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A Tribute to Progressive Rock

December 4, 2010

I recently came across this article – http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article5320354.ece – fairly well written, and clearly by somebody who is not a complete stranger to progressive rock. I was glad to read it, but I felt it didn’t go far enough, and that the author disregarded many bands and albums, with a few polemics thrown in (referring to King Crimson as “a group of hitherto loser musicians from small-town Dorset”). This is my response to the general music critic ethos of the consistent denial and ignorance of the existence, sophistication and downright excellence of much progressive rock.

“Prog”, a term I’m not particularly fond of, is undoubtedly the most ridiculed genre in all of music, perhaps only sharing the dubious title with Country and Smooth Jazz. While immensely popular from 1969-1974, it quickly fell out of favour, particularly due to the rise of punk and disco music in the late 70s. It has since been criticised as indiscriminately self-indulgent, over the top, and above all, pretentious. Supposedly disco music, written for the singer, with legions of horn and string sections, as well as monotonous three chord songs with abusive lyrics and tuneless singing were somehow earthier, more real and devoid of any pompousness. The relative swift collapse of punk and the ironic demise of disco due their supposed hubris demonstrates the continual process of stigmatisation evident within popular culture – soon we’ll find Indie music overblown, unreal and yes, the absolute worst insult to cast on music, pretentious.

After all, what if artists did take themselves seriously. What if they really dug their music. They put so many hours into it, that it became part of their soul, that they considered it to be a real artistic statement of their integrity. If not too many people like it, what pretentious jerks. If people do, well they’re geniuses and their album will sell into the millions. The album will be viewed as pretentious still, but at an acceptable level for their supposed talent. There’s nothing worse than musicians exhibiting undue arrogance by daring to produce a unit of their art. How can it be considered art if people don’t like it?

Progressive Rock to me demonstrates the culmination of not only versatile listening and influences, but the ultimate unification and deliverance of music simply beyond the constructs of genre. Beyond the idea that in jazz you swing, in classical you compose and that in rock you… rock. Beyond the bullshit limitations and expectations. Creating music for its own sake, whether borrowing from Beethoven, the Beatles, or Coltrane. Artists such as Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, and of course Miles Davis, they understood this. His description of the classical-jazz hybrid Sketches of Spain –  “It’s music, and I like it” – embodies the spirit of an artist who is concerned little with perception, but with what he can see, feel, understand and hear, and how he can combine physical mediums with mental processes.

One of my favourite drummers and an undoubtedly enlightened fellow, Bill Bruford, has a rousing quote within the aforementioned article: “There is this permanent tension in rock music between the ‘three chords and the truth merchants’ – you know, three chords and 4/4 time – and the others, the people like me, who say, ‘What if we added a fourth chord and put it in 5/4?’ There are always people like me messing up what some people think is pop music.” And true it is. Beyond the eternal “truism” of simplicity being more real (as if real is a quantifiable quality), music such as progressive rock and jazz fusion (both inherently interconnected) breaks such boundaries to establish music that is beyond simply reiterating chords and lyrics that have been versed too many times, in all spectrums of music. My particular favourite rebuke of this truth merchant behaviour is Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, Animals, a scathing critique of the capitalist system, in particular businessmen and executives, labelling the working and underclass as merely sheep, disinterested and devoid of any political consciousness. Or The Who’s 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, detailing the struggles of an isolated, mixed-up and unconfident mod kid. Lacking in connection to the real world? Well given 1977’s release of The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, featuring joyful anticipation of anarchy in the streets and complaints of the hierarchical class-divided structure of English society, I’d hardly say these bands were out of tune with the public.

And is it so “out of tune” to not pour all one’s focus on worldy constraints? Is it so insulting that Yes have produced a series of twenty minute long compositions? Understandably, producing four in one album, Tales of Topographic Oceans, resulted in an indecipherable and incoherent album. Yet the response to this album both critically and publicly contains much of the tall poppy syndrome I’ve outlined – ridiculed beyond belief, for the band’s foolish conception of copmosers of some kind of art. Most unfortunately, it completely overshadowed the pure beauty of their previous album, Close to the Edge, which stands as one of the strongest points in rock music history, using classical motifs with rock-based instrumentation and jazz style improvisation and interplay. Indeed Yes created many excellent albums, such as The Yes Album, Fragile, Relayer and Going For The One, which have since been censored from popular discussion, at the risk of one disclosing their enjoyment of music that took itself seriously. Clearly this music has no merit however, it just doesn’t relate to the plight of the supposedly disadvantaged youth in western nations, which as the origins of rock and roll, must be its ultimate destination too.

Because art has inspired no person. Never once did Beethoven’s shock or inspire, never did David Bowie’s “Heroes” strike any person as a beautifully joyous and pained cry for love within grasp but halted by faceless political forces. Never did Kind of Blue demonstrate the eternal power of the minimalist. Because music cannot evolve. If it did that it might become art.

I pay a tribute to every progressive rock artist of the 60s and 70s, and indeed to every musician and otherwise artist or writer who sought to evolve, to go beyond the mere social constructs of acceptability. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s interpretations of classical music sure are undanceable in comparison to most forms of pop music, but how is that a surprise? As rock music, are they expected to cater to every simpleton’s taste until we resort to the lowest common denominator? Or as classical and jazz music is it supposed to be restricted to only a small base and be confined to particular instrumentation, as Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis would have it?

The myths  and “jokes” of progressive rock, such as exceedingly long suites, bombastic and over the top solos, nerdy themes and ridiculous tales, and of course, don’t forget self-indulgence, while all containing a shred of truth, not only miss the entire point but I would contest don’t particularly exist outside of the discourse of the music “elite”. Show me a guitar or keyboard solo that goes for over two minutes in a progressive rock song – I cannot for the life of me think of any, because for most parts, the music was far too carefully composed. Thank god for that, because I can’t imagine any form of music that features improvisation or solo passages. Ridiculous stories? Perhaps, when applied to Rush’s 2112 or Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but hardly any more ridiculous than artificial love stories that have been versed in the majority of pop songs written since the twentieth century. The lyrics in many blues and jazz standards, treated with reverence, are quite laughable themselves. While some may differ, I’m comfortably listening to music taking influence from Ayn Rand and Tolkien. Who would’ve thought intelligence, integrity and courage were negative qualities in music?

Ultimately, I understand that not everybody finds the same passion in this music as I do. It’s great that none of us have the same taste. In writing this I seek not to degrade, as the quoted article does a tad, other forms of music. I don’t seek to humiliate 17 year olds writing misanthropic poetry as if they’d suffered eternal heartbreak. In the great words of Chris Leavins [From Cute with Chris, the best net-show ever], the last thing you or any creative person needs is comments about how much you suck. Some people are happy to break the boundaries, to treat themselves and their contemporaries with respect, that they may want to enjoy their music, or at least respectfully disagree, and unfortunately, others see an opportunity to bring their peers down, to denigrate them. Such the struggle has always been.

For such reasons, I sing the praises of progressive rock.

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