Sir Lenny Henry. Let’s just repeat that. Sir. Lenny. Henry. At the Progressive Music Awards. And no, this wasn’t just a gratuitous invitation sent to the great comedian in order to get cheap publicity. He’s there with King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk. And what’s more, Sir Lenny embraces the occasion with real vigour.
He’s very keen on the impressive Roger Dean exhibition put together for the night by Trading Boundaries, and even makes a point of telling John Miles, recipient of the Outstanding Musical Achievement award, how much he loved one of Miles’ shows back in 1975! There’s no doubt Sir Lenny is charmed by the convivial atmosphere. But then, that’s what makes the Progressive Music Awards special.
“Everywhere I look in the room, it’s full of friends or blasts from the past,” says Mike Portnoy, a sentiment echoed by his Sons Of Apollo bandmate Derek Sherinian.
“This is my first time here,” Sherinian says. “It’s amazing. Just seeing so many legends, and they’re all approachable. It’s like a big family.”
Prog editor Jerry Ewing emphasises the special atmosphere here in his introductory speech, reflecting on the remarkably positive vibe. He also reads out part of a lengthy letter from the absent Rick Wakeman. This is the first Progressive Music Awards that Wakeman has missed, as he’s currently on tour with Yes featuring ARW, and he’s clearly very disappointed not to be here. Mind you, most of his missive is apparently, erm, too inappropriate, as only Wakeman can be!
Prior to the awards themselves, the Beatrix Players perform two songs. One is their new single All That Thinking, and they also play a highly stylised version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, which seduces everyone with its texture and grace. The band also pick up the opening award of the night, Limelight, which proves to be a very popular choice.
Everyone is then left stunned by host Matthew Wright’s choice of attire as he takes to the stage. As Marillion’s Steve Hogarth later remarks: “It looks like something I scraped off the roof this morning!”
This is Wright’s fourth year as host, and he has never looked more in tune with the occasion. Short of donning a cape, he couldn’t have looked more elaborate in his patterned velvet suit. “This suit screams prog!” Wright exclaims as he gets into the groove.
The aforementioned Jakszyk makes the first of two appearances onstage, picking up the Video Of The Year Award on behalf of King Crimson for Heroes. But he has a little surprise up his sleeve, or rather in his jacket: he pulls out a letter, which has a short message from none other than Robert Fripp: “King Crimson were created for the video age. And now the public has finally acknowledged this.”
Well, it’s better than just saying, “Thanks!”
The acclaimed festival Be Prog! My Friend wins the award for Event Of The Year, while Steve Hillage picks up the Reissue Of The Year award for Searching For The Spark, and Anathema’s Vinnie Cavanagh is delighted to be sitting next to Hillage tonight.
“I got to tell him I was one of his pothead pixies when I was 17 years old and working in a record shop. I’m not sure how pleased he was to hear that, but it was great for me to meet someone who meant so much when I was younger, and helped get me into this music.”
Anathema themselves pick up the Album Of The Year award for The Optimist, and Danny Cavanagh later promises that they won’t lose this one, as they did with a previous award.
Tim Bowness’ Lost In The Ghost Light is honoured with the Album Cover Of The Year award, handed over by prog art legend Roger Dean. Bowness and designer Jarrod Gosling pick it up, although they do little to enhance their self-styled reputation as the Morecambe And Wise of prog! They probably need Rick Wakeman to write their scripts.
Portnoy presents the International Band Of The Year award to Opeth, and Mikael Åkerfeldt, like many of the recipients, hasn’t prepared a speech. Instead, he grabs the chance to remark that the band still occasionally do a cover of Napalm Death’s You Suffer, which is an extraordinary two seconds long!
Will Smith hands over the UK Band Of The Year award. The comedian and novelist is delighted that Marillion are the recipients, as he tells everyone, “As far as I’m concerned, they are the band of every year!” Well, he did once do an entire routine at the Edinburgh Festival based around them, so you can say he’s something of a fan. Hogarth takes the opportunity to introduce each band member to the assembled throng, just to prove he’s not yet drunk enough to have forgotten their names.
The peripatetic Jakszyk is back onstage to hand over the Outer Limits Award to Mark King, and relates how a call from the bassist 26 years ago saved him from bankruptcy! “This is only the second award I’ve ever won,” says King. “The other one was for being the worst-dressed man of 1989!”
He glances knowingly over at Wright, who could be a contender in that category this year!
Steve Rothery is a massive fan of Steve Hackett, so it’s appropriate he gets the chance to hand over the Chris Squire Virtuoso award to the latter, who seems genuinely surprised by the honour. And does Hackett let out a secret when he tells us that he and Rothery are talking about working together?
“I didn’t write anything down because I wasn’t expecting this,” Hackett says later, “so what I said was all off the top of my head.”
Voivod drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin, one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet, is overcome to be in a room filled with such luminaries. “I’ve always loved Steve Hackett and Steve Hillage. But for me, the biggest thrill is knowing that I’m so close to Peter Hammill. He’s such a big hero of mine. However, I don’t want to meet him. I honestly wouldn’t know what to say to him. How do you talk to a person who’s been such a massive influence on you?”
Accepting the Visionary Award on behalf of the band, Away inevitably cites Van der Graaf Generator as being hugely important in Voivod’s development, as well as pointing out that this is the first award they’ve ever been given.
Towards the end of the night, Away is introduced to Hammill, and the pair amiably chat about music and their love for being ‘awkward buggers’, as the latter once dubbed those like himself who get the Visionary accolade.
A new category, the Industry VIP Award, is given to Max Hole and presented by Andrew Daw, one of his protégés at Universal Records. In a near 50-year career, Hole has done much to develop and nurture progressive music, as promoter, manager and record company executive. It’s incredible to think that the first gig he ever promoted was The Who at Canterbury University, supported by Genesis. The fee? A princely £1,000!
Sonja Kristina warms to her task of presenting the Lifetime Achievement award to Eddie Jobson. She relates how he was brought into Curved Air to replace Darryl Way and Francis Monkman when he was just 18. Jobson disagrees, though, saying he was only just 17 at the time. For someone that young to be asked to take over two such crucial roles is staggering.
The man himself relates how he bought the debut albums from ELP and Curved Air in 1970, and assiduously learnt the keyboard and violin parts. He also pays homage to his former UK bandmates Allan Holdsworth and John Wetton, both of whom passed away recently.
These two are also acknowledged at the start of the awards, when images of those talents we’ve lost in the last year pass across the screen. It’s a sombre yet also warming reminder of these giants, and throughout the evening these people are also acknowledged by award recipients. Perhaps Mike Portnoy sums it up best when he says: “The music is timeless, but we are not.”
And so to the last award of the night, the most prestigious one of the lot: the Prog God. This year it goes to Carl Palmer, and Danny Baker is given the job of presenting it. Widely recognised as a huge ELP fan, Baker’s impassioned speech stirs everyone. He relates how, at the age of just 14, he went to see the trio at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly. The date is forever embedded in his memory: December 15, 1971. “I’d never heard anything like it before,” he exclaims.
It remains the best gig Baker has ever seen, and it meant so much to him that he actually brought along vinyl copies of ELP’s albums tonight, plus a tour programme. And to introduce Palmer onstage, he pulls out the press release that was sent out with the band’s debut album, and he reads out the passage about the drummer!
We get a montage of footage spanning the iconic drummer’s lengthy career. It includes The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (Brown himself is present tonight, in an outfit that rivals that of Wright’s), Atomic Rooster, ELP, Carl’s Palmer’s PM, Asia and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy – a suitable reminder of how this man has spanned the whole prog era.
Palmer himself pays due homage to the important roles played by Keith Emerson and Greg Lake in his life. “We were never the greatest of friends,” he admits, “but there was definitely a magic between us.”
He also mentions the loss of John Wetton, who was part of the classic Asia line-up alongside the drummer. And amusingly he relates how it’s “Only taken me 50 years to become an overnight success!”
Palmer rightly highlights how ELP “Set the blueprint for this English art form” called prog, and it makes you realise that this man has been part of our lives for so long, it’s hard to imagine what music would be like without him.
“I owe so much to Keith and Greg for where I am today. Without them, I would have been somewhere, just not here.”
Baker interjects towards the end of Palmer’s speech to make a very apposite point. “Nobody ever says it, but Carl, thank you!” as he grabs the drummer’s hand in a sincere gesture that gets everyone applauding.
Palmer counters that with an equally heartfelt comment of his own: “On behalf of Keith, Greg and myself, thank you.”
It’s a fitting finale to what has been unquestionably the most memorable Prog Awards so far.
“You know, when you walk into this room and see so many faces – some familiar, others not, then you feel like you’ve come home,” says Sonja Kristina afterwards. “It’s a family gathering once a year, and I love it.”
But the most oft-used phrase of the night is… “Where’s the bar?” Several musicians ask this vital question at various times in the night as they search for extra sustenance.
And who knows how many artistic plans have been hatched tonight? As Mikael Åkerfeldt says: “There are just so many amazing musicians here. I would love to do projects with even half of them.”
To watch Sir Lenny Henry and also Al Murray wandering around with permanent smiles on their faces is a fine representation of what makes this a unique occasion. There are no egos, no attitudes. This is a community who come together from all parts of the globe and all areas of the prog world in a spirit of camaraderie.
“I cannot believe who’s here,” says Amy Birks, vocalist with the Beatrix Players. “To get the chance to perform in front of these legends is something I could never have imagined happening to us. And we’ll never forget this night.”
Perhaps Peter Hammill best sums up the feeling on the night. “Every year, coming here is a pleasure. It’s déjà vu.”
Here’s to 2018, when we get to do déjà vu all over again.
For all the coverage on the Progressive Music Awards, see www.progmagazine.com.
The Prog Awards 2017: Winners In Full
They came, they saw, they conquered. The general consensus of opinion is that the Progressive Music Awards 2017 was one of the very best yet. Here, the winners share their thoughts on the night…
Limelight: BEATRIX PLAYERS
“It’s incredible – very exciting and amazing. It was slightly nerve‑racking playing in front of that audience and you just have to forget about them for a few minutes and think about the music. But it was really great and we loved it.”
Live Event: BE PROG! MY FRIEND
Juan Antonio Muñoz: “The idea was always to blend the old prog bands with the new ones coming up, because we love the music.”
Andy Farrow: “It’s not about making money. It’s all about building a brand and winning something like this helps get the message across. And we’re seeing that message build because of the young bands that are coming through and the young people who come to the festival.”
Album Cover Of The Year: TIM BOWNESS - LOST IN THE GHOST LIGHT
Tim Bowness: “It was a very detailed sleeve – we had many ideas and lots of notes. It was very important for me, in the digital age, to have a lot of detail on the artwork that conveyed the concept of the album.”
Jarrod Gosling [artist]: “Right back to the 80s I’d always made up imaginary band names, so to be able to do it with the cover – and in the gatefold there are all these imaginary album sleeves from this band Moonshot – it was so much fun.”
International Band Of The Year: OPETH
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “It feels like we have one year until the next band take over. But it’s nice. I like it. I’m a big music fan and collect records, and I used to look for bands who looked like Black Sabbath on the gatefold Vertigo label. That’s how I discovered Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant. We’ve won lots of awards, but this is only the second time I’ve ever been there to actually collect the award, so it’s great.”
Reissue Of The Year: STEVE HILLAGE - SEARCHING FOR THE SPARK
Steve Hillage: “I’m blown away. When I saw the list of other nominees – people like Pink Floyd, my personal heroes Can, Yes, Rush – I was just honoured to be nominated. I think we’ve done a great box set, but to get the recognition for it is just fantastic. Artistically, the motivation was wanting to tell my own story, so we remembered everything really.”
Video Of The Year: KING CRIMSON - HEROES
Jakko Jakszyk: “We shot the video in Berlin, which added extra poignancy because that’s where Robert recorded the original. It’s a real honour to sing that song live. When David Bowie died, I did think it might be a nice idea to cover it. I emailed Robert and he was thinking the same thing. After two-and-a-half hours of enormous concentration with a Crimson set, it’s the only part of the night when I feel like a rock star. It’s lovely coming back to the Awards – I made a lot of good friends last year and it’s good to see them again.”
Outstanding Musical Achievement: JOHN MILES
John Miles: “I think I made a contribution but that was way back in the 70s. I suppose it has endured though. And the song Music has endured as well, and that was the biggest hit worldwide. I’m a man of few words and there are eight lines of lyrics in that song. I get to work with orchestras these days too, which is fantastic.”
Album Of The Year: ANATHEMA - THE OPTIMIST
Daniel Cavanagh: “This is the one we wanted. It’s prestigious, it means a lot.”
Vincent Cavanagh: “It means the most. It’s about the music and that’s what we do. You put eight months of your life, your heart and soul into it…”
Lee Douglas: “It’s also for an album with a new producer [Tony Doogan] who was really new to us, but I really enjoyed working with him.”
Daniel Cavanagh: “It was difficult to make, it took a long time and we put everything we had into it and came out drained. But it worked.”
UK Band Of The Year: MARILLION
Mark Kelly: “Very, very excited.”
Steve Hogarth: “Very, very flattered. The album got an amazing reception, everything we could have dreamt of really. You never know, you make the best record that you can and then you cross your fingers and hope somebody gets it. And a lot of people seemed to get this one.”
Ian Mosley: “We’re really excited about playing the Royal Albert Hall on the back of this as well.”
Outer Limits: MARK KING
Mark King: “I’m so chuffed. So pleased to get an award. Progressive is what music is all about to me. People might wonder why a guy from a jazz funk band in the 80s is here, but that was only one part. As a musician and composer you write all kinds of things. I’ve been lucky enough to work with all kinds of people over the years. I discovered Cream when I was eight and then at 15 had an epiphany seeing the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It all made perfect sense to me. And now I’m in Gizmodrome with Stewart [Copeland], Vittorio [Cosma] and Adrian [Belew]. Just amazing.”
Industry VIP: MAX HOLE
(Presented by Andrew Daw)
Max Hole: “It’s been a wonderful period in my life. I was very young in 1963 when The Beatles exploded and music was it for me. I managed Spirogyra and then Camel, Martin Carthy and Martin Chapman. I realised when I went to Kent University that as a singer-songwriter I wasn’t very good, but I was enthusiastic and there were lots of great players there. All terribly exciting to me.”
Michel ‘Away’ Langevin: “I’m really, really, really proud. As I mentioned on stage, we don’t really get awards. We’re still seen as very underground, although maybe influential. But to win this is mind‑blowing. In the early days it was stuff like Van der Graaf, King Crimson, Rush… Progressive rock was huge in Quebec. Voivod became a prog rock band over the course of a few years, and we have bands like Mastodon and Meshuggah now telling us how we influenced them, which is great.”
Chris Squire Virtuoso Award: STEVE HACKETT
(Presented by Steve Rothery)
Steve Hackett: “It’s been a great evening. I was enjoying myself until they started handing out the awards, and then you tense up and think, ‘What do I say if I won something?’ But there’s been a lot of love in the room and it’s been a great evening. But it’s not just this evening – it goes on. The genre that involves all genres is here to stay. It’s the best art form, I think. It’s important not to forget Chris Squire. I was a huge fan, and I remember talking to Phil Collins about Yes, and he was a huge fan at that time – big band music through electric instruments. And that was Yes.”
Lifetime Achievement: EDDIE JOBSON
(Presented by Sonja Kristina)
Eddie Jobson: “I feel fantastic. And surprised. The albums that I did were mostly in the 70s and early 80s, so I didn’t really expect, some 30 years later, to be honoured for them. It was lovely having Sonja Kristina present to me as well, because I was such a big fan of Curved Air and every boy at my school loved Sonja. I was just 17, had a record deal with Warners and was in the same studio that Keith Emerson had recorded with ELP in. And then Roxy Music, going to America… It all changed my life.”
Prog God 2017: CARL PALMER
(Presented by Danny Baker)
Danny Baker: “As the cliché goes, if anyone told the 14-year-old me I’d be doing this, I’d say that’s a life well lived. It was a wonderful thing to do. I only used a third of the tributes and gags I had… But here is one of the great musicians of one of the great bands of the 20th and 21st century. Marvellous.”
Carl Palmer: “I won the Virtuoso award several years ago, but never really thought about the main one. But it’s a real great thing for me to have right now, having lost two such big players [ELP bandmates Keith Emerson and Greg Lake], as well as John Wetton. Three in one 11-month period. None of us are here on freehold – it’s all leasehold. But to work with such great people and have made such great music… this is very touching. I’m still here and having this award is just great.”