Like most writers (I think) I have way more ideas than I can handle, meaning that promising concepts often languish for years while I work on other things. You always think there will be time to go back and develop the good ones, but that might not be true. The sudden explosion in art generated by artificial intelligence makes me think a future I dreamed up years ago is here now, for better or worse.
The idea I had was that a group of computer scientists had built a super computer that, when fed with enough examples of a particular kind of art, could then produce the “perfect” example of whatever it had been fed. The computer, at the time the story would have started, had already written a best-selling mystery novel and created some impressive visual art, too. For its next project it would take on music, leading the cranky main character to show the world that music was a human endeavor that machines could never match. I actually started this story a couple times, but it never got very far.
If I were to try and finish it now it would become more historical fiction that sci-fi, as AI art is really getting its moment in the sun. I’d seen some people on Twitter playing around with various programs where you give it a text prompt and it produces a picture. Some of them were kind of neat, others were horrifically creepy in an unintentional way. It all seemed like a lark until somebody took one to a state fair.
A guy named Jason Allen submitted an artwork called “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” which, from the presentation of it in this New York Times article, looks like something from a sci-fi or fantasy cover from the 1970s or 1980s. That’s no criticism – it’s pretty cool and I could see it prompting some interesting stories.
Allen submitted the work in the Colorado State Fair’s art competition, specifically in a category for “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The “digital technology” in this case is an AI program/website called Midjourney. It and similar setups work this way:
Apps like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney are built by scraping millions of images from the open web, then teaching algorithms to recognize patterns and relationships in those images and generate new ones in the same style. That means that artists who upload their works to the internet may be unwittingly helping to train their algorithmic competitors.
In other words, a user like Allen feeds text inputs into Midjourney, which then comes up with an image attempting to match the prompt. The process itself sounds like it could be excruciating, tweaking terms one word at a time to see what impact it might have on the final process (as someone who does that with legal search terms every day, I sympathize).
All of this would have had the air of a neat experiment or side story, had Allen and his work not won the category (and the $300 that went with it). For what it’s worth, I think Allen is clearly right that he didn’t break any rules. They apparently didn’t define “digital technology” to exclude AI or to only include tools wielded by humans on art they created, so good on him for exploiting the loophole.
But that isn’t the real question. The issue that has people upset about Allen’s win is whether his AI-generated painting is really “art” at all and what it means for human artists. The objections seem to break down along two lines.
The first is, well, that machines just can’t make art or, rather, “art” made by machines lacks something that human-made art does. As someone who at least tries to make art, of the written and aural variety, I’d like to think there’s something to this. On the other hand, as someone who makes electronic music specifically, I’m well aware of the history of musicians (and others) panicking at the onset of some new technological advance. British session musicians in the 1960s were initially super pissed at the Mellotron, one of my favorite instruments, because it was going to put them out of work. It didn’t, of course, because Mellotron strings or flutes or voices never sound quite real, which is part of its charm. Sequencers and drum machines, too, got similar hate for not being “real,” which ignores the fact that what makes them interesting is that they don’t sound “real” in the first place.
But in those examples there’s still a human being pushing the buttons, doing the work. But isn’t that what Allen did? He apparently tried numerous strings of search terms before getting images he liked, tweaking them as he went along. Is that so different than finding a synth patch you like, then using the tools of the synth to shape and sculpt it into something unique and personal? It’s not as if Allen sat down, had a conversation with the AI about what he was looking for, and the AI went away and created. All is doing was responding to prompts Allen gave it which is, for practical purposes, all any artistic medium does.
The second objection feels more immediately justified, but doesn’t quite hold up under close scrutiny. As I said earlier, these AI image generators work by “scraping” millions of images already on the internet and using them as grist for the images the AI generates. This, to some, sounds a little like machines stealing the work of real human artists. Admittedly, I’d be pissed off if I found out some AI writing thing had scraped some of my stories as fuel for its work. But is that gut reaction reasonable?
After all, what are artists if not meat machines that absorb as influences the works of those who came before them? There’s even a well-known saying to the effect that “good artists copy, great artists steal,” although who said it is a mystery (I heard it from Zappa first, I think). Granted, a computer algorithm can absorb a lot more data than a human brain can in a lifetime, but does that make a difference? We’re hashing that out in the legal realm with regards to the Fourth Amendment and whether computers doing what police would never have the time to do themselves raises questions about the constitutionality of searches. Is the difference between Allen feeding the AI prompts and sitting down with a human artist and saying “here’s the kind of stuff I like, can you do one in that style?” one of kind or degree?
Which is where, I think, humans have it all over machines. As slick as any AI is, all it can do is what people have programmed it to do. A machine has yet to wake up one day and decide “I’m going to paint a flower.” I’m not sure they ever will, although I’m not sure I’d bet against it. There’s something to be said for humanity for having the creative urge in the first place.
Ultimately, this issue is one more in the long line of humans worrying about becoming obsolete. Machines and computers do more and more of our jobs. They’re getting to be a bigger part of law enforcement. And now they’re coming for the arts. It was probably inevitable. It’s worth shifting, then, to wondering not whether AI can make art, but whether it can appreciate it. Show a group of humans the same painting or movie or play for them the same song and you’re likely to have numerous reactions to it. Maybe it’s the reaction, not the creation, that is indelibly human?
Make a Jazz Noise Here, one of the live albums documenting Frank Zappa’s final tour, kicks off with a rousing version of “Stinkfoot” which ends, as his opening numbers tend to do, with an introduction of the various people in the band. At the end of the roster is Ed Mann, Zappa’s long-time percussionist. Zappa explains that prior to the show one of the fans came up to Mann and “treated like a war criminal” because he “fucked up” a riff in a song called “Dicky’s Such an Asshole” (it’s about Nixon) at a show weeks before. Zappa explains how the people who come to the show listen so carefully that he wanted to take time to allow Mann to “warm up” for that big riff by practicing it right now. The band drops out and Mann plays the riff perfectly. Then he says something to the effect of “here’s how we played it that night” and plays a different riff. The band cranks on, point made.
The point was, of course, that Mann hadn’t “fucked up” anything weeks before, he’d played the riff differently on purpose (at Zappa’s insistence, or at least with his blessing, surely). In other words, when a professional is doing something, maybe assume that they’ve got everything under control and what seems like a mistake to you might actually be completely intentional.
I thought about that episode when I came across this column from April by Damon Young. It’s entitled “A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar” and, well, it’s brilliant. Young is a regular at the Washington Post and has a long string of credits, including a book of essays that won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor. It’s safe to say he knows his way around words.
He certainly has no problem claiming that expertise, as the first line of the response column is “I’m better at this than you are at everything you do.” Harsh, but probably fair. Later, he digs into the specific complaints of the email:
In your email, you declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”
If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive.
You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.
I mean, damn, that’s gotta’ sting.
Young is right, of course – rules are meant to be broken. But beyond that, what he’s saying (I think) is that people who break rules know they’re doing it and have a good reason to do so. That’s why as a writer or musician or whatever it’s important to learn the rules, even if you intend to ignore them completely in your creations. Rules, even as suggestions, have some value in generating expectations among your audience and if you’re going to confront them with something different it’s best to both realize it and question whether it’s worth it. Young, clearly, knew the score and what he was doing.
Of course, when it comes to rules, Young has broken one of the cardinal ones in even writing this piece. Writers are repeatedly (and correctly, in my opinion) advised never to engage with critics or reviews of their work, even positive ones. It’s a hard firewall we’re supposed to put up to avoid being dragged into the social media muck. Go blow off steam with your spouse or writing buddies, but, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond online.
But again, Young knows what he’s doing. He knows the rule about responding to critics and decided that, in this instance and in this way, he should break it. As such, this pieces serves as a bit of wish fulfillment for writers everywhere who don’t have the courage (or the skill) to clap back at critics.
There’s been some interesting talk online about some of the economics of writing or, rather, being a writer. I have a day job I love that pays the bills, so this isn’t something I lose a lot of sleep about, but if you enjoy reading books or watching movies or listening to music, it’s worth remembering that the people that make them have all have bills to pay and families to feed, too.
Things sort of got summed up by John Scalzi on Twitter over the weekend:
I suppose this is an offshoot of the idea that artists need to suffer to make great art, which always kind of mystified me. Yes, there are writers and musicians that are tortured souls and managed to turn that into great, moving works of art. But there are just as many who seem pretty well adjusted and just love doing what they’re doing, the only real suffering coming from when people expect them to continue entertaining them for free or, worse, “for exposure.” “Happy” and “artist” should be used in the same sentence together a lot, I’d thihk.
Growing up, I sort of assumed that anybody who wrote a book or released an album made their livings doing that. It really wasn’t until I dove into the progressive rock world in college that I realized how many amazing musicians actually had day jobs to pay the bills (hopefully in music or some related field, but oftentimes not). That sort of opened my eyes about how economics and the arts intersect in the United States.
Now in the era of streaming services things are even worse for musicians. The per-play rate for a song on even the most generous service is pennies (and often a fraction of that). Fans need to realize that if they want more of their favorite music, they need to do more than just stream it. Buy LPs or cassettes, if your that particular kind of hipster. Or buy downloads directly from the band (or via something like Bandcamp) as a way that puts the most money directly in their pockets. Love and adulation is great, but it doesn’t pay the rent.
But whatever you do, don’t buy it, listen to it, and then return it.
I didn’t even realize this was a thing until posts like this started circulating from writers no Twitter:
As this article explains, Amazon allows you to return Kindle books within a week after purchasing them. Although this is to allow refunds for “accidental” purchases (mistakes happen, after all), some folks have spread this as a “hack” to allow readers to buy a book, read it quickly, and then return it for a refund:
It’s not immediately clear if new videos about returning e-books in the form of a “Kindle hack” were being spread around, but it was the subject of discussion on BookTok several months back as a debate over whether returning a fully read Kindle book could be considered “stealing.” Some who think the claim is nonsense compare returning a book you don’t like to returning a top that doesn’t fit or being comped for a meal when you find a bug in your food.
It should be obvious that returning a book that you read to completion is nothing at all like returning a piece of clothing that didn’t fit or getting bugged food for free. In both of those situations the product you received was defective in some way. They analogize to situations with books where you honestly buy the wrong one, get something other than is advertised (it’s a short story, not a novel, for example), or the file is corrupt and unusable.
But if you buy a book (or an album or a movie) and you read it then that’s it, you’ve got no right to a refund. It doesn’t even matter if you didn’t finish it because you thought it sucked. There’s a certain about of buyer beware that applies to any purchase, but that’s doubly true for art. It’s simply impossible to buy something to which reactions are so subjective with an expectation that you’ve got a money-back guarantee. Trying a new author or checking out a new band is an act of faith, of hope that it will be amazing, but you’ve got to be willing to accept that it might not be.
To return to the restaurant analogy, if you and a friend decide to try a new place that has a great reputation and seems just up your alley, but you don’t find that it met your expectations, you still have to pay for the meal. Sometimes, where matters of taste are involved, things don’t work out the way we want them to. That’s life.
A good rule of thumb for negotiating the world or books, music, or any other artistic thing in the modern era is to ask, “is this going to mess with the livelihood of the person (or persons) who created this?” before doing something that impacts their bottom line. If the answer is “yes,” think long and hard as to whether that’s justified. Deep down, I think you’ll realize it very rarely is. At the very least, before you start demanding your money back it ought to rise to this level:
To kick off the substantive part of my month of lists, I figured I’d being where Steven Wilson did, with my 100 favorite songs. This was an interesting exercise, as while there are some common artists and even albums between our two lists, there aren’t any common songs. And, of course, my list has a couple of Steven Wilson-related tracks, whereas his list did not (nor did it have any of mine!). Before we dig in, a few ground rules.
First, when I say “favorites” that is just what I mean. Making a list of “best” anythings when it comes to art is a fool’s errand. These are just songs I really like. I make no claim that you will love them, too.
Second, I didn’t select these as particular best examples of what I love about these bands and artists (although many ended up that way). In other words, there was always going to be a Genesis track on here, but I didn’t select it based on how paradigmatic it was of their glory years, just because I really really love it.
Third, I imposed a limit of one song per band/artist on this list. Even with that, my first go had about 200 songs on it. I thought if we’re really talking “favorites” then let’s keep it as just that. That said, some musicians show up multiple times in different bands.
Finally, I made the executive decision to include as one unit multiple songs that segue into one another. If you can listen to them all in a hunk without a break, I counted them as one “song.” Is it cheating? No, because it’s my list and my rules!
So, on with the show. In alphabetical order by song title . . .
“3 Years Older, “ by Steven Wilson from Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015): A perfect blending of Wilson’s prog side and his penchant for memorable pop/rock hooks.
“Almost Medieval,” by The Human League from Reproduction (1979): Rough, early synth pop. All the grit and fuzz of early synths without the slick finish the 1980s would bring. How can you not love a song about a gibbet, anyway?
“Another Murder of the Day,” by Tony Banks (w/Fish) from Still (1991): A sort of “what if?” track, with Fish providing lyrics and vocals. Imagine Calling All Stations with him on board?
“The Ballad of Jenny Ledge,” by Toy Matinee from Toy Matinee (1990): The most fully brilliant result of the brief collaboration between producer extraordinaire Patrick Leonard and the gone-too-soon Kevin Gilbert (another Calling All Stations “what if?”).
“La Ballata de S’lopsoa ‘e Mannorri,” by DFA from 4th (2008): DFA’s muscular Canterbury-influenced prog is taken to another level by the collaboration with a female vocal group on this folk-inspired tune.
“Bass Folk Song,” by Return to Forever from Return to the Seventh Galaxy (1996): Furious bass-led fusion, with lots of juice distorted electric piano to boot.
“Beat Box Guitar,” by Adrian Belew from Side One (2004): An infectious mix of electronics and guitar heroism. Nominated for a Grammy, even!
“Between the Wheels,” by Rush from Grace Under Pressure (1984): An overlooked gem, in my opinion. Love Alex’s solo.
“Bring Out the Sun (So Alive),” by Von Hertzen Brothers from Love Remains the Same (2008): Love the way this one builds to about the halfway point, then shifts gears and does it all again.
“Canto Nomande Per un Prigioniero Politico,” by Banco from Io Sono Il Libero (1973): Banco at their lush, romantic best.
“A Cat With Seven Souls,” by Steve Hogarth & Richard Barbieri from Not the Weapon But the Hand (2012): Love the combination of Barbieri’s gauzy atmospherics and H’s voice.
“Catwalk,” by Oblivion Sun from Oblivion Sun (2007): As an author, how can I not be a huge fan of a song about someone helping out the Cheshire Cat with a story? Oh, and that slinky Minimoog solo, too.
“Celebrity,” by I Am the Manic Whale from Things Unseen (2020): An epic that manages both to make fun of artsy “competition” reality shows, while showing genuine respect for the people who are good enough to do well on them.
“Chat Show,” by Sanguine Hum from Now We Have Light (2015): The central track on a concept album about the buttered cat phenomenon. Top that!
“Cinema Show,” by Genesis from Seconds Out (1977): My favorite performance of my favorite hunk of classic Genesis. They didn’t get better than this.
“The Clever Use of Shadows,” by Nathan Mahl from The Clever Use of Shadows (1999): Deeply cynical lyrics and amazing keyboard parts. What more do you need?
“Close to the Edge,” by Yes from Yessongs (1973): The definitive version of the band’s definitive song (if you ask me). Carries some extra energy from the studio version (although it lacks Bill Bruford).
“Closet Chronicles,” by Kansas from Two for the Show (1978): A great (and sad) story song carried along by some amazing playing. The live version rules.
“Clownhead,” by Dreadnaught from The American Standard (2001): I don’t really know what a “clownhead” is (a descendant of Krusty?) but I love this weird, off-kilter album closer regardless.
“The Crane Wife 1, 2, & 3,” by The Decembrists from We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (2012): Spread across the studio album of the same name, I love hearing it all from stem to stern.
“Day of the Cow 1 > Snowcow > Day of the Cow 2,” by Mike Keneally from Hat (1992): A perfect encapsulation of Keneally – weird, fun, and amazingly musical. Should I mention it’s about a bovine apocalypse?
“De Futura,” by Magma from Udu Wudu (1976): Now this is an apocalypse! The last half is basically the same riff over and over getting just slightly faster until the whole thing feels like it’s going to spin apart (in a good way).
“Deus ex Machina,” by Deus ex Machina from Deus ex Machina (1992): It’s a band name, it’s an album name, it’s a song name! And everything’s in Latin – what’s not to love!
“Dixie Chicken,” by Little Feat from Waiting for Columbus (1978): I love a great story song and they don’t come much better than this. The live version gets the nice Dixieland break from the Tower of Power horns.
“The Dream,” by Robert Cray from Showdown! (1985): Best line in a blue song ever: “When I reached out to hold her / Oh, I woke my wife instead!”
“Driving to Amsterdam,” by Khan from Space Shanty (1972): Loosy, jammy goodness. If this is what a “Nederlander dream” sounds like, I’m on board.
“Les etudes d’organism,” by Thinking Plague from In Extremis (1998): 14 minutes of pure weirdness, punctuated with ambient and symphonic beauty. Dark beauty, but still.
“Even Less,” by Porcupine Tree from Recordings (2001): This is the full version, not the first half as it appeared on Stupid Dream. I like the dreamy interlude in the middle and the recapitulation in the end.
“Felona > Le solitudine di chi protegge il mondo > L’iquillibiro,” by Le Orme from Felona y Sorona (1973): Light, graceful Italian goodness. An alt-universe ELP that admired Renaissance instead of Hendrix.
“Fitter Stoke Has a Bath,” by Hatfield and the North from Rotter’s Club (1975): I’m also a sucker for songs about musicians, particularly ones like this, that try to rub some of the glamour off their image.
“Free Will and Testament,” by Robert Wyatt from Shleep (1997): “What kind of spider understand arachnophobia?” I dunno, Robert, but it’s worth pondering.
“Games Without Frontiers,” by Peter Gabriel from Peter Gabriel (Melt) (1980): When I was young I thought the French refrain was “she’s so funky.” That kind of works, anyway, you know?
“Go!,” by Public Service Broadcasting from The Race for Space (2015): Not the “best” song from this album (I’d go with “Sputnik”), but this one makes me giddy every time. The newsreel clips are spliced up here expertly.
“The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer,” by Beardfish from The Sane Day (2005): “He was a filthy motherfucker by the name of Dwight” – hell of a first line, particularly when it’s your opening tune at your first American prog festival!
“Head Over Heels > Broken,” by Tears for Fears from Songs from the Big Chair (1985): It says something when the third (or fourth?) hit from an album is this good.
“Hell’s Kitchen> Lines in the Sand,” by Dream Theater from Falling Into Infinity (1997): I know this isn’t Dream Theater’s most loved album (and rightly so), but these two tracks work really well together, the jammy instrumental turning into a solid tune, with a great chord progression in the chorus (and King’s X’s Doug Pinnick!).
“Hereafter,” by The Dregs from Bring ‘em Back Alive (1992): Not that the Dregs didn’t frequently blaze, but I really love this laidback jam.
“Hibou, Anemone and Bear,” by Soft Machine from Volume 2 (1969): Fuzzed bass, many woodwind overdubs, and lyrical silliness. My preferred variant of Soft Machine.
“Hostsejd,” by Anglagard from Epilog (1994): My first exposure to the amazing retro-symph prog from Sweden that helped kick off prog’s third wave.
“I Dream of Wires,” by Gary Numan from Telekon (1980): It took me many listens before I realized that this song is about an electrician worried about remaining employed in a wired world. I always figured it was about synth patch chords.
“Idioteque,” by Radiohead from Kid A (2000): Speaking of synth patch chords. Officially the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen performed on Saturday Night Live.
“Impressioni di settembre,” by PFM from Storia di un Minuto (1972): My first impression (so to speak) of Italian prog. That Minimoog solo!
“In Earnest,” by The Tangent from A Place In the Queue (2006): My favorite epic of the modern prog era. The last verse chokes me up still.
“In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” by Roxy Music from For Your Pleasure (1973): Roxy’s not really my thing, but this mix of weirdo confession that explodes into rock and roll goodness is great.
“In the Dead of Night > By the Light of Day > Presto Vivace & Reprise,” by UK from UK (1978): Prog’s last gasp in the 1970s, really – but what a gasp.
“Intentions Clear,” by Umphrey’s McGee from The Bottom Half (2007): For an odds and sods collection, this is a pretty good album. I prefer this version to the “real” one on Safety In Numbers.
“Internal Exile,” by Fish from Internal Exile (1991): Fish’s love song to his native Scotland, in which I hear lots of echoes of West Virginia (in the bridge, particularly).
“The Invisible Man,” by Marillion from Marbles (2004): This is what modern Marillion is all about – layers of sound for days, atmosphere all about, with H’s emotive vocal on the top.
“Invisible Sun,” by The Police from Ghost in the Machine (1981): Favorite song by The Police. Simple as that.
“Judas Unrepentant,” by Big Big Train from English Electric, Vol. 1 (2012): I’ve written about this song before. I love me songs about interesting criminals.
“King of Number 33,” by DeExpus from King of Number 33 (2011): Another song about an interesting criminal, but this time one who is completely out of his mind. Delusion and nifty solos across 25 or so minutes.
“Lady Fantasy,” by Camel from Mirage (1974): The instrumental workout in the last half of this it just peak Camel. They did not better, IMHO.
“Le Fantome de M.C. Escher,” by Miridor from Mekano! (2001): If there’s such a thing as “fun” avant garde prog, Miriodor is it. That said, the way this ends in an unholy mishmash of noise kind of makes you wonder.
“Liberty City,” by Jaco Pastorious from The Birthday Concert (1995): Jaco with a big band in full song filling his sails.
“Life During Wartime,” by Talking Heads from Stop Making Sense (1984): Rampant paranoia with a driving beat.
“Lochs of Dread,” by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones from Live Art (1996): A banjo player grooving on a reggae riff, held down by his synth-drum drummer and a guest on bass clarinet. If that doesn’t define all that’s great about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I don’t know what does (great title, too).
“Man-Erg,” by Van der Graff Generator from Pawn Hearts (1971): Musically and lyrically the best VdGG ever did. Hopeful and frightening in equal measure.
“Memetic Pandemic,” by 3rDegree from The Long Division (2012): The highlight of 3rDegree’s political opus.
“Microdeath Softstar,” by Phideaux from Doomsday Afternoon (2007): In some ways it’s a theme song for the modern age (written 15 years ago).
“Moonwalk,” by Moon Safari from The Gettysburg Address (2012): The first song of the first set released where I was in the room when it was recorded. Good tune, too.
“Neon Lights,” by Kraftwerk from The Man-Machine (1977): Kraftwerk’s “Cinema Show,” if you will – starts off with a pleasant enough song section, before transitioning into an extended instrumental coda.
“New Holy Ground,” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark from History of Modern (2010): Few bands get back together decades later and produce new stuff worth listening to. They’ve done it a lot.
“No Sign of Yesterday,” by Men at Work from Cargo (1983): It’s like melancholy set music. With a nifty guitar solo in the end.
“No Thugs In Our House,” by XTC from English Settlement (1982): I had a conversation once with a client’s mother. She had no idea why her son was spending years in a federal prison. This song makes me think of her.
“On Reflection,” by Gentle Giant from Playing the Fool (1977): I chose the live version of this song because they take apart the original, rearrange it, and make the end product even more jaw-droppingly impressive to perform it live.
“One of Our Submarines,” by Thomas Dolby (1982): Inspired by a true family story (as I understand it). Better than anything that was actually on The Golden Age of Wireless (which is excellent).
“Out In the Darkness,” by Martin Orford (w/Steve Thorne) from The Old Road (2008): Atheists need anthems, too. Particularly in times like these.
“Oxygene, pt. 2,” by Jean-Michel Jarre from Oxygene (1976): Where things really get moving in this electronic classic.
“Poisoned Youth,” by England from Garden Shed (1977): England were not particularly original in the context of 1970s prog, but they put all the pieces together in a pretty satisfying way in this epic.
“Present from Nancy,” by Supersister from Present from Nancy (1970): Canterbury wasn’t just an English thing, as these Dutch boys prove. With a dash of Zappa here and there.
“Racing In A,” by Steve Hackett from Please Don’t Touch (1978): One of my earliest favorites (thanks to my brother), which breaks off from a full-throated song into a solo nylon-string guitar outro.
Recycled Side 1 by Nektar from Recycled (1975): Okay, this really is cheating, but these seven songs all run together, honest (as do the four on side two). Larry Fast’s synth programming really elevated these guys.
“Remurdered,” by Mogwai from Rave Tapes (2014): Love Mogwai in general, but really love it when they dig into the electronic sounds, as in here.
“S.A.L.T.,” by The Orb from Orblivion(1997): The unhinged preaching film clips (from the Mike Leigh movie Naked) are almost enough to put this on the list, but the way the beats and soundscapes get deeper and more paranoid as the go along really sells it. “Do you ever get a feeling your being followed?”
“Safe In Hell,” by The Bears from Car Caught Fire (2001): Leave it to Adrian Belew and crew to take an alternative look at half of the afterlife.
“Seven Is a Jolly Good Time,” by Egg (1969): If prog had a theme song, how could it not be this single (which sank without a trace upon release) that extols the joys of playing in odd time signatures? Still stunned no band has whipped this out at a prog festival.
“The Seventh House,” by IQ from The Seventh House (2000): A perfect epic of World War I loss and remembrance. Still don’t quite know what the “seventh house” is, though.
“Sheep,” by Pink Floyd from Animals (1977): It’s all about that chord progression from Gilmour in the end. And the tinkly electric piano from Wright in the beginning.
“Solar Musick Suite,” by Steve Hillage from Fish Rising (1975): Hillage’s stuff seems to uncoil like a snake, solid but ever shifting.
“Some Memorial,” by echolyn from echolyn (Window) (2012): It starts sort of wistful and cynical, but builds into a climax with some of my favorite lyrics about the end of things.
“Soterargarten 1,” by Gosta Berlngs Saga from Glue Works (2011): Uses repetition to great effect, building up to the amazing ending.
“Squarer for Maud,” by National Health from Of Queues and Cures (1978): Maybe my favorite bit of Canterbury ever. Another song that goes one direction, breaks for something completely different (spoken word interlude!), then gets to business.
“St. Elmo’s Fire,” by Brian Eno from Another Green World (1975): A very good lush pop tune becomes great with Eno’s decision to let Robert Fripp rip right through it from time to time.
“Stander on the Mountain,” by Bruce Hornsby from Here Come the Noisemakers (2000): The older I get, the more this story of faded glories and the people who can’t let them go sticks with me.
“Starless,” by King Crimson from Red (1974): Another one (like “Cinema Show” and “Neon Lights”) that starts as a “song” proper and then slides into a feverish instrumental final. How long does Fripp play that one note?
“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick from At Buddokan (1979): High point of the best side of pure rock and roll ever recorded? I’d say yes.
“Telephasic Workshop,” by Boards of Canada from Music Has a Right to Children (1998): Trip hop and burbly synths. I love that I can listen to this and not have the first idea of how it’s really made.
“The Doorway,” by Spock’s Beard from Beware of Darkness (1996): I love those first five Beard albums (I got in on the ground floor, sort of) and this exemplifies why.
“There’s Something On Your Mind,” by BB King (w/Etta James) from Blues Summit (1993): Great duet by two giants who are no longer with us, sold with all their heart and soul.
“Thick as a Brick,” by Jethro Tull from Thick as a Brick (1972): Technically an entire album, I guess? It’s just one long song broken across two LP sides. Would have to make it for the fake newspaper artwork, regardless.
“Toujours plus à l’est,” by Univers Zero from Live (2006): What did I say earlier about “fun” avant garde stuff? UZ has done much denser and darker stuff, but I love this spritely little thing. Dig the clarinet!
“Trilogy,” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer from Trilogy (1972): My favorite synthesis of ELP’s push/pull struggle between Greg Lake’s romantic balladry and Keith Emerson’s keyboard pyrotechnics.
“Vertiges,” by Present from Barbarro (ma non troppo) (2009): This makes the list for the thundering piano runs up and down the keyboard.
“Village of the Sun > Echidna’s Arf (of You) > Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?,” by Zappa from Roxy & Elsewhere (1974): Everything I love about Zappa – a silly song (although not as silly as usual) followed by mind-blowing musical workouts. It’s a whole side, yes, but it goes by in a flash.
“Warriors,” by Synergy from Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975): Probably my favorite “composed” bit of electronica. I could see this transcribe for a human ensemble very easily. All done with a single Minimoog and a Mellotron.
“Whalehead,” by Moth Vellum from Moth Vellum (2007): This album has grown and grown in esteem for me over the years.
“What Looks Good On the Outside,” by Animal Logic from Animal Logic II (1991): It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from the rhythm section of The Police & Return to Forever, but it’s some seriously good grown-up pop.
“With a Car Like That You Must Be Knee Deep In Whores,” by Forever Einstein from Down With Gravity (2000): It’s here for the title, yes, although it’s a groovy little tune. Don’t worry, it’s instrumental!
“World Through My Eyes,” by RPWL from World Through My Eyes (2005): This makes the list mostly for the awesome synth solo that resolves into the guitar solo near the end. Sublime stuff.
“Yellow Submarine,” by The Beatles from Revolver (1966): I probably loved this movie before I really digested The Beatles’ music. Good way to wrap things up.
Here are some fun facts about this list.
The list covers 54 years, from 1966 (The Beatles) to 2020 (I am the Manic Whale)
There’s a cluster of great live albums there from 1977 to 1979
The musician most represented on the list (I think) is keyboard maestro Dave Stewart, who was a key member of Egg, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, as well as playing with Steve Hillage in Kahn and on his first solo record
My absolute top favorite? Not going to say! It’s been hard enough to whittle things down to 100!
One of the little bits of world building for the Unari Empire books that I had fun with was thinking through the newspaper situation in Cye. Given the steampunk(ish) setting, it’s the most plausible form of mass media and how it’s regulated says interesting things about the world. Hence, the “real” newspapers are known by how closely aligned they are with the Imperial regime, since to officially publish they need a literal seal approval.
When it came time to write Widows of the Empire I needed to expand my thinking a bit and figure what underground papers might look like and what they might be called. I settled on small papers crammed with type, so much that each page looked nearly black. Naturally, characters refer to them as the “black pages.”
This is not an accident.
Readers of The Water Road and its sequels know that I use a lot of musical references in my books. Lots of places in that series are named after musicians, the more obscure the better! The “black pages” are no different, as I’ve stolen the name from a song (or a few) by Frank Zappa.
Frank originally wrote “The Black Page” as a percussion feature, kind of on a dare. After an orchestral session, drummer Terry Bozio related that some of those players talked about the fear of facing “the black page,” prompting Frank to write his own. The song evolved from a short piece for drums and percussion into a song for a full band, in various guises.
In this video, musician Doug Helvering works through the first two versions of the song, with excerpts from the score to prove the that the song was well named:
A decade after that second version, the song morphed again, into a “New Age Version” that was performed on Zappa’s final tour:
Even laid back, it’s kind of a bear.
Names can be tricky for fantasy and science fiction writers. My suggestion – take inspiration wherever you can, even if it’s in an insanely complex song.
Beginning in 1955, Donald Campbell piloted Bluebird K7, the world’s first functional jet-powered hydroplane, to a slew of water speed records. He didn’t just break the record, he shattered it over and over again – the record he initially broke was 178 miles per hour, while his last complete run, nine years later, was over 276 miles per hour.
On January 4, 1967, Campbell took Bluebird to Coniston Water in England’s Lake District for another run, hoping to hit 300 miles per hour. After making the run one direction at over 297 miles per hour, Campbell began the return run. Then, tragedy struck:
It was big news in the UK, big enough that young Steve Hogarth, while not quite grasping what had happened, noted the emotional impact Campbell’s death had on his mother. Flash forward three decades and Hogarth, aka “H,” and his band Marillion release Afraid of Sunlight, my personal favorite album of theirs. One track, “Out of this World,” is about Campbell and his fatal voyage, complete with some snippets of radio traffic from that day.
So far not that interesting, right? A band writing a song about a tragic historical event is hardly rare (Marillion themselves have jokingly been referred to as a band specializing in songs about “death and water”). What’s really cool is what happened afterward. Bill Smith was not just a Marillion fan (he even sort of promoted a solo Fish show in Newcastle!), but an experienced salvage diver. Inspired by the song, he led a team that found Bluebird and raised it from the depths. The official photographer for the event? Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist. You can hear more about that day on the latest episode of Hogarth’s podcast, The Corona Diaries, which includes an interview with Smith.
Again, that would be an interesting enough story, but it goes even further. Smith and his team restored Bluebird and, in 2018, it was in the water again, on Loch Fad in Scotland, where it hit 150 miles per hour.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of things. There appears to be an ongoing legal dispute over where Bluebird should make its final landing. According to the BBC, the Campbell family promised Bluebird to a local Coniston museum (that has built a wing specifically to house the restored craft). Smith, however, argues that because some of the restored craft is made up of new parts, he “co-owns the craft.” Interestingly, in the podcast, Smith points out that the usual finders-keepers salvage law of the open ocean doesn’t apply to inland waterways.
I suppose it’s inevitable that when someone’s legacy is at stake the parties involved wind up at odds. I don’t think it’s a matter of money more than it is pride and obligation. I hope there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, a resolution that can please all the parties involved, if not completely.
All in all, there’s probably at least another song in all this.
When I went to college most of the music I had was on cassettes recorded from the record collections of my brothers. As a result, I didn’t have the liner notes that came with those albums and, thus, no lyrics to pore over. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did always wonder what Jon Anderson was singing about on old Yes albums.
I got online during my junior year of college and quickly discovered primitive websites devoted to bands I loved. Some of them even had song lyrics on them! So I dutifully dove into some of those old Yes albums and . . . didn’t really get any better understanding of the lyrics. Turns out Anderson was more focused on what words sounded like rather than meaning, so they were pretty vague on purpose – what on Earth (or beyond) is “cold summer listening” and how does “hot color melt the anger to stone,” anyway?
Still and all, Anderson never wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. And he never inspired , one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:
The joke works, of course, because nobody really knows what the words to “Louie, Louie,” are, which is pretty amazing given how much the song has seeped into our culture. How exactly did that happen? Turns out, it’s precisely because purveyors of moral panic can try to make the lyrics be any old thing they wanted.
This article in Reason tells the tale. The song was written in 1956, but didn’t really breakthrough until it was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart) and even then it took a while to get rolling. As the article points out, it’s not a particularly deep song:
It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation.
My favorite overreaction to this comes from the governor of Indiana who “claimed that the record was so obscene it made his ‘ears tingle’” and used his connections with radio stations to effectively ban the song in that state. That’s peanuts to the multi-year investigation that the United States government launched into the song, via the FBI and the fellas at the freakin’ FCC, among others. Even with all that time and all those resources involved, investigators couldn’t figure out what the Kingsmen were on about!
My other favorite detail is this – it took the crack investigators at the FBI 18 months to think to go look up the actual lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office! Mystery solved, at least, right? Not really. There were “other versions” of the lyrics circulating in schoolyards and such, which seems to say less about “Louie, Louie” than it does about the hyper sexed minds of young adults everywhere.
There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the article, so I recommend the full read. I will go ahead and spoil the ending, though – “Louie, Louie” won, in the end, becoming its own kind of classic. Did you know that April 11 is International “Louie, Louie” Day? Now you do, just in time to celebrate and tell the censorious prudes to go fuck themselves.
A couple of weeks ago I talked a little bit about how, in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people and businesses had been cutting ties with all things Russian. Some of these make sense, as a way to starve the Russian economy and isolate/shame people with close ties to Putin, but some of them are pretty stupid, like pouring out (presumably quality) Russian vodka that you’ve already paid for. That’s a fairly pointless gesture, after all.
Which brings us to the weirdness revolving around Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first human in space, an icon of the Space Race . . . and died in 1968. Putin was a teenager when Gagarin died, so it’s fairly safe to say he had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine.
So imagine my surprise when I saw on Twitter over the weekend that Gagarin was being cancelled. Actually, what Tweet after Tweet said was that he had been “stripped of his honours” – complete with British spelling:
Where was this coming from? Even during the height of the Cold War I don’t remember Gagarin being treated as anything other than a pioneer. What would lead to his cancellation due to a war that started four and a half decades after he died? Turns out it’s slightly more complicated, at least in terms of the reach.
As it happens, there is a thing called the Space Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an American nonprofit organization that advocates for all sectors of the global space industry through space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events. It was founded in 1983.” At the beginning of April they’re having a Space Symposium (apparently a yearly event) that, according to Futurism, was supposed to have a night or panel called “Yuri’s Night.” Now, per a now deleted Tweet (cowards) it’s been renamed “A Celebration of Space: What’s Next.”
So it’s a schmoozy meet and greet cocktail party thing and, to me, sounds like it’s primarily geared toward fund raising. As explained in the Futurism story:
The nonprofit Space Foundation announced in a now-deleted note that ‘in light of current world events’ it would be changing the name of a fundraiser from ‘Yuri’s Night” to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’ at its Space Symposium conference.
‘The focus of this fundraising event remains the same — to celebrate human achievements in space while inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars,’ the deleted update notes.
I agree with the author of the Futurism piece that this is a “rather dubious show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people” and is ultimately a dumb move, but I can see how it happened. In an environment when every corporate entity has to take a stand on current events, you’re going to have places that decide to avoid any hint of controversy as much as possible (and trigger the inevitable backlash).
But let’s keep in mind what this is not – there is no cancelling of Gagarin going on here. He’s not being erased from history books. There are no “honours” the Space Foundation has bestowed upon him that they could now revoke. How could they? Gagarin will always be the first person in place.
My point here is not that the Space Foundation was the right one. I think it’s pretty stupid, but I think equally stupid, or maybe even more so, is the reaction to it which is fairly divorced from the initial decision. It feels to me like it’s one of those minor stupidities that blows up over social media based on details that aren’t accurate. Dealing with the fallout from the Russian invasion is hard enough without reacting to stuff that didn’t actually happen.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:
I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.
It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.
Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.
I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.
That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.
Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.
The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:
It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.
In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).
The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.
In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).
The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.
2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.
As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.
Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.
That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).
I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.
The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.
Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:
Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.
You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.
On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.
I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.
The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?
Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.
I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.
The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.
I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.