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Simon Godfrey's Letter From America

In his fortnightly column, Shineback/Tinyfsh man Simon Godfrey reflects on his new life in the States

Philadelphia is ice bound. So much so, I half expect to see Torvill and Dean hurtling by the Seven Eleven, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Ravel’s Bolero.

Rather ironically, I recreate a corrupted version this Olympic tableau daily by dragging my reluctant greyhound Dora around the local park each morning. Sadly because of her hatred of the cold and my inability to stay standing for any more than 90 seconds at a time, our merry dance is considerably less graceful and contains many extremely rude words.

Thankfully I am rarely out performing music during these icy, winter months and like many musicians of my ilk, this time of the year is set aside for writing and recording. Winter won’t last long as the change of the seasons is inevitable.

You could say the same for music. Every year that passes, some new singing star dominates the pop world or a virtuoso wunderkind dazzles the scene with new technical chops so tasty, you could feed a family of five for a year on them. Yet as the old adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This year’s Grammys have bestowed four awards upon UK singer Sam Smith, even with the perceived controversy surrounding his single Stay With Me and its uncanny similarity to Tom Petty’s 80s hit Won’t Back Down (Petty has now been given a co-writing credit and 12% of the royalties).

Take progressive rock for example; a genre which took the world by storm in the 60s and early 70s, was torn asunder by punk in the latter half of the same decade, and ironically adopted the underground punk mentality of independent promotion when the mainstream largely turned its back on both the music and its fans during the mid 80s and 90s. Then came the 21st century and back it comes, reinvented and reinvigorated with a younger, hipper crowd, once again looking for something beyond the three-minute format.

It is fantastic that progressive music is back in the limelight as it possesses an incredibly rich legacy of tunes created (sometime begrudgingly), in its name.

But with that renewed fame comes increased scrutiny. Prog has suffered more from the preconceptions bestowed by the public than perhaps any genre outside of LSD Gangbang Calypso. The question skeptics always ask is; how can prog rock be progressive if musicians and fans alike are still enjoying 23 minute epics? Where’s the ‘progression’ and why on earth would anyone wish to listen to it?

The answer is simple; you get out what you put in. Like any music genre, if you go looking for the unoriginal, dull and mediocre, the chances are that you will find it. If however you seek out those who are genuinely interested in writing original and innovative material, you’re just as likely to encounter that as well. Every genre has a signature sound but that doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion

Speaking personally, I believe that life begins where your comfort zone ends. I remember listening to The Yes Album and thinking ‘Christ, I have no idea where this is going. Absolutely anything could happen in the next bar of music and that is fantastic.’ I’ve had similar experiences listening to Stevie Wonder, Fat Boy Slim, Cardiacs, Nine Inch Nails, Sly And The Family Stone, Slint, Sparks and many others. When you don’t know what is coming, anything could happen.

Progression however, is also troubling to some even inside the genre. To quote Peter Gabriel from one of the best documentaries about space ever made (Wall-E) ‘Despite all you made of it, you’re always afraid of change’. There is a lot of comfort and enjoyment to be had, reliving your youth through the classic sounds of a vintage era

I do it as much as the next person but it doesn’t have to end there. With prog, that sense of moving on is built into the very fibre of the genre; sometimes it happens in the music, sometimes it happens purely in the listener and occasionally, it happens in both.

That last part is the reason why I think prog remains interesting for me. It’s far from being a new concept but it still sets the stage for those suitably inclined, to re-invent and innovate. In truth, that is what every genre should be all about.

So when I watch the Grammys, I don’t get anywhere near as angry or annoyed as some of my compatriots do on sites like Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter. All I see is music doing what it always does i.e. strutting its awkward stuff in the hope that out of all the mediocre noise, something truly interesting might emerge Hell, even if simply it spurs another Steven Wilson or Stevie Wonder to pick up and instrument and exclaim ‘I can do better’. I’m all for it

Okay you’ll have to excuse me now. Dora is giving me that look again which means that I have to grab a dog leash, a poop bag and perform an unintentional triple salko, while being pulled backwards into a bush by a four legged, ice hating machine.

I may swear a lot.

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