August 15th, 2012
Political commentator Dave Weigel has begun a multi-part series about the history of progressive rock called “Prog Spring”. Two parts have been posted so far with the first being entitled “Before it was a joke, prog was the future of rock ‘n’ roll.” while the second is “The rise of prog, music never meant for ‘the average person.’”. Weigel also provides a dramatis personae for the reader. Looking at it, I was a bit disappointed to see that it’s mostly big names and mostly symphonic proggers, i.e. – the guys in Genesis, Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson. Although Ton Scherpenzeel from Kayak gets a nod and does Nik Turner.
Weigel begins the series begins by suggesting (ironically?) that the death of rock’n'roll happened in 1964 when Keith Emerson bought his first Hammond organ. He briefly rehashes Emerson’s career and then says, “But if ever a form of popular music dropped dead suddenly, it was prog. Progressive rock essentially disappeared, and has remained in obscurity for 35 years, ridiculed by rock snobs, ignored by fans, its most famous artists—Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull—catchphrases for pretentious excess.”
Progressive rock did not drop dead suddenly. Did things change for the most well-known purveyors of the music when punk broke? Sure. But it “essentially disappeared”. This is ridiculous and sloppy. As the progenitors of the genre found themselves to be veterans facing a new world of pop music, The Enid was just getting started and Rush began to let the prog flag fly. The early 1980s saw the rise of so-called neo-prog in the UK with Marillion, IQ, Pallas, Pendragon, Solstice, Twelfth Night, and so on. Other proggy bands would rise later in the decade such as Ozric Tentacles, Djam Karet, and Porcupine Tree. In the 1990s Echolyn achieved a modicum of fame in the prog world and were even signed to Sony for a short time. Dream Theater helped pioneer progressive metal in that same decade. Opeth, Tool, Mars Volta, vonFrickle – the list goes on. Progressive rock never died. Bands continue to form – just check out District 97. Did prog rock bands at some point find themselves unable to fill stadiums? That I grant you, but the music never died.
I give Weigel credit for starting with Emerson and giving The Nice their due. He even continues in the keyboardist vein as part 2 opens. It’s more Emerson but he quickly works in Tony Banks and Rick Wakeman. After this he gives a very nebulous definition of “progressive rock”. Points for quoting Dave Stewart of Egg/National Health and for noting that Progression magazine acknowledges at least 19 sub-genres. He lists three “musical modes” which define the genre: “retrospection, trying to replace the standard American-derived influences of pop-rock with English and European influences”; “futurism, and the use of new sounds and new non-rock influences to replace the standard musical modes”; and experimentation. Still, at the end of the day, Weigel focuses on the big names and gives too much emphasis on time signatures almost to the point of fetishizing it. But what made Henry Cow different from Genesis different from Egg? It is difficult to define the genre and all the sub-genres but he basically whitewashes this whole subject and basically says that everyone loved shifting time signatures. But the differences between Slapp Happy and ELP are big and I think that looking at what they have in common and what they have in contrast beyond time signatures can go a long way in, if not exactly defining what prog is, at least in helping give a sense of some boundaries, however broad they may be.
Here’s Henry Cow:
And now here’s some ELP:
For me, emphasizing changes in time signatures doesn’t really say much about why both of these bands are considered to be progressive rock.
Lastly, the second part ends with Weigel noting:
The first time Fripp heard “Larks’ Tongues” being peddled to the masses, sort of, was when a Muzak-ish cover appeared in the opening scenes of the 1974 soft-core classic Emmanuelle. Fripp sued and got it taken out. This music was not meant to accompany scenes of French women finding themselves sexually. The listener had to focus on it and peel the layers back.
Weigel implies that Fripp objected to his music being used in a way that wasn’t serious enough. Now, I don’t have Eric Tamm’s bio of Fripp in front of me but I’d wager that Fripp sued, not because he meant the song to be appreciated in a more serious context, but rather because he hadn’t been paid for its use.