The Spirit of Prog Rock

Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1975. (AP Photo)

In popular music, the word “progressive” is the equivalent of “elite” in politics: a term once taken as a compliment for its indication of advanced thinking that came to be used as an insult for the same reason. Foucault called this kind of linguistic reappropriation “reverse discourse.” Yet meanings can sometimes go forward, then backward, take a turn, and move ahead again, as the word “queer” has done over the years. “Progressive,” in its musical usage during the second and third decades of the rock era, signified the laudatory attributes of conceptual adventurism, virtuoso musicianship, and intellectual ambition. It was used to describe acts such as King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Before long, the word came to be associated with the more dubious qualities of grandiosity, pretension, gimmickry, and self-aggrandizement. Weaponized with these new associations, “progressive” would still be used to describe exactly the same bands, who had fallen from favor by the late 1970s, when punk rock jammed the pop discourse into reverse by asserting the upending values of bluntness, brutality, antiprofessionalism, and crudity of various kinds. 

The Kingdom of Crimson had come under siege, and progressive rock—or “prog,” as the music magazines dubbed it—would never reclaim its old honors. Today, the genre is generally treated as a historical joke or as pop-culture shorthand for the oppressive arrogance and bloated self-seriousness of the white male boomers who made up its core fans. Few critics or music historians have attempted to consider the prog phenomenon in much depth until fairly recently. In 2013, editors Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell put together Yes Is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales, an anthology of essays in defense of the genre by 20 writers, including Tom Junod, Rick Moody, and, astoundingly, two women, Margaret Wappler and Beth Lisick. Two years later, a series of high-minded if overly zealous short books on the music and its sphere (among them, The Progressive Rock Encyclopedia and Prog Rock History: The Canterbury Scene) appeared by way of CreateSpace, an independent publishing platform. Now David Weigel, a national correspondent for The Washington Post, has written what may be the first serious reconsideration of progressive rock for a general readership, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock

Weigel addresses, early in the book, the epistemological challenge of discussing progressive rock. “Defining or categorizing this music is basically impossible,” he writes, handily dodging a task that is basically his job and certainly is possible, though difficult in the same way that defining any genre or style of art always is. Every term of category for music—from Baroque and Romantic to shoegaze and dubcore—is imperfect, but still useful as a tool for examining the art. Weigel’s solution to the problem he calls impossible is to approach it as a reporter: Over the course of his book, he lays out a narrative of the history of prog through vivid descriptions and quotes from the musicians involved, leaving it to readers to construct their own understanding of the music. 

Weigel comes closest to identifying the elements of progressive rock by listing, in one brief passage, three qualities or “musical modes” that he has found in it. The first is retrospection (Weigel’s italics), which he describes as an effort to “replace the standard American-derived influences of pop rock with English and European influences.” What he’s presenting here is a historically framed rationale for ignoring the strain of blackness, the African-American quality, that defined American popular music and informed a great deal of British pop at the time. The second is futurism, which Weigel sees in “the use of new sounds and new nonrock influences,” such as the sonic possibilities of synthesizers. And, finally, experimentation, which Weigel lets keyboardist Dave Stewart define as “doing our own thing.” Prog rock was, in Weigel’s words, “music that copied nothing and could be replicated by nobody.” 

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