Shortly after I got out of high school, I started getting into progressive rock. What’s that? It’s hard to define, so I’ll toss out the cliche: Anything overproduced, with odd time signatures, spacey lyrics, and weird guitar. That’s it in a nutshell, except…
Rush is hardly weird, beyond some of Neil Peart’s scifi-inspired lyrics. Pink Floyd, for all its innovation and musicianship, has more in common with Cream, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles than Yes, ELP, or King Crimson. Plus, the last successful progressive rock group to be touted under that moniker was Marillion. If you’ve listened to them or original lead singer Fish lately, you know they’ve left any pretense of being the second coming of the early Genesis in the dust. Fish wants to be a Scottish poet. Marillion wants to be an indie Brit pop group unburdened by enormous egos the way Oasis and Coldplay are overtaxed by them.
Prog is often called bloated and overproduced. Quite often it is. On the other hand, prog fans have an annoying tendency to forget that the second half of progressive rock is rock. (Punk fans have a similar pretentiousness about their music. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is a personal hero to me for being willing to piss all over that pretense. How’s that for punk?) Never mind that rock is not rock without some element of the blues in it. Yet call one of these overly dogmatic fans a “prog nazi,” and they’ll thank you for it. The problem is they then want to pigeon hole their favorite bands. “No, no, no,” they say. “You do not get the privilege of having a Trevor Rabin line-up of Yes in your catalog.” Genesis ran afoul of this, as did their original lead singer, Peter Gabriel. Some prog fans were aghast that Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame would “stoop” to play on an album by Daryl Hall. And Marillion and Fish mentioned earlier? Prog nuts who continued to listen to them after the split still don’t understand that their last remotely progressive rock album was 1984’s Misplaced Childhood. (A sort of reboot of The Wall with a happy ending.)
But what’s the appeal? Why listen to it if it’s the same thing over and over again? Newer prog bands have an annoying tendency to want to rehash early Genesis or try and do Yes’s harmonies or find some rhythmic weirdness worthy of any incarnation of King Crimson. Why aren’t they big?
Because it’s not original. Now the Stones and The Beatles actually did not break any new ground when they first appeared. Mick and Keith were all about Delta blues and Memphis blues and Chicago blues. The Beatles wanted to be Buddy Holly in the worst way, and according to Pete Best, early on, that’s exactly what they were. But conventional rock is about feel and emotion, a point driven home as I write this by the John Fogerty concert I have running on the DVR. I’ve heard the licks Fogerty plays by dozens of other guitarists, but the emotion and the execution is always different. He and Clapton and even classically obsessed Ritchie Blackmore aren’t trying to be Mozart. (Blackmore just occasionally beats the hell out of Beethoven for fun.)
When it works, it works great. Genesis started out as a psychedelic band that tossed everything they knew into a blender and hit frappe. If you listen closely to the final Phil Collins effort, We Can’t Dance, you can clearly hear the original blueprint laid down on 1970’s Trespass. But when they had that six-album run from 1971 through 1977, the whole point was to make the listener go, “WTF?” From Nursery Cryme, which features the finest epic about a noxious weed ever written in the 20th century, to Winds and Wuthering, which has a similar song about mice, Genesis went out of their way to keep the listener off-balance. But there was also a feel to the music. I’ve seen “Supper’s Ready” move some people to tears. Sorry, but no one’s going to accuse ELP of that by beating the listener over the head with a pipe organ.
So who were the best at this weird version of rock that sometimes fails to be rock? It’s Friday. How about a list?
5. KING CRIMSON
Robert Fripp’s 45-year weirdgasm. Crimson came out of the gate with a forty-minute acid trip called In the Court of the Crimson King that pretty much defined progressive rock. For the next three years, he went through an ever-shifting line-up trying to duplicate Court without success before settling on the trio of himself, future Asia singer John Wetton, and former Yes man Bill Bruford. This incarnation veered wildly from heavy metal to jazz and back again, often in the same song. After a few years off, Fripp resurrected Crimson with new partner Adrian Belew and began playing a game of finding how many bizarre time signatures they could put Belew’s punk sensibilities over. There have been so many members of Crimson over the years (It even spawned Foreigner and slipped a tentacle into Bad Company, two of the most un-Crimson-like bands ever) that they’ve spent the past eight years as three separate bands.
The tight harmonies, twenty-minute epics, bass that’s not really a rhythm instrument, and spacey lyrics all packaged in those Roger Dean album covers. Yes is the poster band for progressive rock. When they’re on, they’re really on, as with 1972’s Fragile and 1973’s Close to the Edge. Sometimes, though, they trip over themselves, and a decade of more aggressive music driven by Trevor Rabin was probably a good thing. They’re still around with Alan White, guitar virtuoso Steve Howe, and Chris Squire, bassist and the only member to have been in every line-up. However, it’s hard to imagine Yes without lead singer Jon Anderson, and the classic line-up’s later efforts sound a bit forced.
Rush survives and gets mainstream respect because they get that it’s progressive rock. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson started out taking cues from Led Zeppelin (“Working Man” anyone?). When they brought in the acrobatic Neil Peart, the lyrics got epic, the rhythm got complicated, and the music broke ground. And yet when I and my junior high classmates first heard of Rush, we thought they were in the same vein as Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. It was the aggressive sound. Prog is a means to compose music for them, not a religion.
The costumes. Steve Hackett’s guitar. The twenty-minute epics. The classical influence. And The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? They weren’t out to invent a genre. They just wanted to sound different. Later, after Steve Hackett left, people asked Phil Collins why they didn’t do things like “Supper’s Ready” and “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight” anymore? His response? They’d already done it twenty years earlier. Many complain about the music they did in the eighties, and even complain about Gabriel’s solo work, but Genesis was smart. Prog was a method, not a religion.
1. PINK FLOYD
With Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd showed how prog was supposed to be done. The right way, the Floyd way. Meddle is a thread that weaves through every Floyd album all the way to 1994’s The Division Bell. The point was not to meet anyone’s expectations. With the exception of The Wall and The Final Cut, when the message moved front and center, the burning question on every Floyd album was, “Does it sound good?” On Dark Side, it sounds perfect. Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? According to David Gilmour, it was keyboardist Rick Wright. According to Roger Waters, it was Syd Barrett. According to their albums, it was all five of them.