Art Design Music

Two boyhood heroes: Steve Howe and Roger Dean

Steve Howe on the Anthology tour April 2015

I had a two for one deal on boyhood heroes at Trading Boundaries on the 12 of April. Not only did I see legendary guitarist Steve Howe but he was introduced to the stage by Roger Dean.

Steve Howe is a fabulous guitarist. His self-taught mastery of musical genres from classical to country blues, plus an extraordinary musical imagination, means he has always been my benchmark when listening to guitarists in any genre.  At Trading Boundaries I found his performance uplifting. I’d first seen him live in 1975, and several times since then, but not for perhaps ten years. For me it was heartening to see my boyhood hero, guitarist of Yes, in such an intimate and pleasant venue. He was relaxed, chatty and still playing exquisitely after all these years.

Then there’s Roger Dean. As a teenager I loved Dean’s fantastic landscapes and Dean’s Views was the first book by an artist I felt I could personally relate to. He also made me imagine what life in one of his organically-rounded dwellings might be like, opened me up to the possibilities of set design, and gave me a glimpse at the trial and error that went into the creation of a logo. Thanks to my mother, I was taken to galleries from an early age and by the time I did an A Level in art I was more German Neue Sachlichkeit than fantasy art. But to this day I have a Roger Dean poster in my study and his work is always something I have in mind, say when at the recent Peder Balke exhibition in the National.

The work of Howe playing with Yes and Roger Dean combined to form a sonic and visual environment that was a teenage refuge, a niche in the imagination that belonged to me. For that I am still grateful.


Peder Balke at The National Gallery, London

Paintings by Peder Balke

I knew nothing about Peder Balke (1804-87) before my pal Bob suggested we go to see the exhibition at the National Gallery (on till April 12 2015). I learned that the Norwegian had made extensive trips around the coast, and then revisited some of the scenes in his imagination, such as North Cape, repeatedly for years.

This is the dark side of Romanticism, with Tolkienesque swarms of seabirds, moonlight behind clouds sending eerie beams over storm-tossed seas, towering cliffs and glaciers.  Not all of it worked for me. Some pieces, such as a broken tree in snow, had Bob and I saying “Christmas card” to each other, and comparing it unfavorably to Caspar David Friedrich other work was fascinating.

Later, when the public lost any interest in his work, he began to develop a freer brush sense, and reducing his palette to black and white to depict stormy seas or even the Northern Lights. These latter paintings, claimed by his fans to be early precursors of Modernism, apparently languished in his attic till his star gradually rose again.

North Cape, Peder Balke, (c) The National Museum of Art and Architecture, Copenhagen.

I was also reminded me of Roger Dean’s improbable SF-tinged landscapes of the 1970s too such as the coastal scene below. I’d recommend popping in to see for yourself should you find yourself at Trafalgar Square.

Peder Balke Coastal Landscape.


David Bowie, Yes and The Stranglers

The reemergence of David Bowie, with his new album The Next Day is exciting. And while not a crazed Bowie fan, Station to Station and Heroes were vitally important albums to the teenage me, and I can still listen to them with pleasure. I took advantage of iTunes free streaming of the album a week or so ago and listened to the album through twice. While it did not annexe new territory musically, it has opaque meanings and an appealing wistfulness among the harder rock settings.

All this ‘Bowie reborn’ news has made me think about what I liked in the 70s. Interesting to observe how liking David Bowie is still cool. Unfortunately, along with the soul, reggae, punk, new wave and jazz I listened to in my teens, the music I was most crazy about was by the ‘progressive rock’ groups Yes and King Crimson.

Yes are definitely not cool. In fact they are generally considered particularly risible. They were wildly popular in the 70s, and I went to several of their concerts and listened obsessively to their albums as if my life and sanity depended on it. And I am not sure if they didn’t in a way. This was a complete world to escape into, hugely textured soundscapes that lasted up to twenty minutes a piece. Plus Roger Dean’s wonderful covers which provided an entire gravity-defying visual environment. (Dean’s work lately was scandalously ripped off in the film Avatar.)  Growing up, my mother’s few records were mostly classical or jazz. I was listening to things like The Modern Jazz Quartet, or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite before I developed my own choices. So long instrumental workouts, of the type favoured by Yes held no fear for me.

In London, from about 1977 admitting to liking Yes made you a laughing stock. Partly this was because of the emergence of Punk. While I saw no problem in seeing Yes and The Stranglers in the same week, many did. My brother and I saw Yes at the Wembley Empire Pool in 1977, and it was stunning. All breathtaking lasers, amazing playing and incredibly complex and wonderful pieces from their Going for the One album.  The Stranglers at Camden’s Hope and Anchor, a few days later, had Hugh Cornwell wanking his throat, and sending a gob of saliva onto the low ceiling, compelling the audience to watch it drip as the band thundered out their exhilarating The Doors with a nosebleed tunes.

Both entirely wonderful experiences in their own way.

The fact that most people I know despise Yes has slightly saddened me. This is a group who have been almost uniquely vilified. And of course there is the fact, a running sore withYes fans, that despite selling gazillions of albums in the 70s and 80s they have stubbornly been barred entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

All the criticisms of Yes are true: the music was full of technical ability, and played brilliantly. Fine. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are obscure, ungrammatical and pretentious (that damning word useful to people who don’t want to think). Well yes, but as someone who has read and written published poetry for several decades, I can tell you that Anderson’s word choice was frequently excellent. Being a musician he first thought of the sound of the words he was singing, and the sheer strangeness and abstraction of the imagery painted pictures in areas of my head that I didn’t even know I had. And of course it didn’t deal with working people’s lives (as described, for example, by son of a diplomat, public school boy Joe Strummer).

Actually as someone who was at school in London in the 1970s, and had to deal with the reality of fascists lurking outside the school distributing British movement literature, meeting frequent racism because my girlfriend was black, of going to a crap school, power cuts, strikes, the rise of Thatcherism and other horrors, a bit of escapism was pretty welcome. I loved punk too, who wouldn’t love that rush of mad, anarchic excitement, but why did this suddenly invalidate Yes music? It was like criticising snakes for having no legs.

Ultimately the music of Yes taught the teenage me a useful lesson: even though everyone tells you what you like is rubbish, you never have to agree with them. You never have to accept a fashionable disenfranchisement of your personal taste and history, a narrowing of what is possible to conceive and love.

Good on David Bowie though. As well as being a fascinating musician, he has an amazing unrivalled ability to rise above and shape the forces of fashion.

Below Roger Dean’s image for the Yes album Relayer.