Anyone who knows me for any length of time eventually learns of my sometimes intransigent tastes in music. (Not only music, but whereas other art forms prompt conversations about form and substance that remain largely theoretical, analytical, and impersonal, when it comes to music, especially popular music, things can get a bit touchy.) I have a minor musical background, I play (or play AT) keyboard and guitar, and in my youth I had fantasies of being a rock star.
I grew up with a wide range of influences, although in the end it was a pretty static assembly. My parents had about fifty records. A wide mix, ranging from Strauss waltzes and Grieg, to Chet Atkins, Bobby Darin, movie soundtracks, Peggy Lee, one odd Tennessee Ernie Ford record, and Les Paul. A few other oddments, including some Gershwin, Nat King Cole, and a couple of jazz records I do not remember clearly. But there were also music programs on television then the like of which we rarely see anymore and I was raised with a huge variety. My father was, in his engineering way, a stickler for technique.
That last is important.
When I came of an age to start finding my own music, it lead me into some strange byways. When everyone else was going insane with the Beatles, I was listening to Walter Carlos. When the Rolling Stones were the rebellion of choice, I’d stumbled on The Nice. And finally, when I had a budget, the first albums I purchased were Santana, Chicago, and…
Fishing in the waters of new rock music, I had no idea who was in, who was out, what the roots of some of this music might be. I only knew what caught my attention and made me feel good. I heard a Yes tune late one night on our local independent FM station and I never got over it.
Before I understood there were divisions and lines being drawn between various musical styles, I had a very eclectic collection anchored by what became known as Progressive Rock. Along with James Taylor, America, Cream, and the other assorted sonic adventures, you would find, by the mid Seventies, in my collection not only every Yes album then available but also ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Renaissance, and a smattering of others, all of whom by the end of the decade were being heaped with derision in the music press and by a growing crowd of discontents who pursued Punk, Disco, or New Wave, declaring that Prog was pretentious snob music.
I never heard anything but grandeur and emotional transcendence. Later, after the ash had settled and the music scene had burned to the ground and been rebuilt in dozens of smaller abodes, I realized that what I was hearing in Prog was a modern attempt to capture what one heard in Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. I wholly approved.
But it became a sore point over time when the inevitable conversations about “good”music became more and more balkanized over what I eventually decided was a kind of reverse snobbishness if not outright anti-intellectual protest against sophistication, skill, and imagination. I heard the same kinds of criticisms from people who took regular potshots at science fiction.
But till now I never paid that much attention to the history. The What Happened aspect.
David Weigel’s new book, The Show That Never Ends, is a solid history of a form that, most people forget, dominated popular music for almost a decade. Emerson, Lake, & Palmer were at one time the biggest act on the planet. Yes, which almost never broke the Top 40 charts, filled arenas.
And then, seemingly overnight, everyone was listening to The Cars, The Sex Pistols, The Police, almost anything Other Than music with the kind of intricacy usually associated with either jazz or classical.
So what did happen?
Weigel writes unsentimentally but with sympathy about how combination of audience exhaustion, music industry economics, and ultimately the self-destruction of some of the key artists and their own creative exhaustion led to a melange of unsatisfactory products. Self-indulgence, musically and otherwise, introversion, and the jangling disconnect between market demands and pursuit of vision ended up making a bit of a mess that resulted in…
Well, oddly, not the end of progressive rock, because it is still with us, even in new manifestations, and many of the mainstays of the first wave progressives are now respected elder statesmen whose contributions to music are finally being acknowledged. It is obvious in hindsight that many of the bands who pushed Prog aside in the Eighties and Nineties could not have done the kind of music they did without the tools invented by those Old Pretentious Guys.
When it comes to that music, Weigel displays an admirable understanding of it as composition. He talks about the construction of these works and what set them apart theoretically from other forms. It is a pleasure to read his descriptions of how many of the pieces that form the bedrock of progressive rock came about and what makes them fascinating to listen to.
One element of the “downfall” of Prog Weigel does not touch on, though it is there in the narrative if you care to tease it out, was the unsustainability of one of the effects of some of these acts. Look at Yes, look at early Genesis, look even at ELP, and part of the glamor, the attraction, was that they had built a world. It was almost a literary act, the creation of a whole suite of aesthetic components that offered the illusion that one could enter into it, as if into Narnia, and live there. For a few hours on a concert night, the illusion could be powerful, and the dedicated album art and the philosophizing one read in interviews all added to the illusion.
But in the end it was not really possible, and in the morning there was the real world, and disappointment gradually encroached. It wasn’t “just” a good concert, but a promise that could not be fulfilled.
For some, maybe many. You had in the end to be an “insider” to get it and finally the huge soap bubble simply could not be sustained.
Ultimately, though, this was the kind of stretching that popular music needed even if the beneficiaries of it did not continue to write and play in that idiom, and as pure music some of it is, indeed, transcendent.
Now that so many of these folks are beginning to pass from the scene, revisiting their contributions, reassessing their output as music rather than as some kind of cultural statement, would seem in order. Weigel’s book would be a good place to start.