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Book Review - The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock

by Dave Thompson

The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock (Third Edition)

By Charles Snider


Progressive Rock. Whether you love it, hate it, or simply keep it tucked under the bed to sew sausages onto, it is one of those genres that nobody can unimpeachably define… rather, you know it when you hear it, and that’s how prog fans come to blows.

It’s vicious stuff. Think West Side Story with levitating synthesizers and hogweed hats, the Sharks (so named for the protagonist in Peter Hammill’s “Killer”) in their Van Der Graaf and King Crimson t-shirts; the Jets (for all the bands who painted their name on the side of one, even if it was only in their dreams) with their Moody Blues patches and Barclay James hairpieces; and egging them on from the sidelines… Maria, middle-name of Italian prog giant Franco Giannini, whose 1974 album Affresco has to be one of the greatest prog albums ever made.

Doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. At least, it doesn’t get mentioned in The Strawberry Bricks Guide, but there again… should it? Yes, the back cover blurb insist that author Sniderpresents a comprehensive discography of over 500 albums.” But it also warns that they’re “not always the obvious choices,” and that’s where things get interesting.

No t-shirts or hairpieces being waved in anger here; there’s room for everybody and then some.. 500 excellent essays that merge album reviews with band histories, and then mash that into an over-arching chronological framework to not only trace the genre’s “rise” and “fall,” but also the vast parameters that it was capable of embracing.

From fusion to Krautrock, from PFM to Fripp & Eno, from albums so storied that even Tommy could sing along with them (and yes, he’s included) and onto records so obscure that you’d swear Snider made them up… really, Charles? The fourth album by a repentant blues band whose unabridged name was Socrates Drank the Conium? Pull the other one, it’s got cowbells on it.

Yep, Strawberry Bricks is unputdownable.

And why? Because, despite opening with the Beatles’ eighth album (“if that’s prog, I’m a lizard’s hatstand”) and closing with Asia’s debut (“oh, I didn’t realise you were covering bloated Yacht Rock as well”), and across the fifteen years inbetween, it’s hard to pick fault with any of Snider’s choices. And that’s despite the belief that most people buy books like this is so they have something to argue with when their Twitter feed goes down. “How dare you describe Grobschnitt’s Solar Music as ‘long, ambling space rock’? Clearly, you have no clue what Prog really is.”

So, what should you expect from an evening with this book? You will certainly discover more inclusions that you agree with (and, yes, be occasionally surprised by) than omissions you’ll resent; more opinions to nod sagely along with, than to furiously shake your fist at.

Maybe Comus do deserve more than a couple of casual references. Possibly Catapilla could easily have replaced Centipede in the Fab 500 and, while were on that subject, the Vertigo label in its mighty swirly pomp surely should have received more attention. I mean, come on, if its a choice between Dr Z or Gentle Giant, which would you choose?

You can even disagree with his timeline. ’67 is a great place to start. But surely, prog died… the day Steve Hackett left Genesis. Or Rick Wakeman returned to Yes. Or Graham Fields left Rare Bird. Either way, it’s great fun poo-pooing some of the later inclusions, at the same time as you realise that any earlier cut-off might have killed off the inclusion of The Geese and the Ghost, Blake’s New Jerusalem, Platinum, Song of Seven and PH7. Oh sorry, PH7 isn’t actually included. Sacrilege!!!!!!!!! And oi! Where’s Horse?

See? That’s how easy it is to fall into Snider’s trap, and before you know it, you’re in the cage. Ha, crafty Genesis reference there. Because, unwritten in text but over-hanging Strawberry Bricks like Beelzebub over a Black Widow concert, there is the unspoken challenge that lies at the heart of the book.

To dig out all the albums that don’t get a mention, and play them instead of the ones that do. Because Black Widow aren’t included, either, and that’s just plain silly.

I love this book. See ya on the west side!)