Chas Sniding - interview,
Chas Sniding – The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock
Back at the end of 2011, my family and I were in Orlando on holiday and I had taken a book with me to read while I was there. I enjoyed the book immensely, and covered it in notes, but was frustrated this tome on progressive rock music finished long before “my” scene. This started an idea in my mind which would not go away, like an itch I couldn’t scratch, which was that someone needed to put out reviews of albums from the Nineties, and three years later I mentioned the idea to Jon Downes of Gonzo. He told me if I wrote it, he would publish it, and 2019 saw the release of The Progressive Underground (Vols 1 and 2, Vol 3 currently at the printers but held up by Covid 19). Not long after it started to get some publicity, Chas contacted me and asked if we could swap books, and he sent me a copy of the second edition of Strawberry Bricks. It was only at this point that I realised he was the person responsible for the years of sweat and toil, collating and proofing, as the book which started it all was the first edition!
These days we speak often, and with the release of the third edition, it is only right and proper to have a full catch up. Some magazines such as Record Collector have described my books as a Bible, but in truth my books are the New Testament, and The Strawberry Bricks Guide To Progressive Rock is the Old Testament, and no proghead should be without it.
Kev Rowland: Who, what and when is Chas Sniding?
Chas Sniding: It is all Charles Snider. When I got inundated with "friend" requests from presumably good folks I never met, I did not want to mix personal life with the rest of the world. Thus, I created a Facebook account “Chas Sniding” for progressive rock and the book. There is, however, a story in the term "Sniding". About ten years ago I befriended Chicago new-prog band District 97. (That story is in Will Romano's Prog Rock FAQ). Shortly thereafter Jonathan Schang and his father Vic became regular visitors to my "man cave" for prog fuelled evenings. Some of the band made appearances, but as they always called me by my last name, Snider, the events were eventually dubbed "Snidings". I liked it and it stuck. But to answer the question, it's all in the Prologue of the book.
KR: What are your earliest musical memories, and how did you first become involved with progressive rock?
CS: I grew up during the golden era of rock music. My dad was an immigrant who changed his last name to Snider during the McCarthy era. (Yes, decades after his death we managed to get the FBI files from that time - I could write a movie script with it). My mother was a trained singer, but ultimately chose a "June Cleaver" lifestyle. Nonetheless, there was music in the house. My mom played piano and sang in the church choir, but loved all sorts of music - jazz, classical, pop, etc. My dad - when he did listen to music - played "gypsy music" from Yugoslavia. One album in particular I remember was Switched On Bach by Walter Carlos, and the general fascination with the Moog synthesizer that went with it. But it was piles of 45rpm records that were some of my early listenings and, of course, radio. I write about this in the Preface of my book, but radio - first the poppier AM dial, and then the rockier FM dial - was how music was discovered during the 1960s and 1970s. When you turned the radio on, you listened to whatever was playing! When a song came on that you really loved... you jumped and screamed and turned it up! If you did not like something, you'd turn the dial to find another station. But radio was where it all began. As I hit the teen years in the 70s, it was onto my sisters’ and other friends’ older siblings’ record albums. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Uriah Heep, Elton John, Chicago - pretty much standard early 70s rock music. The guitar heroes such as Page, Clapton and Beck were prominent, as we were budding musicians; as young boys I think we were instinctively drawn towards the heavier end of the music spectrum - Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Humble Pie, etc. All British, btw, and that's thanks to The Beatles. Sure, I liked some American bands, but mostly it was the British. A funny anecdote: This was the era of Columbia House record club, who had these deals where you could sign up and get a dozen records for a penny, with a contract that you would then buy one a month (or something). We were all in - instant record collections! But when the first month's record came at full price, our parents would write and say, "No, the kid is a minor, this is not valid" and we would be scot-free! Anyway, my first two records were Yes Fragile and Close to the Edge. By the time I was 16, I got my first (and only) retail job working at a record store. Lots of fun stories there, but mostly, being with music all the time was the best education a kid could have.
KR: What is the story behind Strawberry Bricks, and where did the name come from?
CS: “Strawberry Bricks” is a quote from Jon Anderson; again, it is all in the book. But in the late 80s and early 90s - back when PCs had modems and everyone added a second phone line to prevent their main telephone line from being busy, there were a few nascent on-line dialup services, like CompuServ, AOL and Prodigy. The latter had bulletin boards, including one dedicated to music. This was similar to newsgroups like rec.music.progressive or whatever, but with a lot less spam. Anyway, there was a group of "prog heads” on Prodigy and all things progressive were discussed. I remember this idea of a timeline was presented by Yes superfan Roy DeRousse, aka “Roylayer”. You must remember that this was all pre-internet, pre-search engines, pre-everything available instantly. If you wanted to know about an obscure record, you would really have to work at it and find someone who had it, or at least knew about it. I was very fortunate at the time to have a job where I traveled all over the US. Anyway, with my trusty IBM 55SX computer, I got a drawing package and put together a timeline poster which I titled "Strawberry Bricks". It had years on the X axis - 1968-1992 - and bands on the Y axis - all the major "progressive art rock" bands. Then, I mapped out each groups’ albums by title, which gave a great perspective on who was doing what, when, and in relation to what others were doing. Even managed to sell a few of them! Years later, around 1998 when the internet happened, I was able to register the domain progressiverock.com. It took a couple years, but I eventually translated the poster into a website, writing up each album in the timeline. By 2006, I realized I had written a book of sorts.
But you have to rewind first. Back in the 70s, there was no internet, no online, etc. There were magazines, like Rolling Stone, Circus, Cream, Goldmine, etc. I don’t remember the British magazines in the US. Another great magazine of that era was Ira Robbin's Trouser Press. It was kind of unique in that it had one hand in the “prog” cookie jar and the other in the so-called "new wave". In the late 80s, Robbins released the first Trouser Press Record Guide. It was a bible of “new wave” music. So, having this book in the back of my mind, I knew there was a need for something similar for progressive rock. I set out in earnest and began putting the book together while on paternity leave. Again, this is all home computer stuff - a copy of Adobe InDesign and by that time what was a substantial start to the internet. Another big catalyst was getting Matt Howarth to do the cover. It came together almost instantly, a match made in heaven! I was able to publish the book via a company called Lulu.com, which very much checked the "because I could" box. I mean, I had no idea how to get a book published.
Anyway, that first edition was very much made in a vacuum, without much outside help, and is on the amateur side of the fence. But despite some errors, it was very well received. All the while, I kept doing the research, collecting records, discovering what needed to be discovered. By the time of the second edition in 2007, I had formulated a different idea of what we mean when we say, "progressive rock".
KR: What is that idea?
CS: Foremost the book is a record guide. It’s there to help the reader find music to enjoy. But as I continued to research the music from that era, I found a deeper meaning behind the book: to propose a historical definition and standard discography of “progressive rock”. (I mean, we gotta stop calling everything progressive rock LOL!) What is it that links the music from that era together? Foremost, it is the age of the musicians. Via the website, I had a database of many of the musicians who were in the book. The data tells a story: Their median birth year was 1947, with a standard definition of +/- 3 years. That’s a very discrete fact, and a lot can be interpolated from that. Being of similar age, the musicians in the timeline had very similar life experiences. They grew up listening to the same music, were influenced by the cultural changes of the 60s, and ultimately when they came into their own, they took rock music in completely new directions. What happened when punk and new wave arrived in the mid to late 70s, was really the arrival of a new generation, one that stood up and then took rock somewhere else.
Thus, I offer progressive rock as an era of music, one that originated in the United Kingdom, then crossed the channel and infected Europe. It had a lot of similarities - though maybe not always musically - but in the sense of “let’s take a three-minute pop song and see how far we can go with it”. That is really what progressive rock is all about. And using a temporal definition isn’t circular logic - progressive rock had a time and a place. Does it exist now? Sure, because we have musicians that are taking cues and influences from that previous era, for the music they create today. So, if there's a reason why a band like Yes and a band like Porcupine Tree are both considered progressive rock, it's because Yes came first.
Is it the final word on progressive rock? Of course not. But it is one that must be considered.
KR: I definitely relate to your timeline, I used to scribe rock band family trees on my school exercise books. How did you decide who to include and who to leave out?
CS: My logic is laid out in the preface to the timeline in the book. When you start with the so-called big six of prog, then the Canterbury bands, the Italians, the Germans, Scandinavians etc., you get a critical mass of records - the first edition. From there, I looked for the connections that link these artists together - other bands, label mates, side projects, solo albums, etc. I never wanted to get too obscure. It is very typical of a prog fan to pull out the “what, you don’t know about this obscure album from whenever?” but honestly, does that change the overall story? Not really. In the end, I have to admit, did I really miss that many? No! So please judge it for what it is, not what it isn’t! Sure, I added a few personal favourites, and a few albums on the fringe, but if you take the time to read those entries, you’ll see why I included them.
KR: The first published piece I ever wrote was on Carmen, and until I read your books, I had never seen anything else about them at all. How did you go about the research?
CS: I work in academia, so I guess I am just a prog geek. But it kinda comes with the territory, right? Collecting records, scouring the internet, reading reissue booklets, magazines, talking to fellow prog heads, maybe even a little magic and good luck. And feedback - after the first edition, some very good people reached out, and their help made the book a much better book.
KR: Why did you decide to stop the timeline when you did, and not continue any further?
CS: The story ends there, or at least, a chapter in the history of progressive rock. Even though some of the musicians continued their careers - with very few exceptions - the music changed! Remember, progressive rock was mainstream music in the early to mid-70s. But by the time you got to the late 70s, it certainly started to fade. For those that remained, the music changed. No one’s gonna compare Genesis Foxtrot to Genesis Abacab. C’mon, Hogweeds vs Dukes? As I write, there is something about the “formidable twenty-old” and the creativity he conjures up during those years of their life. Anyway, Asia is a fitting end because here you had three of the most iconic “prog” musicians - Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and John Wetton - making pop music.
KR: You have just released the third edition, but it has been quite some years since the second. Why did you feel the need to revisit it, and what are the differences between editions 2 and 3?
CS: The first edition came out in 2007, while the second was 2017. In those ten years, the book went from being amateur to professional. Everything was fact-checked, peer-reviewed, fully indexed and professionally edited. The timeline was greatly expanded, and I formulated the story which makes up the Prologue and Epilogue - the story of a generation of men that created “progressive rock”. The second edition included interviews with a dozen plus musicians from the timeline about their experiences growing up as baby boomers and what put them on the path to “progressive rock”. I called them “Portraits” and had local artist and friend Steve Krakow draw caricatures of each. I definitely see this as a further project for the future; I want to document these artists before it’s too late! Anyway, the company that I published the second edition with was absorbed into Amazon, and it went out of print. For the third edition, I decided to fill in a few holes in the timeline, remove the Portrait section, and go back to Matt Howarth’s original (but slightly revised) cover. If you have the first edition, you really owe it to yourself to get the third edition. It’s almost double the book!
That’s it however, I’ve told the story as well as I can, so it’s on to someone else from here.
KR: What are some of the “must have” albums that you would recommend?
CS: In the back of the book, I have a list of 67 “Essential” albums, which I put a lot of thought into why each record should be there. But of the thousands of records mentioned in the book, I’ll offer the following. For German progressive rock, there is the triumvirate of Grobschnitt, Hoelderlin and Novalis. Of those groups, I would run and get Hoelderlin’s “Clowns and Clouds” album if you don’t have it already. Finland’s Tasavallan Presidentii is known for guitarist Jukka Tolonen, but their “Lambert Land” album is another favourite. Japan’s Far East Family Band is a psychedelic fav, and “Nipponjin” is always a great listen. I’ve got to throw in a plug in for Gong’s “Gazeuse!” It’s probably my favorite album from the fusion side of the fence. Sure, Holdsworth slays, but Moze and Moerlen are just so tight. Finally, in honour of Phil May who just passed away, I’ve been playing The Pretty Things’ “Parachute” album, a much overlooked album in their catalogue.
KR: Since I first discovered the first edition many years ago these have been my personal “go to” guides to the scene, and I have learned a great deal, but what has been the general reaction from progheads?
CS: On a positive note, there are also so many people that have thanked me for helping them discover new music, or rediscover old music, that’s really rewarding. I’ve always tried to be as even as possible with my reviews so the reader can come to the ultimate conclusion on a particular record. My role is just to guide them there. And for those that read the book and understand the point I’m trying to make - creating a historical context for the term “progressive rock” - well, that’s as good as it gets. I’ve had a few fellow “prog scholars” come forward and applaud the work: that’s very humbling. Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records, Ken Golden of Laser’s Edge, Phil Howitt of Facelift, author Mike Barnes - who’s excellent book “A New Day Yesterday” was also just released, the Prog Magazine gang, and others. Again, there’s an insane amount of work that went into the book and having people recognize it is what makes it all worthwhile.
But I can’t tell you how disappointing it is when someone pulls the “oh, I already know about all these albums” or “this is for beginners”. It’s kind of a shame, but there seems to be some kind of “competition” with prog fans, this whole “I’ve seen this band more times than you”, or “I know more about this group than you”, or whatever. Who cares! We all love the same music! Criticism is one thing if it’s constructive, but with prog fans it just tends to be for criticism’s sake. That’s a shame. For anyone who’s written a book or penned a review, having someone nit-pick every missing umlaut or comma is just missing the point. Please rise above and see the forest for the trees! I have nothing but love for all the music in The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock, and hopefully that’s what shows.