Friday, May 08, 2009

Prog Blog

Back in 1979 I was 19. I worked in a record store part time.
It was a pretty fun job, even though it didn't pay very much. I got to listen to music, talk about music and think about music for most of the day. Music was pretty much my favorite subject... it still is one of the things I love most in life.

If you grew up in the 70s you may recall the dearth of decent music available. Back in those days the best music available to anyone wanting well crafted, artistic
, thought provoking music was on FM stations. It was the days before FM was considered commercially viable, and so most stations were sisters of commercial AM operations.

Many of these FM outfits had unlimited creative license. The DJs were often college students or guys that maybe got demoted from AM. The playlists were wide open, heavy rotation was NOT an issue. Usually the DJs got into a groove and could go for 20 minutes or more without interruption. They played long tracks and one would segue into another for an amazing flow. Innovative artists like (early) Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, The Brothers Johnson, Kansas, ELO, King Crimson, Neil Young, Yes and many others found airplay for tracks that never made it to AM.

I listened for hours to FM programs full of obscure and wonderful Album Oriented Rock (AOR)- blissfully passing through the late 70s without having to pay much attention at all to disco and pop music. Although The freeform days of FM wouldn't last forever (its ghost still walks among us as Classic Rock radio), it lasted long enough for me, and many others, to benefit from it.

Some of the beneficiaries were the punk & new wave movements. The FM DJs would receive promos from record companies promoting this new sound- stuff everyone knew would get little or no AM airplay. Patti Smith, The Cars, Brian Eno, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers etc. started sneaking into playlists- influencing the pliant minds of young listeners. I got my first punk album from Dick Warner a DJ at KRCB, The Ramones, Leave Home- I loved that album! I played it for everyone I knew- most people just laughed at me.

I heard Patti Smith's version of Gloria... It was dirty, sexy, crazy- Tom Petty's Break Down was sinuous, provocative- I was hooked. I would talk to anyone that had heard these new artists. I sought out more of my kind. Soon there was- even in Omaha, Nebraska- a crowd that embraced the new music. Of course the record shops were the place to find this new elixer, and so all that craved it ended up there. Homer's Records and Tapes (yes kiddies, records and tapes) was Omaha's nerve center for the new, obscure, challenging and progressive musical output of the day. Anyone that was anyone made it to Homer's as often as possible to see and hear the new releases.

Homer's is where I worked- for a little while. I met so many great people, listened to so much great music it was like a Roman orgy for the soul! One of the cool perks of working in a record store was that you got to (once in a while) pick stuff out of the promo stash. Of course, senior employees got first grabs leaving the obscure dregs for part-timers like me, but sometimes that's actually a good thing! I ended up with the most obscure collection of great stuff. I had Willy Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, Jules and the Polar bears, John Hiatt, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, UK Subs, Suicide Commandos- soooo much cool stuff!

One of the promos I picked up, and which would really shape my musical tastes, was the first Japan album, Adolescent Sex. I was obsessed by the complexity and uniqueness of their sound. David Sylvian had a panther-like growl that dug its way into my brain. The sparse guitars, layered with rich, complex keyboards and rhythms were a dusky, sinister incense that intoxicated me. Although I heard years later that the band was somewhat embarrassed by this and their second release, Obscure Alternatives, I continue to this day to thank them for these amazing works.

For decades now I have followed my own musical tastes wherever they may roam. In the 80s & 90s I lived in Seattle. KCMU was the UofW campus radio station. They played GREAT open format programs of new music. I was sad when that station faded away, but enjoyed it while it lasted. Some of the DJs allowed the open format to become quite formless- that did not hold my attention very well. There are still a number of these formless format shows on college radio, but they are still better than the top-40-heavy-rotation-crapola alternative!

Some of the KCMU DJs ended up at KNDD (107.7 the End) and continued to play great music for quite a while. I hope they are still around in some form! Nobody did ever play my perfect mix, but hey, I'm flexible! In the early 90s KNDD played Tool, which became one of my favorites. I thank those DJs for that! Tool was another band with a unique sound- they still are. Although they were adopted by Metal fans, they really are genre-less. They fit somewhat into the Progressive Rock category along with Dream Theater and my latest obsession, Porcupine Tree.

I discovered PT when I was watching the Opeth Lamentations DVD. Opeth are a Swedish Death Metal band that follows its own muse. My son got me into those guys. Lamentations included a documentary of the making of the co-released albums Damnation and Deliverance. It featured footage of Opeth frontman, Mikael Ã…kerfeldt, in the studio with his co-producer, Steven Wilson. Wilson was so amazing, picking up a guitar to play fills, stepping into the booth to record backing vocals and generally being a natural genius at the mixing board. After watching that footage, I had to know what his personal projects were like!

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia I am now a fan of Porcupine Tree. PT, incidentally, incorporates the talents of Richard Barbieri, who played keyboards for Japan so many years ago. So I guess that no matter where my path may wander, it always takes me home!

This blog entry has become something akin to the Prog Rock I love so much. It has wound its way around, exploring whatever it passed, shared a thought and like smoke, shifted again with the next breath... and like that genre it will probably be disregarded by 90% of all that come in for a glance. I'm ok with that, it wasn't meant for everyone.

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