Music Post: Progressive rock, retrospectively

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The 50th anniversary of “Sergeant Pepper” set off a wave of interesting essays on the Beatles in general and that album in particular (see above.) Then, that topic exhausted, music writers turned their attention to something “Sergeant Pepper” partly triggered: prog rock.

The wave of articles is nominally set off by a new book, David Weigel’s “The Show That Never Ends,” the title drawn from an Emerson Lake & Palmer tune.

For decades there have been otherwise normal adults who kept listening to their albums by King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Moody Blues, Genesis, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant, while professional rock music critics generally sneered at prog rock. I never understood that. Now, I think I do.

Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker says “critics think that the genre was an embarrassing dead end” and offers partial-agreement by adding that prog rock bands demonstrated that rock didn’t have to be simple and silly – “it could be complicated and silly instead.”

Kyle Smith in the National Review calls prog rock “a noble but failed experiment,” a dumb denigration of a string of hits by various bands that lasted more years than the Beatles did. It neither failed nor rose to the level of being noble. It was interesting and enduring.

Both writers – and some others I’ve sampled in recent days – backed up their denigration less by critiquing the music than by enumerating dumb-ass stunts these bands performed on stage.

I had never realized how many scenes from “This is Spinal Tap” were inspired by actual debacles in concerts by Yes and ELP.

“That episode in which the band members dramatically appear on stage in sealed pods, one of which fails to open on cue, actually happened to Yes drummer Alan White,” writes Smith, and both he and Sanneh recall an incident in which Keith Emerson was pinned beneath one of his keyboards and had to be extricated by a roadie in mid-concert.

How could anyone who went to concerts like that take prog rock seriously? I understand that now.

But that was the show business, not the music.

My own exposure to prog rock was very different, and, it seems in retrospect, liberating.

I was already working in radio news as a high school senior in the fall of 1970, and by 1978 I was married and settled down. I listened to vinyl. I didn’t go to concerts.

From 1972 to 1975 I worked for a rock station, WYRE Annapolis, Md., whose program director, Dennis Constantine, broke format one afternoon to play an entire Jethro Tull album that had just come out.

Throughout those years I listened to progressive stations, including WKTK Baltimore and the D.C. station WHFS, whose then-overnight jock Weasel went on to broadcast on satellite radio for decades.

The only prog rock concert I attended in those years was Yes when “Topographical Oceans” came out, and I remember being underwhelmed by the band’s live presence. I still loved the albums though, and today I may be one of the few Hawaii residents who owns every CD the band ever made. I flew to Maui to see them at the MACC even though I had to leave at intermission to catch the last flight back to Honolulu. But mostly I listen to the CDs.

My own more positive view of prog rock may also stem in part from coming late to much of this music other than the radio hits. I was intimately familiar with all the records Yes and ELP made, but all the others, I knew from radio airplay or excited “you gotta hear this” demos by friends, until the past 20 years when I embarked on a CD exploration of the other giants of prog rock. I have a whle shelf of Frank Zappa but didn’t when the Mothers were together (in any of their iterations).

They’re all different, these bands. Even when they shared personnel each band seemed to have its own thing. Emerson Lake & Palmer drew personnel from The Nice and King Crimson. “The House of the Crimson King,” with Greg Lake singing vocals, is a haunting piece, mostly due to its (unnervingly shaky intonation) Mellotron chord progressions. The Nice, which included Keith Emerson, liked to turn classical repertory into rock music, and that would become ELP’s specialty.

But Yes for me was doing something far more important: composing symphonies, concertos and canatas for rock band resources. I like listening to “The Yes Album” and “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge” and “Relayer” as much now as when they were new, and there were flashes of the same brilliance for decades after. Yes tried to reach a new audience with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” with the odd result that it (1) got its biggest hit of all time and (2) lost its way. But later members of the band always seemed to be fans of the original Yes, and eventually Yes synthesized its old and new styles, so even its more recent releases have their points.

Frank Zappa is an interesting case history. He made his bones with raunchy satirical rock, but then successfully sneaked jazz and classical influences into his concerts, something more deeply subversive than “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” ever was. Zappa has a legitimate claim as a 20th century classical composer and I regularly sample Zappa works on “Howard’s Day Off.” I also have Zappa works recorded by three separate ensembles not connected to Zappa or his bands. But then classical music is forever being interpreted by people unrelated to the composers.

Jethro Tull never overtly tried to put on the dog, yet its featured instrument was flute, the band was unafraid of unusual time signatures – “Living in the Past” is in 5/4 – and it once did a Bach bouree. Fusion jazz was going on at the same time, a parallel lane on the same highway, and you’ll never fully know Phil Collins until you hear his fantastic fusion work in the late 1970s, the highlight of his entire career as far as I am concerned.

A few musicians who played prog rock embrace, or grudgingly accept, the term. Most disdain it. But that’s neither here nor there. Minimalists all say they’re not Minimalists. Debussy and Ravel swore they weren’t Impressionists. Music resists labels and labels resist music. Prog rock isn’t one thing and never was, but all the things it was, I enjoyed.

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