When rock was (mu­si­cally) pro­gres­sive


The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Michael Taube Michael Taube is a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany, $26.95, 368 pages

Pro­gres­sive rock, or “prog rock,” was a unique, al­most rev­o­lu­tion­ary form of mod­ern mu­sic dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. Its early ad­her­ents, in­clud­ing Emer­son, Lake and Palmer, King Crim­son and Yes, em­pha­sized the de­sire to cre­ate an in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence that was artis­tic, lyri­cal, cre­ative and mem­o­rable.

Yet, prog rock’s first wave had a re­mark­ably short life span in the grand scheme of things. Even more as­ton­ish­ing, this mu­si­cal style was, and still is, re­viled by many pop­u­lar artists rather than revered for its ground­break­ing sound and in­flu­ence.

David Weigel ex­am­ines the pe­riod when rock was (mu­si­cally) pro­gres­sive in his in­trigu­ing book, “The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.”

A na­tional re­porter for The Wash­ing­ton Post, who has also writ­ten about pol­i­tics for Slate and Bloomberg Pol­i­tics, he de­fends “pro­gres­sive rock as a grand cul­tural de­tour that in­vented much of the mu­sic that’s pop­u­lar now.” It was “sup­posed to be re­bel­lious mu­sic,” was “fab­u­lously pop­u­lar for years,” and “emerged as a di­rect re­sponse to the throw­away three-minute pop song, the for­mat ev­ery­one was try­ing to em­u­late af­ter the Bea­tles per­fected it.”

It’s fair to say the “Louis XVI of the time was the stan­dard pop song struc­ture.” Or, as Mr. Weigel amus­ingly calls it, “cre­ative kryp­tonite.” For­tu­nately, the mu­si­cal Su­per­man known as prog rock was, un­like the Su­per­man of DC Comics, able to con­quer this par­tic­u­lar type of kryp­tonite.

“The roots of pro­gres­sive rock,” notes the au­thor, “went into the nine­teenth cen­tury” with clas­si­cal mu­sic com­posers whose work “echoed es­pe­cially loudly in the pro­gres­sive era,” such as Liszt and Ber­lioz. Other com­posers like Mus­sorgsky, who com­bined el­e­ments of clas­si­cal and folk mu­sic, was de­scribed as “cul­tural poi­son” by mu­sic his­to­rian C. Hu­bert H. Parry — and “mu­sic I send to the devil” by, of all peo­ple, Tchaikovsky.

In Mr. Weigel’s view, “Pro­gres­sive rock, which would not come into ex­is­tence for more than fifty years, grew up in Stravin­sky’s shadow.” He notes that “the prog rock­ers came to see ‘The Rite of Spring,’” one of the com­poser’s mas­ter­pieces, “as proof of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion’s fruits.” While this avant-garde com­po­si­tion is an ac­quired taste for some au­di­ences, it had a strong in­flu­ence on var­i­ous 20th-cen­tury mu­si­cians.

As other mu­si­cal styles grad­u­ally in­cor­po­rated pro­gres­sive sounds, in­clud­ing jazz, the rock sound moved into worlds like pop, bub­ble gum and psychedelia. Prog rock even­tu­ally “grew out of the coun­ter­cul­ture” in the 1960s that in­cluded raves and reached Lon­don. Ul­ti­mately, it was “in­spired by Amer­i­can rock ’n’ roll and by the roil­ing scenes of Europe” and be­gan to take “new forms when it re­turned to those coun­tries.”

In­flu­en­tial Bri­tish bands like Soft Ma­chine, Van der Graaf Gen­er­a­tor, Ge­n­e­sis and Jethro Tull be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with new sounds, riffs and in­tense (and ex­ceed­ingly long) gui­tar and drum so­los. Many great al­bums, in­clud­ing King Crim­son’s “In the Court of the Crim­son King,” Yes’ “Frag­ile,” Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” Mike Old­field’s “Tubu­lar Bells” and Emer­son, Lake and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery,” were re­leased in the first wave. The rise of sec­ond wave groups like Su­per­tramp, U.K., Rush and Asia was just around the cor­ner. And the pro­gres­sive bands, “as the mu­sic pa­pers per­sisted in call­ing them, ab­so­lutely dom­i­nated the rock charts and the tour cir­cuit.”

For a spell, it seemed like the world was their pro­gres­sive oys­ter. Then it all col­lapsed. What hap­pened? Mr. Weigel notes the “down­fall of pro­gres­sive rock hap­pened quickly, with an en­tire crit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment seem­ingly root­ing for its demise.” The old pow­er­houses “moved away from the com­pli­cated song­writ­ing that had de­fined them,” in­clud­ing no­table out­fits like Ge­n­e­sis and Yes. Even worse, “the la­bels were dump­ing pro­gres­sive mu­sic as fast as they could.”

Com­bined with the fact that prog rock’s rep­u­ta­tion “never quite re­cov­ered from a se­ries of crises in 1977 and 1978,” many pro­gres­sive bands “de­flated like punc­tured blimps” dur­ing the punk and disco eras. For­tu­nately, prog rock lived on in dif­fer­ent forms, in­clud­ing neo-pro­gres­sive rock, pro­gres­sive metal and new prog. New bands like Mar­il­lion, Saga, The Mars Volta and Por­cu­pine Tree helped fill the void left be­hind by the prog-pop re­volt.

Prog rock, which “had not seemed to sur­vive the 1980s,” was in the midst of “a cu­ri­ous half-life.” It con­tin­ues to this day, some­thing Mr. Weigel de­scribes as pro­gres­sive mu­sic re­ceiv­ing “oc­ca­sional love let­ters from the pop world.” If that’s the best way to re­vive this mu­si­cal tsunami of art, in­tel­li­gence and cre­ativ­ity, may the let­ters never stop.

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