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Progressive Rock Reconsidered

Edited by Kevin Holm-Hudson


Progressive rock sprang up at the cusp of the 70s, nurtured by the late-60s worship of “virtuosos” like Jimi Hendrix and Cream and the move away from pure rock ‘n’ roll song forms that followed Sgt. Pepper and its ilk. With the advent of album-oriented rock, a kind of more-is-more ethos was already beginning to take root, and what a boring acoustic guitar could do, certainly a cello–or a 40-piece orchestra–could do better. Guitarists and drummers were exalted for their speed; bassists were exalted for playing more notes than bassists were supposed to play. This compulsive ranking by stats even extended to the monetary value of musicians’ equipment arsenals. As Keith Emerson’s array of keyboards grew ever more massive and Carl Palmer assembled a custom-engraved steel drum kit that required a reinforced stage, bassist Greg Lake took to playing barefoot on a rare Persian rug–to avoid getting shocked by the microphone, he would later insist. An entire Hit Parader article in 1977 was devoted to explaining why Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Works tour required eight tractor-trailers and an entourage of 115.

With the revolution of ’77, you’d think prog rockers would’ve been the first lined up against the wall, but megastars like Led Zeppelin made a fatter target. In fact, prog was as hated by reigning rock royalty like Zeppelin as by rock’s new proletariat, and by the time of “Anarchy in the U.K.” it was already widely considered too pathetic to waste spit on. By the dawn of the 80s, people who would still cautiously defend “Stairway to Heaven” would deny ever having owned a million-seller like Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans. In the 20 years since, even as Tony Bennett, easy listening, and jazz fusion have come back cool, prog’s fortunes have improved not one bit, a state of affairs that every die-hard fan is painfully aware of.

The latest in a long line of attempts to get prog accepted into the canon–or at least gain a hearing for it–is Progressive Rock Reconsidered, a collection of academic articles edited by musicologist Kevin Holm-Hudson, an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Kentucky. The book, which declares its boosterish slant in the introduction, does an adequate job on musicological analysis but somehow manages to avoid the sociological questions that are more relevant in understanding prog’s place (or lack thereof) in rock history.

It gets off on the wrong foot with a defensive essay called “Progressive Rock and the Inversion of Musical Values,” by John J. Sheinbaum, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Denver. His hand-wringing over the music’s shabby treatment by the rock press is not entirely unjustified: There’s a lemminglike quality to the consistency with which Yes and ELP releases make worst-ever lists (like Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s The Worst Rock-and-Roll Records of All Time) and their unfair exclusion from even ostensibly neutral historical collections (like Robert Palmer’s Rock & Roll: An Unruly History). Rock critics have long relied on prog for opportunities to rant about “pointlessly intricate bass solos, caterwauling keyboards, and quasi-mystical lyrics proclaimed in an alien falsetto” (The Rolling Stone Album Guide). And the superficial dictum that “rock lyrics are not poetry” (as Guterman and O’Donnell’s “33 1/3 Rules of Rock and Roll” list has it) is a red herring, as it doesn’t account for the nearly universal reverence accorded Bob Dylan and Patti Smith.

But as Sheinbaum pushes further in prog’s defense, he employs the same sort of self-serving logic that discredits the music’s fans outside academia. He fixates on the music’s alleged “classical” connections–usually a point of pride for prog fans, and in Sheinbaum’s eyes one of the reasons they’ve been scorned. Since rock is the music of the counterculture, his somewhat anachronistic argument goes, and classical music is the music of the hated “establishment,” naturally the rock power structure wants nothing to do with prog. Similarly, he continues, there’s the problem of prog’s “high art” status. Accompanying Sheinbaum’s article is a vaguely unscholarly table illustrating the conventional distinctions in music: complicated = high, simple = low; innovative = high, derivative = low; mind = high, body = low; well educated = high, undereducated = low; and so on. Sheinbaum claims he’s not passing judgment here, but rather simply observing “the value system… most often used to evaluate music in Western society.” (In a similar vein is “Progressive Rock as Text,” a detailed analysis of the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters by DePaul sociology professor Deena Weinstein, whose goal is to settle the long-running dispute over whether Floyd is prog by contending that Waters’s lyrics qualify as high art.)

Prog, unsurprisingly, falls into Sheinbaum’s “high” column; antipathy to prog, he argues, “represented no less than a complete inversion of musical values: striving for the conventionally high, as progressive rock was said to do, was devalued, and aspects conventionally ascribed to ‘low’ music were prized.” This approach reminds me of those pocket-size Nolan Charts the Libertarians like to use, which reduce millennia of infinitely complex social thought to a simple parallelogram. They’re designed to pinpoint one’s exact location on a two-dimensional political spectrum and, more important, to determine which is the freest of all political systems–and can you guess which one that is?

Sheinbaum’s logic is faulty in other ways. First of all, rock groups incorporating “classical” elements in their music are not always despised. The late-60s experimental rock band the United States of America, most of whose members were formally trained in music, have been acclaimed by everyone from composer Elliot Schwartz to obscure-psych specialist Richie Unterberger. (Progressive Rock Reconsidered tries to claim them as proto-prog, in a welcome profile by Holm-Hudson himself.) But while the United States of America studied modern composition and were influenced by Morton Feldman, John Cage, and 20th-century electronic music, the big-name prog bands tended to prefer the work of 19th-century romantic composers and middlebrow household names like Mussorgsky and Brahms. Prog musicians usually came from a rock background–Yes covered the Beatles on early records–and generally gave the impression of being strivers: not so much members of the cultured elite as middle-class types who had outgrown “common” blues-based rock, vastly improved their chops, and read a few books. (How well they digested their referents is another can of worms.)

Prog fans tended to have an arriviste’s contempt for American bands–even would-be prog bands like Kansas, with their proximity to the farm, their unsophisticated accents, and their less pretentiously mystical lyrics. Disco (body = low) and country music (no explanation necessary) were hated most of all. This attitude–like the fascination with the triple-necked bass built for Yes’s Chris Squire, or Egg’s “Seven Is a Jolly Good Time,” which demonstrates all the complex time signatures the band knows, like a Renaissance painting displaying all the sitter’s possessions–is nothing if not bourgeois.

Most of the remainder of Progressive Rock Reconsidered is devoted to musicological analyses of various prog classics, including King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” ELP’s “Trilogy,” and Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” These studies tend to have the same general goal: advancing the argument that prog’s internal structures qualify it as part of the classical tradition. (Some of these are fairly technical, by the way, and though intelligent readers should be able to get the gist, I wonder how many will be equipped to understand the details.) In the case of King Crimson, musicologist Gregory Karl uses the biological concept of convergent evolution to argue that Crimson’s musical development was independent and organic, not a simple borrowing from classical sources. Also included is a surprising gender-based reading of Yes’s “Close to the Edge” by queer theorist Dirk von der Horst and an analysis of the allegedly prog-descended math rock of the 90s (in particular Don Caballero) by Theo Cateforis, a music teacher at the College of William and Mary.

Considering the credentials of the contributors, the striking thing about the book is how little its reasoning differs from that of the letters that regularly appeared in fan mags in prog’s heyday. Back in the mid-70s, kids used to argue about which drummer was fastest, which keyboardist had studied at the Royal Academy, and how much more sophisticated us ELP fans were than those barbarians who loved Alice Cooper. Strip away the 25-cent words and the overarching argument of Progressive Rock Reconsidered often reads like the same thing.

The book also largely ignores the forest for the trees–the end product, not the process, is what counts in rock. For all the classical theories it applies to what these bands did, Progressive Rock Reconsidered gives no evidence that the musicians themselves assembled their music in anything but tried-and-true rock style: improvising parts on the fly, salvaging interesting bits from jams, pasting things together simply because they sounded cool. Songwriting with King Crimson, drummer Bill Bruford told Musician in 1984, was “just about everything that the general public thinks it isn’t…. They have this idea that Robert [Fripp] comes in with this huge stack of manuscripts…but it’s not like that at all. We’d all like to think that our better rock groups compose…but Crimson sort of scuffles for its music.” Detailed studies of the structures of prog are about as informative as a detailed study of Yes vocalist Jon Anderson’s version of Hindu philosophy. As Jennifer Rycenga of San Jose State University baldly admits in her discussion of Anderson’s lyrics, “it is embarrassing how little Anderson knows about Hinduism.”

Most of prog rock’s greatest achievements had less to do with the low-level structure of the music than with feel. King Crimson in their prime could incinerate the competition with their mix of free improvisation, Bartok, and heavy metal; the bass and drum playing in Yes’s “Roundabout” comprised one of the most revolutionary sounds ever to grace a Top 40 single; Genesis in their heyday recorded some lovely pastoral records that can be considered “pretentious” only by association; and Gentle Giant (who, oddly, don’t even rate a mention in this book) were superb but relatively humble musicians who composed authentic medieval four-part harmony for rock instruments and generally pulled it off. This suggestion might be anathema to the book’s contributors, but a fresh look at these records from a traditional rock perspective might be the best idea of all.