The Progs You Miss

Early Morning Thoughts on Some 1970s Music

What were they all thinking?

Not just the bands, but the fans.

Better yet, are they thinking it still?

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that last question.

As I ponder that possibility, let’s turn to an article which appeared in last September’s issue of The Atlantic. It’s a lively review (penned by James Parker) of a book by David Weigel, a political reporter on the staff of The Washington Post.

The subject, covered at length in the book’s 368 pages, is prog rock, the progressive genre that arrived to save us by showering the endless noodling of musos upon our unguarded ears. Evidently Weigel enjoys such fare.

I’ve no intention of reading the book but the review, more truthfully the title, set me off. A couple of summers back I suggested that garage–a genre I truly love–set us on the path to the dead end of the whitest music ever. I even identified that cul de sac: Nordic death metal, although I’m sure its aficionados would prefer I use a more proper term such as Viking or Black metal.

This is where the trouble starts. If you ask me the only thing missing is a big red circle with a diagonal line.

Fat chance.

I’m not ready to reconfer the ‘whitest’ label. Which raises the question of where these ‘progressive’ guys, with their flowing robes, waist-length hair, keyboards stacked like reference books in a PhD candidate’s room just before orals and never-ending solos by every member of the band fit in.

Why in the 1970s of course. These are the bands that had to exist so punk had something to rise up and kill, “a biological corrective,” as Parker puts it. He also claims prog is crap and I’d differ only in that I think crud is a tad more accurate.

I’m also not ready to agree with Parker’s diagnosis of the problem. Here’s our reviewer: ” …the proggers were hook-averse, earworm-allergic; they disdained the tune…” Uh huh. And….

The real issue–the one punk really came to kill as I see it–is summarized by one of the genre’s gods: Greg Lake. Here’s Parker quoting Lake (it may or may not be in the book): ” ‘None of those genres,’ grumbled Greg Lake, retrospectively, ‘had any musical or cultural or intellectual foundation….’ ”

You can’t make this stuff up.
Rick Wakeman of Yes, his hair, robes and keyboards.

It’s not the music. It’s the pretense, stupid.

If Led Zeppelin was rooted in the blues, these guys were rooted in Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  Ron Carter convinced me that Bach had to improvise in order to compose but that doesn’t mean he loosened his wig.

The bands mentioned by Parker loved things that are revered in the concert hall: shifting time signatures, interesting  modulations, atonality, dynamic range, musicianship. As if any of that mattered.

What matters, for me, is feeling/soul/emotion.  That’s not genre dependent, as Parker points out. Swing works. Bop works. Jump blues works. R&B and early rock & roll really work.

Now consider, for a moment, the English prog rock band Yes starting with it’s high-tenor frontman, Jon AndersonRalph Stanley in his 80s conveys more emotion than Anderson in his prime.

Yes’ bass guitarist, Chris Squire, attacked his strings at the speed of a 120-WPM-typist. Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist, almost invented the stack of synthesizers while Bill Bruford hid behind a drum kit that at times approached the size of a small county. (Note to the band’s fans: I am aware that I am scrambling lineups. Tough.)

There’s a kit only an octopus, or Terry Bozio, could play. Slim JIm Phantom played a bass drum, snare, tom and three cymbals.

And let’s not forget the guitar player, Steve Howe. There are two Steve Howe solo albums from the prog era and he displays (actually all the band members display) an ability to play an incredibly wide range of styles. Yet Howe conveys as much emotion as a jar of marmalade.

I have no objection to seriously approaching music. Any band that lasts gets around to it eventually. Even BB King studied theory. But when technique becomes an end in itself it’s a dead end.

In December 1980 Jeff Baxter–a guy, in my opinion, who can play rings around the likes of the progs–sat down with Guitar Player magazine. Baxter is a  man hired to play solos and he’s got some great ones to his credit. Here’s what he says about solos:

“[A solo] must complement the vocal. You’ve got to take in consideration the singer and the part of the tune where his melody makes the strongest statement, and complement that…as you go through the solo, keep in mind the fact that you’re connecting a guy’s vocal performance. A guy is stopping to make room for a musical interjection, so that must be as painless and fluid as possible.”

These bands  really are their own worst enemy and so complaining about them almost feels like piling on.  Parker tries to be kind, wondering why he doesn’t like these guys more and if he should reconsider doing so. Such politesse is laudable but misplaced, I think. Among other things, it  requires hipster rock critics and the bands they championed, be dismissed.

And while I’m willing to re-calibrate the reputations of Lester Bangs‘ and  a few others,  that’s just dinosaur slaying of a different sort if you really think about it.

Who needs more dinosaurs? The first herd was enough.



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