Progressive Rock Lives On (Part 1)
I grew up listening to and marveling at progressive rock music. It was at the center of my musical development, as my formative musical consciousness years (junior high through college) coincided with the heyday of progressive rock (1968-1978). Although I liked many kinds of music, progressive rock was the most intriguing, enticing, stimulating, enchanting, and exhilarating. It was about exploration, innovation, and creativity, bringing new and varied styles and influences, breaking down rock conventions to create new and wondrous musical worlds. The complex structures and musical intricacies had me enthralled for countless hours and re-listens. To me, it represented the development and future of rock into whatever we wanted to make it. That's why I am always surprised by the often hostile, derisive, and dismissive backlash it has received over the years. Now, I know that for many, progressive rock represents a a subgenre of rock with a specific style and sound, with numerous cliches that define it, that was confined to a brief period of time (some refer to just 1970-1975?). They say the genre consists of overlong songs and solos, weird concept albums and fantasy lyrics, overly complicated and annoying rhythms and instrumental passages, and an obsessive dedication to technical skill. But that's such an oversimplification, and mostly wrong. Progressive rock is based on fusions of styles, approaches, and genres, integrating major components of folk, jazz, and classical music into classic rock. It covers a broad spectrum of sounds and styles, so cannot be summarily dismissed by objecting to specific traits that may apply to a select few bands. Progressive rock isn't a genre, or confined to a particular sound or style, it is an attitude, a concept, a movement; it represents the freedom and desire to create new music through exploration of nontraditional sounds and influences from many musical genres and styles. What most people who denigrate or dismiss progressive rock are referring to is a rather small subset and purposely extreme caricature of what progressive rock represents. Look, I can understand people who don't like a particular band or style of progressive rock, but not condemning all of progressive rock. For example, if you can't stand Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP), or King Crimson, or whoever, fine, but they are just a small part of what progressive rock is, and there may be many bands and styles that are also within the realm of progressive rock that you would really like. Sure, just like with any other broad classification, some "progressive rock" is pure crap, but much of it is also quite wonderful. Anything that incorporates alot of exploration and experimentation is destined to produce some things that just don't work, resulting in some terrible stuff, but also much that goes very right, producing some glorious sounds, styles, and compositions. I, for one, love the complex rhythms, intricate harmonies and melodies, and compositions evolving and developing in varying directions and unusual chord progressions that are present in many progressive rock songs.
OK, so you may ask, what has prompted this praise (I won't call it a defense) of the glories of progressive rock? Well, last summer, there was an article in The New Yorker ('The Persistence of Progressive Rock', by Kelefa Sanneh, link here) that was featured and passed around many of the online news feeds (Yahoo, MSN,etc.) for quite some time, that sort of pissed me off with it's attitude toward progressive rock (and I've been quietly fuming about it ever since, but just hadn't had time to write about it). And actually, I believe the author sincerely thought he was being supportive, but was so dismissive and condescending, with back-handed compliments amid outright insults. The piece's theme was basically that despite the 'bad reputation' and how 'reviled' and despised the genre is, it has somehow persisted and still has many fans (The subtitle of the article was "Critics think that the genre was an embarrassing dead end. So why do fans and musicians still love it?"). The piece is filled with misrepresentation and a misguided notion of just what progressive rock is all about. Ostensibly, the article is meant to be a review of sorts of the recent book on progressive rock, The Show That Never Ends, by David Weigel, who is usually a political reporter for the Washington Post, but now thinks he has something to say about the problems with and joys of progressive rock. However, although Sanneh references and quotes Weigel's book, as well as several previous tomes on progressive rock, most of the piece seems to be Sanneh's own analysis of 'prog rock' (I always hated that demeaning abbreviation. If you're gonna shorten it like that, why not 'prock'?). I haven't read Weigel's book (and probably won't), but I have read some of his articles on prog rock in Slate and other mags, and am not impressed. Both Sanneh and Weigel have that same very narrow definition of what constitutes progressive rock, thus restricting its designation to specific examples that further their desired points. And Weigel, in particular, seems to proudly parade around this impression that progressive rock is despised by all but its devoted fans as if it is some sort of demented badge of honor. The overall message of Sanneh's essay can be summed up in the following excerpt:
"Progressive rock was repudiated by what came next: disco, punk, and the disco-punk genre known as New Wave. Unlike prog rock, this music was, respectively, danceable, concise, and catchy. In the story of popular music, as conventionally told, progressive rock was at best a dead end, and at worst an embarrassment, and a warning to future musical generations: don’t get carried away."
There is so much wrong with these sentences, it's excruciating. First, disco and punk didn't 'follow' prog rock, they all occurred around the same time in the '70's, and was not 'repudiated' at all. These types of music all coexisted, as they had, for the most part, distinctly different audiences. Although it's true that progressive rock was not 'danceable' or 'concise', and mostly, not very 'catchy', it was not meant to be, as it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed for what it was. And, come on, new wave was definitely NOT a mixture of disco and punk. It was much more of mixture of punk, pop, and progressive rock (Think bands like Talking Heads and XTC, who were definitely more on the progressive rock side). But the most egregious statement here, that progressive rock was 'at best a dead end', is utter nonsense, as progressive rock was exactly the opposite, it was a gateway. Progressive rock opened the doors and made possible virtually all the trends in rock that followed (including new wave, jam bands, alt-rock, prog metal, etc.). It continued to shape and influence rock for decades to come as well as be an active force in and of itself. Yes, it's true that some prog rockers did get 'carried away' in thinking that they were creating a higher art form, but there is no doubt that progressive rock was responsible for expanding rock into so much more than the standard format that had carried it from the 1950's. The legacy and continued development of progressive rock deserves more than the restrictive stereotypes and misrepresentation of what was and is a great chapter in rock history. 'Embarrassment'? Give me a break. Progressive rock produced some of the greatest bands and greatest rock albums of all time. Sanneh repeatedly points out how 'critics' despised progressive rock, but never mentions that these were just some critics, as many others highly praised many of the top bands and albums associated with progressive rock. Admittedly, a few very prominent rock critics, such as Lester Bangs (Rolling Stone) and Robert Christgau (Village Voice) were the primary voices condemning the prog rock trends, whereas many other critics and popular voices wholeheartedly supported them. Eventually, Sanneh provides his own recommendations regarding what modern day listeners should turn to if interested in checking out progressive rock themselves: He suggests ignoring ELP completely, and checking out what he considers the best of progressive rock, Yes' Close to the Edge, or if you can handle it, King Crimson's Red (my take: ignoring ELP would definitely be a mistake; yes, Close to the Edge is a great album, but it is not even Yes' best - I would rank both The Yes Album and Fragile above it - let alone the best of progressive rock; as for King Crimson, I could never really quite get fully into them. Although I admired their musicianship and much of what they did, they just never moved me and was only rarely what I wanted to listen to. For me personally, Genesis was the best overall, with Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound at the very top, followed by The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway - For an individual extended composition showing all of what was special about progressive rock, my choice would be 'Supper's Ready', the 23 minute epic from Foxtrot).
Anyway, what struck me most when reading the Sanneh article was what younger generations must think of all this. Is this the primary source of information young people have about this music and this era? I was there, I know that this misrepresents what was going on, but for those that weren't there - how can they view this music as presented here as anything but silly and ridiculous, or have any interest in checking it out for themselves? (it also seemed clear to me that these authors - Sanneh and Weigel - were not around at the time this music was being made.) And that is primarily why I felt I needed to do a feature on progressive rock, and tell the other side of the story. So, over the next several weeks I will feature a varied selection of progressive rock, from the '60's all the way up to the present day.
(To be continued in next post)