“My brother’s largely responsible for getting me into prog. I was into heavy metal at first, and I’d listened to my mam and dad’s collection – Big Disaster Movie Themes, Neil Sedaka and so on – but my brother had three albums: Yes’ Close To The Edge, Genesis’ Wind & Wuthering and ELO’s Out Of The Blue. I remember being fascinated by the sleeves – especially Close To The Edge. Then I started listening to it and I thought, ‘God, this goes on forever.’ But it drew me in, and a lot of that is to do with Chris Squire’s bass.
It’s the first album from a band you hear that really affects you, and that was Wind & Wuthering for me. I would have been about 13, and there’s a little break in One For The Vine which I loved. It just goes crazy. The more I listened to it and read the lyrics off the sheet, the more I loved it. Blood On The Rooftops is just one of the most beautiful songs – I love Steve Hackett’s guitar playing, he’s so underrated. You can tell the difference when he left – he added a flavour that was brilliant. I’ve been trying desperately to master this on guitar!
I discovered King Crimson when I’d left school and I was doing a part-time drama course in Middlesbrough. VH1 had launched and I was on the dole, sitting around watching music telly. The video for Elephant Talk was on a loop and so I’d watch it three or four times a day. Then I got the album and it led me to discover older Crimson, then Red. That album has everything for me – the experimental stuff, the tunes, the heavy stuff. I love the guitar sound. Me and Vic [Reeves] were once on the set of Catterick singing ‘der-ner ner-ner’ [the guitar line from Red], and we both knew it really far into the song, so we were chuffed with ourselves. What I love about Crimson is, like, the first time I listened to Larks’ Tongues, I thought, ‘I can’t listen to that!’ But I kept going, and I like the challenge – and the mystique around how edgy they are as characters.
My heroes do things that I can’t ‒ Tim Smith, Kavus Torabi, Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett.
That’s why I wouldn’t have wanted to meet John Martyn. I loved him for a long time, but he had a reputation. I first heard him at my auntie’s one New Year’s Eve when The Old Grey Whistle Test was on. He was playing Sweet Little Mystery, and then it went off without saying who it was! A while later I was trawling a record shop and I saw Grace & Danger and that track was on it. I went, ‘Oh, it’s him, thank God!’ Then, at RADA, there was a lovely actor called Richard Dormer [Game Of Thrones, Fortitude] and he played me May You Never on guitar. I went and bought Solid Air, Bless The Weather… and how prog is Small Hours off One World? He recorded it live, over a lake. You can hear the geese in the background. Beautiful.
Heaven Born And Ever Bright is my favourite Cardiacs album. I was into Levitation, and they played a double-header with Cardiacs at Middlesbrough Arena. Levitation went on first that night and Cardiacs second so I was a bit umpty, like, ‘Who are you? Levitation should be headlining!’ Then I watched them and I thought, ‘This is interesting, but what the hell is it?’ When I met my wife, she was a massive Cardiacs fan so we’d see them together and gradually I realised how good they were. They’re unique, and unmistakably British, like Gong. It’s heartbreaking about Tim Smith [and his ongoing health condition], but he’s a genius.
Gentle Giant have a lot in common with the Cardiacs. They could only be English. I’ve just been listening to the Steven Wilson remix of The Power And The Glory – it’s just great, so original. There’s a video of them playing Proclamation online – it stops really suddenly and the audience are stunned, like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ To play that well, and to look as bonkers as that, they should be up there with prog’s Big Five. They should re-form.
Most people would pick Argus, but I love Wishbone Ash’s Pilgrimage. Vas Dis has jazz, rock… and that bassline you can hear in [Steven Wilson’s] Luminol. I must have listened to The Pilgrim endlessly because of the beautiful riff at the start – then it goes bonkers. Wishbone came to Middlesbrough Town Hall. I was 11 and shy ’cos I’d never been to a gig before. But I went with my mate Alan – he’d been to gigs before so I trusted him. I loved them. The next day I scrounged a couple of quid off my mam and bought Just Testing at Hamilton’s Music Store in town. We had an Our Price, and an HMV in Stockton, but Hamilton’s was the best ’cos there was a listening booth.
I was in Hair in youth theatre – obviously we didn’t get our kit off! That’s how I got into the music – a mix of rock, folk, Hare Krishna, long-form stuff. Having done it and seen it, that’s totally prog, the trip you see onstage and hear through the music. I’d love to direct it. It even works as an album rather than as a soundtrack.
I saw It Bites playing Calling All The Heroes on Saturday Superstore and I loved that, but it’s like nothing else they do. Francis Dunnery is a fantastic guitar player and I love his solo stuff but I’ve picked The Tall Ships ’cos I’m a big John Mitchell fan and loved Kino. Calling them pop-prog does them a bit of a disservice, just because they’re accessible, like Frost*. [Keyboard player] John Beck is brilliant, though – I wish he still wore his top hat.
I found Knifeworld through Prog. There’s been many a happy hour on the toilet thanks to this mag. I heard Pissed Up On Brake Fluid on the cover CD and that was it. Kavus Torabi is such a strong character; I got Gong’s I See You because he’s in it. I could take or leave Gong ’til my mate played me it and it sounded like the Cardiacs. Strange instruments, weird guitar and a T.Rex feel. How does he do that?
When I’m on the road I stream a lot of stuff through Spotify. I heard Matt Stevens’ album through that, then I found The Fierce And The Dead’s Spooky Action. I love instrumental music and I bet they’re brilliant live. I tweeted I liked them and he tweeted me back – I was beside myself! I feel that musicians live in a really cool parallel universe – they don’t know about people like me. Being an actor, you can work with people you admire, but heroes are the ones who do things I can’t do – Tim Smith, Kavus Torabi, Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett. I love getting a response, and I realise that for some bands it must be a struggle to survive. If prog can just hang on for a few more years, the tide could turn and they’ll be reaping real rewards…”
Mark Benton is currently on tour in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (http://www.scoundrelsontour.com). Find him on Twitter @markbenton100.