted to write great songs that peo­ple could hum on the bus. They’re un­apolo­get­i­cally ac­ces­si­ble but with not even the slight­est sense of dumb­ing down. They have a huge sense of am­bi­tion.”

But it wasn’t just th­ese artists that were car­ry­ing a flag for the genre and had huge am­bi­tion in this most de­bated decade. David Syl­vian and

The Blue Nile, for ex­am­ple, were both at it. Smug­gling it into the very up­per ech­e­lons of the UK charts and onto

Top Of The Pops were Nik Ker­shaw and Howard Jones. In fact, a great deal of pop was mas­ter­minded by Trevor Horn, a man who had been in Yes. What was the ti­tle track of Frankie Goes To Hol­ly­wood’s Wel­come To The Plea­sure­dome, if not a side-long prog opus, fea­tur­ing Steve Howe on acous­tic gui­tar?

Wil­son has also col­lab­o­rated with XTC’s Andy Par­tridge on To The Bone, and lest we for­get, XTC’s strong art pop took a dis­tinctly pas­toral prog turn with the dou­ble al­bum (a dou­ble al­bum, you say!) English Set­tle­ment in 1982. Th­ese artists weren’t bury­ing their passion for prog, and were less con­cerned about mask­ing their in­flu­ences and record collection than those who had fought in the punk wars.

While Ge­n­e­sis be­came sta­di­um­fill­ing pop rock­ers, Yes be­came arty AOR, Rush mor­phed into a heav­ier ver­sion of The Po­lice and King Crimson be­came an artier Talk­ing Heads (if that could be pos­si­ble), one old prog­ger stuck to his guns and brought his dif­fi­cult mu­sic into the higher ech­e­lons of the charts. Peter Gabriel led the charge and set the tem­plate that he had be­gun right

back on Selling Eng­land By The Pound with Ge­n­e­sis in 1973: make sure you put a hit sin­gle on it, and then you can make the rest as weird as you like. His old Bee Gees/Otis Red­ding ob­ses­sion rang through and each of his al­bums con­tained ei­ther a chart smash or ra­dio track.

This came into sharpest re­lief by the time of Se­cu­rity (as no one in the UK called it Peter Gabriel ‘4’) and So, where there was sim­ply ab­ject weird­ness cours­ing through the al­bums but peo­ple pur­chased in droves. This had started with Games With­out Fron­tiers on his Melt (or ‘3’) from 1980, and

Shock The Mon­key on Se­cu­rity. By the time of So, he could get away with We Do What We’re Told (Mil­gram’s 37) and This Is the Pic­ture (Ex­cel­lent Birds) – res­o­lutely not AOR sta­ples – be­cause he also had Sledge­ham­mer and Don’t Give Up.

Gabriel’s in­flu­ence un­doubt­edly shaped this 80s ‘prog­not­prog’, al­though his duet part­ner on Don’t Give Up, Kate Bush, had long bro­ken through. David Gilmour was an early cham­pion, while her al­bums The Kick In­side and Lion­heart were both highly suc­cess­ful re­leases work­ing on broadly sur­real adap­ta­tions of a Ca­role King/Joni Mitchell tem­plate.

How­ever, she met Gabriel in 1979 and be­came an ea­ger pupil of his.

Her work can be viewed as pre- and post- con­tribut­ing to Gabriel’s third al­bum in early 1980. Us­ing Fairlight tech­nol­ogy, Never For Ever from later that year con­tained Breath­ing – about a foe­tus singing in its mother’s womb, con­cerned about nu­clear fall­out – and took a dis­tinctly art prog turn.

This new di­rec­tion was com­pletely con­firmed by 1982’s The Dream­ing, an al­bum ul­ti­mately so way out that its big, bold themes (Viet­nam, Abo­rig­i­nal plight) proved un­palat­able com­mer­cially (yet it still got to No.3 in the UK charts). But in 1985, she did it all over again, and fol­lowed Gabriel’s golden rule of pack­ing the hit sin­gles. Hounds Of Love can be viewed as her ul­ti­mate al­bum, and a flag-wa­ver for ‘prog­not­prog’.

The first side con­tained four thump­ing great left-field sin­gles (Run­ning Up That Hill, Cloud­bust­ing, Hounds Of Love and The Big Sky), and then the sec­ond side went off the scale in its weird­ness. It’s so un­usual and sin­gu­lar, it could eas­ily have been re­leased on the Ver­tigo la­bel in 1971 and now be worth £400.

The Ninth Wave was a seven-track suite about some­one adrift at sea, try­ing to stop them­selves drown­ing by run­ning through their life. “I love the sea,”

Bush told Kris Needs at ZigZag in 1985. “It’s the en­ergy that’s so at­trac­tive – the fact that it’s so huge. And war films, where peo­ple would come off the ship and be stuck in the wa­ter with no sense of where they were or of time, like sen­sory de­pri­va­tion. It’s got to be ul­ti­mately ter­ri­fy­ing.”

With choral in­ter­ludes and Ir­ish jigs, it’s a fully func­tion­ing foible that chimed with the new CD gen­er­a­tion. It was clearly one of

Bush’s favourites be­cause when she made her re­turn to the live stage in 2014 with her Be­fore The Dawn con­cert se­ries, The Ninth Wave took up the first half of the show.

In­flu­enced by both Gabriel and Bush, the work of Tears For Fears cour­ses through To The Bone. Al­though Curt Smith and Roland Orz­a­bal had been in 2 Tone-ap­ing band Grad­u­ate (their near-hit Elvis Should Play Ska is for­ever on the Prog of­fice playlist),

they were spot­ted quite clearly in the au­di­ence at the Dis­ci­pline (the band that be­came King Crimson Mk IV) gig in Bath’s Moles club in April 1981. They worked with Gabriel’s pro­ducer David Lord and shared en­gi­neers and play­ers with both ‘Bath Peters’ (Gabriel and Ham­mill). Had 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair – its sec­ond side es­pe­cially – been re­leased a decade ear­lier, it would have been a great­coated com­mon room mas­ter­piece.

Tak­ing its ti­tle from the TV film Sy­bil, about a woman with a mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der who only felt safe in the psy­chi­a­trist’s chair, Songs From The Big Chair con­tained big, deep, in­tel­li­gent mu­sic and showed that new­com­ers could ex­per­i­ment as strongly as any who had gone be­fore. It was clear from the start that Tears were trou­bled souls who wore their in­flu­ences on their sleeves, and for ev­ery com­mer­cial ditty, there was an ex­per­i­men­tal depth charge.

“Ob­vi­ously we’re try­ing to get away from the three- or four-minute pop song, but that doesn’t mean 24-minute con­cept pieces at all,” Orz­a­bal told Melody Maker in 1983. “A cou­ple of things on the al­bum

[their de­but, The Hurt­ing] to­tally got away from the pop song, namely The Prisoner and Ideas As Opi­ates. The Prisoner isn’t even a song re­ally, it’s just a collection of mo­tifs. But the three­minute, four-minute, five-minute pop song… it’s good to have a frame­work to build around.”

And they never for­got that frame­work – hence Every­body Wants To Rule The World and Shout, al­low­ing Lis­ten, Bro­ken and The Work­ing Hour to be ac­cepted by the masses as there would be a hit coming along in a few min­utes.

Prog’s own Chris Roberts, writ­ing for Un­cut in 2001, said, “If Tears For Fears fell be­tween two stools as teen pin­ups want­ing to be se­ri­ous art mu­sos, they still pulled off phe­nom­e­nal com­mer­cial suc­cess with records that re­main un­em­bar­rass­ing.”

There’s noth­ing re­motely em­bar­rass­ing about the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the pop hits on Songs From The Big Chair, which made it such an enor­mous seller – Shout, for ex­am­ple, was No.1 in 10 coun­tries. But then you also have Lis­ten, which closes the al­bum:

seven min­utes of am­bi­ent jazz that ends in a sub-African chant.

There were cer­tainly others who could wear the 80s ‘prog­not­prog’ la­bel: David Syl­vian fused prog with kos­mis­che on Bril­liant Trees and the dou­ble Gone To Earth, the sec­ond disc of which was an am­bi­ent al­bum fea­tur­ing Bill Nel­son and Robert Fripp.

The Blue Nile defy cat­e­gori­sa­tion, but they were clearly the ones that were played by most artists in their own col­lec­tions. Leader Paul Buchanan’s other-worldly plead­ing, keen­ing voice is one of the most recog­nis­able yet com­pletely lo­cated in its own bub­ble, drop­ping oblique lines such as: ‘I write a new book ev­ery day, a love theme for the wilder­ness.’

Their 1984 al­bum A Walk Across

The Rooftops re­mains one of the bestkept se­crets within pop­u­lar mu­sic. From Rags To Riches on the al­bum is typ­i­cal of this adult, gen­re­less mu­sic. What is it? You’re sim­ply not sure, but it clearly owes a great deal to the strange­ness of the in­stru­men­tal pas­sages of their fore­bears [You’re not telling me Mar­il­lion haven’t heard the ti­tle track! – Ed]. Both Howard Jones and Nik Ker­shaw were mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist writ­ers with proper muso pasts who were in the Top 10 in 1983 and be­yond. Jones came out of the Ayles­bury scene, made his name in Fri­ars and was man­aged by David Stopps, who’d been so in­stru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing pro­gres­sive rock a decade pre­vi­ously. Jones had a mime artist with a painted face (Jed Hoile) and a de­but hit (New Song) that evoked Peter Gabriel’s Sols­bury Hill. New pop? Old prog, more like!

How­ever, to th­ese ears, it come backs to where we be­gan, with Mark Feltham’s har­mon­ica squall that opens Steven Wil­son’s To The Bone. Talk Talk’s The Colour Of Spring and Spirit Of Eden are ar­guably the prog al­bums of the 80s, al­though leader Mark Hol­lis would be the least likely to sug­gest that. Few trav­elled

“If Tears For Fears fell be­tween two stools as teen pin-ups want­ing to be se­ri­ous art mu­sos, they still pulled off phe­nom­e­nal com­mer­cial suc­cess with records that re­main un­em­bar­rass­ing.”

Prog writer Chris Roberts

from their ini­tial in­car­na­tions into some­thing deeper, darker and stranger than did Talk Talk.

Hol­lis was steeped in mu­sic – his el­der brother Ed had been a DJ and the man­ager of Ed­die And The Hot Rods. Ed lived in a static car­a­van packed with al­bums and was known as ‘1000 Ed­die’ for his in­cred­i­bly di­verse and siz­able record collection, and it was clear that Hol­lis spent a lot of time gain­ing in­flu­ences from it.

Al­though Hol­lis had started in a new wave/mod band called The Re­ac­tion, in 1978, by the turn of the decade, he’d hooked up with Paul Webb and Lee Har­ris (and, ini­tially, Si­mon Bren­ner), signed to EMI and Talk Talk at once seemed liked a Du­ran Du­ran-lite. They sup­ported Ge­n­e­sis at their leg­endary, sod­den Gabriel-sav­ing Six Of The Best con­cert at Mil­ton Keynes Bowl in Oc­to­ber 1982, where they, shall we say, re­ceived a less than en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse. Hol­lis didn’t care about the charts or what Ge­n­e­sis fans thought – he was whip-smart and by now had started lis­ten­ing to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and he brought their im­pro­vi­sa­tional na­ture to his band.

Now writ­ing with pro­ducer

Tim Friese-Greene, their sec­ond col­lab­o­ra­tion The Colour Of Spring con­tained the hit sin­gle Life’s What

You Make It. With its Can-like in­tense rep­e­ti­tion, it was an en­tranc­ing work that gave Hol­lis the green light to ex­per­i­ment fur­ther, the re­sult of which was 1988’s Spirit Of Eden, an al­bum of six long pieces that was all about mood, as op­posed to com­mer­cial­ism. With its jar­ring blasts of gui­tar, few ob­vi­ous melodies, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween soft and scream­ing, it was an enor­mous com­mer­cial dis­ap­point­ment on re­lease, but now, qui­etly, is one of the most-loved records of its era – a true mark (no pun in­tended) of qual­ity.

By cel­e­brat­ing records such as this on To The Bone, Steven Wil­son lays to rest the hoary old chest­nut that prog was killed off in 1976 as soon as the Sex Pis­tols ap­peared on the To­day show. In the 80s, it got smart and ab­sorbed many dif­fer­ent in­flu­ences. This led to some ex­tremely dif­fi­cult tracks be­ing smug­gled into CD col­lec­tions, but that was OK, be­cause there were also, as Steven Wil­son says, plenty of “great songs that peo­ple could hum on the bus”.











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