Wednesday 21 July 2010

Countdown to High Voltage

Well, cometh the hour, cometh the prog rock fans. Here we are less than 48 hours from the start of the prog rocker's ultimate heaven, the High Voltage Festival. We have waited long and patiently for the final line-up to be confirmed, for the additional extras to be waved in front of us to generate what passes as middle-aged excitement and now the wrist bands have arrived; and they are not blue for the boys and pink for the girls.

The Tube stations of London have been the advertising hoardings for the event; Facebook has been the parish notices page while Classic Rock Presents Prog and Planet Rock have continued to drip feed us the golden nuggets of information onto which we hang. We have followed meekly and willingly to the Promised Land, or in this case, Victoria Park in east London.

So what is going to happen? The answer is, who knows? We have simply been guided by the ultimate star - the line-ups for the two days which have twisted and turned, beguiled and intrigued with the passing of each week.

In our case, three letters prompted us to hit the festival online hotline as soon as they were announced - ELP. This was like the Holy Grail, the ultimate prize in the world of prog rock. This was THE band both of us still had outstanding on the list of "must see before we die" (along with Zep but that is another story).

They are like mixing the three mystery alchemy ingredients and coming up with gold. Speaking as lady prog rocker, there was the handsome, sexy showman dressed in the armadillo jacket -so very Tarkus- attacking his organ with knives (love that imagery) and playing arpeggios, cadences and chords that most other mortal musicians could only ever dream of. And he made us love jazz.

Then there was the sensitive, no-nonsense bass player with the voice of melting honey, who could sound mean, moody and playful all in the space of one album. And finally, there was the pocket powerhouse behind the drumkit with his elaborate time signatures, liberal use of a cowbell and the syncopation of a god. In other words, what's not to like?

From the moment I heard the opening industrial-strength bars of The Barbarian when I was 14, I was hooked, line and sinker. They were the prog counterpoint to my burgeoning Yes fixation. They were mean, they were heavy and they provided me with an education in classical music and jazz that my failed music O-level never could. To coin a song title, they were there "From the Beginning".

I remember being terribly grown up and going to a Southampton fleapit at a very tender age to see their film Pictures at an Exhibition during which I fell in love with Mussorgsky - a serious classical composer made accessible by my heroes.

But I never liked Tarkus then. Oh no, while I had Tales from Topographic Oceans, I had no need of an armour-plated armadillo. It was too violent and alien. However, nearly 40 years later, I made my peace with the creature and for several crazy weeks, could not stop listening to the legend which is Tarkus.

Trilogy though, wow, now you are back in the groove. What a seductive album that was. From the plaintive opening bars of The Endless Enigma to the grandiose and slightly surreal Abaddon's Bolero, you ran the gamut of prog rock emotions from A-Z. There was humour, bravado, sexuality, sensitivity and sassiness on that album. It worked - and it still does.

And stashed away somewhere in my record collection, there is still the Brain Salad Surgery flexidisc, given away by the NME back the mid-70s. How futuristic, how simply mind-blowing was that? God, this was all cutting edge stuff.

BSS had everything. It had my hymn Jerusalem; it had Toccata which was the late and totally unique "Fluff" Freeman's soundbite of choice; it had Still... You Turn Me On for which I would gladly find Greg a ladder any day and then there was Karn Evil 9, the densest, most obscure, most perplexing, most brilliant, most mind-blowing epic example of prog rock excess ever created. Guys, you blew my head apart.

I have to say that the magic began to wane after that. Four incredible albums and I was already breathless. The patchwork of memorable tracks on Works I and II kept everything ticking over and you all looked amazing doing Fanfare in that snowy stadium. But by Love Beach, as Don McLean said, it was the day the music died.

There was no longer the sense of adventure, the improvisational magic and the touch of genius which had inhabited the first four of the masterworks. The essence of ELP had become diluted along with the stories of overblown excess on which many a punk and John Peel dined out for months afterwards.

But still.... you turned me on; and that is why I am making the pilgrimage on Sunday along with thousands of others. I believe you can still make magic on your guitar, Greg; that you can still Tank it Carl and Keith, you are a Lucky Man after years of suffering the condition which has affected your ability to play.

Guys, you are legends....

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

We really are so glad we could attend. Looking forward to coming inside.

Roll on Sunday.


  1. Very well stated. :)

    Just a wee small point was NME that gave out the flexidisc........cue the line, "We made it for our enemy (NME).....".

    I had exactly the same experiences, except that "Tarkus" was, and still is, the greatest piece of music to have been written in the past 40 years.

  2. Thanks for flagging up the fact it was the NME not Sounds. Text changed accordingly.

  3. Roll on Sunday!
    Can't wait!!

  4. Brilliant read as usual Alison! Hope you enjoy it

  5. I remember being 16 in 1981 and buying Tarkus from Skeleton Records in Birkenhead, a famous second hand store round these parts....blew me away then and still love it. Not just the music but the imagery, very 1970 ! Whilst Genesis were my favourite, ELP and Van Der Graaf Generator were not close behind. I've seen Genesis 11 times since 1980, I never thought i would see the other two bands...and then in 2005 at the Royal Festival Hall saw the reunion of VDGG....and now five years later this Sunday finally i get to see the mighty ELP. Marvellous !