The Power and the Glory is a political concept album recorded in 1974 by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant. While the eccentric, complex (by prog standards!), and dissonant music of this band, for obvious reasons, never resulted in widespread commercial success for them, this album–despite being one of their most dissonant–was an attempt, on some level, to expand their audience in the US.
Sherman Hemsley, having been an accomplished musician himself, was a fan of progressive rock; on Dinah Shore‘s TV show, Dinah!, he apparently danced to ‘Proclamation,’ the rather funky first track on the album. If anyone out there has footage of this holy TV moment, I would be eternally grateful if he or she could present me with video of it.
Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album, including those for the bonus title track. The songs tell the story of a politician who, at first, seems to want to help the people, but then gets mired in the corrupt system and ends up the very kind of politician he was supposed to be trying to cure the system of…an all-too-familiar problem, making the album as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago.
The studio version of ‘Proclamation’ begins with a roaring crowd of supporters of the rising politician, unnamed because…really…he or she could be anyone, past, present, or future. Then we hear multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear playing a jaunty tune on an electric piano, typically idiosyncratic Gentle Giant. This quirky jauntiness suggests the shaky hope we feel that the politician will deliver on his promises.
Singer Derek Shulman comes in on the off-beat (or at least what feels like the off-beat, at the beginning of the studio version of the song), an example of Gentle Giant’s typical trickiness, but also a suggestion that we already have little reason to trust the tricky politician’s promises to cure the ailing nation.
“You may not have all you want or you need.” May not? Of course we don’t! Politicians, conservative or liberal, always ensure the imperialist, class structure of society while making empty promises of change, for the sole purpose of appeasing the masses and stopping them from revolting.
“All that you have has been due to my hand.” What do we have that’s come from you? Empty promises? Blind hopes? Not what we genuinely need.
“It can change. It can stay the same./Who can say, who can make their claim?” The situation can change only through revolution; voting will keep it the same, with only the outer appearance of change. That’s my claim, for what it’s worth.
“The situation we are in at this time/Neither a good one, nor is it so unblest.” The politician must acknowledge the discontents of the people, yet from his privileged point of view, it isn’t so bad, either. Hence, all he has to make are some cosmetic changes to satisfy the herd, while leaving the same basic structure intact.
“Hail!” the crowd of mindless supporters shouts.
“Unity’s strength and all must be as one.” Solidarity and oneness are what we want, but “confidence in you, hope will reflect in me.” Mr. Politician, you have not yet earned our confidence, nor should we hope too much from you. “You are my people,” the politician says, putting on the charm, but that “there must be no change” is a hint that he has no intention of curing any of our societal, economic, and political ills. This is what he “will say,” this is how he “will make [his] claim.”
Still, the mindless rabble listens uncritically, chanting “Hail!”
The music gets increasingly discordant in the middle section, especially with Minnear’s organ, culminating in “Hail to the power, and to glory’s way!” The loud, dissonant chords emphasize the evil that inevitably results from the kind of blind nationalism and chauvinism that is too often inspired by manipulative demagogues, who lead the masses by the nose.
Next, we hear harmonic resolution (relatively speaking, of course: this is Gentle Giant, after all) behind the words “day by day,” which is repeated under an electric piano in the bass, bitonal in relation to the fading-out singing and organ. This bitonality suggests the two-faced nature of politicians, as well as the discordance between, on the one side, the lying politician, and on the other, the gullible public.
The next part uses a technique frequently used by Gentle Giant, one called hocketing, only with the instruments here rather than voices, so it is rather like Klangfarbenmelodie. It reassembles the fragments of the opening jaunty tune played on the electric piano, yet this time played not only on that keyboard, but also on organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and a high-hat on John Weathers‘s drum kit. This need to reassemble the parts suggests an attempt to heal the collective wounds of the nation…and yet, we end up right back where we started. The song fades out with the roaring crowd again.
The studio version of ‘So Sincere‘ opens with a dissonant counterpoint played by Derek Shulman on sax, his brother Ray on violin, and Minnear plucking pizzicatos on a cello. This dissonance makes it clear that we should note the utter sarcasm in saying politicians’ words are “so sincere.”
“Hear, he’ll do it all for you,” sings Minnear…and so the insincerity begins. “Wise, and knowing what to do.” Knowing what to do…for whose benefit?
“And every word is…” Wait for the punchline…”Lies.”
“He only tells the truth…Means, not anything he says…” Later, “Wrong, he makes his promise right.” Note the proliferation of contradictions: lies/truth, yes/no, wrong/right, full/empty, good/bad. Corrupt politicians confuse us with their contradictory speech, denying what they said earlier, which they now contradict, and never resolving class contradictions–they only perpetuate those…and if you don’t watch carefully, “You’ll never know why.”
The dissonance comes to a head in the chorus, with Derek singing, “So sin-cere!” and ending with the deliberate pun, “So sin.”
Now, the guile and cunning of politicians are one thing, but there’s another side to this problem–the credulity of the public who listen to their revered leader’s bullshit, hoping that finally, this new one is going to make everything right. This is the subject of ‘Aspirations,’ sung by Minnear as he plays the electric piano.
This is probably my favourite song on the whole album, for in this one we can feel the pain and hopes of the people for a better world, sung in a sympathetic melody. “See our dreams all coming true, it depends on you.” (Not if “you” is your average politician.)
The followers already have some vague sense that their faith is “aimless blind,” yet they hope all the same that their new leader’s claims are “really so sincere.” They hope he can “be our guide,” even after they’ve been disappointed so many times before. They never learn. “Make us strong, build our unity, all men as one, it is all in you.” Seriously? All in one man?
“Hopes, dreams, hopes, dreaming that all our sorrows gone…” Apart from noting how ungrammatical this line sounds, I can’t help hearing, “go on,” rather than “gone,” suggesting an unconscious Freudian slip, revealing the death drive behind all these foolish “hopes [and] dreams.”
‘Playing the Game‘ is interesting when heard juxtaposed with a viewing of the album cover: vying for political power is like a card game–part luck, part strategy, all about trying to win as big a portion of the pot as possible.
Minnear’s marimba opening of the studio version of the song was replaced in live performance by Derek’s strumming a “Shulberry,” a kind of electric ukulele with three strings. Furthermore, instead of playing a violin as he did in the studio version, Ray played a second electric guitar in concert.
The politician has “the key to the back door” of his secret connections, his “hand touching bounds never had before.” He has power for the first time in his life…and he likes it. His games are all “won before they’re played for,” and “no opposition can stage a fight.” He’ll “never, ever lose” at the game of politics.
Corruption no longer seems ugly when it benefits you, with your “thoughts never spoken,” your “silent words left unsaid.” Because of the success that corruption allows you to cheat at getting, the music of the song is upbeat.
The politician may be content, but the masses have finally caught on, and they are furious, as we hear in “Cogs In Cogs,” which opens with intricate counterpoint in Minnear’s keyboards, Ray’s bass, and Green’s guitar, played in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Next, we hear a tricky riff with a bar of 6/8, then one in 4/16; then there’s a brief riff in 9/16, then another brief riff in 7/8 before Derek comes in singing. This structural complexity symbolizes the trickiness of politicians’ unending deceit.
Derek’s voice, loud and aggressive, unlike Minnear’s soft and gentle singing, is apt for a song about the “anger and the rising murmur” of the people over the politician’s every “empty promise.”
“Cogs in cogs” is a vivid image to describe the revolving cycles of hope and disappointment felt with each new politician voted into office. The anger, accompanying disillusionment over the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, should be the thing that “breaks the old circle,” but the cycle soon begins turning again, “the wheel slowly turns around.”
“The air is sour with discontent,” but we never learn; for after this current politician is reviled and removed, a new one comes along to raise our hopes, then disappoint us once again. “The circle turns around, the changing voices calling…” Derek’s overdubbed voice in the studio version, during the bridge (a section played instrumentally live), sings these words over and over again, reflecting this unchanging cyclical reality of hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment…
‘No God’s a Man‘ expresses more of the sadness and disillusion than the anger felt when realizing the politician is like all the others. Our idealized politician, a “god,” is never the reality, just a man. Hear the sadness in Ray’s and Green’s acoustic guitar doubling; hear it in Green’s bluesy electric guitar licks in the middle of the song, a style that is natural for him to play.
The singing of the first two verses, harmonizing in independent voices (Derek, Minnear, Ray, Green, and Weathers), in a style reminiscent of Renaissance vocal polyphony (a singing technique frequently heard in Gentle Giant’s music), suggests the clamour of disappointed people who, frowning at the face of the corrupt politician, are “now telling him to go.”
The music grows dissonant again in ‘The Face,’ which focuses on the corrupt nature of politics, and how one tries to hold on to power in spite of waning popularity. When the politician’s face is showing, he tries to put his mask back on. “Hide your mask, show the face that is sorry.”
Normally, Gentle Giant’s use of dissonance is more subtle, hidden in the counterpoint; not blatant and obvious, as it is in King Crimson (e.g., the chaotic ending of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ or Keith Tippett‘s piano cluster chords in ‘Cat Food‘) or in Frank Zappa’s modernist orchestral music (e.g., the 200 Motels soundtrack).
In ‘The Face,’ Gentle Giant is blatantly dissonant, too, particularly with Ray’s grating electric violin solo. This dissonance is, again, suggestive of class conflict, between the greed in the leaders and the wishes of the people.
‘Valedictory‘ is a hard rock variation on themes played more jauntily in ‘Proclamation.’ We’ve come full circle (as in ‘cogs in cogs’), and while the corrupt politician is doing all he can in terms of damage control after all the scandals have exposed him, we know “things must stay, there must be no change.” We’ve come back to the beginning…again.
We start looking for another idealized politician we can follow blindly: “time to rearrange.” The dissonant keyboard music in 5/4 that we heard in the middle of ‘Proclamation’ is heard again (on Green’s guitar and Minnear’s synthesizer), descending chromatic notes that come round and round in circles, culminating, at the end of the song, in a cry of “Hail!…”
…then the tape speeds up and spins out of control, bringing the album to an abrupt end, and implying that nothing’s been learned…
But that’s the whole point of the album. We never learn. Will we ever?
Politicians on both sides of the mainstream political fence have made big promises, then disappointed us. This is true of leaders in the remote past, the recent past, and…I prophesy with utmost confidence…the future.
Voting and reform do nothing to change the system, for it was never meant to change anything. It keeps the same class structure intact and placates the masses, with liberals throwing a few bones to the poor to prevent revolution; with conservatives hypocritically preaching about the need to cut costs…while they spend wildly on the military; and with fascists stomping on us with their jackboots if we dare to…dare I say it?…start a revolution.
“Anger and the rising murmur breaks the old circle” [my emphasis]