Entry 5: Prog lives!
I’m sitting in the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, Pa., right in front of a middle-aged man wearing a thick beard and a T-shirt that proves he saw Genesis on their 1977 tour. He’s yelling right into my ear.
“A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers!”
These are songs by Van Der Graaf Generator, but the band, up on stage, isn’t playing them. “Shouting out requests is futile, I assure you!” announces VDGG’s singer/composer/genius Peter Hammill to the crowd of 1,000-odd obsessives. “We’ve got a set list.”
Photo by Yst
It’s the final weekend of June. Hammill’s band, Van Der Graaf Generator, is performing at the last-ever North-East Art-Rock Festival—NEARfest. In its 1970s heyday, VDGG consisted of up to five multi-instrumentalists. They have slimmed down to Hugh Banton, on keyboards; Guy Evans, on drums; and Hammill on piano and guitar. Their hair, respectively, is white, nonexistent, and white. They’re playing for people who knew them when that hair was shaggy and black.
In Bethlehem, I want to see who still lives, loves, and listens to prog. Every day, a crowd files politely into an amphitheater and watches a short film projected onto a scrim above the stage. An asteroid hurtles toward Earth, picks up momentum, and crashes. The planet cracks and bleeds like a sunburn. It explodes—two new planets are born. One is a lush, green globe painted by Roger Dean, who did the covers for Yes and Asia and Atomic Rooster. The other is a beautifully detailed précis of a burning earth, courtesy of Marillion cover artist Mark Wilkinson.
Our programs remind us that we will never go to another NEARfest. The organizers are done, moving on. There will never again be micro-tailgating parties in the parking garage, or rooms where rare LPs and Korean reprints of albums are traded like rubies. “We know for certain,” write the organizers, “that there will always be musicians with open minds, big ears, and bigger hearts, who are not satisfied to write simple protest, love, or dance songs.”
When I looked around at the audience throughout NEARfest—imagine the demographics of a Tea Party rally, but put them in Eloy and Magma T-shirts —there was occasional boredom, occasional nodding-off and walking-out. These were nostalgic, brainy people. (Nobody wants to read rundowns of stereotypes, but every third person I talked to either taught science or read about it to distract from his computer programming day job. Or he ran a record shop.) A few of the wristband-wearers sported blue T-shirts, obtained at another dayslong concert series. The message, spelled out in bold white letters:
Photo by David Weigel
You do not hear that sentiment at a Depeche Mode show or a Phish show or a De La Soul reunion show. Their fans adapt to trends. Their music comes back into fashion, it goes out, it comes back in.
On the first night of the festival, I followed the masses to the after-party at the Comfort Suites. The bar served a special NEARFest Apocalypse Ale—9.8 percent alcohol, brewed “in 9/8 time.” In the ballroom: an Internet radio station streaming the festival, and a local band playing a catchy, King Crimson-y batch of originals. Gary Green, the guitarist from Gentle Giant, had taken up residence near the entrance. I asked him about Kanye West’s “Power,” and a few other new songs that sampled prog. What did prog have to offer them?
“Perhaps it’s more interesting music than what’s currently about,” said Green. “It’s pretty thin out there. I’m a bit surprised by the lack of—well, of ability. Maybe they’ve got technology that can patch them through. But the ability, that I sorely miss, because I grew up on Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt. Playing your instrument and playing it well, you know—that’s music.”
Right. Veneration of technique has mostly fallen out of the mainstream. The biggest rock acts that still tour—U2, Coldplay, Radiohead—are not known for rotating drum solos. Jonny Greenwood and the Edge are adored, and so’s Jack White, but not for their guitar technique. It’s for the sounds they find and the ways they record—Greenwood miming and then collaborating with Penderecki, Jack White’s DIY journey to the center of analog.
This is what fascinates me about prog. The music is relentlessly futurist, with no nostalgia for anything in rock. Was there excess? I think we’ve answered that—there was horrible excess, and some of it involved the lead singer from the Who singing atop a giant rubber penis. In the U.K., the music press turned on prog, and turned viciously. Same thing in the States. “If you can’t have real quality,” wrote Lester Bangs of ELP, “why not go for quantity on a Byzantine scale, why not be pompous if you’re successful at it?” Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, made it into Cameron Crowe’s ‘70s nostalgia film Almost Famous. ELP did not.
The scolds won, and the fans followed them. My favorite succinct demonstration of the change actually comes in Jonathan Coe’s nostalgic novel The Rotter’s Club, named for a Hatfield and the North song/album. One of Coe’s rite-of-passage schoolboys, Philip, wants to form a prog band and call it Gandalf’s Pikestaff. He gathers the talent and hands out his opus, a half-hour suite about the birth and life of the universe titled “Apotheosis of the Necromancer.” The sheet music is “covered with dwarfish runes, Gothic calligraphy, and Roger Dean-style illustrations of dragons and busty elfin maidens in various stages of provocative undress.”
Yeah, well, whatever. The band starts practicing, and, Coe writes,
It was the drummer who sounded the first note of rebellion. After tinkling away on his ride cymbal for what must have seemed an eternity, as part of an extended instrumental passage that was meant to evoke the idea of zillions of far-off galaxies springing into life, he suddenly announced, “Fuck this for a game of soldiers,” and started to lay down a ferocious backbeat in 4/4. Recognizing his cue, the guitarist whacked up his volume and embarked upon a riotous three-chord thrash over which the lead vocalist, an aggressive little character called Stubbs, began to improvise what the charitable might describe as a melody.
I like this, actually, because it’s so oversimplified. Pop’s move away from prog didn’t happen that quickly. It was slow and tortured and involved a ton of moving parts breaking around the same time. In the United States, where most of this music ended up being sold, progressive rock radio slowly, slowly was assimilated into the Borg of commercial networking. “The reason free-form, underground progressive ended up becoming unpopular is it was the ultimate ‘active’ format,” says Donna Halper. “It was aimed at music freaks who adored everything about the newest groups and didn't ever wanna hear a hit. OK, fine, that makes up about 6 percent of your audience. But the mass audience wanted a middle ground.” A&R men stopped looking for “progressive” acts. Sire stopped promoting Renaissance and started schlepping the Ramones. “You’d put an album out, but they were expecting to sell so many thousand,” says Davy O’List. “I don’t think it hurt the live concert attendances, but it hurt overall.”
Culturally and lyrically, prog began as anti-“establishment” music. But compositionally, it rewarded long listens and worship of virtuosity. Punk deconstructed that. “Frankly,” wrote Creem’s Lisa Robinson in an early meet-the-punks column, “the music, the style, and the attitude of these bands has given me new energy and inspiration. After all, I didn’t quit teaching school to write about Peter Frampton.”
“Becoming irrelevant” isn’t the same as “dying off.” Pure prog endured, promoted by late-arriving bands like U.K. and second wave acts like Marillion. But its most lasting legacy is a blinking neon sign, a warning to every band everywhere, that reads PLEASE SWEET JESUS DON’T DO THIS. Bad Religion went in a proggy direction on their second album, Into the Unknown —its cover painting of outer space could appeared on a late-period Camel record—and they took drastic steps to erase the shame. Their next EP was titled Back to the Known; the proggy album wasn’t put back into print for 27 years. Even if a band had the chops, to go prog was to commit popular seppuku.
Prog, went the thinking, was an affront against sincerity. If you gussied a song up with strings, surely you were covering for a lack of feeling. That point was made countless times, usually in the same terms with which Bangs dismissed ELP. The originators of prog were trying to make simple pop songs irrelevant. The music that replaced prog copied that reaction—what had gone before was corrupt, and had to be destroyed.
That sensibility lasted longer than most medieval land wars. The occasional mainstream defender of prog always, always started in defense mode. In June, this year, Ted Leo published a confessional in Spin all about his love for Rush. It was packaged as a “confessional” because Rush were proggy, and you couldn’t endorse prog qua prog.
“I think at like the intersection of serious virtuosity and rockiness, that’s where some of the greatest music is,” said Leo in a follow-up interview. “Some of the most famous punk bands—Wire, Ramones even—there was a certain amount of theory going into even their primitivism, you know? Even their choice to play as primitively as the Ramones or early Wire, that’s not pure amateurism. There’s a theory behind what they were doing that. I think actually enhances the experience for me, so it’s not like I shy away from the intellectual or theoretical side of any of this. I mean even my own songwriting, I have done things and continue to do things that are in the twists and turns of a song that are interesting to me more because it’s like a little songwriting game.”
Rush, who came late to the prog wave (1974), have trimmed back the pretention while flaunting the virtuosity. As a reward, they can still play stadiums, in basically any country. They just happen to be the most sellable artists in a niche genre. Virtuoso metal and math rock, bands like Mastodon and Protest the Hero, have nestled into the same place. That’s one fractal of modern-day prog.
Here’s another. Both that Coldplay album, and the classic U2 albums, were produced by Brian Eno, who’d put out his first experimental music with Robert Fripp. Radiohead’s turn to avant-garde music in 2001 made them sound exactly like Can and Amon Duul II. Thom Yorke’s inter-dimensional moans evoke the old free-association Can yowls of Damo Suzuki.
The fans I met at NEARfest knew that prog has been disrespected, and they knew why. Why hadn’t Jethro Tull or King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator been invited to Cleveland, into the Hall of Fame? Because Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner hated prog. Why was the music written out of accepted rock history? See previous answer. Why didn’t television or radio play their music? In a 2011 oral history of MTV, one producer recalls that Asia—a prog supergroup, the breakout band of 1982, 10 percent of all albums sold that year—nailed down the first-ever live MTV concert. But it made for boring, unsexy TV. Out it went.
But that’s no way to judge a decade of music, and it’s not really an ego-builder for the solid bands in the new prog niche. The experiments of the Yes/Genesis/ELP era weren’t forgotten. You can’t sell that many records without a generation of musicians breathing in the influence.
Here’s another hand-me-down from the progressives In 1963, Bob Moog rented a cabin in upstate New York and designed—on a breadboard—the first synthesizer. Two voltage-controlled oscillators could change the pitch of sounds, and a voltage-controlled amplifier could tweak volume. It developed into a marginally marketable gimmick instrument.
Why? The major factor was the obsessiveness and popularity of Keith Emerson. He (well, his roadies) lugged a man-sized Moog onstage at every concert—first at Nice shows, then at ELP shows. When the creator started marketing semi-affordable Minimoogs, he found a selective audience ready to play with synthesizers. The Moog company schlepped more than 12,000 of the things. “The blips and gurgles they produced weren’t an extension of any existing tradition,” writes David Byrne in his upcoming How Music Works. “Moog’s innovation eventually made the esoteric familiar.”
Another example. In 2005, the Pitchfork-approved and Sub Pop-signed band Wolf Parade recorded a song called “I’ll Believe in Anything.” (Pitchfork has found space and honor for prog in its occasional look-back at 1970s music.) It begins with Hadji Bakara playing an apparently plotless, off-scale keyboard melody. The next sound is a 4/4 drum beat by Arlen Thompson. On top of that, Dan Boeckner starts playing a melodic guitar line. But it’s in the “wrong” time signature. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure is familiar, but it never settles. Then, finally, it does—because the drums and the rest of the band are in the same time signature. The song is off the rails until the band decides to climb back on.
That right there, that’s progressive music. It doesn’t sound dated. Neither does the strongest material from the progressive era. A band like Renaissance—with a singer who wore Magna Carta-era peasant garb and songwriters who arranged for orchestras—didn’t ever sound contemporary. How could it ever sound dated?
I don’t want to lionize everything that came out of this movement. The DIY, punk, and new wave backlashes wouldn’t have happened if the progressives hadn’t made some music worth lashing. When that backlash started, though, they were in many ways remarkably in the spirit of the prog revolution that had come before. Prog had demoed the electronics, pioneered the found sounds and use of empty space. They’d tweaked the synthesizers and parodied the three-minute pop song. This was the result of a “remarkable explosion of the creative impulse in popular music,” said Robert Fripp in a 2012 interview. Early, experimental progressive rock “came from these young men who didn’t know what they were doing, yet were able to do it.” You could say the same of the punks.
And when the progressives were on, they wrote gooseflesh-raising music. Their follies were grander than anyone else’s follies; their strange epics stranger and more epic. We place an awful lot of emphasis on sincerity in music, and we assume that rawer, more automatic songs are de facto more sincere than music that’s overly studied and composed. I don’t think that’s true. Art, if you trust Carl Jung’s opinion, is “constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking.” That’s a perfect description of what the progressives were trying to do.
When I talked to first-wave progressive artists, only a few expressed outright contempt for less-complicated music. (“Punk,” laughed Greg Lake about the music that replaced his in the British press. “They ought to call it crap. It’d be more honest.”) For most, their feelings about punk are rooted in their resentment of the way the record companies of the late 1970s left them behind. For years, said Van der Graaf’s Peter Hammill, prog artists “were given the right to experiment” by record companies. And then, not so much.
The rest of us are lucky that experiment happened at all. Teams of highly trained visionaries paced themselves against their influences and their peers to write songs they were confident no one else would think of writing. They took the music far, far away from the basics, so some later groups of jerks could take it “back to basics” and get praised for their genius. Every new artistic movement rebels against whatever came right before it. But the progressives’ rebellion was the weirdest, and the best.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.