Thursday, August 28, 2008

Past Projects I: Music newsletter

In February 1989, I published the premiere issue of On Reflection, a monthly newsletter on progressive rock, the musical phenomenon of the late 60s and 70s that dared suggest that Mussorgsky and Bartok could be as valid an influence for rock and roll as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Key bands include Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), Genesis, Gentle Giant, Renaissance, and Gong, among many others. I wrote and published the newsletter until March 1992.

There were two reasons why I started the newsletter, and two reasons why I terminated it. The first reason for starting it was that my friends and I loved to talk about the music we loved, and progressive rock was particularly rich for both conversation and argument because it was dense, impressionistic, complex, and bombastic. The second reason for starting it was that I was working for a digital type company called Bitstream that was helping to launch the desktop publishing revolution of the late 80s, and I was eager to experiment with the new tools I had access to. The reasons for ceasing publication were that I was broke (I've never been cut out to be a businessman and I guess I either never got a critical mass of subscribers or else never charged enough to build a financial cushion), and that I was eager to broaden my musical horizons and spend more time learning about and listening to jazz, folk, and ethnic music.

The title, On Reflection, is the name of a song by Gentle Giant, which is an all-time, hall of fame favorite band of mine, right up there with Brian Wilson. This English sextet-turned-quintet was, as its name suggested, both minimalistic and maximalistic. Eschewing long jams, songs, and solos, the group has been called chamber rock, constructing a musical jigsaw puzzle by stacking short, repeated, polyphonous phrases on top of each other. In addition to the standard arsenal of acoustic and electric guitars, multiple electronic and acoustic keyboards, bass, and drums, the members played such instruments as violin, cello, vibraphone, recorder, saxophone, and trumpet. They also were expert at astonishingly complex four- and five-part vocal harmonies. Given my love for the band, and the fact that the heyday of progrock was long over (though it continues to endure below the radar), I thought the title appropriate.

Here's Gentle Giant performing that song:

During my tenure, I had the opportunity to interview a few prog musicians, including the lovely Annie Haslam from Renaissance (she began the phone interview by saying she had just stepped out of the shower, and I nearly fainted), the weird Daevid Allen from Gong, and the ambitious Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, who at the time was president of Atco Records and now is the founder of DRT Records, which has reissued a few Giant titles.

Check out Haslam's astounding vocal gymnastics:

After I called it a day, a subscriber named John Collinge, who had been a reporter for the Lowell Sun newspaper, asked if he could resurrect it. I helped him with his first two issues and he has grown it into a much more professional-looking publication called Progression Magazine.


Susan said...

Well that's funny. I came here through your comment on the left bank blog, which I manage. My husband started a 'zine at about the same time as your newsletter: Sonic Trout, Cape Cod's Fresh Water Alternative. It was about the music scene in general and on Cape Cod in particular. It was a bit of a cult smash hit. Chris started it for exactly the same reasons as you, and stopped it for the same reasons. He's good at desktop publishing, not so good at ad sales.
Skip to now - last spring we were contacted by someone who was starting a new paper called C.O.D. It's a music, arts and life monthly. They asked us to resurrect sonic trout within their paper. We get one or two pages depending on whether or not Chris has time to write. It's been fun to see it happening again and is a blast to write for.
I'm glad you stopped by Left Bank and left your calling card on the blog. I've read several of your posts and enjoy the blog quite a bit.
Here's mine if you're game:

Dove Nested Towers & Trout Towers. I feel like I should know you!

Jason M. Rubin said...

Thanks for the comment. Sounds like a nice gig that popped up for you. If we merged, we could be Dove Nested Trout!