The Critical Mass

Prog circus: Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.


Prog rock is crushed beneath the pendulum

The challenge came via Facebook from My Friend Patrick. “Jeff Spevak, what say you?” Followed by a link to The Atlantic magazine, and contributing editor James Parker’s review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.

The headline: “The Whitest Music Ever.”

The subhead: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative — and awful.”

What say I, Patrick? That story’s off to a bad start. Whitest Music Ever? What about The Ray Conniff Singers? Or Lawrence Welk, fer crissakes? And while audacious and innovative, prog wasn’t awful. Mid-’70s radio pop, that was awful. Remember “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero?”

Weigel, a reporter for The Washington Post, loves prog rock, Parker hates it. That’s the start of a good argument. But the parameters of the debate are ill defined. There is some confusion as to what is prog rock. Rush, yes. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, yes. Yes, yes.

But is Jethro Tull prog rock, or merely a heavy version of Fairport Convention?

Is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells prog rock, as postulated by Parker, or merely orchestral New Age?

I am neither hater nor fan of prog. I fall right in the middle, which makes me the perfect referee in this longhair-pulling fight.

Here’s a key piece is testimony cited by first Weigel in his love note, and then Parker in his attack:

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.”

OK, so what’s wrong with that? Other than the awkward racial generalization. Prog does indeed have some classical to it, and classical is not much for improvisation. But a lot of prog – particularly King Crimson – does resort to jazz, which is all about improv.

Much of this genre dissection runs to personal taste. Rush and Yes, and their rosters of excellent musicians, lose me with the insectoid whine of the lead singers. And while Rush is hailed for its sci-fi themes, as an occasional reader of the genre I find the band’s ideas to be overly-worn territory.

In this argument, labels are handed down like prison sentences. At what point does psychedelia become prog? The Nice are labeled “proto-proggers.” If Parker is going cite Moby Grape as prog rock, he should certainly concede that The Nice, which debuted the same year as Moby Grape, is full-blown prog. The Nice’s keyboardist, Keith Emerson, moved on to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a trio certainly atop the Mount Rushmore of prog. But ELP made the leap to nonsense for Parker after Emerson discovered the Moog synthesizer. To Parker, rock loses its integrity with the introduction of too much stuff. It was an overdose of the musicians’ creative juices as “like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts.”

He sees even the stage presence of prog rockers as the result of too much thinking, citing “their priestly robes” as pretentious. But weren’t punk rockers in their artfully torn, black T-shirts and studded wristbands pretentious as well?

Popular music is ultimately a swing of the pendulum. Parker finds the appropriate quote in Weigel’s book: “Every new artistic movement rebels against whatever came right before it.” History bears that out. Sometimes the pendulum’s swing is generational, as rock gave way to hip-hop. Sometimes it’s a commercial wave, as pop surrendered the airwaves to metal or when disco was pushed aside by punk. The Ramones helped stomp to death the final strings of Procol Harum. In bewailing the increasingly fidgety nature of prog rock, Parker points out, “To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective — a healing, if you like.”

Maybe. It could even happen within a band, as Genesis found when it lost Peter Gabriel and handed the microphone to its drummer, Phil Collins. From art rock to pop. Of course, none of this allows any credit to the teenage brain, when it’s most attuned to the miracle of music, and is open to diversity and setting its own timeline of discovery. I discovered the glam rebellion of The New York Dolls and the psychedelic prog of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come in the same summer of 1974. The same year that Bruce Springsteen spoke for me. Perhaps in a search for something I’ve lost, I still listen to those vinyl albums to this day.

And really, wasn’t prog rock’s downfall This is Spinal Tap? In the 1984 satire Rob Reiner’s character Marty DiBergi, who’s shooting a documentary on the band, reads aloud a review of Spinal Tap’s latest album: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’”

Thereafter, it became impossible to take seriously any long-haired guys.

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