Many things seem to happen by chance. Sometimes, different things seem to happen around the same time. Sometimes there seems to be a meaningful relation. That's called synchronicity. Often that relation is purely coincidental, but it's still fun to dive in and take a closer look.
This also happened at a meta level here at DPRP.net headquarters, where in the same month, we received two articles by two different authors about this very subject! We're not going to analyse that level of coincidence now, but will just publish both articles.
The first is by David Taylor (who wrote Going Back To Chicago: A Long Overdue Prog Pilgrimage, published in September this year). David noticed some superficially coincidental similarities. But as it happens when you take a closer look, you're discovering much more!
From its inception, progressive rock has been haunted by ghosts, whether from the past or the future. For one of several possible examples, you have nineteenth century romantic classical music spooking Renaissance. And then you have the Italian group, Moongarden, exploring potential dystopic trends for coming decades in their recent Voyeur. But are there ways in which this big-tent approach to music is informed by something truly mysterious? David Taylor tries on a tin foil for his first foray down the rabbit hole. (Cue some creepy Mellotron!)
Potato, Po-tah-to, Tomato, Tormato
Back in the (Rolling) stone age, the late 1960s, when tape cassettes were fresh but vinyl still reigned supreme, an absurd conspiracy theory erupted pertaining to Beatle Paul McCartney. Supposedly, hints were left littered all over Beatles album covers and records that he had died an untimely, covered-up death. Beatles fans including yours truly risked scratching up their vinyl copies of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by turning them backwards on turntables to listen for a voice saying, “Paul is dead”. And they repeatedly scrutinized the back cover of Abbey Road to decide whether that really was Paul's face, or merely suggestive shadows. Etc. Etc.
We might never know for sure whether a clever marketing tactic was afoot to sell more albums, or nothing more than the equivalent of reading obese rabbits into cloud shapes. But we do know that Paul McCartney is still alive and kicking, continuing to create wonderful music. (Or at least that is what robot-Ringo hypnotised me into reporting, ho-ho!)
Meantime, though, progressive rock has occasionally harbored some very spook-tacular coincidences that seem more than coincidences. There is a name for coincidences that feel freighted with deeper meaning: Synchronicity. As defined by Oxford Languages, synchronicity is “the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” Famed psychologist Carl Jung did a great deal of research into this matter.
Last summer, my wife and I watched a travelogue about the Lakes District of Northern England which detailed how a dam put an entire village underwater, i.e. pint-sized Atlantis. One week later we watched a different travelogue, about exploring Scotland by rail. It included mention of another village put underwater by a dam. The week after that, on a drive north from Maryland to Massachusetts to visit with family, we stopped near Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania for a bit of a hike. You already know where we're going with this, don't you? Sure enough, we soon learned a dam created Lake Wallenpaupack... and purportedly put a small village underwater. So after living countless years never hearing of such a thing, within a few weeks we learned of three villages put underwater by dams, from three different sources. A mere coincidence, like winning the lottery? Or a hint at some larger cosmic order?
I will now proceed to argue that one such coincidence connected to prog rock is indisputably freighted with larger meaning, and that that meaning is obvious.
September, 1978. Yes release their ninth studio album, Tormato, featuring a tomato smeared all over the cover. According to an article about the album on the Ultimate Classic Rock website, a most disgusted Rick Wakeman threw a tomato at the proposed cover, and then the title was drawn for pun value from a geological formation in southern England named Yes Tor.
Tormato gets off to a rousing start with Future Times/Rejoice, sounding like a distillation of everything good about Yes, not the least of which is the complexly off-kilter, odd-metered instrumental work in the second half. It not quite reaches the seven-minute mark, rather short as Yes compositions go, but Going For The One also featured shorter tracks before their epic masterpiece, Awaken. So on first listen, I figured the best was yet to come, including one or more epic-length compositions. But of course that was not to be. For the first time since before The Yes Album, there were no real epic tracks. Only the concluding On The Silent Wings Of Freedom exceeded the seven-minute mark, epic in feel only. While still enjoying Tormato, I couldn't help a twinge of disappointment.
What I did not realize at the time was how much pressure prog-rock groups had come under to produce shorter songs, hit singles in lieu of ten to twenty minute extravaganzas that weren't so easily digested with one or two listens. But pondering that silly album cover, the thought did occur that perhaps Wakeman's splatted-apart tomato unwittingly symbolized Yes's epics being torn to shreds. Chris Squire's Onward, for example, had to stand on its own rather than incorporated as part of a larger whole such as I Get Up I Get Down in Close To The Edge, or Soon in The Gates Of Delirium. (Incidentally, in defense of long-form compositions, for me both those passages pack far more punch as that part of a larger whole, than they would have packed surgically excised, especially Soon as the hopeful peace after war.)
But more than just Wakeman's ill-fated tomato suggested Yes was lamenting the turning-away from their epics, whether consciously or subconsciously. The second track on Tormato, Don't Kill The Whale; while there is clear, worthy concern expressed by Jon Anderson over the plight of literal whales, can't those whales also be regarded metaphorically as whale-sized songs swimming topographic oceans? When Anderson sings, "Your thirst, I'm asked to justify, killing our last heaven beast,” one assumes he's talking about the greed of people who don't care whether their profit-making sends countless species to extinction. But maybe subconsciously he was also addressing the thirst, the greed, of record company executives for whom it just wasn't enough that Yes epics dependably sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Lastly, I enjoyed Arriving UFO, especially Howe's magnificent guitar solo for the mid-section, but it felt strangely detached. In prior epics, Yes music took me aboard that UFO, but now I was just watching it from afar, a distant light in the sky.
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso
Cut to Italy, also late 1978. The extraordinary Italian prog-rock group, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso ("Bank of Mutual Help"), release their orchestral concept work, ...Di Terra, featuring a tomato in space encircled by a Saturn-type ring. Revolving around a poem by their operatic vocalist, the late Francesco Di Giacomo, ...Di Terra consists of seven movements by turns symphonic, jazzy, and folky, but unified in evoking the grandeur of Earth. In short, it was everything the fragmented-feeling Tormato was not, again featuring a whole tomato on the cover versus one burst to shreds.
Just a coincidence, you say, that those albums came out the same year with a tomato featured on their covers? And just a coincidence on top of a coincidence that the unified concept work was enclosed by a whole tomato, while the scattershot song collection was enclosed by a torn-up tomato?
Tomato Record Company
Consider the Tomato Record Company, founded in 1977, and employing brown paper bag album covers marked “12-inch Tomato Quality Produce.” 1978 saw them releasing the Magma album, ATTAHK. And they released Magma's Üdü Ẁüdü, especially notable for Janik Top's classic Magma epic, De Futura, in either 1977 or 1978 (details a bit fuzzy although its original French release was 1976).
As fellow Magma fans know, all of this French group's albums are parts of the same epic concept, something impenetrably opaque sung in an imagined extraterrestrial tongue about ETs named the Ork that are to machines what machines are to humans. So it seems fitting at least some of their records should have been sold figuratively as tomatoes.
Still not enough?
The U.S. group, Little Feat, was not exactly prog, though featuring energetic fusions of blues rock, country and jazz. But 1978 saw them release a live double album, Waiting For Columbus that included... wait for it... a tomato-headed woman in a hammock on the cover.
And to top off all these coincidences, 20 October 1978 is the release date for the classic horror movie spoof, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. Yes, around the same time record company execs were trying to stop prog-rock tomatoes/epics, a film came out about stopping monster tomatoes. In the film, those monsters are stopped by a song entitled Puberty Love that shrinks them enough for people to stomp on them. In the real world, punk-rock and disco essentially shrunk song lengths enough for prog-rock to be stomped on, at least temporarily.
Draw your own conclusions. I am convinced that in 1978, on some deep level the universe was recoiling at the prospect of greed wrecking the pursuit of innovative music, inspiringly breathtaking for the scope of its ambition.
So why tomatoes? According to DreamMean, the tomato signifies several positive things, whether good health, the heart of God, and/or happiness.
I would suggest that where a difficult time for progressive rock was concerned, tomatoes signified wholeness, perhaps passionately so as befits any good music.
But Various Fruist offers a different look at tomatoes in their article, A (Not-So-) Common Classic: The Archetype(s) of the Tomato. It suggests that tomatoes fit so-called “soul archetypes” of explorers and lovers.
Moreover, if they had to have a so-called “self archetype,” they would be jesters.
Prog-rock tomatoes as jesters? When have jesters ever had anything to do with prog-rock, aside from Fish-era Marillion, Cast, Deyss, Black Jester, Red Sand, Machiavel, Jester's Joke, Jester (more than one), Jester's Tears, Jester's Crown, Arlekin, The Jester's Quest...
Down the rabbit hole we continue...