So it turns out that some of the music I most love from the 1970s — awesome albums from groups like Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull — has a name, "progressive rock," or, as the cool kids call it, prog rock. Apparently it was vilified by rock critics everywhere even as its practitioners became millionaires and filled giant arenas with flashy, elaborate stage presentations.
(Influential critic Lester Bangs, after seeing an E.L.P. concert), reported that its members "were soulless sellouts, participating in the insidious befoulment of all that was gutter pure in rock.” Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” was, if anything, more dismissive: “These guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans.”
It's pretty funny that rock music, once widely seen by the establishment as the embodiment of everything wicked and unholy in the world, was being defended against all who would "befoul" it's "purity," but I get the point. Rock 'n' roll was always raw in its angry challenge of the established order and proudly primitive in its approach to music. And here came this elaborate, pretentious conglomeration of rock mixed with every other conceivable kind of music. It was snooty rock, an almost utopian attempt to make rock something different, more complex and "better" than it really was.
But I didn't know any of that back then. I didn't read about music. I just listened to it.
I didn't understand that certain groups "thought they might be outgrowing rock and roll" and that “the boundaries between styles and categories" continued "to blur and disappear.” I just knew I could listen to "In the Court of the Crimson King" for hours and hours.
I didn't know that I was listening to music inspired by the release in 1966 and '67 of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album and the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, after which "bands set out to make hit albums, rather than hit singles," some of them abandoning short, sharp love songs and beginning "to experiment with intricate compositions and mythopoetic lyrics." I just knew I spent an entire weekend with the "Close to the Edge" album by Yes.
It didn't occur to me that prog rock was "a genre intent on proving that rock and roll didn't have to be simple and silly — it could be complicated and silly instead" or that some of its musicians believed they were practicing “a higher art form” that would last to the point of giving them all immortality. I just knew "Ummagumma" by Pink Floyd knocked my socks off, and E.L.P.'s "Pictures at an Exhibition" gave gave me goosebumps.
I did figure out a couple of things while listening to progressive rock that have since been reinforced by reading about it.
One is that these musicians were trying something different. Instead of imitating and then perfecting a formula, they were trying to discard formulas. Almost all kinds of music — except, perhaps, certain forms of jazz — have a distinct pattern. Musicians learn the pattern, whether it's simple three-chord rock or the much more complicated scales of western classical or northern Indian music, and find their creativity within the formula. A blues song always sounds like a blues song, and a Southern rock song always sounds like a Southern rock song. But the whole point of progressive rock was that it was always changing as it added new influences, always evolving. You never knew what it was going to sound like, except that it would be challenging in some way.
And the second point, related to the first, was that you really had to listen to the music — with all your concentration, nothing else going on to distract you. Any other kind of music can be accompanied by something else. You can dance to it. You can drive to it. You can have it on in the background while you do homework (ah, high school). Even classical music, which usually demands more attention that other kinds. I've listened to the "New World Symphony" with rapt attention, savoring every nuance, always anticipating the part that makes me tear up and thinking it might not this time (but it always does). But I've also had it playing softly while I read a book. So while some songs will take be back to the time and place I once heard them ("Hot Town, Summer in the City," driving back and forth to my employment at the Fort Wayne's Children's Zoo on sultry August days; the Stones' "Miss you," painting a hallway in my Michigan City home), hearing "Roundabout" takes me nowhere except back to listening to "Roundabout." The house could have been burning down around me and I wouldn't have noticed.
Alas, progressive rock has come and gone. Some practitioners have survived into long-term superstar status, both groups (Pink Floyd) and individuals (Phil Collins), but the rest have been consigned to the bargain bins of history.
They say punk killed prog rock, but I don't really believe that (although "London Calling" probably inflicted some minor damage). They did co-exist for a couple of years in the late '70s, after all. You might as well say disco killed it, since that atrocity cam along about the same time as punk. I think it was the compelling nature of the music that killed it — the fact that you had to really listen to it with all your concentration. We like our music as background noise — our attention spans allow for nothing else. And prog rock had proved its point — rock doesn't have to be just rock — so what was left for it?
The best thing about prog rock is, of course, that it's so much better than any of the crap that's been put out in the last, oh, 20 years.
Just had to get that old-fart point in there. Would you have accepted anything less?