Consider this: there was a time in recent memory where a bunch of old British guys played 30 minute long ruminations with few recognizable pop hooks or lyrics and were the biggest music acts in the world, selling millions of records and packing stadiums across the globe.
David Weigel’s new book, The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, charts the now-inconceivable dominance of progressive rock music in the early 70s. The book is a loving and unvarnished testament to the genre from an unmistakable fan of the most uncool music in the world. As a fellow fan of British progressive music from the 60s/70s, I found a great deal to appreciate in Weigel’s tome, even if much of its content would be familiar to those steeped in the genre’s history. For readers with little knowledge of prog, where it came from and the backlash that ensued in its wake, this book acts as a fine place to reflect on one of the strangest times in pop music history.
Weigel is clearly well versed in the genre. His detailed descriptions of prog rock’s greatest tracks are written to detail the complexity and incongruity implanted in this style. The fittingly verbose detailing of time signatures and chord progressions may be a bit much for a novice interested in the genre, but this care and detail for the nuts and bolts of prog was something I savored.
David begins his trek through prog history at its anticlimactic end: aboard a Yes themed cruise charting the Caribbean. One can imagine few things as conservative as a cruise ship full of senior aged rockers, meditating on the good old days along side musicians long passed their peak. Perhaps it says more about my current age and place in society, but I wish I could have been on that ship.
Prog, for better or worse, is noted for its experimentation and desire to break out of the confines of popular music established after WWII. This music was “forward thinking” and elitist by nature; Weigel astutely notes that a majority of the genre’s stars were from well-to-do British families, carrying all the trappings of their class. Rather than linking prog’s originators to Louis Jordan or Roy Brown as one might with American Rock and Roll, progressive musicians looked to European classical music as their foundation. Franz Liszt, the Hungarian musician active in the 1840s, earns special attention in Weigel’s account of prog’s beginnings. Liszt was a controversial figure in British music, as his work was made up of highly complicated and challenging compositions. Having said that, he made his name in high society for the response women had to his brash and confident musicianship. Young ladies of his day would collect his hair and cigarette butts (“which they hid in their cleavages”), as doctors pondered this new “female disease,” defining the new social phenomenon as “Lisztomania” (Weigel 3). It is not hard to imagine many of prog’s founders fantasizing of similar romantic outcomes, all without compromising their art.
Weigel acutely observes the cycle of experimentation and reaction throughout music history, something that predates the eventual backlash against prog and the rise of punk. He writes:
Some classical music echoed especially loudly in the progressive era. The decades in which Liszt played and composed were marked by increasingly complex musical forms. The end of the nineteenth century saw a kind of reaction begin. Liszt, inspired by the composer Hector Berlioz, came up with the “tone poem,” a classical-music type that abandoned form to follow an idea within one movement. “In the so-called classical music the return and development of themes is determined by formal rules which are regarded as inviolable,” Liszt wrote in 1855. “In program music, in contrast, the return, change, variation an modulation of the motives is conditioned by their relation to a poetic idea” (Weigel 4).
With lite alterations, the same could be said of the progressive era of the 1970s.
These were men (and yes, they were all men), who frowned on the simplification of music, looking to take rock into a new realm of complexity and social importance. This was music to change the world, not to sell singles and quietly hum along in the background of your local pizza parlor. It was intended for examination with the keen eye of an academic. Even when a backlash against the bloated nature of the music was underway, many of the genre’s leaders pushed back against simplifying their music. Quoting Yes frontman Jon Anderson during the recording of their 4 LP Tales from Topographic Oceans, Weigel writes:
Yes never thought about scaling back. They wanted to reach transcendence, not radio. “We’re close to the edge of spiritual awareness within the framework of the group” (Weigel 112).
Understandably, there was a backlash to this high-minded self-importance. Oddly enough, Yes would go full on pop in the 1980s and score a hit single with Owner of a Lonely Heart just as their competitor Genesis turned into one of the most successful acts of the 1980s under the leadership of Phill Collins.
Ironically, the musician coming out the best in Weigel’s account is King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Fripp, a guitar virtuoso framed as a musical totalitarian intent on creating something innovative and shocking with each recording, left a wake of collaborators to deliberate on his approach. Gordon Haskell, vocalist for King Crimson for a time being, described his ex-band as “musical fascism, made by fascists, designed by fascists to dehumanize, to strip mankind of his dignity and soul” (Weigel 62). Fripp’s public comments support this account. In 1974, as the critical and social reaction against prog was in full force, Fripp saw an end to civilization afoot. In an interview with Melody Maker, he stated:
“We could see the complete collapse of civilization as we know it and a period of devastation which could last, maybe, 300 years. It will be comparable, perhaps, to the collapse of the Minoan civilization” (Weigel 169).
That stodgy outlook and unwillingness to come to terms with modern trends pushed Fripp into the background of popular music, but he continued to experiment and challenge audience perceptions. Now regarded as benchmarks of ambient music, his collaborations with Brian Eno in the 70s and 80s continue to influence modern purveyors of investigational music. He produced a slew of pop records with notable acts in the 80s, most prominently Daryl Hall, which were shelved by record executives who felt they were too outside the mainstream (Weigel 184). As Emerson, Lake and Palmer collapsed under its own grandiose excesses, Greg Lake pushed Fripp, his old band member, to reunite King Crimson and cash in on fan desire to see the original group live. Fripp famously turned him down. It wasn’t until the reemergence of prog rock, or those inspired by its exploration, in the 1990s that King Crimson was given its place in the rock pantheon.
Weigel’s book ends on a somber note: with the death of Keith Emerson in 2015 by an apparent suicide. Emerson, the quintessential prog keyboard player capable of dazzling musical exploits, had been depressed by his slide into age and his inability to recreate the music his remaining fans demanded. His wife commented, “He was tormented with worry that he wouldn’t be good enough” (Weigel 288). In tribute to Emerson, fans of his music convened on The El Rey in Los Angeles to play a tribute to the man who inspired countless young men to push their musical chops beyond 4/4 time signatures and block chords. Nearly a thousand fans were in attendance.
It is hard to consider a time when music of this nature was popular. A number of concurrent social, music and economic variables crossed paths at just the right moment in Western history to make the financial success of prog a reality. As record labels began to feel financial constraints and became more “business minded,” fewer were willing to invest in bands that were not creating immediately accessible music packaged for the radio. When assessing the negative comments many of prog’s greatest acts had towards the pop bands that followed, one can see there is less a distaste for the competitor’s music and more for a music industry that no longer could finance risk and experimentation. I too lament this development.
Prog will never have a revival like other musical movements of the 20th century. As I sit through the incalculable Summer of Love anniversary celebrations infecting the Bay Area, it is hard to imagine similar nostalgia for the concept records that immediately followed it. Prog is not for everyone, but we have also reached a point in the musical zeitgeist that seems to recognize that nothing is. My middle school students, while not versed in Genesis or Soft Machine, seamlessly move between styles and forms. They jump between lyrics heavy rap songs to bubbly pop music and instrumental electronic beats. These young people are less locked into stylistic identities than I was in my youth. Moreover, there has always been a place for musicians looking for complex music to apply their skills to. It is not surprising that as prog declined in importance, metal ascended and continues to hold a place in the larger musical culture. Dozens of electronic musicians found firm social footing in the era of MTV and Total Request Live. The complexity prog’s early purveyors were looking for continues to be explored by young musicians with little knowledge or recognition of the 1960s and 70s. In that regard, progressive music continues to inform our society, even when the style carries little social edifying cache.