Tag: prog rock

A Few Old Book Reviews

Recently I was going through some old note books and discovered a few comments on books I’d read perhaps 20 years ago!


First, ‘Last Orders’ by Graham Swift, a book which focuses on the relationships and the death of Jack, just as he was about to retire from his butchers shop, his ‘adopted’ son, Vince, and undertaker Vic. The characters all have their own chapters which explore the past, their relationships and feelings, but the present day story is one of a group of men sprinkling Jack’s ashes in Margate. As a whole, the book is a bit difficult to follow and disjointed but I suspect this was due to the speed I was reading. Nevertheless, I didn’t really care about any of the characters, which is never a good sign, and I was glad when I got to the end. The only question I wanted answering was ‘what did Ray do?’ Did he give Amy his winnings so she could clear Jack’s debts. Did he get back with Amy years after their affair had ended? This book won the 1996 Booker Prize, so is obviously well-regarding, well-written and worthy, but it left me feeling like a philistine. Maybe this is a bloke’s book, but it definitely left me feeling cold and not all that keen to read another Graham Swift.

Next, just a few notes on ‘Fight Club’ by Chick Palahniuk. I found it a really enjoyable book which included much of the dialogue that was used in the film – I always like it when an author does that! To me, he book had the same kind of feel as ‘Requiem for a Dream’ – not with regard to the drugs, but with regard to the dysfunctional relationships and psychological disturbances. I’d certainly consider reading it again, especially as it is so short. But, despite being short, a lot is packed in, and the split personality element seems easier to guess and understand in the novel as opposed to the film.

Next, a music book: ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer (The Show that Never Ends)’ by George Forrester, Martyn Hanson and Frank Askew. This book is the first ever biography of ELP who reached a height with the 1973 high-concept album, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. They were a phenomenon till they split in the late 70s, and returned in the 90s. “Forrester, Hanson and Askew are acknowledged experts on ELP and after five years of research, they have produced a gripping and fascinating document of one of the great rock bands of the 70s. George Forrester also provides an erudite study of the band’s complex and challenging music.” This book begins with the childhoods of the members, takes in their musical history and moves towards the ups of the 1990s. There is also a large section of musical analysis track by track which reminded me of A level music as a lot of the analysis has a classical bar-by-bar breakdown. This whole book really re-encouraged a long-held interest in the band. Even though it is detailed, it isn’t dry or dull. I well remember the tiny room that was my teen bedroom, listening to ‘Karn Evil 9’ and feeling like nothing in the world had prepared me for the total madness, or later in life, listening to Greg Lake’s solo work and his quirky contributions to ‘Works’. Or even watching some huge Carl Palmer drum solo on the ‘Whistle Test’ (Old Grey). The music completely blew me away, and the book got me in the mood to dig out the vinyl again, so it must have been a good read!

I also, at the time of originally reading these books, had access to a large number of review copies, and one that stood out was a picture book of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev (adapted by Migeulanxo Prado). There is such a bright quality of light to the pictures, wonderful facial expressions on the grandfather, Peter and even on the faces of the animals. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t much text. Surprisingly for me, I loved it nonetheless with all the vivid blood reds and the bright whites of the light and gunfire. The delightfully rustic look belies the strength – it doesn’t pull any punches, so has a macabre feel despite the mossy look to the pictures. Prado is famous Europe-wide for his ‘acerbically observant’ comedic stories and other graphic novels. Now one of Europe’s pre-eminent comic artists – versatile style-wise (from satire to realism, to black and white line art and the soft illustrations in this book). I loved this book. One for all the family.

One book I read that certainly wasn’t suitable for the youngest members of our family, was ‘Rebus: The Early Years’ by Ian Rankin. The collection included ‘Knots and Crosses’, ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Tooth and Nail’. This is quality crime fiction at its best. ‘Knots and Crosses’ tells the story of a murdered child. The crimes all lead up to Rebus’s daughter Samantha. ‘Hide and Seek’ is a tale of squats and drugs. In ‘Tooth and Nail’ Rebus is drafted down to London to find the Wolfman – a serial killer. The best part of the story is a chase in a judge’s car. He apprehended the car with the judge still in the back! Great dialogue and stories, and I would happily read this again.

Finally, and I know I’m not going to do this justice, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco. At the time of reading I agreed with my work colleague Robin Butler on this point – that sometimes ‘cleverness’ gets in the way of narrative. I’ve tried to read the book on a number of occasions (and failed) and was always put off by the exposition and historical bumbling in the first chapter, but once I got into it, I enjoyed it greatly. Re-reading though, it doesn’t resonate in the same way. I know it is an epic novel, but I don’t think I’ll read it again.

Influenced by Music

The Dire Straits album, ‘Brothers in Arms,’ came out on 13th May, 1985 when I was just a few months short of my 18th birthday.  I asked for this album (on vinyl) as one of my presents and waited patiently for its delivery to me. We hadn’t lived at Latham, near Radcliffe for very long.  While we lived at our previous home just half a mile away, I’d spent hours and hours listening to folk rock, but also Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Enid and Marillion – all full volume on my struggling, tinny record player. 


I still loved these bands when we moved house (I still love them all now!) but I was aware that my mates weren’t into prog rock to the extent that I was.  I loved the long, operatic concept albums, comprising 50% classical and 50% rock.  Most of my friends, however, were more into what was known as 1980s glam metal or glam rock.  Not the short fringes and platform shoes of Slade in the 1970s, but the long tousled hair, make up, tight jeans, flowing scarves, and pursed-lip posturing of Alice Cooper, Whitesnake, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Cheap Trick and Bon Jovi, to name just a few. 

We’d all attend headbangers’ balls (one Friday each month) at Heywood Civic Hall, and I would be totally in my element and happy as Larry when they played heavy metal and prog rock.  I even liked some of the glam rock tunes – but what I couldn’t come to grips with was the love my friends had for middle-of-the-road rockers – Status Quo and Dire Straits, to name just two. 

I’ve never been interested in music as a symbol of coolness and wasn’t particularly bothered that my music preferences would mark me out as a member of a particular youth tribe – my hair and dress did that well enough.  I could have listened lifelong to Mantovani and still be known as a hippy rock chick!  But, I was interested in expanding my listening range, and they’d played a few Dire Straits tunes on the radio that I thought were ok. 

So, I waited patiently and the requested albums turned up on my birthday…  I can’t remember most of them now, as they were quickly integrated into the rest of my collection and listened to regularly.  But I do remember ‘Brothers in Arms’.  The album cover is sky blue with pink-peach writing and a single picture on the cover – a floating 1937 National Style “O” guitar that Mark Knopfler bought in 1978.  It is distinctive – a nickel-plated brass guitar, with its palm tree etchings around the edges and on the back, and was used on many of the band’s best tunes. 

At the time I was intrigued by the simplicity of this cover, having been accustomed to lurid, fantastic gatefold covers of the prog rockers, and the brashness of the metal bands’ posturing.  It was almost as if Dire Straits were allowing their music to speak for itself.  Hmmm, that was a new concept. 

I am more than aware that what we get from art and music is very subjective, and even more aware that it is almost impossible to describe how it makes you feel.  All I can say is that I listened to this album nonstop for a month – and have never listened to it since.  Until yesterday.  I saw it for sale, secondhand, on CD, and I decided to give it a try.  It was a mystery as to why I’d given up on listening to it, apart from, perhaps overkill.
I began listening to ‘Brothers in Arms’ with a few thoughts in my mind – mainly how my newly-discovered family members on the West coast of Scotland told me that my birth mother absolutely loved Dire Straits, and particularly adored ‘Brothers in Arms,’ the title track of this album.  I obviously had loved this too, many years ago.  But hadn’t thought about it since.  So, I began playing the music.  I wanted it to whisk me back to sitting in my teen bedroom with incense burning and friends chattering, but it didn’t.  I wanted to become engrossed as I had been all those years ago, and to lie on the bed, eyes closed with a blissed out expression on my face.  I didn’t.  I really wanted to remember how it used to make me feel.  I didn’t. 

All I felt was the mild disappointment you might get from revisiting a past you remembered as being better than it actually was.  The past can be revisited, of course it can, and there’s no harm in re-listening to an old favourite album after thirty years.  Dire Straits’ twangly guitar and sonorous sax solos can be re-heard, but they don’t mean what they used to mean.  In the past they indicated a step towards the mainstream and towards normality.  Stability.  Acceptance. All of that and more.  Now they’re banal.  Dated, even.  And they leave me cold. 
I listened to the end of the album and ejected it from my CD player.  I replaced the CD back into its case and slotted it onto the shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll ever listen to it again.

Instead, I popped a new favourite into the CD player.  Paloma Faith.  It’s good to move with the times occasionally.  Next on my play list – Jethro Tull, then Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin.  Some things really don’t change.

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