Over the years, I’ve gotten into an ever-increasing number of serious flame wars (I guess even this speaks volumes. The youth of today don’t ‘flame’ because not much goes beyond 140 chars.) But I’m already digressing…
Several acquaintances/colleagues in the Progressive Rock community have finally gotten fed up with my emphasis on the ‘serious’ nature of high-level music making. Relax. Don’t take it all so seriously. This is awkward of course. It causes me to opt out of various ‘networking opportunities’ (festivals) where I know this attitude prevails, but it also makes it hard because I value the friendship of everyone in our little world. It’s sort of like politics: we all should be able to disagree in good conscience, but of course, that’s easier said than done.
Progressive music has had a pathological insecurity complex since he late 70’s. The whole genre got beaten to shit and unceremoniously kicked to the curb first by critics (who never liked prog) and then by fans who made a clean sweep of pretty much everything good, bad or indifferent around 1976. No need to revisit that well-worn newsreel. But the after effect has been a lingering PTSD of such severity for musicians that nobody wants to come across as having anything approaching ‘serious’ pretensions. This has had the completely predictable effect of creating music that cannot be taken seriously.
Take a look at the press release for any Prog album release. Where they discuss the tracks on their new album, the group will inevitably describe it include the kind of summary:
Four new songs PLUS the requisite ‘Epic’ about a journey through the space-time continuum of…
What’s up with that? Bands just cannot write ‘long-form piece’ without some pre-emptive messaging to let you know that they don’t take themselves too seriously. The whole thing is a big wink. And that’s why these things all suck. It reminds me of Lake Woebegone where none of the townspeople want to come across as ‘prideful’. Winning? A curse. We were just having fun out there.
The thing that never seems to occur is that when the really good Prog albums were being put together it was no joke. Keith Emerson may laugh at himself now but back then he was in deadly earnest trying to do Tarkus and Karn Evil 9. Same with Ian Anderson, Genesis, et al. They all believed in what they were doing, were proud of it and didn’t feel any need to say, ‘yeah, I know it’s silly’. Because it wasn’t silly. It isn’t silly now. A lot of it is great music that has stood the test of time.
And I don’t mean that as a nostalgia thing like how we all enjoy guilty pleasures from our youth that we know are not classics. The best Prog stuff is great music. Full stop. We know this. And yet, we are somehow afraid to embrace that.
But this is certainly not limited to progressive rock. I was reading an autobiography of the great drummer Peter Erskine (of Weather Report during their golden age) and the sheer arrogance of the band members was simply thrilling. It’s shocking to recall that only thirty years ago jazz musicians had such deadly earnest for their art. In fact, if you were to review the music reviews of that era everyone took what they did very seriously. And I think the music was the better for it. People remember albums like Heavy Weather. As popular as any other jazz records of the past twenty years may be? They don’t have the same lasting quality.
So why are we so insecure? Why do we de-value the music we purport to love?
I think there are two reasons:
First, most Prog records since the mid 1970’s are simply not very good. For many creators they are intrinsically guilty pleasures, relying on all the excesses and none of the essence. Such things remind me of what a female-impersonator once told me:’More isn’t nearly enough, honey!’ The artist piles on the shtick to cover the fact that there just isn’t much ‘there’ there in terms of playing or composition. And frankly, even the top level bands, such as Transatlantic (which I love) don’t deliver the goods of ‘the legends’. Even the bands not known for fireworks of virtuosity (eg. Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant) were night after night playing at a level rarely achieved today. They put on a show. In one sentence: the bar was higher back in the day.
Second, most remaining Prog fans simply don’t care about quality. Like most people with niche tastes, they’re just thrilled to hang with anyone with a similar interest. And frankly, there’s a stoner aspect that thinks aping the worst bits of ‘Topographic Oceans’ or nonsensical early Pink Floyd is fine background music for imbibing. So what if the guitar is just a wash of reverb? There’s a smoke machine! And screaming about ‘endless galaxies of spectral love!’ 😀
It’s easy to support these statements by pointing out that the most popular Prog acts continue to be the re-creation bands. People are quite happy to pay top dollar for a completely non-ironic re-enactment of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway just as lots of nuts want to tramp the woods to re-live The Battle Of Chancellorsville.
What this tells me? Decent Prog albums were (shock!) hard to pull off. You can’t do it without being as serious as you would be about any great art. You can’t do this with a wink or without the tools/talent and expect to make anything really good.
Question: What over the top silliness do you associate with progressive rock? The cape, right? All the capes and smoke machines and pyramids and leather pants; the trappings. But that’s ridiculous. I’d suggest that none of that held a candle to the nutty things Parliament/Funkadelic or any other self-respecting funk group were also doing at the time (I’m also willing to bet they stole a lot of the showmanship from Prog. I’ve been told as much by Bootsy and other P-Funk alumni. All the funksters -loved- Prog–Kraftwerk and many other Euro synth bands too. Remember ‘Planet Rock’?) And yet, music lovers today look on the stage excesses of Earth, Wind And Fire or The Commodores as being part of the charm.
I’d suggest that the reason ‘the cape’ has become such a joke in Prog is because of fans simply didn’t stand up for the music they loved in the way that R&B fans have. If you’re of a certain age, someone decided for you that “prog is for fairies” or some such thing. So you went off and discovered The Ramones. Were the founding fathers bloated and tired both musically and physically by 1976? You bet. But I also believe that progressive rock never recovered from the existential bullying of its fans.
The reason I take this stuff as ‘seriously’ as I do is because, Newsflash: I believe in what I do. If you’re an electrician you don’t joke about your work. Or maybe you joke about your work but you don’t do your work as if it were a joke. You do the best possible work and take the utmost pride in it. And you take a dim view of anyone who says otherwise.
The first step towards recovery from this problem is to realise that many of us do not take our beloved Prog seriously. We have been a bit too self-mocking and we should be a lot more willing to stand up for the genre because it’s given us some great art.
And next, we should expect a lot more from the people who purvey this stuff. We shouldn’t ooh! and ahhh! over every lame emission from a Mellotron as so often happens at these conventions. When you hear a Prog album or see a Prog show, you should be judging it compared to the acknowledged greats. And if it’s found wanting? Demand better.