As I said last time, I put out a number of ‘blind requests’ for musicians to rebuild the band. I got a bunch of people who listened to my stuff and then replied that though they thought what I do is nice enough, it sure as shit ain’t prog, buddy! I beg to differ. And I’m gonna tell ya why using a number of specific examples from my
Why Does It Matter?
Some people just do what they do. I call them various names: ‘happy’, ‘lucky bastards’. And some people need to know why they do what they do. I’m one of them. To me, it’s a constant process of introspection, starting with ‘do I suck’ and getting progressively (no pun intended) more fine-grained.
I’ve heard that some buddhists (Nichiren Shoshu, I believe) meditate on a very simple question every morning: ‘Am I doing what I really want to be doing?’ Think about that for a minute. When I was twenty I thought it was the stupidest. (Of course I’m doing what I want to be doing. Otherwise? I’d be doing something else!) That’s youth for ya.
I’m not the same guy I was five years ago. If you are? You’re not reading this. You’re pushin’ up the daisies, mate. But what I want to know is, have I strayed so far away from what I thought I wanted to do that it’s no longer what I really want? I’ve spent many years doing what I thought I wanted. My side-man career was almost totally spent playing music that I enjoyed very much–but which sure wasn’t me. So it’s important to make sure I’m really doing what I say I want to do.
The prog label still matters to me not because music needs labels so much as that the basic strengths of prog have been derided for years and years just because of some of it’s gaudier excesses. To me, this is like the glorification of stupid people that tends to happen in school.
It’s Always Best To Define Your Terms
Let’s use Charles Snyders ‘three defining characteristics of prog’ in his Strawberry Bricks Guide To Progressive Rock and see how I rate.
1. Virtuosic Writing
I used to worry about this–when I was twenty. 😀 I’m pretty sure the stuff I write now is getting more complex, both musically and lyrically. I sure spend a ton more time on the poetry aspect. I know that some die-hard prog-heads criticise what I do on many of the shorter songs as ‘simplistic’ but a lot of sentiments demand at least an outward simplicity.
2. Virtuosic Playing
I get a lot of jazz from old friends and fans who constantly want me to “let ‘er rip!” as I did “back in the day.” I’ve talked a bit about the whole less is more thing. A lot of the stuff I put down is very difficult to play. One example was the bass line on Suicide In A Hurry (Home). Man that ostinato, which seems so repetitive was a monster to play properly even once, let alone for four minutes. I felt really wimpy for a good while about how long it took me to get that right until I started really listening for other examples like that and guess what? There ain’t too many.
Similarly, the drums on a bunch of songs will take me forever to get down because I’m looking for an effect that is noticeable by the absence of ‘stuff’. I got into this listening to Prince years ago. The stripped down feel of a lot of his post-Purple Rain material annoyed some people as ‘sounding like an unfinished demo’ but to me it has a stark effect that makes the emotions much more powerful. Songs like It’s A Racket (Beautiful Sounds) and Wrong (Superpower) took a long time to get the somewhat underpowered and ‘mechanical’ feel I wanted. The space left behind makes the frustration in the character more palpable.
And then, in the opposite direction, there are all the little flashes, like the guitar/keyboard/bass unisons on Hey Girl! and a quick three octave scalar thing in Time (Compartments) where the song demanded some filigree. But again, the decision was made not based on what the music said, not because, ‘Hey JC, it’s time for the obligatory noodling to commence!’
That said, I am very happy with a number of the solos I’ve played, both because they seem ‘right’ to me, but also for their technical challenge. I confess to just gushing over bands like XTC and Gentle Giant in this regard. They too were not known for rampant virtuosity, but when they did add a fill or a solo, it made you realise that they had the horsepower in reserves whenever they wanted it. And that fill or solo really worked. In that spirit, the synth solo on This Time, for example, always makes me feel good because I was able to play a bit and fit the tenor of the sentiment. And even a short thing like the guitar on Twenty Years (Beautiful Sounds)–which is only sixteen bars, feels like a ‘prog success story’ to me because I get to do a Steve-Howe style hammer-on thing and stay true to the spirit.
I think the issue is that I’ve largely stopped putting bits in that have unnecessary ‘pizazz’. Maybe it was that third viewing of This Is Spinal Tap. Or maybe all those Modern Jazz Quartet records finally got to me. But more and more I started thinking of every note as being about the song and less about the flash. (BTW: While I’m sounding all defensive up in here, I’ll put the jazz samba bit in Home (which you can download for free, Free, FREE!) up against most anything in the ‘prog’ oeuvre. That was a good day of recording because not only the individual playing, but the synergy between all four ‘mes’ ended up being pretty happening if I do say so.)
3. Music That Requires Attention
I admit to a lot of subversion in this area. I list Steely Dan as a main influence and it’s not really because I listen to their stuff all that much. What it means is that I completely admire how their work is a complete head fake, always sounding so sweet and innocuous but when you actually listen to the lyrics you start going, ‘What the fuck?’ They’re little plays involving some of the oddest characters you’d ever think of–and certainly not the standard fare of popular music.
When I lived in Minnesota I played in a Calypso band. The thing about Calypso is that most of the music was designed to sound sweet because it was played in a highly repressed environment. So the singers would the angriest political vitriole inside the most pleasant possible beats.
Now, real prog is also supposed to be musically demanding. There are the obvious ‘epics’ I’ve put on each album: Open Your Eyes (Compartments), Maybe (Balance), the eponymous Home and Beautiful Sounds. I’m assuming that most of the aforementioned respondants to my advert only looked at the videos (notice how everyone reaches for the video first when searching for music? Note to self–make better videos if you want to sell more tune-age.) They saw short ‘songs’ with no noodling and no capes or lasers and dismissed the music as ‘un-prog’ right then and there. Videos are supposed to be short. I have no idea how to make a short video for a fifteen minute epic. Moving on.
The Julia Child School Of Progressive Rock Composition
What I try to do in each song, long or short, is to make it rich–like a good french chocolate. See the thing about a really good french chocolate is that it’s just so flavour-packed that a small portion is totally satisfying. The reason that Americans overeat (so the theory goes) is that our food is generally so un-satisfying that we feel a need to keep eating more and more of it. French people eat better stuff so they don’t have to eat nearly so much to feel happy. They eat rich but stay thin.
That’s how I try to do it. I want each song to feel like there is really something in there. I want you to be able to listen to it ten times and still be able to catch some new detail that means something. Lo-Fi (Superpower) is a good example of that. There are tons and tons of layers all trying to push the fairly esoteric theme of ‘old school’ versus ‘modern’ music. A fan showed me how many ‘versions’ he could come up with just by playing with the tone controls on his stereo–making various tracks ‘visible’ that were largely hidden when listened to casually. I love this concept and hope to release some ‘mix it yourself’ versions of various songs at some point. Even a simple ballad like Still In Love With You has a ton of detail work that takes several hearings to catch (since it has a ‘Sergeant Pepper’ vibe that seems only right.)
I’ve mentioned XTC and Talking Heads as groups I admired greatly and I think they followed this line of thinking later in their careers. In both cases, repeated listenings bear fresh gifts. But without the calories (OK, enough with the french food thing.) I would maintain that both bands were, at least with some of their music, squarely in the ‘prog’ camp as I define it–though they might cringe at the moniker. But if you do it, then you are it.
So What Have We Learned?
In the past, I think I’ve made a good case for why I proudly fly the prog flag. Good musicianship, crafty writing, music worthy of attentive listening? These are not bad things in my book, despite our increasingly dance-oriented, quick cut society (Note how many people who profess to embrace ‘slow food’ or ‘yoga’ or some other such thing only get their music from their iPhone. ADD is so far into our cultural marrow now most people don’t even realise it.)
In this post, I’ve tried to defend myself from the fifty year old guy with the pony tail who dares to question my ‘prog’ bona fides. Progressive Rock was derailed in the ’70’s by an excess of pretense and self-indulgence. These days, that ethos seems to have been commandeered by metal-heads who, in my view took the absolute worst aspects of the genre and now call their dark (but speedy!) vision ‘Prog’.
I’m not sure if I meant to do this, but I think now that my work has largely been a reaction against the original excesses of ‘prog’. I’ve tried to keep the serious attitude towards craft, but lose the cape. I’ve tried to get people into the tent who would not otherwise be willing by making a music that is accessible (well, at least as accessible as ‘prog’ can be.
Unlike the metal-influenced stuff that passes for Progressive Rock these days, I have tried to keep it positive. Say what you want about the original British groups, they uniformly embraced a positive vision of the world. Not all their material was about pleasant subjects, but the music expressed some sense of beauty. I get a lot of criticism for writing ‘angry’ songs. Sure. There’s a lot of stuff in the world that needs fixing and I write about it. But that’s not the same as playing thirty minutes of Drop C tuned mayhem about the inherent evil and pointlessness of the world. That ain’t ‘prog’ no matter how many 64th notes fly on by. It’s just an excuse to scream loudly; or show off that you went to music school. Big deal. It’s still just as pretentious, excessive and self-indulgent as any ELP show ever was. You just happen to like that brand of pretense, excess and self-indulgence. Fair enough, I suppose. But to me then, we’re no longer talking about ‘prog’. We’re talking about something new that jettisoned the best bits and re-purposed the worst facets for a new generation. So please come up with a new name. 🙂
In short, if one has ‘chops’ (as Stravinsky said, you can only write what you can play.) and what one creates uses all one’s musical faculties, and if that product is sophisticated both in lyrical and musical content, then I submit it’s ‘prog’. Does my stuff meet that standard? I submit that it does.