I’ve written a lot about progressive rock and what I think it is (or at least what I think it’s supposed to be.) But the real question is, ‘who cares?’ I mean, I could write the definitive work on navel lint and its influence on Western thought. As proponents of such a worthy edifice the Latin language have so often found:
…and no one gives a shit, mate.
But here’s why you should at least try to care about progressive rock. Even if the genre seems as close to the music you like as Earth is to Alpha Centauri.
Prog, and its jazzy cousin Fusion were (and are) as much a movement as a genre. All worthy movements have ideas behind them; and all require a ticket to get in the door. I’ll get to the ‘idea’ thing later, but first, I think most reasonable people will agree, after reading my bloviations, that the price of admission is very good indeed.
First of all, you had to actually be able to play well to do prog and fusion. Go figure that this should matter anymore. But as I scan about the scene at all the retro-ish bands that want to sing like Crosby, Stills and Nash and strum their acoustic guitars, I’m struck by the idea that ‘keeping it real’ was a core part of the prog ethos. ‘Shredding’ was inherent to the genre and, ironically, so was keeping it real. Because the moment the audience thinks you’re using tapes or sequencers or other trickery? You’re no better than a half-assed karaoke rapper. I saw a documentary a while back that bemoaned a drop in interest in the traditional circus. I’d wager that, after one has seen the gravity-defying moves of a few million CGI-generated cyber heroes, the stuff that a ‘real’ acrobat performs can pale by comparison.
Secondly, the prog guys were the original pop culture mega story-tellers. You look at any famous group since that tries to tell some ‘big story’, from Parliament to Metallica. You think they got their various pretentious ideas listening to Ein Heldenleben? Of course not. They got the notion to do a ‘history of inner city black oppression’ or ‘dungeons and dragons take a holiday (with the London Symphony Orchestra no less)’ one day while they were listening to Close To The Edge or Tommy or Karn Evil 9–probably with the aid of some Mexican Tiestick. As a teen back in Detroit, I was always a bit surprised to note that my African American buddies were the ones digging on Yes and Kraftwerk. Most of my white friends were listening to ‘The Nuge’ and Bob Seeger and stuck in the land of four minute songs.
Thirdly, prog was and should be, ecumenical and eclectic. It is supposed to be a true stylistic melting pot. And not in some cockamamie Dadaist collage way (let’s see how many different samples we can throw on top of the same two bar beat.) It’s supposed to be like this amazing Chinese meal for the emperor. And I don’t mean dim sum where you get to choose just the bits that you already like to get fat on. No, I mean a carefully crafted orchestra of courses and flavours that although independently disparate, when taken together, create this synergy that takes you someplace you wouldn’t have gone on your own. The great progressive rock pieces have been the gateway drug for thousands of people; turning simple rock and rollers into life long classical, jazz or even rag time and country music lovers. If you listen to these records and see each of the little creative turns as a pastiche of ‘look at me’ bits then you’re missing the point. You have to listen to them all together to realise that it’s all part of a larger journey. And all great journeys are filled with large contrasts.
And fourthly (fourthly?), and this is most important, progressive rock had nobility. I’m serious. Pretentious? Sure. But that’s like saying every politician or athlete ever born is pretentious. You have to want to be something in order to be something. In 1974 it seemed reasonable to myself and many, many other people of my era, that being a pop musician was a noble calling; that making pop music was approaching a level of respect that other art forms received and jazz had striven towards for so long. If you wanted to be a pop musician, you could look at a guy like Steve Howe and say, ‘that guy has a career doing something very cool and every bit as deep as a physician or lawyer.’ It was a profession in every sense of the word. Until the age of progressive rock, pop musicians weren’t thought of as having ‘a career.’ You were backed by ‘real’ musicians (The Wrecking Crew) or you made a couple of records, maybe got lucky and then got a ‘real’ job when the fun was over. Schools like Berklee wouldn’t exist without progressive rock and fusion. All these kids who ponied up to pay for a ‘serious music education’ weren’t getting into it because they dug Coltrane so much. No, they found out that Chick Corea or Keith Emerson had some serious training to do what they do. And you could see these guys, with those skills having something that would last. The irony is that Neil Young sang ‘better to burn out than fade away’, he somehow parlayed that into a forty year career.
The Idea Thing
And this is where the whole ‘ideas’ thing comes into play—and where prog became a joke. Prog made the ultimate mistake of striving to be something just as irony took control.
I have no idea why Rick Wakeman wearing a cape and acting pretentious in 1973 is any sillier than Kanye West getting on stage and acting pretentious in 2010. Except for the fact that Kanye isn’t trying to be ‘about’ anything other than having a good time and gettin’ paid, baby. But the punk revolution (which I reveled in) came along and didn’t just correct the worst excesses of prog-meisters; no it pretty much killed it. I would suggest that apparent pomposity of ‘prog’ is what killed it more than any musical lack. Given the pomposity of today’s hip hop artists I wonder how much of its downfall was just poor timing. 😀
The current thought is that popular music simply must discard its forebears, in the same way that kids are supposed to rebel against their parents. But perhaps this is a made-up reality. There was a very, very long time in music history when new artists did indeed learn from and grow out of, the work of their forebears—just as many cultures still revere the elderly. If music as a whole still matters (and it may well be that my sour grapes are not about ‘prog’ but rather that music overall has become marginalised by the approaching reality of Neuromancer) then the product of the best progressive rock still represents very worthy goals for any listener or budding musician. It just requires the same kind of ‘crap filter’ that one uses in order to avoid a broad condemnation of any medium or genre. Heck, if I avoided TV simply because 99% of it is crap, I’d miss out on some real gems buried amongst the filth.
If you’re completely new to this stuff, my suggestion is to check out some of these precious stones (pre-filtered for your protection). These selections are meant as an introduction, mostly great songs and not a ‘greatest hits’ by any means.
King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
Yes: Fragile (1971)
Emerson Lake And Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
King Crimson: Discipline (1980)
Spock’s Beard: V (1998)