Simon Godfrey's Letter From America

America to a Brit is like the moon.

You’ve known about it all your life but you are never quite the same after going there and glancing back at what you call home.

I’ve never been to the moon but I’ve been to Atlantic City on a Tuesday night and I’m told that the feeling is the roughly same.

America changes you as a musician in a profound way, right down to the very core of who you are. If you want proof, simply look at acts like U2, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or even Daft Punk and see how their subsequent music was noticeably transformed as a result. The one constant in it all is no matter how they change, they all return with one thing in common; they possessed a totally new respect for the instruments they play.

America in short, makes you play better.

Ho-ho; how do you like the size of my massive generalization vicar? Okay maybe it’s not because there was something lacking in their technique before they arrived in the New World, be they guitarist, singer, DJ, drummer or Peruvian nose flautist, most Americans truly rejoice in the notion of being able to play well because god-dammit, it’s fun! It was ever thus and is also highly infectious.

Not so for many years in the UK however. In fact, a peculiar thing happened back in the late 1970/early 80s across the isles. Something so bizarre, that if you write it down (as I am about to do) and say it out aloud in this day and age, it sounds positively insane; in the United Kingdom, it was considered uncool if you could play your instrument well.

Imagine a world where the same applied to say opera or jazz. Even a personal hero of mine, journalist and magazine editor David Hepworth once said of Pat Metheny that he was ‘the only guitarist which I would allow to play quickly’. Only in rock and roll eh?

Now, this is the kind of mass psychosis that one could happily construct a fairly lengthy tome around to sell at in store book signings, while wearing heavy rimmed glasses, a corduroy jacket and pondering which research assistant you were going to attempt to get drunk with at the Friday night after party.

While there may be many reasons for its existence back in the day (and there were), the taboo placed upon technical ability changed the landscape of music so profoundly in the UK, an entire generation of musicians both in the progressive community and further afield, were forced (note that word ‘forced’ because this wasn’t a choice for many) to re-evaluate what it was they could achieve with a vastly reduced plate of sonic options.

In the USA this musical year zero was much more localized and nuanced in part due to the fact that that America is a ‘effin big place an no one from the media had a monopoly on what was considered artistically appropriate. National consensus on any subject (least of all music) was and still is, nigh on impossible to manufacture at any level here.

In short, nobody cares if you can play like Van Halen or Dick Van Dyke, as long as it’s good and you can put on a show.

This came as quite a shock to yours truly upon arriving here and while I in no way wish to pretend that I am in the same class as the bands I mention at the top of this article, I too have found a new level of respect and connection with the instruments I play, simply because no-one thinks I’m a monumental bell-end for wishing to do so.

I am a monumental bell-end by the way, but perhaps that is a tale for another time.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, the day and age of the famous musician is behind us, replaced by its younger and more highly strung cousin; the celebrity. We cannot stop it and in some ways, there is no need to because of a happy upside to the changing of this particular guard. Once again, musicians are again free to develop their technique without fear of a journalist pointing and mewling at them like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Like baseball, mom’s apple pie or hardcore pornography, there is much to recommend the American attitude towards emerging talent. I see it in the shows I attend, the music that is released and the fans who help to make the progressive music scene here vibrant and forward looking.

Whatever you do, do it well. The results will speak for themselves.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.