Part II of a discussion of Dave Weigel’s new book The Show That Never Ends, a history of Progressive Rock, which is getting all sorts of discussion on social media. The chat ended breaking down into two broad topics. Part I was about Robert Fripp vs. Keith Emerson. This time, we discuss the notion of Progressive Rock as ‘art’ or entertainment. The Prog Tree Of Life. Jumping The Shark. No regroup. Mr. Natural.
Roger CortonOverall, why do you think the book is getting so much attention?
JCHI think a lot of it is that this guy is a well-placed writer and the fact that he is a good reporter. He covered this like a for realz news story. There may or may not be that many fans left. They just make a lot of noise (laughs). But he gave the whole thing real gravitas by covering it like real ‘art’ and I’m sure the fans get that.
The Progressive Rock Mr. Weigel discusses in his book no longer exists. The career of music that Fripp has had, that Emerson tried to have and that I have tried to have for the past seventeen years does not exist. The world I inhabit is like this little Appalachian village isolated from the rest of the world of ‘Prog-dom’. And what is now called ‘Prog’ is not actually ‘Progressive Rock'
RCI know you mentioned the ‘art’ aspect before we started. We’ll come back to that.
JCHBut the book really is ‘controversial’ in one important sense.
JCHThe Progressive Rock Mr. Weigel discusses in his book no longer exists. The career of music that Fripp has had, that Emerson tried to have and that I have tried to have for the past seventeen years does not exist. The world I inhabit is like this little Appalachian village isolated from the rest of the world of ‘Prog-dom’. And what is now called ‘Prog’ is not actually ‘Progressive Rock'.
JCHIf a Martian came down to Earth and I had to explain it in twenty five words or less I would say that it’s like how the Democratic Party used to be the Republican Party and they somehow switched names back in the day. Or something like that.
JCHLook. If one were to draw a ‘tree of life’ in ‘Prog Biology’ it would look like some alien climbing plant. It makes no sense to me how we got here. The bands Weigel writes about were largely evolutionary dead ends. Most ‘progressive’ bands have very little in common with Yes or ELP or Genesis. He spends a lot of time talking about ‘chops’? And they certainly don’t call it Art? In fact very few of the newer bands focus on virtuosity at all. The only ‘progressive’ bands that have ‘chops’ these days are really Metal bands. There are no Steve Howes or Tony Banks or Chris Squires with truly distinctive personal styles. And what’s even weirder to me is that most old guys I talk to in the ‘Prog’ world somehow conflate Pink Floyd and Marillion all in the same realm as ELP. I think that would make Emerson turn in his grave.
RCMaybe you’re right.
JCHAnd getting back to that ‘art’ thing, what I’ve gathered from the snippets I’ve read is that a bit part of Weigel’s premise was that Progressive Rock was music striving to be something akin to real art. And that is exactly what I thought at the time. When I saw The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or Close To The Edge or Karn Evil 9 I thought of them as real music theatre; not at all like Alice Cooper or Kiss or some other rock ‘show’. I took progressive rock somewhat seriously. Like jazz. I really thought it had a serious future. Or rather a future as a genre of serious music. I didn’t necessarily think it was fully baked yet, but I thought guys with guitars would be taken seriously at some point. That’s why I often say ‘Stop Making Sense was ‘prog’. It was theatrical and complex music that you were meant to think about as well as dance to.
RCYou keep using the word ‘theatre’.
JCHI guess because I spent so much time as a side man in the pit. I figured Progressive Rock would be a form of theatre music. An evening’s entertainment. Maybe that’s why I got into opera. I mean, said it before, say it again: I thought that my dream job, if I was lucky, would be to write and play serious music that just happened to utilize ‘rock’ instruments. I honestly thought that was where the world was going. That’s the kind of naive doofus I was in 1976. I figured that music would just be this jumble of great ‘stuff’ from all sorts of genres all over the world. The opportunities would be limitless! I really believed that bullshit. All I had to do was get some training to be able to write it down and execute and I’d have a nice, modest living! (laughs)
RCUh. Yeah. (laughs)
JCHYou’ll notice that almost no one thinks about music as ‘art’ any more. It turns out that moment was an anomaly. A blip. It turns out that music, unlike the visual arts, has almost never had a ‘serious’ market. It’s almost always been considered an ‘entertainment’. So the whole notion of Progressive Rock is pretentious because it rubs people on all sides the wrong way. (British accent) Why the very idea, Dear Boy. Playing serious music with electric guitars? Surely you must be joking?
RCDon’t call me Shirley.
JCHRight. But that’s why so much ‘Prog’ is so terrible. The current fans just don’t see the difference between serious music like Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and the other 99%. The original intent has been lost.
JCHOK, let me try a different tack. When people saw ‘Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ most people didn’t realize that they were seeing ‘experimental theatre’. They just thought they were seeing some ‘rock band’ with another gimmick, again like Alice Cooper with his magic show maybe. But Peter Gabriel was really trying something truly new. I don’t find that pretentious at all.
RCSo a Rolling Stone critic goes to a Genesis show and is judging it like any other rock show and that’s a mistake.
JCHExactly! Same with Jon Anderson and Jethro Tull lyrics. They were actually trying to incorporate serious poetry into long form ‘rawk’. Now whether or not you buy into that experiment? That’s up to you. But it is a serious artistic experiment. And it infuriates me that rock critics never even tried to look at it that way. To my mind, they had these snotty biases about ‘authenticity’ and ‘roots’ and ‘Americana’ which were completely un-journalistic. They thought it made for good ink to beat up on bands like ELP and Yes and ‘excess’ so they did–even when the music itself was fantastic.
And one other thing. At some point every new genre ALWAYS JUMPS THE SHARK. Whenever any new genre comes along; opera, romanticism, etc. It goes overboard. And then it gets stomped on. It’s inevitable.
RCSpinal Tap. Excess.
JCHTotally. And if it’s a healthy art form, it regroups, starts over and becomes even better. This has happened over and over and over in various music eras. But when ‘prog’ got its second chance? It blew it. Yes got 90125 and they went all MTV and just doubled down on excess. King Crimson took the same moment and did Discipline–one of the best records in decades.
JCHOh YEAH. Almost as influential as ‘Red’ or ‘Court’. Let’s not get bogged down but that record was so influential. Jaws dropped. It was one of those things that was almost too original. I mean, it was so wild and original no one could imitate it, ya know? But for whatever reason, nobody else took up the challenge to make decent long-form art. Jazz was doing some very ‘Progressive’ stuff. Sting, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel. But all short form songs. A lot of what you might call ‘world music’ I guess. But the long form? The originators that are the focus of this book? The roots of the tree were gone. That’s my point. Other than Fripp, they didn’t see themselves as artists.
I think that’s why Gabriel left all those years before. As you look back, frankly he was the real artist.
JCHI’m not saying he was the ‘talent’. I’m just saying it’s clear that he had the vision. After he leaves? They start becoming a conventional rock band.
RCWe gotta wrap up. So what does it all mean Mr. Natural?
JCH(laughs) As usual? Don’t mean shit. But hopefully, a few people will read the book and think about those roots of the music and get back in touch with that -core.
RCThe ‘art’ aspect which you think has been forgotten.
RCAnd who knows? Perhaps find their way here and buy a genuine album or two.
JCHStranger things have happened.