Wednesday, May 07, 2003


As if progressive rock somehow lacked enough mortal foes, Stuart Jeffries (writing in the Guardian newspaper today) reacts with ironic glee to the surprising news that British prime minister Tony Blair apparently has a soft spot for quintessential art-house band King Crimson. He was formerly publicly associated with the more languid, acoustic delights of a duo called Etzio. One for the communitarians to hum, no doubt.

Mark Ellen, who 33 years ago played with the PM in the Oxford student band Ugly Rumours, disclosed on BBC Radio 4’s flagship ‘Today’ programme yesterday that Blair also loves the more mainstream Free. The PM’s attempts to ‘get down with the kids’ are, of course legendary. One of the loudest mistakes of his first term was to try to ingratiate himself with the Gallagher brothers: a move that backfired when they joined legions of other (then) fashionable acts to denounce his government’s rightward drift in the New Musical Express.

The news that Blair is an aficionado of Robert Fripp & Co’s boffinish musings is more serious however, since it threatens to sully an otherwise highly credible outfit: the one manifestation of ‘prog’ (a term strongly disavowed by Fripp) still deemed acceptable in other avant quarters of the musical universe. But hang on a moment. Before you recoil in horror at the unlikely thought of No 10 Downing Street reverberating to the artful cacophony of THRaKaTTaK, consider the evidence. This love affair may in fact be with one album, maybe even with one song only.

Noting that “lyricist Pete Sinfield had Wagnerian pretensions and deployed in verse an analysis of the human psyche that drew heavily on the work of Melanie Klein”, Jeffries explains thus: “One of King Crimson's songs .. still weighs heavily on the prime minister. ‘I saw him not long ago and we spent about 20 minutes talking about the music we listened to at college,’ said Ellen. "We were talking about ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, which had an incredible guitar solo in the middle of it.’ ”

Apparently Tony still struggles to nail those fleet-fingered notes. Jeffries quotes some delightfully batty advice from Fripp in Total Guitar (not solely directed at senior politicians coming to terms with the weight of being 50, admittedly). He goes on to note of the dystopian lyrics: “You can't tell me that the second verse isn't a prophetic critique of war in Iraq, nor that the third isn't a similarly insightful prediction of the paranoid-schizoid politician of the current century who has adopted, just as Klein envisaged, patterns of thought and experience characterised by blame, scapegoating, idealisation, persecution and other distorted perceptions.”

Perhaps, after all, we can expect a liberal volte face in C21st politics, as Sinfield (no relation to Jerry Seinfeld, in case you were absent-mindedly fantasising) works his latent, imagistic sorcery on GW’s newest playmate? Then again, maybe not. Well, not unless the pigs begin to fly and progressive rock leapfrogs back into the mainstream…

Fripp and Sinfield were, apparently, unavailable for comment. By a curious (and perhaps fearful) symmetry the Guardian's wonderful spoof, 'Mrs Blair's Diary', mischievously alleged back in 1997 that El Tone also gained some inspiration from Yes' 'Tales From Topographic Oceans'. Astonishingly, he was still elected by a landslide.

[The full article by Jeffries can be found here John Harris' new book, 'The Last Party: Britopop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock' is published on Friday, and previewed today in The Independent.]

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