May 28, 2024

‘Punk’s victories were still fresh in the minds of writers, and prog had been slain … yet here again prog was rising from the dead like some mangy hydra, smeared in grease paint and with a stack of dogeared Genesis albums in its scaly claw.’ ( Joe Banks )

Mirror Of Dreams is the first of two books by Andrew Wild ( the second is to be published in 2025 ) which sets out to provide the definitive account of Prog’s revival as a serious genre between 1981-83, and is told through the intertwined, occasionally incestuous, stories of some of the key players in bands like Marillion, Pendragon, IQ, Solstice, Twelfth Night and Pallas, a few of whom can trace their lineage back to the mid-to-late seventies.

Fish with Marillion

Contrary to what’s been claimed, says IQ’s Peter Nicholls, the evolving of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s ‘wasn’t a reaction against the music of new wave bands like Duran Duran and Soft Cell’. Rather, he claims, ‘a lot of the people who really liked prog simply went into hiding during the punk wars’. So, when young musicians like Nick Barrett, Andy Glass and Steve Rothery began putting their first bands together and taking their first hesitant steps, they looked back to and drew their inspiration from the vision, the elevated musicianship and the technical flair of the established prog bands of the early-to-mid 1970s – which, as Steven Wilson says, was ‘simply music without a map, just musicians doing what came naturally and bringing with them a love of Mahler and Coltrane’ – and successfully merged these with the sounds and attitudes of the early 1980s.

Prog originated out of a happenstance of favourable circumstances in the late ’60s; bands like The Nice, Yes and Pink Floyd were comprised of adventurous musicians, several of whom had been classically trained (Emerson, Wakeman, Daryl Way), who, following the Beatles’ lead, wanted to move leftfield, push at the edges, sonically experiment with sound and tunings and move away from the restrictions of the three minute song. There were also several venues favourable to hearing this kind of music …The UFO, The Marquee, Friars Aylesbury, Middle Earth and The Roundhouse, plus there were developments in music technology which saw new instruments like the Moog Synthesiser being used by bands like King Crimson and ELP to help create some amazing new sounds and groundbreaking albums. From all these, a mighty genre sprang and its impact is still being felt today.

Andrew Wild has given us an extremely well-researched, well written and very readable account of how a much maligned genre was resurrected, if not from the dead, then from its deep slumber, telling us how and why musicianship, experimentation and pieces of music longer than three minutes once again found favour with fans, though not always with the media. And whilst it may well be true that prog will never again have the impact and resonance of its early seventies origins, the fact remains that it’s still flourishing and, of the six bands mentioned in the book, with the exception of Twelfth Night, the other five are still gigging and releasing new albums.

Through his painstaking interviews with many of the leading figures of Prog’s resurgence – musicians, fans, promoters and others – Wild gives us a bewildering number of names and places at a time when bands were coming together and falling apart at alarming speed, and he relays the stories of the struggles and occasional hardships these bands had when trying to be heard, right around the time when the music press, notably the NME, was telling anyone who’d listen that Prog was no more, though clearly fourteen year old Steven Wilson wasn’t paying attention as he saw Marillion in 1982 playing one of their earliest gigs.

Venues such as Friars, Aylesbury and the Marquee played key roles in this revival. The Marquee as a venue became central in prog’s re-emergence. It was, says Twelfth Night’s Andy Revell, ‘just a sh*thole, a black sticky box and a bit underwhelming’, but it was the place every band wanted to play. And play there they did … the six bands mentioned throughout this book played the Marquee a total of 176 times between them! Marillion’s big break came at the Marquee as the buzz surrounding them had by now attracted record company interest. As Nigel Hutchings, Marquee manager, says, ‘Marillion opened the door and, all of a sudden, the whole scene took off’. The Marquee may have been a dump but it was an iconic dump.

From the Marquee and Friars, it was onwards and upwards; albums released to critical acclaim, fanzines like Afterglow, The Web and Court Jester (from Prog mag’s very own Jerry Ewing, who also wrote the foreword to this book) being published. Marillion toured with Peter Hammill supporting and they, with Solstice, Pallas, Pendragon and Twelfth Night, performed at the 1983 Reading Festival. So, just when the NME had finished telling everyone it was safe to go back in the water, prog had reared its head once more and re-established itself. Later on, many leading figures in Punk (Strummer, Lydon, Capt Sensible, etc), would all claim to have always been prog fans earlier in the decade, with a love for bands like Jethro Tull and Van der Graaf Generator being openly declared. So, who killed off whom, eh, Johnny? And Prog’s still here but where’s the NME now??