The Birth of The Tangent, Part 1: A Gathering of the Tribe.
It was a crossroads. In fact, it was the crossing of many roads all at once and all in one place. It was a Rome to which roads led but also from whence they emanated.
It was April 17, 1999. It was the night on which music writer (and former Chemical Alice and Déjà Vu sound engineer and songwriter) Ian Oakley saw his first Flower Kings and Parallel or 90 Degrees gigs at the Classic Rock Society in Rotherham, England. Not long after that Oakley reviewed the show on the fledgling “Bathtub of Adventure” music website. Andy Tillison Diskdrive, Parallel or 90 Degrees’ singer, keyboardist, songwriter and driving force read the review. He was not pleased.
Tillison did what he had done before: he had a go at the reviewer. First in e-mails and then by telephone Tillison unjustifiably savaged Oakley (or so Oakley reports it), just as Oakley had him (or so Tillison reports it) referring to Oakley as “little more than a hack from the NME.” It was at the tail end of one such session that Tillison told Oakley that “the last reviewer who wrote a bad review about me ended up as my webmaster, what’s this going to lead to?
Quite a lot, as it happened.
Andy Tillison: The Tangent is definitely going to be in movements. Definitely. After all it’s a prog album, so we’re going to have bloody movements. But yeah, I think it’s you know just trying to get back. Those albums in the seventies really achieved something. And really, after the original sequence of the progressive rock music ended, must have been 1977, all the other albums have never got back. My favorite comparison: in 1969 we went to the moon and we never went back. It was a great terrible shame. But we never went back. And like Yes went somewhere close to the edge, all we’ve done since is rewrites and we never quite went back. Its time for somebody to go back.
Progression: So that was your goal with “The Music That Died Alone.”
Tillison: I wanted to make the next great English prog album.
The Birth of The Tangent, Part 2: A Child is Born, A Progger Made . . . Alive.
It is a moment that will always stand still for Tillison: sitting quietly at the top of the stairs hearing Yes’ “Close to The Edge” for the first time. It was a crystallizing moment in which the world opened up for him and in which two parts of that world which had always seemed so irreconcilably far apart suddenly didn’t seem far a part at all.
Tillison grew up in a musical household. His mother was a highly accomplished pianist who respected her abilities less than did those around her. Like her son, she was a vocalist as well. “I reckon she missed a career in opera,” Tillison says. He describes her record collection as “remarkable.” It was huge. And while it contained almost exclusively classical music it spanned that world with both great breadth and great depth. There was Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and also Edgar, Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky. There was music his parents liked and music that they didn’t. And this is the music that Andy Tillison grew up hearing.
And there was another kind of music, too: pop. Oh, Tillison heard “its call” alright but also rejected that call. Pop was both too short and too formulaic to be of much interest to him. Yeah, yeah, yeah … that music was all the rage in the mid-sixties, but it was not a rage that could sustain itself for Tillison if the songs did not.
And so, as Tillison sat at the top of that staircase, and sat there some more, and still some more, for twenty minutes as Yes stretched its legs he heard popular music in an entirely new light. Songs could last for more than three minutes. They could last long enough to actually get interesting.
And there was another crystalizing moment. This one was not so much a sound as an image. This one stared out at him from the inside cover of a Van der Graaf Generator album. It showed a young Hugh Banton wearing the very same school uniform that Tillison was wearing and standing in front of the very same keyboards that Tillison played at school
Indeed it was that connection to Banton – having gone to the same school – that would eventually result in Banton’s Van der Graaf mate, David Jackson, joining The Tangent project. Years later, after an embryonic Parallel or 90 Degrees had made a cover album of Van der Graaf Generator tunes, Hugh Banton got in touch with Tillison. Given the shared background they had much to talk about. That talk led to a meeting at which Tillison “cheekily invited him to play with us live at a Van der Graaf Generator tribute night. It was a fantastic gig. I’ll never forget the night I sang Peter Hammill’s songs with Hugh playing the organ. There were one or two tearful moments that night.”
Progression How did you get involved in The Tangent project.
David Jackson: I had known about Andy for some time because of Scorched Earth convention. I had done the first Scorched Earth I. Andy was there at the second one at Peterborough and played with Hugh Banton. Hugh told me that Andy was “really brilliant.” I figured that if he was good enough for Hugh he was good enough for me. Andy sent me some tapes and said “lets do a session.” It sounded really interesting. And basically I knew he was OK because he’d worked with Hugh…he’d sussed them out to be OK.
Progression How did you feel working with him.
Jackson: Very comfortable because of Andy’s brilliance. We had a shared knowledge…he knew all of Van der Graaf’s music. He was able to play it at an instant. He knows the music, respects the music….its lovely to play with a guy like that. With Peter Hammill, he refuses to let me prepare anything ever. I’ve worked with him for thirty years, though and we have something of an understanding. It was the same thing with Andy.
Progression Why did you bring “The Hat” to the recording?
Jackson: It was written into the contract. I wanted to be paid since I knew he’d use the name….but it said right in the contract that you only get paid if you wear the hat. Its actually very comfortable when you’re wearing headphones. Its very old…but very comfortable. The cans don’t fall off. Look it’s a magic hat. I believe in magic hats. Its done all sorts of amazing things for me over the years. People have tried to steal it. There have been fights about it. Its luck really. Its superstition….if you put the hat on amazing things happen, amazing things do happen, so you can’t risk it. Andy knew that. He wanted some of the magic.
The Birth of The Tangent, Part 3: In Every Punk a Progger, A Progger in Every Punk
1977 was a funny time for keyboardists. There have been better times to be a talented young keyboard player – perhaps more to the point there has hardly ever been a worse time. Prog, as a viable force of mass culture, was a dead man walking. Punk was in its first flower, placed on the recording industry’s alter by a media that was starving for the Next Big Thing, one that saw in punk’s antidisestablishmentarianism something that seemed vaguely connected to the Last Big Thing: the hippy counterculture of the Sixties. And there were no keyboards in punk. But in that time of massive change the half-life of a phenomenon was an ever-shrinking thing.
“By the time I joined a band in 1978, there was interest in keyboards again, but through people like Dave Greenfield of the Stranglers and the Blondie guy, but the band I joined was playing stuff like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and stuff. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but that’s where I started.” From punk, Tillison – closet progger that he was – found the “New Romantic” scene. “Loads of those bands were proggers with funny hairdos really, and of course they were totally under record company control. A lot of their potential was squandered on building corporate image for the companies for which they worked. There’s no doubting the musical talents of bands like the Durans, but did they really succeed in what they wanted to do? I wonder.”
And it was that disillusionment with the image conscious mainstream New Romantic market that drove Tillison back to punk. “I was running a recording studio in Leeds in the mid 80s when a lot of punk/metal crossover bands started to emerge in the UK. People like Napalm Death, Carcass, Doom, Deviated Instinct & Hellbastard, etc. were on one wing, and the UK anarcho hardcore scene was alive and kicking with bands like Crass, Chumbawamba, Dan, Sofahead, and Generic. I worked with a lot of these bands at the studio, notably the Chumbas, and I was envious of their freedom, and within their music found a lot of musicality that I realized I was denying myself.”
So Tillison formed Gold Frankincense & Disk Drive which he describes as a band based on Anarcho-Punk ethics but…with keyboards. Tillison took the band on a barnstorming tour of the UK’s hardcore punk venues of the UK where he was often greeted with a puzzled look as he loaded his keyboards into the venue. But it worked. “They were well into the music because of its socio political stance, and the big mellotron and organ sounds were something a bit new to them.”
But then a funny thing happened: “The band got progressively more proggy as we went on and I was free again! The first GFDD album was a fairly shouty affair, but by the fourth album we were onto 20 minute epics.” Out of Gold Frankincense & Disk Drive, Parallel or 90 Degrees was born with “an actual manifesto to become a new wave progressive band.” And with each successive album Po90 has found itself closer to carving out that new niche, and arguably further away from the classic prog that it is at the goal of The Tangent project. It is perhaps symbolic that on this album, unlike each of the Parallel or 90 Degree albums Tillison is not credited as “Andy Tillison Diskdrive.” Indeed, The Tangent’s “The Music That Never Died” will be Tillison’s first credit without the “Diskdrive” epithet in many a moon. The suggestion to drop the “Diskdrive” came from Roine Stolt. “‘Diskdrive’ is just an old nickname from years back. It wasn’t particularly relevant to this project.”
Progression What distinguishes a song meant for Tangent from a song meant for Parallel or 90 Degrees?
Tillison: The story is that there was never supposed to be a Tangent. I’d written these songs before. Po90 had made this kind of big decision that we were going to try and become a modern rock band that was contemporary and relevant – we will never, never deny this business that we’re a progressive rock band – but we wanted to be judged as a modern rock band. But the thing is that I still wanted to actually get some symphonic prog music out…so I started writing it for a solo album.. So with the idea of having a guest spot I simply sent the stuff off to Ian and Ian sent it to Roine and Roine thought about it for a while and said yes.
The Birth of The Tangent, Part 4: The Music that Would Not Die Alone
British rock has, in Tillison’s mind, been stuck in an endless post-punk era. “There’s been a kind of dissatisfied sneer on its face for years.” To Tillison’s way of thinking, in reality this has little if anything to do with either punk or prog. To him both genres are all about freedom: the freedom to write the album you want to write, to make the music you want to make.
“The Tangent IS actually a lot more like vintage progressive music, for which it makes no apologies whatsoever. I’d always wanted to do something like this, it’s been in my system and my blood for thirty years. It feels really good to have finally done an out-and-out prog rock album. There was nothing to be ashamed of after all!! Writing progressive music for me, and I suspect for Roine, is like putting two fingers up at the establishment and shouting, ‘Fuck You, this is how we want to make music.’ And of course, this is where the Punks came in…”
Tillison does not see that punk and prog are very different at all. He blames the media for the great gulf between the genres. “In the UK the music press would happily refer to YES as ‘Boring Old Farts’ and consistently try to drive a barrier between the two apparently opposing forces. You were supposed to side with one camp or the other. I couldn’t do that.”
But something to be ashamed of or not, freedom or no, in Tillison’s mind prog is a dying artform. The title of The Tangent album – “The Music That Died Alone” – reflects this. “With the exception of the faithful,” says Tillison, “progressive rock music’s existence is denied by the mainstream media, as though it had never even graced the planet. The fact that Yes, ELP, Tull and the Floyd sold boatloads of records all over the world is hardly reflected in radio stations that might play ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ and ‘Money’ once in a blue moon at most. MTV will happily show old clips of the Clash or the Sex Pistols but NEVER show Yes at all.”
There is simply no commercial respect for prog. “In the mainstream, prog has no friends, no critics extol its virtues, and young people are shielded from it by virtue of the fact that they never get to hear any. The nearest thing young kids respect is Led Zeppelin. Imagine how much they could enjoy progressive music if they were exposed to it.” The fact that there is, once again, a thriving (at least artistically speaking) prog music scene doesn’t change that fact. “The most successful of today’s modern progressive bands would hardly put a dent in the financial megabucks being earned by bands on the major labels. The record companies just constantly give us “more of the same” and “more of the same”, and never consider just how much the world might enjoy Spock’s Beard instead of The Foo Fighters just once in a while on MTV.”
And it is against this background that Tillison set out to make his prog album. True to the grandiosity that is both prog’s hallmark and albatross, part of the reason Tillison seems to have set out on this quest was to do nothing less than help show English music the way out of that endless post-punk funk. And yet in a very real way this was, for Tillison a private quest – a journey to reclaim a part of himself.
In Po90 he had a vehicle that allowed him to make prog, but one that was still very much grounded in the anarcho-punk ethos. While Tillison refuses to deny that Po90 is prog neither can he exactly say that it is prog in the mold of the great bands of the First Wave. Call it New Wave Prog, call it Grunge Prog, call it what you will, but Parallel or 90 Degrees was decidedly not Tillison’s vehicle of choice to make the Next Great English Prog Album. No. To do that he had to bring in the Swedes.
Enter Oakley. With their friendship forged out of the fire of that early bad review (which has curiously disappeared from the Bathtub of Adventures website), Tillison sent Oakley an early demo CDR of material he had intended for a solo project. In August 2001, with Oakley serving as the impromptu tour bus driver for the Flower Kings’ British tour (two dates), he had plenty of opportunity to talk up the project to Roine Stolt and hand Roine the demo. Conveniently, Oakley had booked Parallel or 90 Degrees as the opening act for the second of the UK dates, a fanclub gig.
With Stolt and Jackson on board, along with long time Po90 second keyboardist Sam Baine (Tillison’s longtime collaborator and live-in girlfriend) and good friend (and former Gold Frankincense & Disk Drive bandmate) Guy Manning on board, all that was left was to find a rhythm section. Stolt told Tillison that he had a pretty good idea where one could be found: Zoltan Csorsz and Jonas Reingold, his drummer and bass player with The Flower Kings. But even at that Tillison briefly demurred. Familiar only with Jonas Reingold’s work with The Flower Kings, Tillison was initially concerned that Reingold’s style would be too jazzy, that it was not “rock” enough for The Tangent.
Enter Oakley once again, to fill in Tillison on the rest of Reingold’s resume: metal work with Midnight Sun, cabaret and cover work. Essentially, says Oakley he “assured Andy that if he told Jonas what he wanted Jonas could provide any style he required.” Evidently it worked out, not only did Reingold get the bass gig, he ended up recording the rhythm tracks for the album at his studio in Sweden, and Tillison and Po90 recently finished recording Po90’s next album at that same studio with Reingold twisting the dials.
The Tangent was gathered; a project born.
Tillison: For me, I’m really happy that people steal my material. I actually genuinely write the music because I want people to hear it. This is not bullshit. Although I’m not so foolish as to say “here are all my albums, this is worth a download.” I do want people to go and buy them and I would like them to do so – I consider it an honor if somebody goes and gets a Parallel or 90 Degrees album off the shelf in a record shop. I think that would be really good, because they’ve actually taken the trouble to go and buy the real thing. But at the same time is that I’m quite happy for people for people to come and say, you know, we’ve downloaded your album, it’s great. It’s what I did it for.
NB: Parallel or 90 Degrees has a Best-Of album available for free download on its website, www.po90.com.
Progression I think there are very few musicians who view it the way you view it. Why do you think they see it that way?
Tillison: I think, basically, that people kind of look back and they see Yes and they see Pink Floyd and they see Genesis making a lot of money for themselves and they think it’s their right to make the same amount of money. But you see, we don’t actually have the right to become famous and wealthy because of the music we write. Music is actually a very humble occupation. You know, the roots, you go back to the days of the traveling minstrel thing, it was just a humble occupation, and I don’t see myself as doing the kind of job that gives you the right to wealth and riches. But like, I don’t see that music is a right to them, and I love the songs of Elton John, but I don’t ever see what he’s doing for the world gives him the right to all the riches that he has. I don’t see that Michael Jackson’s combined wealth is deserved for what he’s doing for the world.
Progression Why do you do it?
Tillison: There was a broke and penniless rock band who made an album called “Foxtrot.” And there was a very, very, very rich wealthy band who made an album called “We Can’t Dance.” Which is a better album? “Foxtrot” … and in the end I suppose that really most of the musicians who we’ve actually liked made their best music when they didn’t have….when they were, you know, struggling. It’s basically that PO 90 would have the opportunity to make an awful lot of very good records …
Progression: Is Prog really the music that died alone?
Tillison: It breaks my heart to say so, but except for the faithful, it is. Its wonderful that there are terrific bands maintaining the art form, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that a major record company will ever do anything as potentially risky as releasing _Tales From Topographic Oceans_ again. Speaking of that album, how many other double platinum selling albums have you NEVER heard on the radio? Prog Rock’s first wave, and the Apollo space programme were simultaneous. Let’s hope we go back to the moon, and then the music may start to go with us again. So many good things, so many great ideas.
Progression: So what do prog and punk have in common?
Canterbury and Fusion
While Yes, Genesis, ELP and Van der Graaf Generator had their day in the sun in the United States, one of the most romantically-celebrated parts of the British prog scene, Canterbury, never really made it to American shores. Tillison thinks he knows why: fusion jazz. “Canterbury was a wide ranging scene, and I obviously don’t include Caravan or Henry Cow in the Jazz Fusion bracket, but Egg, Gilgamesh, Soft Machine, Hatfields and National Health and of course Bruford who were an extension of these bands were all very Jazz fusion based. You can hear a definite similarity in source between say Return to Forever and National Health, but a different approach from the two bands, one of which is just so evidently English.”
As much as The Tangent is about celebrating a productive return to the Golden Age of prog and the struggle to find its future, the album is also at least in part a remembrance of Canterbury, and maybe even an attempt to introduce it to a new audience. The album’s second song, “Nostalgia-Feratre” is unashamedly just that. Not only would the song sound perfectly in place on a Hatfield and the North, Caravan or National Health album – it even cops a few classic Canterbury riffs.
The song is an excellent introduction to Canterbury for Americans unfamiliar with the sub-genre. And it very much underlines Tillison’s point. There are strong parallels to the fusion jazz of Return to Forever or Weather Report. “The Canterbury lot were for the main part more structurally organized than the Americans, less virtuoso soloing, more manuscripted construction and use of melody. The Canterbury bands didn’t actually call themselves Jazz Rock to such an extent either. They just did what they did. They didn’t seek to become part of the heirarchy of Jazz history in the way the Americans did. I don’t think you’d ever have seen Hatfield at the North on the same stages as Weather Report.” And yet why not? And add The Tangent to the bill.
Progression: What is The Tangent? Is The Tangent a band? A supergroup? An ad hoc something or other? What the hell IS The Tangent?
Roine Stolt: A project perhaps set to weed but we just watch it and see what it becomes.
Tillison: A supergroup implies a lot of musicians who are dead famous, jousting for attention against each other and making (often) less than satisfactory music in the process. I don’t think the Tangent is a supergroup. Besides which, I am hardly of a status that could even be remotely described as “Super”… I’m the organist in a totally obscure band called Parallel Or 90 Degrees, and a lot of your readers will be hearing of us for the first time in this article. No, its not a supergroup. A band is normally associated with a group of people who make music together, play gigs etc. The Tangent have made one CD, some of us haven’t even met each other, and yet the record sounds absolutely like a band all together in the same room, despite having been made in four locations in two countries. So if it’s not a BAND, I’m afraid I have no idea what it is…. actually, that’s it!!!. The Tangent is an IDEA.
Progression: How does The Tangent differ from Transatlantic?
Stolt: Transatlantic was created by four guys in a room, four VERY creative guys. Also it was more like a real supergroup thing, the deal was set before we even met. Money advances were…eh different. A prog bomb really. Andy didn’t even have a deal, now we have as Thomas Waber [of Inside Out Music] liked it. It may have helped that I was on it and David Jackson as well. Waber was an old Van der Graaf Generator fan too. But Tangent was Andy’s music that he composed on computer and then asked me to do guitars and sing. I think that me and David just added a flavour to what was very much ANDY. Of course Jonas and Zoltan and the others added too with their style and sound .
In Darkest Dreams: The Meeting of the Dark and the Light
The opening track on The Music That Died Alone is “In Darkest Dreams,” an unabashed 20 minute multi-part prog epic that leaves little room for doubt what the album is about. The song, and album, opens with Tillison’s swirling Hammond organ leading to an instrumental prog jam that sounds so Transatlantic, one wonders why this album wasn’t called “North Sea.” Roine Stolt’s vocals take over, before giving way to Jackson’s equally distinctive horn voice and a brilliant instrumental section, featuring a terrific syncopated jazz piano solo by Sam Baine. Indeed, perhaps the signature moment on the album occurs later in the song when Jackson’s horn and Sam Baine’s piano gently pass a theme back and forth. Many of the album’s highlights stem from Jackson and Baine’s delicate dialogues; others from Guy Manning’s terrific acoustic guitar work. But this song, this album, are owned by Tillison’s keyboards, so classically prog, and Stolt’s electric guitars – variously quoting Steve Howe or referring to Allan Holdsworth, but ultimately quintessentially Roine.
The lyrics to “In Darkest Dreams” tell the story of a person’s struggle with Night Terrors – and yet the song nonetheless manages to be uplifting. It is this meeting, this merging of the dark and the light that is the essence of the song, indeed the entire album. Just as Tillison’s Parallel or 90 Degrees seems to be a meeting and merging of prog and punk, so is The Tangent a meeting and merging of the dark and light sides of prog.
With The Flower Kings frequently compared to Yes and Parallel or 90 Degrees equally frequently compared to Van der Graaf Generator the heirs to the polar archetypes are gathered (along with, in Jackson, one of the archetypes himself) in The Tangent. As Tillison acknowledges, the titles of each band’s albums – “Unfold The Future” and “More Exotic Ways to Die” – do nothing to dispell those notions
And yet it is The Flower Kings’ Stolt who sings the seemingly “darker” lyrics on “In Darkest Dreams” and Po90’s Tillison who sings the “light” lyrics. Tillison explains that “looking at something in a dark way does not mean there isn’t a positive side to that way of thinking. To recognize and sing about a problem is a step towards resolution, so I maintain that much of Po90’s work is very positive, even though initial examination may suggest otherwise. I think the same is true of Peter Hammill, a man sometimes referred to as depressing. I sometimes find him so uplifting.”
Stolt agrees: “to me it does not look that way: Po90 isn’t all dark and the Flower Kings is surely not all light.” But it goes deeper than that for Stolt. “I think there cannot be Light without Darkness and I never said I will only or always represent the light side. I must sometimes, at least, reflect on the darker side to mirror what is very much a part of our reality. Look into Flower Kings again and you’ll find all this and even darker shades and sarcasms.”
“In Darkest Dreams” and the album as a whole seem to have been a very conscious attempt to demonstrate this; to make what has been implicit explicit. While Peter Hammill and Jon Anderson never shared a stage – a tragedy in Tillison’s book – King Crimson certainly managed to find space for Anderson’s voice. Perhaps bringing some of the members of Parallel or 90 Degrees and The Flower Kings together is as close as can be come to doing so again. “There is more common ground between Po90 and the Flower Kings than fans of either band would perhaps like to think” says Tillison. “I hope this album demonstrates this well.”
And so, with punk and prog merged in Po90 and the dark and light sides of prog happily living together in The Tangent, perhaps British music can finally find its way out of the post-punk doldrums…even if it took Ian Oakley and the Swedish Armada to help it do so.