Saturday, December 8, 2012


Those of us who came of age in the early to mid seventies lived through an oft-maligned and always controversial period in modern music. If you read pieces by musicologists on this period, it is often described as being one of the most creative times, or an absolute wasteland of pretense and lack of talent. Talk to a person who lived through this time and get a discussion on music started, and you're sure to jump into an often heated debate.

For me, the period from about 1970 to 1976 represents a unique and wonderful time in music. It was a transition of not only style, but indeed the entire approach to music. Before 1970, most of the music listened to by young people was basic rock and roll, with its best exemplar in the so-called British Invasion of the early 60's. But, by the time 1970 rolled around, the Beatles were basically dead, and other Invasion bands had faded into obscurity. Other styles, such as the American surfing genre, featuring bands like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, had run their course. Psychedelic rock was still in its heyday, but the early deaths of Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin put a pall on the genre. Essentially, the teenagers of the 1960's ( those who could have been my older brothers and sisters ) had grown into young adults and were looking for something more "serious."

In Britain, with the demise of Invasion bands ( the Rolling Stones being the exception ), young musicians put their energies into the creation of a new genre in an attempt to rise above the teenage-angst drivel that characterized  Invasion music. And, miraculously, a new genre was born: Progressive Rock.

For me, as a teen who loved music, I found the emergence of the Prog Rock bands as a revelation. Finally, rock musicians seemed to be taking bold new chances and actually learning to compose, arrange and perform  as serious musicians. I was introduced to the genre by my friends Rob Fraser and Dave Jack. Rob had 8 tracks ( ! ) of the Moody Blues' album "Seventh Sojourn" and Dave was a fan of Yes. Dave had me listen to Yes' "Close To The Edge", and, because of these musical exposures, I was hooked.

For some unknown reason, I find myself looking back at the genre not only with much nostalgia, but also a longing. I watched the half time show at the recent Grey Cup and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. A cadaverous Gordon Lightfoot made me wish for musical legal euthanasia, and the modern artists Carly Rae Jepson and Justin Bieber made me cringe. So, back through the vaults I went looking for salvation. I found it in my old discs of the Prog Rockers.

Just what constitutes Prog Rock is highly debatable and entirely subjective. My definition of Prog Rock has evolved through the years, and puts the genre into three categories:  True Prog Rock, Semi-Prog Rock, and Wannabe Prog Rock. Here is the break-down:

True Prog Rock takes its form in the pioneer bands of the genre. The emphasis is on long, convoluted, thoughtful and original compositions, often arranged into symphonic movements. Inspiration for these compositions often comes from classical and jazz music, literature, philosophical treatises, classical and Biblical sources, and, to be sure, pharmaceuticals. Virtuousity in the instrumentation is essential: these people aren't three-chord guitarists, skiffle drummers, or honkey-tonk pianists. They are among the most gifted players, both technically and creatively, ever heard by the human ear. They eagerly embraced the technical advances of the time: this is the heyday of electronic sound. Most importantly, they displayed complete courage and audacity in their music : these bands were not afraid of anything, and didn't seem to worry about putting out material that flew in the face of established rock music. They had their detractors, for sure, but they won over a legion of followers who knew they were listening to something significant and wonderful.

The bands in True Prog Rock category include the Moody Blues (who learned to move beyond their "Go Now" blues rock of the mid 60's ) , Yes ( perhaps the best practitioners of the genre ), Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull ( of the "Thick As A Brick" era ), and early Genesis ( featuring Peter Gabriel ) . It is interesting to note that all these bands were British.

Once the True Prog Rockers became fashionable, especially on newly formatted FM radio, and concerts on college campuses, other bands began to follow their lead, although with less pretentious overtones. These bands are what I call the Semi-Prog Rockers. Here's where the debate really heats up. Just how do you characterize something that is "semi" anything?  For example, does Led Zepellin qualify as a Prog Rock band? Some say no, because of the heavy American blues influence in many of their songs, and in Robert Plant's vocals, reminiscent of Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker. For me, however, as Led Zepellin evolved, as their song writing became more sophosticated, as John Paul Jones' keyboards took on more electronic and haunting qualities, they sounded very much like True Proggers. But the blues never left them. So, for me, Led Zepellin becomes Semi-Prog, still to be ranked with the True Proggers, but perhaps a bit more palatable for main stream listeners. Other Semi-Proggers would include the Who ( outstanding compositions, but so bloody loud ! ), Uriah Heep ( lyrically impaired, but good players ), Supertramp ( great musicians, but with a Top 40 feel to their songs ) and Queen ( trending into Glam Rock, but still great virtuousos on their instruments).

As the mid-seventies rolled around, the Prog Rock genre became corrupted. Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Moody Blues disbanded,  Yes and King Crimson went through awkward and messy personel changes, and Peter Gabriel left Genesis, taking the creative heart out of that band. Proggers launched solo careers with mixed results: Gabriel became more mainstream, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman stayed true to the genre but lost their following, and others turned in medicore efforts. But the influence of True Prog Rock continued to be felt in newer bands.

This is the era of the Wannabes. Perhaps the best example of Wannabe Prog Rock is close to home with Rush. The reason I characterize them as Wannabe Proggers is that they have elements of the genre, but, perhaps in true Canadian style, they have a bit of the head banger in them, especially on some of their early work. Other Wannabes could be bands like Kansas, Styx, Asia, David Bowie, Golden Earring, Tangerine Dream, a good Quebec band called Harmonium, and others. The term "Wannabe" is often used in a derogatory sense, but, for me, I use it in a more complimentary way. Since I am a True Prog follower, when I listen to Rush, for example, and hear the layered compositions and arrangements, and admire the skill of Neil Peart's drumming or Geddy Lee's wonderful bass lines ( so reminiscent of Chris Squire of Yes ), I hear Proggers. But the heavy sound, and Alex Leifson's excellent but mainstream guitar work is more Top 40, and I sigh and say to myself, "they could try harder to be brilliant." But I still admire and enjoy their music and the music of other Wannabes.

The decade closed out with the disillusion created by the stagnant British economy and the repressive regime of Margaret Thatcher. Proggers had left their mark on music and gave way to their creative but extremely angry offspring, the Punk movement. Prog Rock's grandchildren were Grunge and Altenative, all terrific genres of music, but, alas, not quite what their grandparents were. Today, Prog Rock is treated as a curiousity, with slightly amusing reactions of those who were never bitten by the bug. But, for me, and I suspect many others of my time, the Proggers represented the very best of not only the 1970's, but of modern music generally. It will always live on in my heart and soul as the sound track of my youth in the 70's.

Then, along came disco and ruined everything.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


When I taught the English Writing class at my school, one of my favourite units was a unit on Journalism. I had some personal reasons for devoting time to that group of lessons. I had, earlier in my life, harboured thoughts of becoming a journalist. I enjoy reading good journalism, a commoditiy that is becoming more rare in modern society with each passing year. And, most importantly, I felt that it was important for young people aspiring to be good, involved and caring citizens to know the role journalism is supposed to play in our democratic society.

One of the resources I often used in my classes was to bring in the Toronto Sun for the students to study .... as an example of bad journalism. I began by declaring my own bias against this publication, and, to their credit, many of my students disagreed with my judgement, which they were always entitled to do: it provided some good and lively discussions. But, as I went through the paper, we began to realize that the Sun appealed to a certain demographic, and, while that is fair in the competitive world of journalism, we at least became aware of the Sun's approach and biases, and most of us determined that it would never qualify as a "serious" newspaper.

Fast forward to today's Sun's front page. Instead of focussing on the complex issues of stripping workers of their right to bargain collectively and fairly, instead of trying to be balanced in the face of upcoming job actions by teachers in most of Ontario, the Sun instead willfully chose to listen to the fear-mongering words of the Tory education critic, Lisa MacLeod, who raised the alarm bells of what she calls heavy handed tactics of the "union bosses" levying $500.00 fines on teachers who do not comply with the union sanctions, and having their names printed in a union publication she calls the "name and shame" list. She is quoted as saying how outraged she is by the bosses putting "the fear of God" in teachers.

The Sun, in its indignant and blustering style, devoted the front page to decrying the "BULLIES" in the union headquarters.  A pinned list of the possible sanctions was boldly presented: nowhere did the list state that the most important things (classroom instruction, extra help within the stipulated time limits of the contract,  essential supervision ) would continue to be performed. The apple with a worm in it was a nice touch, signifying that, somehow the entire profession of teaching has been corrupted by the worm of .... what ? Evil ? Poison ? Demogoguery ? Vitriol ? Hate ? Coersion ? The list goes on and on.

Wait a minute !! Isn't that the Sun imitating itself in those glowing terms? No, it couldn't be. Well, maybe ...

The truth is, the Sun got it wrong .... AGAIN ! The fact is, no union, and especially the teachers' unions, do anything, including job actions, without the members .... the teachers themselves .... voting. Yes, union executives make their recommendations known, but noone tells members how to vote. Voting is always done by secret ballot, and always after presentations are made to members and time allocated for members to question and, indeed, criticize the union executive. If a union follows the regretable route of establishing job actions, it is because the opposite party in the negotiations, in this case the provincial government, is simply not negotiating, and because the members realize that there is no other alternative to job action. Another fact is this ... it is always in the best interest of union negotiators to get a negotiated settlement. Failure to do so means that the executives risk feeling the anger of its members and being voted out of office. I've seen it happen.

Unions, like any modern organization, use sanctions on members who fail to comply with established practices. In this case, when a union is forced into job action, it must act collectively in order to be effective and, ultimately, bring about a settlement. In all unions, there will undoubtedly be those who do not agree with the planned course of action, even though the course of action was approved by the vast majority of the members. The minority may grouse and complain, and some will oppose the decision of the majority. And some will take deliberate and willfull steps to actively and publicly go against the union's stand and weaken its position. That happened when I was involved in job action. As a member of the union, I wanted to know who the people were who were undermining my attempt to convince my employer that we were serious about our demands, and that we wanted to bargain COLLECTIVELY in order to obtain a good settlement. ( What constitutes a "good settlement"? Any settlement that is agreed upon by both sides in a negotiation. ) And you can bet that I would not be too friendly toward any colleague of mine who deliberately or willfully took my tools away from me. So, the "name and shame" list was necessary and wanted. And, I would want them to be fined because, by weakening the union's position, they were actually prolonging the job action, and effectively taking money from my pocket.

These things seem to be lost on Ms. MacLeod and, of course, our good friends at the Toronto Sun. The picture they paint is an outdated and obsolete one of times before the Guilded Age when union bosses did in fact exercise unjustifiable control over the workers of their time: usually poor, uneducated, desperate and ignorant people fresh off the boat from God knows where.  These bosses were not interested in presiding over a democratic union, but, then again, neither were governments or corporations or businesses of that time period interested in presiding over democratic conditions or situations. That is hardly the description of modern unionized workers. Modern union workers realize that modern corporations and businesses and, hopefully, even governments have evolved and progressed to some form of democracy. Unfortunately, many people fail to see that unions have also progressed. These people comprise the Sun's readership, it seems. And the Tory backbenches.

So, the Sun goes on its merry warpath, blithely using the ravings of a misguided and goofy MPP, and stirring up the pot against teachers and unions .... to what end ? To sell papers to their loyal audience who love a good trashing and wouldn't know a proper way to report news if it bit them in their collective ass.

Which brings me back to the Sun. To be fair, the Sun did indeed provide a useful backgrounder to the "BULLIES" headline ... in a small paragraph at the end of the article. One wonders how many of the readers were able to make it that far before they skipped ahead to the second to last page where today's Sunshine Girl posed in all her lovliness.

When there's boobs and booty, issues and truth be damned, eh Sun ??