Now in its fourth year, the 2015 Progressive Music Awards may have been the best one yet…
What is it about Prog Gods and toilets at the Progressive Music Awards? In 2012, Rick Wakeman had to break down a cubicle door to rescue a trapped Keith Emerson. This year, Peter Gabriel is spotted in the ladies, although when he realises his mistake he beats a hasty retreat, claiming poor eyesight as an excuse. You have to wonder what loos lunacy is in store for Tony Banks, the winner of this year’s Prog God. A more palatable tradition is that everyone turns up to see, rather than to be seen. This makes the night unique, giving it a genuine atmosphere. Every year, it’s a gathering that transcends generations, as legends mingle easily with young hopefuls.
For the second year running, the Awards take place at the Underglobe, below Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, in a setting dominated by a large tree swathed in twinkly lights for the occasion. “I think it says everything about my age that all I can do is think about climbing it,” chuckles Marillion’s Pete Trewavas. “There’s no chance I’ll get drunk enough to embarrass myself by actually clambering.”
To get to the main hall, attendees go down a winding corridor, past display cases of Shakespearean costumes. “I was wearing this sort of thing when it was first in fashion,” jokes Rick Wakeman. Tonight, there is a lot of humour in the air. For instance, Tristan Fry regales everyone with tales of his time in the Top Of The Pops orchestra. He also reveals the occasion that Sky played at a theatre in Nottingham, and Francis Monkman was besieged by autograph hunters who mistook him for a member of female impersonators Hinge & Bracket, who were performing next door. Prior to the awards ceremony itself, the Von Hertzen Brothers perform two semi-acoustic songs, and Mikko Von Hertzen admits before the band go onstage that he is suffering from more than a few nerves. “Look at who’s out there. All these amazing musicians. No wonder my stomach is turning over a little.”
Of course, the state of the vocalist’s stomach had nothing to do with the dinner that all guests had just finished; this was a sumptuous meal worthy of the occasion. And he needn’t have worried, because the Finns’ short set is greeted positively by a highly receptive audience.
“That’s one of the things I like about these awards,” Caravan’s Geoffrey Richardson says. “You hear new music that might otherwise pass you by.”
The formal proceedings begin with an introductory speech from Prog editor Jerry Ewing, who brings everyone’s attention to the growing success of the magazine.
At a time when so many publications are struggling, Prog is bucking the trend. But then, prog music has never been interested in fitting in with any trend. On that note, tonight sees the launch of the first official prog albums chart, to be published monthly in the magazine.
There is also a fitting tribute to fallen comrades, including a moving video homage to Chris Squire, in whose memory the Virtuoso Award has been renamed.
The host this time is TV personality Matthew Wright, who does the job with humour and enthusiasm, showing that he is genuinely thrilled to be presiding over the 14 awards. Heights are the first winners, receiving the Limelight Award. Other artists from the younger generation to be honoured are Purson (Vanguard) and Public Service Broadcasting (Anthem, for Gagarin). All were united in their amazement to have won. This is also mirrored by the more established winners: these awards are never about walking off with a prize, but about the overwhelming camaraderie, which has nothing to do with status or previous achievements.
There are so many award ceremonies where major artists might turn up, but hide themselves away until they pick up their award, and then flee. Not here. Everyone mingles joyously. Where else would you find a significant music business figure rushing to the bar to get a drink for Roy Wood, while exclaiming: “I’m 56 years old, and I never thought I’d have the honour of buying a whiskey and coke for Roy Wood. It’s made my night.” Roy Wood picks up the Outer Limits award, but because he has to get a train back to Birmingham, this is brought forward to earlier in the evening than planned. The Electric Light Orchestra founder is utterly delighted to be acknowledged. It is the first time he’s ever received an award, but that’s what makes tonight so unique – the landmark accolades are given to artists who are usually overlooked on this type of occasion.
Harry Shearer bounds on stage to present the Chris Squire Virtuoso Award to Danny Thompson. The Emmy Award winner, renowned for his roles as Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap and also as the voice of Mr Burns and more in The Simpsons, revels in the chance to lovingly mock his close friend as a “colourless, drab” person. Thompson responds in a larger-than-life manner, in a speech brimming with exuberance. The double bassist, who has worked with a massive array of greats (including Richard Thompson, Pentangle, Peter Gabriel and Donovan), points out that winning the award isn’t going to change his attitude. His fee won’t shoot up and he is still just a phone call away. Typical of the man that, even at 76 years old, is anxious to keep on working.
Beggs’ main task tonight, however, is to present Bill Nelson, one of his biggest influences, with the Visionary Award. Obviously delighted by the accolade, Nelson, who has been battling ill health recently, receives a warm reaction, recognising his huge contribution as experimental musician, songwriter and producer.
Now in their 25th year, Opeth receive the Best Band Award, while Marillion pick up the Best Live gong for their Weekends. Earlier on, Steve Rothery tells Prog he had no expectations to win: “We’ve had a good year but just being here with all these greats is enough of a celebration for me.”
The night wouldn’t have been complete without a contribution from Rick Wakeman, here to present the Visionary Award to Roger Dean. After reducing everyone to hysterics with jokes about pulling off his boxers (we’ll leave the punchline to your imagination) and also having a medical, Wakeman praises the celebrated artist for being, “The sixth member of Yes, just as George Martin was called the fifth Beatle”, and someone who has an amazing ability to translate the band’s music into breathtaking visuals. Dean’s work through the decades, not just with Yes but countless others, has made him a major part of the progressive rock story. Thankfully, Dean decides not to try and emulate Wakeman’s hilarious introduction, but elects instead for a more low-key approach in accepting the award. It’s spoken from the heart.
It was expected that just two members of Gentle Giant would be present to pick up their Lifetime Achievement Award. Ray Shulman and Kerry Minnear were already confirmed to be present, but, unexpectedly, Derek Shulman made the decision to fly over from New York.
“It was a last minute idea,” he explains. “I flew in to London this morning and go back tomorrow.” He came over just for these awards – that’s how much it meant to him to get this honour. “Gentle Giant have never been given an award before, so I really wanted to be here.”
The award is presented to the trio by Prog writer Daryl Easlea, a long-time fan who revealed that it was this band who introduced him to prog rock, and sowed the seeds for his lifetime love of it.
Derek is the Shulman brother who speaks on behalf of the band. And, as this is the first occasion on which the band have been so acknowledged, he takes the time to thank some of those who had played an important part in their career. These include Black Sabbath (with whom Gentle Giant once toured the US, and taught them about debauchery on the road) and Jimi Hendrix (early in their career they went on tour supporting a film about the legendary guitarist, shortly after he died). For the Gentle threesome, the tumultuous applause they receive is tangible evidence of the respect they’ve earned over the decades.
The climax of the night arrives when Tony Banks becomes the fourth recipient of the Prog God award, which is presented to him by Peter Gabriel. The relationship between the pair goes back to when they met at Charterhouse School. And, following a short film documenting Bank’s distinguished career, his former Genesis bandmate gently mocks him, pointing out that while he himself was donning outrageous costumes onstage, the keyboard master would just switch from wearing a jumper in one pastel shade to another. Receiving a standing ovation, Banks walks on stage to accept his award, and delivers perhaps the funniest speech of the night. Responding to Gabriel’s earlier remarks, Banks humorously highlights the fact that, unlike his old pal and Phil Collins, he still has a full head of hair, going on to suggest that keyboard players do seem to keep their hair, unlike some vocalists he’d worked with.
Banks also recals the time when he was contacted by a magazine to tell him he’d been voted the twelfth best keyboard player. His reaction? “Who were the other fucking 11? I just couldn’t think of another 11!” Banks also observes how so many bands had come up to receive their awards earlier in the night, with most of the members gathered at the rear, while one person spoke on their behalf. “Usually, I’m one of those guys at the back,” he muses.
Banks leaves the stage to another standing ovation, bringing to an end what was universally regarded as the best Progressive Music Awards yet. People are already looking forward to the fifth ceremony in 2016. But a word of warning to Tony Banks: remember that Prog God toilet jinx.