Prog Rock Again: Stop Apologizing

Topographic 2

My old favorite rock group, Yes, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. I’m not sure why rock needs a hall of fame, but they had the usual ceremony and the guys looked pleased to be in it. Jon Anderson talked first, beaming his oh-wow free associations at the crowd. Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin recited boring speeches of the I-would-like-to-thank variety. Rick Wakeman, who used to stand onstage among his keyboards dressed in a glittering gold wizard robe, told dirty jokes. They played “All Good People” and “Roundabout,” the two real hits that the canonical 70s version of the band ever managed, and it hurt to watch them perform without their late great bassist Chris Squire. Chris was always my favorite: he could play like a runaway train but he could also make you smile just by dropping in a single note, exactly the right one when you least expected it. Geddy Lee was an inspired choice to sit in.

If it was all good fun, frankly it also looked like ancient history. The progressive rock era – Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and the rest – came and went in a few short years before vanishing under an avalanche of other music. Which makes it strange to say that there’s a brand new book about prog this summer, The Show That Never Ends, by David Weigel, age 35. I haven’t read it, but I liked Weigel’s pieces in Slate on the same topic. Stranger still, Weigel’s sympathetic account of prog has already provoked a hilarious counter-tantrum by James Parker in The Atlantic. If you don’t know, this is an old war. It’s mind-boggling that it’s still being waged, forty years on, by people who weren’t yet alive when it started. It’s as if my generation had arrived in the late 80s deeply conflicted about Big Band.

Anyone who writes about prog is supposed to begin with a ritual apology. According to the received narrative, prog was a Frankenstein monster that committed so many outrages of bad taste and excess that about 1976 the villagers had to rise up and put it down. The genre’s markings were obvious and every one of them had to do with breaking the rules of top-40 radio: tracks were long, rhythms were undanceable, arrangements were piled high with synthesizers and studio tricks. Lyrics were a ponderous mixture of fantasy fiction and pass-the-joint philosophy. These conditions were necessary but not sufficient. Led Zeppelin wrote a six-minute song with ring wraiths in it, but they weren’t prog. Queen were the multi-tracking champions of the world and broke most of the rules of rock and roll, but they weren’t exactly prog either.

If you want to see some authentic progstuff, open up the jacket of Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans, the 1973 double album traditionally cited as prog’s Hindenburg. There, in the smallest font ever successfully printed inside the cover of an LP, are the lyrics of the entire work together with Jon Anderson’s account of what inspired it:

Leafing through Paramhansa Yoganda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, I got caught up in the lengthy footnote on page 83.

This was prog. This was 80 minutes of music based on a footnote. Anderson goes on:

It described the four part shastric scriptures which cover all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture. For some time I had been searching for a theme for a large scale composition…

This sort of thing didn’t impress everyone – personally I like to imagine Ted Nugent reading it – but in 1973 there was an audience willing to accept a “large scale composition” from a rock band, all the more so if it pretended to convey something that sounded like a compendium of exotic knowledge. Later it would seem clear that Jon Anderson hadn’t read much, or any, of the very large body of Hindu literature he thought he was talking about. What he read was the footnote. It didn’t matter. Topographic’s libretto might be about anything: Yes had a gift amounting to genius for lyrics (“shining flying purple wolfhounds”) that emitted a warm glow of cosmic rays but not a single particle of meaning. In the prog world, this was a strength, because when prog lyrics were decipherable they were usually awful. If you know this material, think of the knuckleheaded pontificating about war on ELP’s Tarkus, about Ian Anderson’s flat-footed assault on religious hypocrisy on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, about Rush’s Neal Peart polishing up Coleridge for “Xanadu.” The prog-haters could have had a feeding frenzy on this stuff.

They didn’t bother. What annoyed them wasn’t the lyrics but the music. They didn’t like the experimentation or the grandiosity or the sheer length of the tracks. It depressed them that many prog musicians played their instruments astonishingly well – that some of them were even classically trained (so were the Van Halen brothers, but never mind). Most of all, it was the lack of familiarity that appalled. James Parker seems to nail it when he says that prog disdained the pop hook and the magic of repetition.

He’s wrong: the hooks came with a little more listening, and the repetition was there, just on a scale of minutes instead of seconds. All the trash talk about prog is true, if your attention span is short enough. Real prog fans will remember that they disliked many of the genre’s classic albums at first hearing. That happened all the time. You didn’t throw the album away: you put it back on the turntable for a second listening, and a third, until it started to give up its secrets. No, this wasn’t for everybody. But who were we hurting? Sure, we liked to refer to your music as “accessible,” by which we meant something not at all nice. But we did it behind your back. Mostly.

That’s the strangest thing about the prog backlash: prog wasn’t bothering anybody. It wasn’t on the airwaves, except for your local struggling “underground” station (on the FM band, still fringe radio in those days). It certainly wasn’t being played in many clubs; few local bands had the chops to play it. All you had to do to live a prog-free life was not buy the records. To be offended by prog, you had to have the Puritan’s gnawing fear that somewhere out there, people were enjoying themselves in a way you didn’t understand.

Hence the revenge fantasy about prog being murdered by angry punks, but come on. The punks were angry about a lot of things; polyrhythms and stacked fifths can’t have been very high on their list. What happened to prog was the same thing that happens eventually to all pop music. The bands ran out of gas. They started making bad albums, or good albums that were no longer prog. Yes had its biggest commercial success in the 80s, doing their old tricks behind a smokescreen of trendy pop. There were more Yes albums after that, and when a quorum of the original group was present (the roster kept shifting) there would usually be one or two tracks lit up by the old magic. In 2001 they made Magnification, pairing themselves with an orchestra arranged by Larry Groupé, a film composer who’d been a teenage Yes fan in the 70s. It was the album prog had been waiting for since 1967, when the Moody Blues made Days of Future Passed. But by now almost no one was listening: only a few nostalgic fans like me, together with a dedicated corps of Yes stalkers who reported the details of every new concert in forums online, a disconcerting number of them posting under hobbit usernames.


Sex Pistols

Inspired by the lengthy footnote on page fuck all.

Technically, prog didn’t disappear: like every kind of pop music it passed its genes on, the way even punk passed on its one concussed little Y chromosome. Prog still inhabits popular culture, hiding in plain sight, in film scores, in “New Age” music, oddly enough in certain TV sports broadcasts. The laser-driven theatrics that prog concerts helped invent – and they were ridiculed then – are on hypertrophic display once a year at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Still, the essence of prog is long gone: no form of pop music since then has pretended to interpret the cosmos or channel ancient wisdom at you. Look again at the Topographic cover – shastras on the inside, and on the outside the Mayan temple, the plains of Nazca, a bit of Stonehenge. They threw in the whole works that time. (Roger Dean, the artist, tells how that cover came to be designed – it seems to have involved the whole band sharing a cake filled with unspecified drugs.) If prog fans were so brainy, why didn’t we notice how moronic this was? But we were kids, living in a world not yet spanned by fiber optics, trying to listen in on the universe outside our home towns through a connection as slender as a phonograph needle. I don’t remember anyone seeing prog as a path to some higher awareness. We liked the music, which took work to appreciate, but not really so much work. We admired the playing and the discipline and the sheer creativity. At most we figured – why not? – that if we did ever blunder into some sudden enlightenment, it might sound a bit like the chorus of “To Be Over,” or maybe just like Chris Squire any day of the week, dropping in exactly the right note when you least expected it.

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