Wednesday, October 23, 2013

When the Prog Turned To Cheese...

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding...

About to play "Magic Touch" by Mike Oldfield on the Hot Lunch Special on The Point, the radio station where I do my thing every day from 10a to 3p. Playing it in honor of the birthday of the late drummer and percussionist Pierre Moerlen who played with Oldfield, among others. The song, with vocals by Max Bacon, appeared on Oldfield's 1987 release Islands, and came out as a single in February of 1988. Bacon was "hot" at the time (and crispy? ...never mind...), coming off a successful stint with GTR - the so-called "Supergroup"co-led by Steve Howe and Steve Hackett whose one 1986 album produced the hit "When the Heart Rules The Mind"...all of which led me to recall that... Wow - in the 1980s, Progressive Rock really turned to CHEESE - or as J.D. Considine wrote in his three-letter review of GTR's album - "SHT". "Magic Touch" is - in a way - the pinnacle of that cheesy period.



What happened?

Money. It's a gas. And it made many within the upper echelons of Progressive Rock turn to cheesy attempts at making pop music in the 80s. But who can blame them? For some strange reason, as the 1980s opened, formerly progressive bands like Genesis and Yes were scoring chart hits. The Duke album was the turning point for Genesis. "Turn it On Again" made a dent at Rock radio - still "AOR" - Album Oriented Rock - at the time. But it was "Misunderstanding" that really began the cheesification process.



Yes' hitmaking days began a little later, with the release of 1983's 90125. Trevor Rabin's joining the band had already indicated a radical shift in the Yes camp. The project was originally to have been known as Cinema, after Yes broke up in 1981, but with the almost last-minute inclusion of original yes vocalist Jon Anderson the group morphed back into Yes - albeit a very different sounding Yes. "Owner of A Lonely Heart" became the bands only #1 pop hit.



Of course, former Yes guitarist Steve Howe had already emerged with his own power-pop, progressive rock "supergroup" a year earlier. Hardcore old prog fans had been buzzing about the new project Howe was a part of as it came together. News got out that Howe was wood-shedding with former King Crimson and U.K. bassist and vocalist John Wetton, Emerson Lake and Palmer drummer Carl Palmer, and Geoffrey Downes, recently of Yes (Drama) and, er, The Buggles. The bands they'd been part of had crafted some of the most complex, ornate and intricate progressive rock of the 60s and 70s. Anticipation was high - what sort of baroque godliness would their combined efforts sound like? No one in the progressive rock world expected the simplistic pop song structures of Asia to be the result, though the involvement of Geffen A&R wizard John Kalodner (responsible for Aerosmith's big late 80s comeback) in the band's construction was telling - he was also later responsible for Coverdale-Page. The March 1982 release of the first Asia album was followed by a lengthy tour whose venues needed to be upgraded to arenas due to ticket demands as the band's success took off.



Asia's follow-up album Alpha didn't do as well, and the band was faltering by late 1983. Yes and Genesis fared better. Big Generator - Yes' follow up to 90125 - spawned minor hits like "Love Will Find A Way". Genesis turned into a hit machine - Phil Collins' solo success made him a ubiquitous pop presence, and the band kept up by releasing Abacab (1981), Three Sides Live (1982), Genesis (1983), Invisible Touch (1986) - like Yes' "Owner", Genesis' "Invisible Touch" became the bands only #1 U.S. pop hit.



Yeah, I can't take "Invisible Touch" - so here's the slightly cooler "Land of Confusion"...



Things began to fall apart as the '80s wore on. Genesis made boatloads of cash but stopped making new music until the 90s - and only made one more album with Phil Collins. The Yes camp dissolved into in-fighting once again, with the 90125 line-up breaking up. That, in a way, paved the way for the ABWH - Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe - reunion. For this progressive rock fan, that ABWH project was a light in the darkness, hope for the return of great music in a world of pop. Backstage at their show at Great Woods, Rick Wakeman told me he thought this line-up had another "Close To the Edge" in them - think we got that in the later Yes tune "Mind Drive". But before that reunion could happen, Steve Howe had that last stab at 80's pop stardom - GTR.



Kind of painful to watch two amazing guitar players play such basic material. Howe and Hackett should both be making better music than this - thankfully, both later returned to their musical senses. And there's Max Bacon on the vocals for GTR - the gig that got him the Mike Oldfield vocal spot we began with. That brings us back around full circle - or cheese-wheel, as the case may be. Yep, Progressive Rock turned to cheese in the 1980s - weird how much of this stuff sounds alike, too. Lucky for all of us, it got better...