When rock was (musically) progressive
THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROG ROCK
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.