Can't Prog Rock Get Any Respect Around Here?

Jul 18, 2017
Originally published on July 18, 2017 5:36 am

"Here is musical sterility at its pinnacle. A band that has absolutely no soul, no feeling in the music," critic Lester Bangs declared in 1975. The target of his derision? The British progressive-rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Bangs disdained the band's objective, as he saw it, "to play pre-set solos as fast as you possibly can, [at] breakneck speed, and do it for about five hours."

That critical contempt of prog rock as a bloated, pompous genre was one thing that prompted David Weigel to write his new book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock. By day, Weigel reports on politics for The Washington Post. But he used to write for Slate, which encouraged staffers once a year to write about something off their usual beat for a feature called "The Fresca." That's where Weigel pitched stories about prog rock — the complex, polyrhythmic province of bands like King Crimson, Yes, Asia and Genesis.

"I've always liked this progressive rock that is not critically respected or has been written out of rock history — not completely, but written as sort of a hilarious little hurdle for real musicians to get over," Weigel tells NPR's David Greene.

Pop culture at large has enjoyed mocking prog obsession via negative portrayals of prog-rock fans (see: the weird misfit characters of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Buffalo '66, for example). But, Weigel argues, the genre doesn't get enough credit for its dynamism and inventiveness.

Prog rock's open admission that it was "smarter" music often prompted accusations of pretentiousness, but those accusers failed to recognize that the musicians were often in on the joke, Weigel says. For instance, the rock press branded Emerson, Lake & Palmer "The Band That Took Rock 'N' Roll to College," but the band embraced the title, openly talking about introducing fresh influences to rock 'n' roll and making music that was "frankly, more intellectual than clunky riff-rock," as Weigel puts it.

"If it was pretentious, it was because they were having fun with it," Weigel says. "They were adapting classical music and writing 20-minute pieces because they were men in their 20s who thought this was fun and radical."

Nevertheless, there have been moments in the history of prog rock where the genre did lapse into self-parody and hilarious indulgence. Take the French band Magma, whose music featured hypnotic melodies and a language its singers invented: Kobaïan, the only language that would fit "this really rhythmically confusing but exciting, very percussion-heavy music that they [were] making," Weigel says. Then there was the time Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman ordered curry midway through a concert, to snack on during the long stretches when he wasn't playing.

The era of prog came to an end in the late 1970s, as the story often goes, due to the emergence of punk. "[Punk] absolutely diverted rock press, the A&R men and radio. ... They diverted the channels of how you heard about music," Weigel says. But when speaking to progressive musicians about the rise of punk, Weigel found that there were two schools of thought.

On one hand, he says, "there were people like Greg Lake from King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who remained extremely bitter that the record industry turned to punk — which was never that popular — and ditched what was working for people."

"And then there were people like Robert Fripp, also from King Crimson, who thought, 'Well, fantastic! It needed to be blown up!' " Weigel also points to Peter Gabriel, who left Genesis to start a solo career, embraced New York punk and returned a different musician.

Although prog rock imploded in the late '70s, the genre's influence on contemporary music is undeniable. "Heavy metal, several generations down from progressive rock — it is all over the place," Weigel says. "The harmonics, the songwriting, the loud-quiet-loud dynamics were done by progressives long before metal."

Electronic music, too, owes a debt to prog. "The Mellotrons, the Moogs and then the Yamahas and stuff they were using later — making that the grounding of a song, hooking the melody to an organ, making it clear that could carry a song on it," Weigel says. "I think that is progressive rock's influence as well."

Dive into the genre of prog rock with this Spotify playlist of essential recordings curated by David Weigel:

Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Maybellene, why can't you be true?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, this is rock 'n' roll, right? Simple, catchy, I mean, three minutes and a cloud of dust. But this morning, we're going to remember a time when rock 'n' roll went a little sideways. It was the late 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING")

KING CRIMSON: (Singing) The rusted chains of prison moons are shattered by the sun.

GREENE: Some of the songs got longer, a lot more complex. Their rhythms were changing constantly. They were majestic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING")

KING CRIMSON: (Singing) The purple piper plays his tune...

GREENE: Is that a flute I'm hearing? Really, a flute in rock 'n' roll? Yeah, this was an experiment that challenged the very definition of rock. Some people, they loved it. But others thought it was the most bloated, pompous music they had ever heard. So just a warning to our listeners here, things are about to get weird. Behold, the era of progressive rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF KING CRIMSON SONG, "IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING")

GREENE: What you're listening to here is King Crimson from 1969, "In The Court Of The Crimson King." It was one of the defining records of the progressive era. That era would only last about a decade or so because the changing musical landscape of the late '70s forced prog rockers into the sort of cheesy pop territory they had previously ridiculed. David Weigel has written a book called "The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock."

Now, David Weigel's day job is political reporter for The Washington Post. He used to write for Slate. And they had this fun tradition.

DAVID WEIGEL: Slate had a feature for staffers called the Fresca - and named after the soda, not the idea of freshness.

GREENE: This was like taking a sip of a really lovely, enjoyable beverage. Like, it was taking a break to do something enjoyable.

WEIGEL: Yeah. And you were encouraged once a year to take a month to write about something you didn't normally write about. And I pitched this. I said, I've always liked this progressive rock that is not critically respected or has been written out of rock history, not completely but written as sort of a hilarious little hurdle for real musicians to get over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARN EVIL 9 1ST IMPRESSION, PART 2")

EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER: (Singing) Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

GREENE: Yeah, David Weigel was not kidding about the critical reaction to prog rock. Early acclaim soon turned to bitter hatred. Just listen to some of the venom spit out by rock critic Lester Bangs back in 1975. He's talking about the band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESTER BANGS: Here is, like, musical sterility at its pinnacle, a band that, you know, has absolutely no soul, there's no feeling in the music. The objective is to play preset solos as fast as you possibly can, breakneck speed and do it for about five hours.

GREENE: Ouch.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER SONG, "KARN EVIL 9 1ST IMPRESSION, PART 2")

GREENE: I mean, the sense I got not knowing much about this genre is that it was, like, smarter music. It was more of an exploration and not so simple. I mean, can you say more about that?

WEIGEL: It was and it was openly so. Emerson, Lake & Palmer get branded in rock magazines the band that took rock 'n' roll to college. And they embrace that. They're openly talking about the new influences they have brought in and how their music is frankly more intellectual than clunky riff-rock, than what they were trying to replace. I think it's great.

I think the music is actually super dynamic and inventive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARN EVIL 9 1ST IMPRESSION, PART 2")

EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER: (Singing) Soon the gypsy queen in a glaze of Vaseline will perform on guillotine. What a scene, what a scene. Next upon the stand, will you please extend a hand to Alexander's Ragtime Band? Dixieland, Dixieland.

WEIGEL: There's an idea, I guess, this was pretentious because that's all these guys knew how to do. Now, if it was pretentious, it was because they were having fun with it. They were adapting classical music and writing 20-minute pieces because they were men in their 20s who thought this was fun and radical. They're very in on the joke...

GREENE: Well, that's what I mean. It sounds like there's a self-awareness here. And you didn't go much into this in the book, but I was struck by the moment when it seemed like prog rock really lapsed into self-parody. And that was a band called Magma.

WEIGEL: Magma's a band with a lot of percussion, a lot of hypnotic melodies and then also a language that the singers have invented called Kobaian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KOBAIA ISS DE HUNDIN")

MAGMA: (Singing in Kobaian).

GREENE: Because English just wouldn't be...

WEIGEL: Or French (laughter).

GREENE: Or French. Neither of them would work so...

WEIGEL: Neither language is going to work for this really rhythmically confusing but exciting, very percussion-heavy music that they're making.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KOBAIA ISS DE HUNDIN")

MAGMA: (Singing in Kobaian).

GREENE: The first few pages of your introduction, you wrote that this book, on one hand, is a narrative history. But it is also something else. And read that paragraph.

WEIGEL: (Reading) This is also an argument for progressive rock as a grand cultural detour that invented much of the music that's popular now. As the reader will discover or already knows, prog's reputation has never quite recovered from a series of crises in 1977, 1978. Punk won over the critics, disco won over the teens and the major progressive bands deflated like punctured blimps.

GREENE: Punctured blimps. So some do say that punk rock's, you know, return to simplicity killed the prog rock movement. You really do believe that that's a fair assessment?

WEIGEL: It's complicated because it absolutely diverted the rock press, the A&R men and radio from - to a lesser extent radio - but diverted the kind of channels of how you heard about music. So there were two schools of thought I found among progressive musicians. There were people like Greg Lake from King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer who remained extremely bitter that the record industry turned to punk, which was never that popular, and ditched what was kind of working for people.

And then there are people like Robert Fripp, also from King Crimson, who thought it was fantastic. It needed to be blown up. You even see Peter Gabriel, who leaves Genesis to start a solo career, really embracing the New York punk scene, coming back as a different musician who never sounds quite again like a progressive rock artist.

GREENE: You make an argument that prog rock still has an influence that will never go away in music. Let's say someone who doesn't know anything about...

WEIGEL: Yeah.

GREENE: ...This genre listens to music today. Where might they hear that influence?

WEIGEL: Certainly in heavy metal. Heavy metal, several generations down from progressive rock, it is all over the place in terms of harmonics, the songwriting, the loud-quiet-loud dynamics, I think, were done by the progressives long before metal like it is right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATERALUS")

TOOL: (Singing) Black then white are all I see in my infancy. Red and yellow then came to be...

GREENE: David, real pleasure. Thanks a lot.

WEIGEL: I appreciate it. Thank you.

GREENE: In defense of prog rock, that was David Weigel whose new book is called "The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock." And you can find a Spotify playlist of a few essential prog rock songs at our website nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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