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Prog rock: of pomp and circumstance

August 29, 2012

The author acknowledges that this blog is too long and indulgent, but really how else could one tackle the topic of progressive rock?

If I haven’t admitted already, I confess now that I was a teenage prog rock nerd.
If you need a reminder of what “prog” rock was, I’ll take you back to a time long ago in which gargantuan acts like ELP and Yes ruled the earth, filling arenas with their epic space age/mythological tales and classical-leaning experimentations. Or pretensions, depending on your point of view.

King Crimson’s debut was one of the early highlights of prog.

When I was a teen, I loved the stuff. The pre-Abacab Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, etc. It was commonly referred to as “art rock” then, though the changing lexicon might point to the genre’s decline. It doesn’t even warrant the full word “progressive” now. (“Art” in rock now typically refers to post-rock acts like TV on the Radio or Arcade Fire, decent enough bands, though quite different from the subject of this blog.)

Part of my prog love stemmed from how much I loathed most mainstream music of the early ’80s. (Still do. Add Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney here in Canada, brainless action movies, male perms, rugby pants and flipped-up preppy collars, and I’d could pretty much do without the whole era. Bury ’80s retro in a time capsule, I say, and shred the map.)

Prog rock felt like an escape. However, by my twenties, I was listening to post-punk bands, avant-garde jazz and old Brit folk rockers. (Still do.) My old prog LPs suddenly seemed the epitome of uncool, so off I went to the used record shop, bundle in hand. I had to agree with the critics. Much of the stuff had been indulgent, pompous, self-important, escapist.

Yet, as writer David Weigel suggests in his recent series for, prog in its own way was revolutionary, a reaction to critics of the day who dismissed rock musicians as capable of little more than rudimentary, three-chord, four-four time dance pop (which there’s nothing wrong with).

Through much of the ’70s, prog was enormous. However, towards the end of the decade, it went from selling out arenas and loads of records to all but disappearing. The world, it seemed, had moved on.

As Weigel points out, prog rock has been all but ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Genesis provides the exception, though probably as much for its awful, 1980s pop songs) as well as in critical best-of lists from the likes of Rolling Stone. (Apparently, Jann Wenner hated it. The same was said of punk though, as the writers at his mag had to battle to get any recognition for punk rockers.)

Through his five-part series, Weigel provides an amusing, sympathetic yet clear-eyed look at prog, from its genesis up to its armageddon, which in un-prog-like fashion, ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Part 1 looks at the early days of prog through the eyes of Keith Emerson and his proto-prog band, the Nice.

Part 2 offers a good overview of the elements and origins of prog.

Part 3 is one fan’s view of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert at Madison Square Garden – “the greatest, loudest, most ridiculous concert of 1973.”

Part 4 looks at the pure pomp of Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and its subsequent tour – a fine example of the kind of excess that doomed art rock.

Part 5 is a kind of travel piece about a last-ever art rock fest that offers a glimpse at the aftermath of prog’s collapse and at the remaining believers.

Along the way, we’re treated to floating pianos, $5,000 Persian rugs and rotating drum kits, a great story about how a mid-performance chowdown of chicken vindaloo helped seal Rick Wakeman’s fate in Yes, and a recipe for what Weigel suggests might be the proggiest prog song ever, King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic (Part II).” (Prog songs, or suites, often contain many sections, a little like Weigel’s Slate series!)

Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans forms the basis for much of part 4 of the Slate series.

There are a few other nuggets thrown in: slide shows of old advertisements for prog rock bands and album covers, a who’s who of prog and a playlist of suggested tunes. (Note: you will not need dancing shoes.)

Weigel (who, like myself, is ambivalent about prog) shows clearly why the music collapsed under its massive weight. Yet when I ponder most of the criticism, I could easily direct the same claims against other brands of rock and roll.

Pomp was hardly confined to prog during the 1970s, as everyone from Elton John to Alice Cooper to George Clinton and the P-Funk mob was putting on ridiculous, over-the-top stage productions. These, so it is said, still occasionally happen.

Sure, many of the prog bands played endless, indulgent solos, but so did the Allman Brothers (successfully) and others (less successfully) that have suffered less scorn than prog rockers. (I’m tempted to cite a well-known Bay area band here whose appeal I’ve never understood, but I don’t want this to turn into a bitchfest.)

The obvious prog standout is Pink Floyd, and I think practising restraint when it came to soloing only helped them. If they lacked the technical abilities of other prog bands, they were far superior music-makers.

It’s also fair to say that prog was escapist. That was kind of the point, but so is much music. How else can we explain the fact that while England was in the midst of something as “revolutionary” as punk (in part a reaction to prog), it so quickly made a sharp right turn politically? Apparently, the Pistols’ influence extended to Anglo music and fashion but not much further.

Weigel gets to what has probably relegated prog rock to the delete bins of history: that it refused to be rock or pop music that one could sing along with easily or dance to at all. It was, of course, derived more from classical (or to a lesser degree jazz) than more popular idioms. As Weigel makes clear, despite North American acts that flirted with prog like Rush and Kansas, or a few in Europe, the music really was unrepentantly English (as opposed to, say, punk, which is an American form). In its early years, it was kind of a revolution against the confines of the pop song, and like many revolutions, it did not end well. By the end of ’70s, the world was leaving it behind.

As Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill laments in Weigel’s final article, the record companies that allowed the bands to experiment during the early years, suddenly clamped down and turned their attentions elsewhere (disco, new wave). Few bands adapted. Some like Genesis or Yes went for a more concise, even poppy sound (the latter to the extent of adding the Buggles of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame to the band at one point), and sometimes the results were commercial hits. The “supergroup” Asia had a short run of success in the early 1980s, though the music was poor, by either prog or pop criteria. A handful like King Crimson or Peter Gabriel did take up the challenge with interesting results, making music both innovative yet far more stripped down than their previous work.

The odd thing is, although few will come out and openly say it, prog still has a bit of influence. When you listen to the Flaming Lips, you can’t miss the Pink Floyd, and if you’re not hearing any Jethro Tull in a band like the Decemberists, you’re not listening very hard. Or you’ve never heard Jethro Tull, which is quite conceivable.

In retrospect, when one uncorks vintage prog rock these days, it’s obvious much has spoiled in the bottle, but there are times when I do miss that sense of adventure from the early to middle years of bands like Yes, King Crimson or Genesis, and I have to admit a couple of those old records might have found their way back into my music collection, despite my best intentions.

From → Essays

  1. Kenny G permalink

    another excellent installment … I was a big fan of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies down on Broadway and I must admit, I saw Jethro Tull at the old Maple Leaf Gardens

  2. Thanks for the walk down memory lane, Mike. I had forgotten about the term “progressive rock.” But I certainly loved the music of King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis so I guess I, too, am a Prog Rock fan! Looking forward to meeting you on Saturday in Saskatoon.

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