Prog. Rock: the science fiction of music?

It’s been an interesting start to 2019 and even though we are only a few days into the new-year, I have already committed to speaking at two exciting conferences. The first is in May for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) biennial conference to be held in Canberra. Last September I spoke at the joint IASPM and Art of Record Production (ARP) conference at the University of Huddersfield, UK. I delivered my presentation titled, ‘I’ll mix this my own way: why millennial musicians still need a producer’, to an enthusiastic audience of academics and practitioners. Due to this positive reception, I intend developing this theme further for IASPM in Canberra. I will propose that musicians still need producers but the role of producer is redefining itself to jive with the modern context of music production. Through technological socialism, the traditional gatekeeper role of the record producer is now redundant but their advanced skills in critical listening, mentorship, advice giving, arrangement, facilities management and keeping egos in check is still vital. So, it seems, the record producer is not out of a job just yet and is unlikely to be so, even if there is less money to spend on record production. Bands of musicians are an on-going argument and a producer is perfectly positioned to make sure that the band is arguing about their music. Ultimately a producer is the person that gets the recording made.

After IASPM in Canberra I will be heading north to Griffiths University on the Sunshine Coast to talk about progressive rock and aging musicians. I hold the view that progressive rock is the science fiction of music. The central theme of science fiction is that it speculates on what the future might be, what it will look like and how we might get there; but there is always an underlying theme of humanity embedded within it. As a producer that came to my fore during the post-punk era in the UK, it would appear to be a disconnected subject for me to pontificate on. Let me elucidate. The organisers of the conference had heard me speak in Huddersfield and had also read the obituary piece that I wrote about Keith Emerson of ELP and The Nice; ‘The Dr Who Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

I’d worked with Keith Emerson in 2002 as his tour manager and his de-facto go-to guy; that’s how I earned my living back then. However, my connection to Keith goes way back to a childhood in Hull, East Yorkshire. My hippie parents, Karl and Jenny, always had a very eclectic taste in music. I remember in 1972 my parents playing the Emerson Lake and Palmer album Pictures At An Exhibition in heavy rotation with other wired and wonderful tunes. As a ten year old I found this a very difficult piece of music to comprehend. Indeed any ten year old that could fully fathom the testosterone fuelled butchery of this classic Mussorsky piece would probably be painfully precocious and end up pursuing a career as a popular music academic later on in life. But lets give credit where its due because ELP’s iteration has become one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who had never heard of Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia’s Nationalist ‘Five’. At the time, it introduced the new genre of classical rock to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed violent assault. What really stuck in my mind from this record was track four, a short original Moog synthesiser interlude, which was never part of the original Mussorsky template. Little did my parents know they were hegmonically pre-programming me to love synth-based music that would stay with me for life. Philip Larkin was right about parents.

Keith Emerson

My second direct encounter was working with Saddlewoth Moor’s finest purveyors of progressive rock; Barclay James Harvest. BJH was, for many years, one of the most hard luck outfits in progressive rock. A quartet of solid rock musicians consisting of John Lees (guitar & vocals), Les Holroyd, (bass & vocals), Stuart ‘Wooly’ Wolstenholme (keyboards & vocals) fondly remembered Mel Pritchard (RIP) on drums. With a knack for writing hook-laden songs built on pretty melodies, they harmonized like the Beatles and wrote extended songs with more of a beat than the Moody Blues. They were signed to EMI at the same time as Pink Floyd, and both bands moved over to the company’s progressive rock-oriented Harvest Records imprint, yet somehow, they never managed to connect with the public for a major hit in England, much less America. In 2002, with the release of Revolution Days, I found myself touring Europe’s arenas with BJH promoting this record to a very enthusiastic audience of middle-aged parents, and rather, confusingly their offspring. This was an interesting four-year period of my life mixing 30-year-old BJH songs for their original and new audiences.

Barclay James Harvest

As an engineer/producer, with what is fast approaching 40 years of professional experience, I’ve always been fascinated by the theories of simulacrum and hyperreality and the diaspora between the studio recording and their recreation live on stage. When Jean Baudrillard (1981) defined the term ‘Simulacrum’, he was seeking to examine the relationship among reality, symbols and society. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins. Both of these theories appear to be pertinent tools of analysis that can be critically applied to both Keith Emerson and BJH. Putting theory into practice if-you-like. As an art form born in the mid-twentieth century, progressive rock music has an integral relationship with both the hyper-real and simulacrum. Live instrumental techniques combined with sample libraries and synthesizers, in addition to recording techniques and sound processors, creates music that transcends traditional Western music frameworks. The synthesizer as an audio tool affords the power to generate science fiction music that utilizes the whole sound spectrum. Synthesizers become a powerful tool for the transmission of meaning through sonic channels, widening the gap between music reality and hyperreality. With both BJH and Keith Emerson I’ve relished the challenge of recreating previously curated material and bring it into a sharp, high definition focus for modern day audiences.

With both of these forthcoming conferences I can’t wait to share my thoughts and experiences on the subject progressive rock. I believe that my hands-on practical experience coupled with academic/scholarly contextualization and analysis is unique and will provide a stimulating presentation for the audience. Science fiction is a great opportunity to speculate and imagine what could happen. I love the idea that prog. rock is the sci-fi of the music world.

I am available for lectures, workshops, tutorials master class , conferences and broadcasts just drop me an email to

This is me

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