“I didn’t choose prog, prog chose me,” says The Times’ theatre and comedy critic as his record choices – from Steely Dan to Stevie Wonder to Big Big Train – leave him shaken and stirred.
Dominic Maxwell spends most of his time reviewing plays for The Times. But when he’s not, he’s listening to his prog rock record collection.
The things I like in music now come from James Bond themes – interesting chords, good vocals, a slightly sensual feel – which I liked before I liked popular music. I was obsessed with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and it’s only later when I was listening to one of my favourite pieces of music, Starless by King Crimson, that I noticed the end of it is quite like that. John Barry is a good guiding influence to have.
Growing up in central London,
I was a bit of late starter. I began buying records in 1983, aged 15. Chart music was quite good then, and, having been brought up a Catholic, I stopped going to mass that year, and within a couple of months I’d bought my first albums. Was I filling a God-shaped hole? Here was a new religion – Heaven 17’s The Luxury Gap and Tears For Fears’ The Hurting. Tears For Fears was my gateway drug to prog. They were always citing Peter Gabriel as an influence and certain songs like The Prisoner tried to sound like Gabriel’s
3 [Melt]. I was drawn to the drama – there was a sense of something grown-up and sophisticated, and that was alluring.
I liked the idea of this Peter Gabriel guy so I went to see the film Birdy and adored it. I saw it four or five times. I then got his other albums which I knew without knowing because he recycled his stuff for Birdy. I got quite obsessive about him, particularly the third and fourth records. I listened to him every night. With 3, it now sounds amazingly ominous or a little bit silly. But I loved the seriousness of it. It was prog and new wave and it fit on the radio.
Gabriel inevitably led to Genesis. I didn’t have much pocket money so I was quite conservative. I bought Genesis Live, an odd one to start with, but it was £2 at Record & Tape Exchange. I slowly got the whole catalogue and found I liked the
70s Gabriel stuff the best. The Cinema Show is one of my favourite songs; discovering that was so exciting. I thought, ‘If I found this at 17, imagine what else there is!’ So I kept searching.
I was at a boys’ school, Eton, from 13, and I got into stuff that conveyed that I was alone and no-one understood me [laughs]! We’d swap tapes and I found Marillion. I love Misplaced Childhood and Fugazi. I identified with them, then Genesis and Pink Floyd.
If you’d been menaced for pocket money by punks you weren’t going in that musical direction. I borrowed a cassette of Animals and when I heard the chorus of Dogs I thought, ‘Oh, is this possible? This is amazing.’ It drew me in with its slightly sinister way.
Does Stevie Wonder count as prog? His four mid-70s albums are prog soul of the highest order, pushing the form yet always heartfelt, ambitious and listenable. Songs In The Key Of Life is my favourite: a double album that never runs out of ideas, that sounds opulent yet always has a spring in its step. Imagine being so confident in what you had that you kept back songs as good Another Star and As until side four. A constant joy.
I was buying a hi-fi and Talk Talk’s Colour Of Spring had won album of the year in What Hi-Fi? so I bought it. It was a combination of the prog I’d started listening to and the synth pop I’d liked. Then Spirit Of Eden came out and it was an immediate record for me. I can still remember the first time I heard it; it was everything I wanted it to be. I felt Mark Hollis really had something to say and it had that cinematic quality I like, something that I can still get lost in today.
I studied Philosophy at university in Brighton. When I left, I travelled around America for three months with a friend. Everywhere we went there was a classic rock station. Here I heard Steely Dan. I was getting a train from San Francisco to New York and I bought a five-dollar radio from Radio Shack. A station played the whole first side of Gaucho and I thought it was the most amazing thing, musically and lyrically. With prog, I find myself championing the underdog. Aja is a better record and perfect. Gaucho is a bit over-smooth, it’s got drum machines on it… and yet its heights are glorious, and it’s a more interesting record. The prog endeavour is to carve out something of your own; this takes that on board.
When I came back from America, I was unemployed, lonely, and Peter Hammill was waiting for me [laughs]. I was trying to write plays and not getting very far. A friend said, ‘You should get the Peter Hammill album on the back of Fugazi.’ I thought he meant Over, he meant Fool’s Mate. But I read Over’s lyrics in the shop and thought, ‘This looks promising.’ I took him home, this desolate young man sitting in a windowsill with his guitar. (On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga, the lyrics to that really made sense to me. I got quite obsessive about him, then about Van der Graaf. Those musicians are amazing. But sometimes it’s a mindset you don’t want to get into.
It’s nice when someone does their best work, or something as good as they can be, later in their career. In the 80s I’d thought to myself, ‘I like prog rock, what is out there that’s prog rock,’ and
I’d found Pendragon because you could see them for quite cheap at the Marquee. I joined their fan club briefly. Years later I listened to a Pendragon playlist on Spotify and I actually really liked the new stuff, particularly Men Who Climb Mountains. The metal style worked well. Similarly, when Aerial came out, I felt it was one of the best things Kate Bush had ever done, particularly Somewhere In Between. That’s a Bond theme! [Writer/director] David Hare said in his memoir, ‘You don’t get to choose what kind of playwright you are, it chooses you.’ Indie and soul music might give me more social cachet, but what I want to listen to at home is Pendragon and prog.
Big Big Train crept up on me. My colleague John Bungey was reviewing an album and he said, ‘You might like this.’ It was Grimspound. I didn’t think it was the best thing I’d ever heard, but the first track reminded me of Marillion. I found myself going back to it, and them. I’m not into songs about historical things, or dock yards, or bridges; I’m a city boy. Yet I found myself listening to the words and… I love it. The songs I’ve listened to most the last few years have been The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun (the key change at the end makes me cry) and London Plane. Folklore is my favourite album. It’s deluxe and has soul; they sing about what matters to them and they’ve reignited my interest in the genre, becoming my favourite band of this decade. The music between 1968 and 1977 is a genre in itself, a source material that Big Big Train honour without rehashing. It’s a rich palette and they do it so well.”
“THE TRANSIT OF VENUS ACROSS
THE SUN MAKES ME CRY EVERY TIME IT GETS TO THE KEY CHANGE
AT THE END.”