The leader of one of the most revered modern prog rock bands lives here in Yorkshire. Jon Cronshaw spoke to him at his Otley home.
Progressive rock may have had its heyday in the 1970s with the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes selling millions of albums worldwide.
But as prog rock became unfashionable and disappeared from the airwaves, it has continued as an underground movement away from the mainstream since.
Andy Tillison, 53, is a part-time music lecturer at Leeds City College and lives in an unassuming house in Otley, West Yorkshire.
He is also the lead singer of The Tangent and he received the Outstanding Contribution to Music award by the Classic Rock Society earlier this year. He is about to release his band’s seventh studio album, Le Sacre Du Travail, which translates as The Rite of Work.
Le Sacre Du Travail is The Tangent’s first concept album. “Rather than being some kind of airy-fairy, Tolkienesque, Jules Verne thing – I’m a realist, what you might call a nice guy anarchist – I wanted to write about something that was real rather than about Mordor and the orcs,” explains Andy.
As a starting point for the album, Andy turned to the hamlet of Blubberhouses, near Harrogate, for his inspiration. He considers how the commute to work can turn a tiny village into a passageway rather than a destination.
“I’ve written about many of the places around here. Blubberhouses, which is a fascinating little village up near Fewston, figures in the new album because rush hour does have its effect on the countryside as it does in the cities.
“Every day you have a traffic jam going through this little hamlet with people trying to make their way to Skipton and Harrogate. With all these cars passing through, it doesn’t really seem fair on Blubberhouses because no one’s going there.”
There are parallels between Le Sacre Du Travail and classical composer Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, celebrating its centenary this year. “Stravinsky is one of my biggest influences – going right back to childhood.
“The Rite of Spring was about the pagan rituals that Stravinsky saw around him in the Russian countryside.
“When I approached the new piece, I still wanted to keep with the whole ritual thing. And so I wrote a piece about the ritual of going to work every day – why we do it, how we feel about it. I wanted it to be very much about the normal person who has to get up every morning and make that journey into work.”
The Tangent have achieved worldwide success – but in Britain, their music is only heard by a handful of dedicated fans. Andy believes that this is because prog rock’s reputation has been damaged by the media since the late 1970s.
“You can’t get through a documentary about prog without hearing about somebody wearing a cape – and that really wasn’t what it was about.
“It was a psychedelic thing – it was a fusion of all different genres from around the world. It was about disobeying rules. It was about ripping up the rulebook, and doing that whole business cliché of thinking outside of the box – bringing things together that did not belong together.”
For Andy, the issue runs much deeper than the genre’s image – it’s about the general public’s attitude towards music itself. “People can get quite indignant about committing to a piece of music if it’s 20 minutes long,” explains Andy.
“I try to make music that you can immerse yourself in. So much music today is just the background to something else – you might listen to the radio while you’re doing the washing up, or it’s on the soundtrack to a videogame – I like the purity of music that doesn’t need anything else.”
Andy also believes that the proliferation of access to music is a double-edged sword. In one respect it gives users access to almost any piece of music they can think of within moments, and in another, making the music more transitory and of less value – that if it doesn’t grab you immediately, it’s easy to skip on to the next track.
“I used to work in Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop after I left school, and I used to save my money up to buy records,” Andy recalls.
“I remember buying The Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, which is one of the most involved pieces of music they ever did. It cost me £4.25 – which is a serious amount of money for a kid working in Harry Ramsden’s during his holidays. I brought it home and I didn’t like it all – I felt like I’d wasted all of my pocket money. So there was only one solution – learn to like it.
“So I played it and played it and eventually fell in love with it, and 40 years later I still know every note – that’s a kind of value I feel a lot of people today won’t get.”
As well as being passionate about prog rock, Andy champions Yorkshire. As a musician who has travelled the world, this is still his favourite place.
“I’m a proud Yorkshireman and always have been. But in particular, I’m a Wharfedale person – I just love this valley. To me it’s like this grand album that I’ve known all my life. I know where all the roads go to get me to my favourite places.
“There’s a particular seat on Beamsley Beacon where I go and sit and write my music and just switch off.
“It’s my favourite view across Wharfedale – you can see everything – you can see towns, reservoirs, hills, Bolton Abbey, you can hear steam trains whistling in the distance. It’s an absolutely glorious place to be.”
Le Sacre Du Travail is released on June 24 through InsideOut records, or can be pre-ordered at www.thetangent.org
Andy Tillison – Digital Pioneer
In July 1994 the song The Third Person by Andy’s previous band Po95 was posted online, in what is widely believed to be the first instance of a band using a free MP3 to promote their music. The song took 17 hours to convert to MP3. It then took a few days to upload the file to the internet using a 14.4kbps modem. It took a further day for the file to be downloaded, and another 17 hours to be converted back into a usable format – MP3 players hadn’t yet been invented. This was a far cry from iTunes and high-speed internet.