OK, what is it supposed to be.
Great question. I’ve heard and seen numerous ‘retrospective’ radio shows and books which try to even-handedly discuss ‘prog’. The latest, and perhaps one that really did try to be even-handed was on the Public Radio show Sound Opinions (Show #207). What prompted me to write this was that they were trying so hard to be ‘fair and balanced’ but they can’t help themselves; they just gotta emphasize the ‘camp’ aspect. And that’s not only hosed the music’s image, but even more sinister, it’s had a horrible effect on the current range of bands that claim to be ‘prog’. In other words, prog bands today are as much defined by what they are trying not to be.
Why So Serious?
As The Joker says. Most of prog over the past two decades has been progressively (no pun intended more and more serious. And hard. Part of this is because of the connections with metal. After all one of the main roots of prog was King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. But just as big a part, IMHO, is a reaction to the ‘astral moonbeam’ excesses of prog. Kids know: we don’t live in a Listen To The Flower People world anymore.
So What Did You Think Prog Was All About?
During the Sound Opinions piece, they brought Charles Snyder–author of a book on’prog’ called The Strawberry Bricks Guide To Progressive Rock . In it he says he thinks it was three things and ya know, I think he’s right:
- Virtuosic Playing
- Virtuosic Writing
- Music That Requires Attention
I love it—especially that last one.
But the thing that I dug almost from the beginning (and that is never brought up) was that these three elements also apply to my other fave music from the era: jazz fusion. There was an equally sincere attempt at the same time to extend jazz into longer form pieces. Both genres assume that they are musics with messages that need to be digested for 20+ minutes. Yeah, like a classical piece. And that right there is the nub of the joke. When you do ‘prog’ you’re just begging to be labelled as pretentious. And (especially for Americans) there is nothing worse than being pretentious. You can only get away with it if you there’s a wink. I think that’s why Brits invented the genre—and glam and all the other genres we love that involve real spectacle.
What killed ‘prog’ wasn’t just punk (although I certainly did my part!) What also drove a nail in there, just as with fusion, was that people’s attention spans have shortened. Yeah, people jumped the shark and wrote weaker and weaker stuff with more and more empty noodling amid banks of laserium. But face it: even if the music had been front to back ripping, fewer and fewer of us nowadays can or will devote time to any form of music that demands that you really concentrate for 3 minutes. Let alone 30. This doesn’t need explanation, right? (Keeping it short! 😀 )
You have to have real cojones to say “I will intentionally write music that demands the listener’s attention.” That what I write is “worthy”. Pretentious? The jokes just write themselves.
You want ‘pretentious’? If you go to any visual art show, you see that everyone takes themselves very seriously. For some reason it’s still OK in our culture to be a ‘serious’ visual artist. But if you try to do something ‘serious’ with an electric guitar? Fawgeddaboudit. There’s really no such thing as a ‘real’ artist in rock n’ roll… with the exception of guys like Springsteen or Dylan I suppose. Or perhaps the ‘Americana’ deal which strikes me as sort of a Rousseau kind of glorification of ‘the primitive.’ It seems that, if you want to be considered ‘deep’ in pop music? Keep it simple. If you aspire to more than that musically you instantly become, by definition, not worthy of consideration. Not authentic. At least, according to every rock critic I’ve ever read. (I think that’s why so much crap hip-hop got over; it’s so real.
Every nascent movement has more than it’s share of crap. Back in music school (400 years ago, right?) I had a counterpoint teacher who loved having us try playing pieces by unknown baroque artists. And even as a frosh, anyone could hear just how crappy these guys were as composers. I mean, my kid could tell these guys were crappy. His point was that this was the majority of music back then. We think that the whole era sounded elegant and deep like Bach? Nope. Most of it was crap. Like most ‘prog’. Like most fusion. Like most creative product of any era.
I think Mr. Snyder’s definition makes room for both ‘prog’ and ‘fusion’. Both musics came to fruition and then quickly became discredited in the ’70’s. Both were way more popular than people like to admit these days. (ELP and Yes both fought for #1 at the box office between ’73 and ’75). And the holy family of fusion: Weather Report, Mahavishnu and Return To Forever? Hell, they pretty much carried CBS records for a good while.
OK, So what is prog?
Oh yeah, back to the question. For me as an artist still flying the flag, I think that what I’m trying to make is music that:
1. Means something. That has more than one layer of meaning. It’s music and it’s poetry so it doesn’t have to be literal, but it does have to make one think as well as feel. The sound of the words matters. And the imagery matters. Great examples of this are Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. And also Pete Townshend’s Tommy. I’d suggest that these pieces match up with anything Sondheim ever did. Ditto the first King Crimson record.
2. Is well-crafted. If it needed just 3 chords, then it would be 3 chords. But if it required a whole orchestra and sonata form, then that’s what it needs. The craft comes in knowing which is which–and being able to pull it off. And by the way, no one hates the “
3. Is well-played. You can listen to it over and over and be moved by what a real guy played. I don’t think it’s any accident that people are still buying Yes’ Yessongs and ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery. There is this power to the playing that makes a real impact. A lot of younger guys, at first listen, aren’t all that impressed because the sheer note count isn’t there as with say, Dream Theater, but the solos are memorable. You listen to them over and over and are constantly impressed with their ingenuity and structure. They ain’t just running scales. The solos and intricate bits are integral. Look at Steely Dan (yeah, they were ‘prog’). Can you imagine Aja without that Steve Gadd solo? Or the dozen or so must-learn guitar solos? Or how nuts Chuck Rainey gets on virtually every bass track? You don’t realise how tough these are to play until you try. And you don’t realise how the whole track falls apart if you take that virtuosity away. To me, without this magical backing, Donald Fagen stops being ironic and deep and becomes just another snarky guy without much of a voice.
I don’t kid myself that there all that there is a large market for what I try to do. But the above is something worth aspiring to so I keep at it. Just like a real artist. 😉