How the beasts of prog-rock went extinct

Few genres of popular music were more omnipresent in their heyday, yet more neglected today, than progressive rock. In the 1970s, dinosaurs roamed the earth: Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer and myriad smaller acts strode through concert halls and the music charts, big beasts staging elaborately theatrical concerts featuring long songs with fantastical imagery over virtuosic command of the band’s instruments.

And then, just like the dinosaurs, the great progressive rock bands either died out or underwent a forced evolution in order to survive beyond the mass-extinction event known as the Punk Revolution.

This era — an era when Genesis’ Peter Gabriel could dance around onstage kicking his heels, dressed like a flower, while audiences and critics alike ate it up rapturously — seems both improbable and faintly ridiculous from our modern-day factory-pop vantage point.

But it all happened.

It’s a tale well told in the new book by Washington Post reporter David Weigel: “The Show That Never Ends — The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock” (out Tuesday). Weigel has a journalist’s eye for the well-chosen anecdote as well as a lifelong fan’s mastery of the music, facts and arcana of the genre.

Both the “rise and fall,” as Weigel aptly describes, were steep. At its mid-’70s peak, progressive rock was as commercially formidable a music genre as any other.

And yet so much of it turned out to be culturally evanescent: To name but one example, Emerson, Lake & Palmer sold out stadiums all across the United States with a musical program comprised almost entirely of songs longer than 10 minutes at a stab, each featuring complicated chord changes, multiple shifts of tone and tempo, tricky meters and blindingly virtuoso musicianship.

ELP headlined a festival in 1974 where they played to nearly half a million fans. Today? They’re treated as an (unfairly maligned) afterthought to our shared cultural narrative of ’70s popular music. Another example: Mike Oldfield’s purely instrumental “Tubular Bells” was one of the biggest-selling records of the entire decade; now it’s a footnote, remembered if at all as “that album with the Exorcist theme music.” But in its era it was as pervasive as anything by Wings or the Rolling Stones, and arguably superior to all but the best work of either.

So why did it die off — in such a final way? Even disco — the other great musical victim of cultural backlash in the ’70s — survived undercover into the ’80s, its basic principles transmuted into R&B and the newer genres of club and house music. But progressive rock did not: it’s been reduced to either a nostalgia proposition, or the province of resolutely uncool niche acts whose fan bases consist primarily of awkward young men with fascinating facial hair.

Weigel’s unstated thesis is that the music itself was not to blame, and it is impossible to disagree. Prog’s worst excesses (think billowing smoke machines, 30-minute faux-sonatas, self-indulgent faeries-and-sorcerers thematics, etc.) were dire, to be sure.

But the best prog — for example, Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick,” Soft Machine’s “Third,” Genesis’s “Selling England By The Pound,” Yes’s “Close To The Edge” — remains some of the most transcendent music recorded during the rock era.

Instead, prog was a victim of three things: shifting cultural tastes, the increasingly brutal economics of the record industry and its own creative exhaustion. The strongest criticism that can be mounted against Weigel’s account relates to the last of these: He makes little attempt to reckon on a grander scale with what “progressive” music really was or is, beyond acknowledging its primarily European (and specifically British) sensibility.

Was “prog” bound inextricably to a chronological era? Or was it, rather, a series of musico-ideological commitments? If the latter — and I think this is closer to the truth — then one will inevitably quibble over some of the acts excluded from Weigel’s narrative: In particular, the failure to grapple with the enduring influence of krautrock bands like Can and Neu! is a glaring omission.

But this is a minor complaint. For better or worse (and anyone with a copy of Yes’s “Tormato” has already heard some of the “worse”), prog was mass art at its most ambitious, pushing the boundaries of commercial music as far as it could go in all directions — structural, melodic, rhythmic and lyrical — while still remaining recognizably “rock.”

“The Show That Never Ends” is not only a fine history of the genre, but a requiem for an era when musicians let their creativity roam unchecked, even if such restless wandering sometimes took them over a cliff.

Jeffrey Blehar is an elections analyst with the DecisionDeskHQ. He is an attorney and lives in Chicago.

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