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Fifty Years of Prog Rock by Fred de Vries
#1
Fred is a music journalist and author friend - I have his permission to post this piece here. My own opinion differs on a few points, but hey ho, others still will differ from mine! It's well considered and well written, and I thought some of you might enjoy the read.  Cool

Fifty Years of Prog Rock by Fred de Vries

Sometimes even a person as capricious as Nick Cave can still surprise. On his website theredrighthandfiles.com, where he'll answer any question, someone asked him to name his favourite guitarists. Given his love for the blues, you would expect Cave to come with old cats such as John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters. Instead he singled out Robert Fripp and David Gilmour. Yes, elderly rock maestros who experienced their heyday in the seventies, in respectively King Crimson and Pink Floyd. In other words: bands that played what is usually labelled as 'progressive rock', or simply 'prog.'

So Mr. Cave, the man who almost single-handedly rewrote the script for gothic punky blues, unveiled himself as a lover of prog. Just read the following lines from his post about Fripp and Gilmour: 'King Crimson was able to combine extraordinary moments of purity and fragility with super heavy rock 'n' roll, and maybe they imprinted somewhere in my mind the template for some of the more schizophrenic Bad Seed songs. King Crimson were masters of the sudden violent eruption. Bill Bruford, their drummer, was simply off the planet and Robert Fripp was my favourite guitarist at the time, along with, of course, David Gilmour. As a teenager, I was a big English progressive rock fan. Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Procul Harum, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer - I love that stuff. I still do.'

So there you go: prog, one of the most derided genres of rock, rehabilitated by the man who, certainly in days of Birthday Party, seemed to value raw feeling and non-musicianship way over musical prowess. And weren't those prog bands utterly gross and off-putting? Weren't they basically the cause of punk rock. Wasn't Johnny Rotten in the early Sex Pistols days seen wearing a home-made T-shirt that proclaimed 'I Hate Pink Floyd'?

Prog is a weird beast, much maligned, because of its seriousness, its intellectualism and its pretentiousness. Its heydays were more or less from 1969 to 1976. It was boys' music, you couldn't dance to it. It was music for nerds. Proggers eschewed love songs. Some critics called it 'musical masturbation.' The ultimate prog idiot was Rick Wakeman, the keyboard player for Yes, who appeared in bright yellow capes that didn't exactly match his greasy long blond hair.

And there were those song titles. Who would come up with something as ridiculous as ‘The Revealing Science of God: the Dance of the Dawn.’ You'll find it on Yes's sixth studio album Tales from Topgraphic Oceans, a double LP from 1973 with only four songs, each covering a full side. The tone for all this musical masturbation was probably set by Pink Floyd who released Ummagumma in 1969, a double album with one live disc and one on which each band member was allowed to create a solo work without involvement of the others. It resulted in a very self-indulgent record, to say the least. But we bought it, as kids, and marvelled at the sound of a fly being swatted on the Roger Waters composition 'Grantchester Meadows', first the buzzing insect, going from one speaker to the other, then the dry smack.

But prog has been making a comeback. It's not only Nick Cave who sings the praises of those bands that dreamed of turning rock music into a serious art form, up there with ballet and theatre. The Guardian was one of the first newspapers to reassess the qualities of the much maligned genre in a piece that was published in 2010 under the headline 'Go Back To Go Forward: The Resurgence of Prog Rock.' Author Alexis Petridis hit the nail on its head when he writes 'Quite aside from the music, prog's enduring appeal may lie in its very awkwardness. At a time when indie music has become mainstream, prog still repels major labels, because it resists commodification and they don't know how to market it.' 

That is certainly the case, because generally, maybe apart from some fleeting moments in the late sixties and early seventies, when Yes, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull did have Top 40 hits, prog is not sexy, difficult to market, hard to turn into money, because most of the songs are way too long to be released as singles. Additionally, you'll rarely hear of prog bands getting involved in scandals with groupies, bags of cocaine, punch-ups or the smashing up of hotel rooms.

Two years ago The New Yorker also devoted a number of pages to the insurrection of the musical dinosaur that had been pronounced dead many years ago. Kalefa Sanneh writes: 'The collapse of prog helped reaffirm the dominant narrative of rock and roll: that pretension was the enemy; that virtuosity could be an impediment to honest self-expression; that “self-taught” was generally preferable to “classically trained.” In the past twenty years, though, a number of critics and historians have argued that prog rock was more interesting and more thoughtful than the caricature would suggest.'

I grew up with prog. I endured its glory days in the mid-seventies. I remember how my classmates swooned when Tales from Topgraphic Oceans and Selling England by the Pound came out. I wasn't too keen on the music, preferring the ridiculous guitar attack of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Budgie. But even they used prog elements. And so did nearly every other band from the era, from Led Zeppelin to Queen. South Africa also had a healthy prog scene, which included Freedom's Children and Abstract Truth, bands whose albums now fetch hundreds of euro's on eBay.

I did like some pure prog. I did buy albums by Yes, Pink Floyd and Rush. But these days I appreciate it much more. In fact, I now tend to agree with those who say that for a while, for a good five, six years, prog was the future of rock, a possibility to elevate pop music to the status of serious art. It was inventive, interesting and ambitious. The idea of making rock into proper art was idealistic, it was almost anarchistic, because it went completely against the grain of what record companies wanted. They need huge sales, top 40 hits, handsome boys and pretty girls to open teenage wallets, not a bunch of long hairs who favour difficult time signatures and weird instruments (flute, mellotron, French horn) over sing-along choruses.

Therefore, one has to agree with The Guardian and The New Yorker: it's time for a reappraisal of progressive rock. Because prog is not a dirty word (anymore). With that in mind I and my buddy  Siebe Thissen wrote a series of 25 articles about prog rock for the Dutch underground magazine Platenblad. We limited ourselves largely to prog's 70s heyday and we chose 25 albums that, according to us, represented the genre in all its diversity. And although you can't avoid them, we didn't want to restrict ourselves to the usual suspects. So we did indeed cover Pink Floyd (Meddle), Yes (The Yes Album) and Genesis (Nursery Cryme), but we also went into weird avenues and wicked alleyways. So we looked at artprog with Roxy Music (Roxy Music), Van Der Graaf Generator (Godbluff) and Brian Eno (Before and after Science). We jumped across the Channel and explored Europrog, devoting space to the French band Art Zoyd, and Dutch proggers Alquin. Germany had its own version of prog that the English scathingly labelled Krautrock (for obvious reasons (Kraut is a swearword) the Germans prefer Deutschrock), which included fabulous and innovative bands such as Neu!, Can, Faust and Tangerine Dream. We didn't even touch upon the Italian prog heritage, which counts hundreds of weird but excellent bands of which Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso are only the tip of the iceberg. In Italy, prog was the music of the revolution. Concerts by King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator in the early seventies turned into full scale battles between agitated youth and the police. Check out the comprehensive website italianprog.com for a better idea of the magnitude of Italian prog.

We went beyond music by also looking at the use of prog music in literature, devoting one episode to Jonathan Coe's fabulous 2001 novel The Rotters' Club, which is set in Birmingham in the mid-seventies and deals with a high school boy's obsession with unrequited love and difficult bands such as Hatfield and the North.

Our somewhat opportunistic definition of prog (progressive in the literary sense: ambitious, intelligent and innovative, a giant step removed from the tired and tested 12 bar blues and rock 'n roll format) enabled us to also focus on experimental bands that are normally associated with the punk era. Hence pieces on This Heat, Pere Ubu, Einstürzende Neubauten and Wire.

To prove that the genre isn't restricted to the bubble of white virtuoso musicians, we also looked into the world of black progressive music. If you search a bit, you'll discover a whole black prog world out there. Jazz and afro-beat were the teachers, and it gave us bands such as Assegai (with South African musicians Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana), Osibisa, Cymande, Noir and later Blk Jks from Johannesburg. We opted for Demon Fuzz, a British band with members with West-Indian roots. They started out as a heavy soul outfit, but changed to progressive music after a trip to Morocco opened their eyes to different scales and rhythms. They only made one LP, Afreaka! The album appeared in 1970, with cover of a black man with a nose that looked like a bird's beak, wearing a surreal, colourful balaclava. The music was equally unusual. It shows a band that manages to weave all the different influences (African, Caribbean, European) into a tapestry of sounds that defies categorisation. Yes, we call it prog.

That was the easy and fun part. More tricky was the awkward relationship between prog and women, and the obtuse intersection where prog and politics meet.

To start with the female factor, let's be clear: prog is a man's world. There are very few prog bands that feature women. And if there was any female presence, it was usually the singer. Renaissance, Babe Ruth, It's a Beautiful Day and Earth and Fire spring to mind. For our story, we picked Curved Air who in 1971 had a hit with the wonderful, summery, sexy 'Back Street Luv.' Their singer Sonja Kristina was more than a very pretty face; she wrote many of the lyrics and is still active in the world of prog. So much so that in 2014 she received the Guiding Light Award, part of the Progressive Music Awards. Jerry Ewing, editor of PROG Magazine said: 'The Guiding Light Award is for those artists who offer inspiration through their actions. As one of the leading ladies of a genre once thought of as very much a male domain, Sonja has been a pioneering spirit in the prog world, and an inspiration to the now many female artists in the genre who have followed on. I cannot think of a better suited recipient.'

But Kristina is an exception. Prog and women seem mutually exclusive. We asked some experts why this is the case. Israeli psychologist Naomi Ziv, who has done substantial research on the impact of music on the psyche, emailed: 'I would expect that the reason for there being less female musicians in this style is probably both a result of the fact that the music “business” is dominated by men and it’s probably more difficult, or used to be more difficult, for women to enter this field. Also, the “hard” aspect of this music (loud, maybe a little aggressive) is counter to what females are socialized to be, so this may also make it harder for women to participate. As for the audience, again, I didn’t know that females don’t like it that much, but assuming this is so, it may also be related to socialization, since women are supposed to be “sweeter”, less assertive, less loud, etc.'

My Scottish friend Maggie Ayre, an award winning journalist for the BBC with finely honed musical taste buds said: 'My instinctive answers to that are that I and any female music fan friends would immediately snigger and think of prog rock as all about beardie, geeky, blokey types like Rick Wakeman, wearing daft clothes and being too hippy to offer women any entertainment apart from poking fun. I think women just saw/see it as something belonging to the extreme nerd almost aspergers male psyche like trainspotting, being into garden sheds, playing with Warhammer etc… It doesn’t offer the ladies anything.'

She continued: 'Would it be fair to say that a fair amount of drugs would have been involved in some of those musicians’ careers? Again is that a male thing – mind altering substances appealing as some kind of pathway to a higher truth?  My feeling is women don’t sit in their bedrooms doing that and creating music out of that experience…'

Most women prefer to see the prog bands they love as 'not prog.' British music writer Sylvie Simmons, author of the superb Leonard Cohen biography I'm Your Man; the Life of Leonard Cohen said via email: 'Progophilia appears to be a secondary gender characteristic. Like looking under car hoods and liking to take stereo equipment apart and putting it back together. It doesn't engage me or move me.  But there are bands you define as prog that I don't and am very fond of like Floyd and King Crimson and Radiohead and Roxy Music (oh come on, they're glam rock, or art rock, not prog).' To add to her point of prog being utterly dreary she added: 'When I was young I went with a boyfriend to a Yes concert in London. He got second row seats. I fell asleep. He kept elbowing me awake but I kept falling back to sleep.'

And 50-year old Britpop star Justine Frischmann of Elastica wrote: 'I love (Brian Eno's) Here Come the Warm Jets, Another Green World, Faust IV and the first two Wire records. I’ve never thought of them as prog, more art school. I think of prog being a by-word for wanky. It’s kind of a dirty word.'

Yet, Curved Air's Sonja Kristina, who this year turned 70, still loves prog in all its glory. 'I think that through the waves of acid house and grunge, Britpop and indie that it is time for innovation again by virtuoso players. There are now many younger prog bands and prog stages at festivals. The now legendary musicians are being revisited by young and old music lovers,' she said in her email, having just finished playing on a 'progcruise', which took old (Yes, Focus, Curved Air) and new (Frost, 10 Earth) heroes and their audience from Tempa in Florida to Cozumel in Mexico.

Politics and prog are a tad more complicated. Many bands found a spiritual home in a rich fantasy and science fiction world that was frequently translated into the futuristic covers that Roger Dean designed for some of the seminal prog albums, including Yes, Greenslade and Osibisa (He also did the logo's for the prog labels Virgin and Harvest.) Some of the old bands, Yes and Curved Air in particular, were undoubtedly idealistic, left wing hippies. 'The hippie values were a merging of eastern and western influences, spiritual and musical. I think that has continued with more cultures in the pot. Peace and love are ideal states that all healthy beings enjoy,' said Kristina. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was more cynical and, with grim determination, wrote songs about alienation, feeble Englishness and the abuse of power, be it by multinationals or school teachers.

Others veered into more dangerous territory. You can see how technical brilliance and the genius-like status that some of the prog musicians strived for and acquired can easily lead to feelings of superiority and exclusion - among the fans as well. For our series we therefore took a close look at the Canadian proggers Rush whose members have professed a great admiration for the controversial Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, who lived from 1905 to 1982. She wrote two best sellers The Fountainhead (1943) en Atlas Shrugged (1957). Fuelled by her upbringing in the Soviet Union, Rand developed a strong anti-communist libertarian philosophy that she called Objectivism and which basically says that the value of a human being can only be measured in monetary terms. In other words, if I earn ten times as much as you, my value is ten times bigger. Rand was a great propagator of ruthless individualism.

Just like prog, Ayn Rand has gone through a revival. Her books and philosophy are particularly popular with intelligent, lonely young white men who are convinced of their own qualities but see all kinds of obstacles (mainly to do with foreigners and measures such as affirmative action) that prevent them from achieving their full potential. Rand has gained popularity in alt-right circles, and some lefty English music writers have tried to tarnish Rush with the same right-wing brush. Some accused the band of having 'fascist' tendencies.

Rush certainly isn't a fascist band. That two of its members, bassist/singer Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart were receptive to Rand's utopian ideas about the supremacy of individualism and the fear of a totalitarian state was understandable. They grew up as very talented loners in the stifling uniformity of suburban Canada, where anything that steered away from the very reactionary norm was frowned upon. Moreover, the parents of Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, who were respectively Jewish and Yugoslavian, had been seriously affected by nazism and communism. Peart, a bookish nerd, an outsider who detested the bourgeois expectations of school, house, wife, children, joined the band when they recorded their second album Fly by Night in 1975. He wrote the song 'Anthem', which referred to a dystopian novella Ayn Rand had published in 1938. In that book she writes: ‘To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.’ The song ‘Anthem’ is a paean to egotism and individualism. Lee sings: ‘Though I know they've always told you selfishness was wrong/ yet it was for me, not you that I came to write this song.’

Peart, who wrote most of the lyrics for Rush, got into Rand as a teenager, the same way some of us got into Jack Kerouac, Patti Smith, Douglas Coupland, Haruki Murakami or David Foster Wallace: because these writers nailed a zeitgeist and appealed to us, self-proclaimed outsiders. It's a thing young people tend to do: look for artists or writers they can identify with. Artists who express their desires and frustrations. Artists who understand them and are there for them alone.

When Rolling Stone magazine asked Neil Peart in 2012 whether he was still a fan of Ayn Rand, he answered. 'Oh, no. That was 40 years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile. I had come up with that moral attitude about music, and then in my late teens I moved to England to seek fame and fortune and all that, and I was kind of stunned by the cynicism and the factory-like atmosphere of the music world over there, and it shook me. I’m thinking, “Am I wrong? Am I stupid and naïve? This is the way that everybody does everything and, had I better get with the program?”

We picked Rush's 2112 from 1976 for our series. The title track, which covers the whole of Side A is essential listening for every prog fan. '2112' is a science fiction opus that has been divided into seven parts, some soft, some incredibly loud. In line with the cover, which depicts a simmering red star, the song deals with a single man's battle with the kind of totalitarianism that throttles all creativity and individualism. Underneath the lyrics, which are printed on the sleeve, it says ‘With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand.’

In the Rolling Stone interview mentioned earlier, Peart also explains that for him Rand's thinking was an affirmation that it’s okay to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. 'It was a simple as that,' he said. 'On that 2112 album, again, I was in my early twenties. I was a kid. Now I call myself a bleeding heart libertarian. Because I do believe in the principles of Libertarianism as an ideal – because I’m an idealist. Paul Theroux’s definition of a cynic is a disappointed idealist. So as you go through past your twenties, your idealism is going to be disappointed many many times. And so, I’ve brought my view and also – I’ve just realized this – Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we’re all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that’s when I evolve now into . . . a bleeding heart Libertarian. That’ll do.'

To show that prog legacy lives on, we finished our series with an essay on Radiohead, whose subsequent albums OK Computer, Kid A, and Amnesiac, all three recorded around the turn of the century, can be considered modern prog masterpieces (although Radiohead apparently hated the prog tag), that opened the door for a whole new generation of experimental bands and fans of experimental music. Radiohead dedicated the reissue of OK Computer, titled OKNOTOK 1997-2017 to Rachel Owen, the ex-wife of singer Thom York, who died in 2016 after a long battle with cancer.

It ends with the following words: 'we hope you are ok. thank you for listening.’ Unusually humble for proggers. And therefore a perfect way to end this story.
"The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us." ~ Bill Watterson
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#2
This is the list of records:

Curved Air - Air Conditioning (1970) 
Demon Fuzz - Afreaka! (1970)
Genesis - Nursery Cryme (1971)
Pink Floyd - Meddle (1971)
Yes - The Yes Album (1971)
Roxy Music - Roxy Music (1972)
Alquin - Mountain Queen (1973) 
Can - Future Days (1973)
King Crimson - Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells (1973) 
The Peter Peter Ivers Band - Terminal Love (1974) 
Hatfield and the North - The Rotters’ Club (1975)
Jethro Tull - Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)
Tangerine Dream - Rubycon (1975)
Van Der Graaf Generator: Godbluff (1975)
Art Zoyd - Symphonie Pour Le Jour Ou Bruleront Les Cites (1976) 
Rush - 2112 (1976)
Brian Eno – Before and after Science (1977)
Pere Ubu - Dub Housing (1978)
Wire - Chairs Missing (1978) 
PIL - Metal Box (1979)
This Heat - This Heat (1979)
Wire - 154 (1979)
Lemon Kittens - We Buy A Hammer For Daddy (1980)
Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)
"The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us." ~ Bill Watterson
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#3
on the Nick Cave, ive learned never to be surprised by anything to do with him...

on the rest of the article, like you, some I agree with, some I don't, but that's what opinion is all about...

its well thought out and well written so im not going to nit-pick
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#4
Good article and a lot of things I can relate to. Don't agree with his take on Wakeman. He was one of a handful of keyboard wizards who created a whole new style of playing. The best parts of Tales from Topographic Oceans are the ones he had a hand in.
'The purpose of life is a life of purpose' - Athena Orchard.
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#5
Thanks RUBY for posting the de Vries article more than a few years ago. A fascinating read. I’m puzzled though by two things, one I’ve wondered about myself 'prog, one of the most derided genres of rock’.  Maybe if the same drugs were around today’s brats would understand? Maybe if they learnt to sit with their eyes closed and listen without all the eye candy that’s clogging the musical world today from end to end?

As to the mention of Ayn Rand it makes little sense to me. I too was a teenage fan or Ms Rand’s philosophy and grew out of it but I can’t figure out what de Vries is trying to tell us about this.
The Human Race Really is Insane.
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#6
^You're welcome - it was posted this August. 

A good point about sitting with eyes closed, but in my experience they also barely make it all the way through one song, eye candy or no, let alone an entire album. There's something else that's keeping them enslaved and I think it's to do with an actual physical 'addiction' - the combination of beat and loudness. Something going on in the neural pleasure centres, I'm sure. That said, it's not all doom and gloom - when my daughter plays her instruments, she chooses melody driven 'songs' and she has an excellent ear.  

I suppose Ayn Rand features primarily due to the Rush connection, Rush being one of the featured artists in the series, so tying her in with the sentiments around prog at the time. I don't necessarily agree re the purported 'feelings of superiority and exclusion' among prog rockers and/or their fans, but I guess the reference fleshes out the politics and prog angle. I'll ask for a greater insight next time I see Fred. 


  
"The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us." ~ Bill Watterson
Reply
#7
This risks taking us off topic but I’ve become aware of late there’s a move to rewrite not only the history of popular music but movements such as the flower power hippie period. Part of this is I suspect a vain attempt to pretend creativity and drugs aren’t, or rather weren’t linked.
Even the Beatles were guilty of this one with their absurd claim Lucie in The Sky With Diamonds wasn’t a reference to LSD. And it’s not just the music’s history being re-written. The almost total silence in the art world about the influence of drugs upon art during this period has left us with only one common reference, ‘Psychedelic’. I asked a teenager recently what they thought psychedelic art was. The answer was .’Lots of bright colours’.
I have to confess, as a geriatric hippie myself, I find this movement to bury an important part of our history offensive in the extreme.

As to Rand and Prog Rock, she hated it preferring Rachmaninoff and other classical romantics.

The attention span of the young in primary school (Grade school in the US?) has teachers break lessons up with substitutes for advertisements as children today have such a diminished attention span. This process also involves a technique used in many video productions today. For instance, a documentary will break for an advert but when it returns a brief précis of what went before is given just in case the audience has forgotten where they were in the story. And to think in Mozart’s day a concert could run for up to six ours without a break. The audiences bladder control must have been astonishing.
The Human Race Really is Insane.
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#8
As for the drugs thing, I remember reading Mike Oldfield's autobiography, 'Changeling'. In it he states that if it wasn't for LSD he would never have been able to write the stuff he did.
'The purpose of life is a life of purpose' - Athena Orchard.
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#9
(13-10-2019, 05:18)Jerome Wrote: As for the drugs thing, I remember reading Mike Oldfield's autobiography, 'Changeling'. In it he states that if it wasn't for LSD he would never have been able to write the stuff he did.

Few are willing to admit that . On the other hand some drugs are the reason some people arn’t able to write anything.
The Human Race Really is Insane.
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