Slate’s Dave Weigel has penned a 5-part opus on the life and death of prog rock. For the most part, it’s a great overview of this musical movement. It may focus almost exclusively on the big names, but those big names are BIG, and this isn’t a book he’s writing. Add to that, the series is not written for the prog aficionado, so to dwell on more obscure artists might not be the best approach for those newly-interested parties reading. Space is limited, so perhaps best to focus on names people might have heard of, and let them explore further on their own. All in all, it’s well worth reading—entertaining and appreciative of the genre, while also acknowledging the excess and pitfalls of prog with wit and intelligence.
For my money, though, where the series goes off the rails a bit is in its final chapter, detailing the death of prog as a mainstream enterprise, and where its remains have wound up in modern music.
Weigel writes, “Veneration of technique has mostly fallen out of the mainstream. The biggest rock acts that still tour—U2, Coldplay, Radiohead—are not known for rotating drum solos. Jonny Greenwood and the Edge are adored, and so’s Jack White, but not for their guitar technique.”
Put a bit bluntly, this is pretty much way off the mark. The Edge is most certainly known for his guitar technique. His guitar technique is the only really notable thing about the man. You can draw a direct line from his playing to that of Keith Levene of Public Image, Ltd., and from Levene’s playing to that of Michael Karoli of prog/krautrock legends Can. Likewise, Greenwood’s strength is in his technique. While it is true that in the Edge and Greenwood’s case (and, arguably, that of Jack White), it’s the sounds that they elicit that garner attention rather than a classical virtuosity on the instrument, neither would be able to elicit those sounds as knowingly and judiciously as both accomplish without expert technique at their disposal.
What has been eschewed from the mainstream is not veneration of technique, but veneration of excess. No, U2, Coldplay and Radiohead are not known for rotating drum solos. And that’s largely because a rotating drum solo serves nothing. A drum solo in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it is if it is only presented in order to show off. What’s progressive about that? How does blatant attention-grabbing move the music forward? I mean, yeah, it’s a demonstration that your drummer can play, but virtuoso soloing can be found in any genre of music. Soloing is not in and of itself progressive. If Tommy Lee and Slipknot’s Joey Jordison are both performing rotating drum solos, does that make them prog musicians?
No, what went out of fashion was the notion of piling stuff on top of piles of stuff for the pure sake of piling stuff on top of piles of stuff, all the while losing emotional connection with the music. Weigel celebrates prog for—among other things—being “relentlessly futurist, with no nostalgia for anything in rock.” But to my ears, when prog works, it works best when it acknowledges that it is, in fact, part of the rock tradition. “And when the progressives were on, they wrote gooseflesh-raising music,” Weigel writes. I believe that when the progressives were on, it was when they took the various other influences (whether musical or philosophical) they wanted to push forward through their music and engaged with them in a rock idiom with the sense of adventure and excitement that comes from knowingly pushing against rock’s boundaries. It’s easy to lay blame for the death of prog on outside sources such as record labels and radio programming (oddly, Weigel takes pains to point out that “Sire stopped promoting Renaissance and started schlepping the Ramones,” while the Ramones never really moved large numbers, nor did they ever get any real radio play), but it’s harder to point that finger back at the artists you’re celebrating.
But let’s face it: prog resulted in some abominably bad albums from members of its first-generation guard that almost ensured its commercial and critical decline. Emerson, Lake & Palmer hit a peak with 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery, then delivered a poorly-recorded live LP featuring uninspired performances during a 3-year hiatus. By the time they returned from the studio in 1977, it was with the over-the-top indulgence of the double-album Works, in which the band only worked together on two songs. And only one of them was an original ELP number. The other was a return to the “Hoedown” well, a performance of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” That same year saw the odds-and-ends collection Works, Volume 2, which was an assemblage of songs that the band deemed not good enough to make previous albums. Then, Love Beach—recorded while everyone in the band hated each other’s guts and under conditions that nobody wanted to endure, and only recorded to get out of their record contract. ELP post-1973 were almost completely worthless.
Then, take Yes. Yes, surprisingly, managed to hang on for a while there, with the somewhat-overlooked Relayer (1974) and its follow-up Going for the One (1977). Both were also pretty commercially successful albums, succeeding by paring back the complete and utter ridiculousness of Tales of Topographic Oceans (let’s not forget that it was a double album based on a footnote [!!!] in The Autobiography of a Yogi) and returning to the style of classics like Close to the Edge and Fragile. Then they blew it with 1978’s execrable Tormato, recorded while everyone was drunk and depressed, and 1980’s Drama, which replaced Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman with the freakin’ Buggles. They found some new success with 1983’s 90125, which was not actually conceived as a Yes album, and which relied heavily on the pop stylings of newcomer Trevor Rabin, and therefore doesn’t really count. (As a result, Jon Anderson became disenchanted with the new direction of Yes and splintered off to form Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe, and a series of misadventures has led to the band’s continued irrelevance.) Rick Wakeman himself moved from the heights of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth down a steep slope to the inferior The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the baffling No Earthly Connection and the utterly plodding Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record.
For comparison’s sake, King Crimson, then. Crimson, and Robert Fripp in particular, seemed at least as devoted to the Theory of Obscurity as the Residents were/are. And I think that’s why Crimson has rarely “clicked” with me. I enjoy In the Court of the Crimson King a good amount, and that’s largely because for all its deviations from traditional rock structure, it still rocks. It’s meaty, beaty, big and bouncy. It’s a very cerebral album, but still visceral and gutsy. And I’ve appreciated some of Crimson’s other works, but none to the extent of Court. However, Fripp’s innovations (he’s probably the most literally progressive musician Weigel names) can’t be denied, and while I love his work in collaboration with other artists who seem to use him to different, more earthly ends (Bowie, Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall), the ever-changing musical style and lineup of Crimson has ensured a steady and rabid fanbase even through prog’s commercial decline (and it’s no accident, then, that Fripp seems to be one of the few in prog to appreciate punk, performing with the Damned—Crimson fans themselves—at Hammersmith Odeon in ’82, contributing to their song “Fun Factory” and calling Damned guitarist Captain Sensible “a superb guitarist, his skill & capacity mostly overlooked.” And, of course, it’s to be noted that Robert Fripp denies that the “prog” label should be applied to Crimson’s music.).
Then there’s Genesis. The evolution of Genesis’ sound is fairly straightforward from the first album on, and leads neatly from their final Peter Gabriel-fronted album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway through to Gabriel’s solo work. His audience has continued to thrive, and while Genesis progressively (see what I did there?) abandoned their prog roots in favor of mainstream pop fare, that evolution in style seems to have flowed naturally given Phil Collins’ pop sensibilities coming more to the fore after taking Gabriel’s spot as frontman.
Likewise, Jethro Tull have—to a lesser extent—retained a viable audience over the years (their popularity has risen and waned, then risen and waned, ad infinitum), with the most severe decline in quality and popularity of their material taking place in an early-‘80s lineup and style change that seemed paired with a loss of confidence in the band’s direction and material.
The point of all the above? That several of the leading lights of progressive rock (in the commercial sense, at least—for many, Wakeman, Yes and ELP were some of the most visible and commercially successful stars of the scene) seemed to stop giving a shit about the music they made, and seemed to think that pomp and excess would make up for the lack of perceived passion. The end result? Music that could not connect with its intended audience, which caused a perceived “falling off” in popularity of prog rock as a genre. The other bands mentioned, however (Crimson aside, to a large degree), never really abandoned rock to the extent that Weigel stipulates in his piece. Genesis remained well within rock’s framework even at its most expansive. Tull, their late-‘70s three-album foray into pure folk excluded as well, never completely eschewed the bluesy roots of their music, with them even creeping up in their single-song works Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. (And even without Tony Iommi in the lineup, as he was for The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, there’s not a huge gap between much of their work and that of Black Sabbath, sound-wise. But then, Rick Wakeman did contribute keyboards to Sabbath on occasion, so…) While Weigel emphasizes throughout his series that prog aimed to render the pop single obsolete, none of the bands that retained any audience completely eschewed the succinct, concise power of a 3-5 minute rock track. To cop a title from the Moody Blues, it’s a question of balance.
(On a tangential note, it’s always struck me as curious that ELP always rocked less when they actually set out to rock. I mean, Emerson came from the Nice, who had no trouble rocking it out. Palmer was from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster, and the same could be said of those ensembles. Lake…well, maybe it’s his fault. But tracks like “Are You Ready, Eddie?” and “Benny the Bouncer” are almost gobsmacking in their ineptitude. I can’t listen to them without blushing in embarrassment for the band.)
Stay tuned for the next thrilling chapter of this, in which I delve into where prog’s roots have borne flowers overlooked by Weigel’s series.