It was a sorry moment on Twitter when I found the Atlantic‘s James Parker’s “book review” on David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. It’s not as much a book review as an assault on “prog” as it’s called. Given that everything else “progressive” gets good press in the Atlantic, that strikes me as odd. So I think it’s time for me to Stand Up (pun intended) for the one form of secular rock that really made an impact on me.
It’s not an understatement to say that, for a span of about four years (later years in prep school and first years as an undergraduate) prog rock dominated the turntable. Principally it was Jethro Tull, but Emerson Lake & Palmer, the Moody Blues (and later Mike Oldfield, Kevin Ayers and 10cc) joined the domination. They turned into tour guides on my 1976 trip to the UK, leading me to places such as the Fulham Road and Hergest Ridge. The obvious question, then and now, is “What did you see in these groups?” Prog, more than any other type of rock, is an acquired taste, and it’s one of those things that was acquired first and the “why” figured out later, if ever.
The first was that they were all British, or more broadly unAmerican. To be raised where I was resulted in being raised out of touch with much of American life, and what most Americans thought important wasn’t on the radar screen. The endless “hick moving to town” theme meant nothing to me. Prog was a way to escape a culture I didn’t like and, in some ways, didn’t like me.
The second was, believe it or not, a product of church upbringing. Let’s put it this way: when people raised on the “Red Back Hymnal” (one former Church of God state overseer refers to it as the “Red Neck Hymnal”) got into rock, they listened to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who themselves were raised in that kind of church. For someone like me who was raised on the Episcopal 1940 Hymnal, prog artists like ELP fit the bill, to say nothing of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung.
That underscores another aspect of prog that’s forgotten: many prog artists, such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, had classical training. ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition is, in many ways, the best rendition of Mussorgsky’s piano piece; Ravel is too restrained. There was also Tull’s Bourée. But classical influences and training are, usually, the kiss of death on this side of the Atlantic.
Parker’s characterisation of prog as the “whitest music” only shows his uncritical acceptance (along with much of the American left) of the white supremacists‘ racial model. Prog is better described as European, as opposed to American. That’s in evidence in the rhythmic clapping during Mike Oldfield’s Exposed (his live album of a Continental tour) rendition of Incantations. His use of Longfellow’s Hiawatha as an “incantation” is hilarious, but much of his music had a satirical underpinning. To look at things differently, at the time country and Southern gospel were very “white” forms of music, but the result is entirely different.
Getting back to the UK trip, in addition to a guide it was a nice mental soundtrack, from 10cc’s fine motorway driving music at the start of How Dare You! to the late Lindsay Cooper’s haunting oboe solo at the top of Hergest Ridge. Such were things that, in the day, made life sweet.
So how did I “get past” prog? That’s easy: it wasn’t that I tired of the music, but I tired of the message. That occasioned a culture shock, but also a shift in music styles to what you see on this site. There’s certainly Christian prog, but there isn’t a lot of it, and it was years before I found it.
Progressive music was the product of a world with universal health care, planned urban spaces and public transportation (as the Baker Street Muse knew all too well.) Nearly a half century later, these are mostly unrealised in these United States. Those who wanted them to happen and survived the years of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll should have worried about something else than what happens when the hick moves to town.
As for me, I think I’ll stick with the show that really, truly, never ends. But leave my prog alone.