Desperate Straights: David Weigel on the Rise and Fall of Prog Rock
By Anthony MostromAugust 4, 2017
The Show That Never Ends by David Weigel
My youthful record-buying habit followed the usual associative, word-of-mouth pattern: since I’d already bought all the records by the dissonant, industrial-communist, London-based band Henry Cow (a play on the name of California composer Henry Cowell), well then, obviously, I was going to love their collaborative LP with another ultra-arty British group, Slapp Happy, and their Lotte Lenya-ish singer Dagmar (this record, Desperate Straights, was released by Virgin in 1975, and is one of the best things Richard Branson ever gave to the world). My love for the first two LPs by the Canterbury-based Soft Machine led naturally to their drummer Robert Wyatt’s incredibly seductive and atmospheric solo album Rock Bottom, a masterpiece of Dadaist wordplay paired with ambient, lush melodies and oceanic sheets of sound, with organ, piano, and much squawking saxophone. It remains a transcendent record, permanently recommended.
Nowadays, not only journalists but even some old-time fans of “prog” can be harsh about certain features of the music they loved as nerdy and/or precocious kids. “The lyrics of Emerson Lake & Palmer, at least up to 1973 […] were without redeeming merit of any kind,” Rick Moody writes (I guess he was just being moody) in a witty 2013 book of essays called Yes Is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales (edited by Marc Weingarten). Moody was basically slamming ELP for their well-known “excesses,” which now tend to serve as standard talking points people hold against progressive rock in general: overblown musical pomposity and the urge toward operatic “epics,” rapid rhythmic complexity-for-its-own-sake of the classical-music-meets-rock variety, not to mention earnest, asexual lyrics (sublimated, I suppose, into all that goofy Wagnerian bombast).
But, as David Weigel’s new book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock reminds us, there were many different branches and subgenres of progressive rock. For every hippied-out group like Daevid Allen’s Gong, with its twee, gnome-friendly circus-and-costumes act, there was the muscular, violins-and-mellotron experimentalism of King Crimson, the ultimate “thinking man’s” progressive-band-only-guys-like. (Actually, you could apply that label to most prog groups; how many high school girls ever became fans of, say, Frank Zappa and the Mothers? The prog-rock resistance to love songs, well documented in Weigel’s book, is a likely cause of its highly lopsided male reception.)
In his introduction, Weigel does what he’s supposed to do in a book about a largely critically unknown musical species: he lets the genre’s musicians more or less define the form themselves. “We just thought we were trying to combine music that hadn’t been combined before […] elements of jazz, and of classical,” says Peter Sinfield, formerly of King Crimson, which was then (and amazingly, still is) one of the most rigorously avant-garde and musically satisfying of all progressive groups. (Sinfield adds that “the P word” was coined by music journalists — but of course!) According to Steve Hackett of Genesis, prog-rock musicians differed from other rock stars of their era in a significant way: “We weren’t on acid, we weren’t on drugs; we were on beer and wine and Earl Grey.”
One reviewer calls Weigel’s book “completist,” but it’s far from that. Indeed, there are too many pages spent on jumpy, superstar prog bands like ELP, Yes, and Genesis (and the questionably included Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull), and not enough on more enduring experimental bands like Soft Machine or even Brian Eno (surely deserving of a book all his own), not to mention that worthy constellation of German artistes collectively known as “Krautrock” (there’s no mention here of Can, or Faust, or even Kraftwerk). This equals a missed opportunity to truly scrutinize this complex and actually quite diverse musical genre. Still, Weigel’s detailed, gossipy coverage of the ongoing history of King Crimson and its chilly guitarist-founder Robert Fripp is a very good thing (there’s a full chapter on Fripp himself!). “It was felt after Sgt. Pepper anybody could do anything in music,” Weigel quotes King Crimson’s great drummer, Bill Bruford, as saying. “It seemed the wilder the idea musically, the better.” Weigel the ultra-fan sums up the situation thus: “Everybody loved the Beatles, but they [the fans of prog] loved them best when they got weird.” He describes the form’s followers as
Fans who were sure there was something more out there. Arty types who wanted to find meaning in music, and who, rather than searching for it in short pop songs based on American blues, found it in the quirky Britishness of prog, equal parts twee and subversive.
As for prog being twee, I can only say that my circle of teenage sophisticates was immune to the sweet, crowd-pleasing melodies of Genesis and Yes, and (yes) the one-dimensional, organ-solo-dominated noodlings of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who always reminded me vaguely of the Who. Flutey old Jethro Tull, who probably shouldn’t even be in this volume — now that was twee. This stuff wasn’t avant-garde enough for us: no Cageian instrumental experimentation (Henry Cow), no drones (Matching Mole), no eccentrically quirky voices (Robert Wyatt, Slapp Happy), no mellotrons (King Crimson). Whenever you pair any of these things with tough, martial drum playing, it’s heaven (the ’90s band Broadcast, of Birmingham, made this point very well later on).
My fellow fans and I had already come across the term “art rock” in the pages of the British music tabloid Melody Maker, and we were hip to the modernist, dissonant “classical” music of Stockhausen and Cage. (In very few places other than Melody Maker could we read about many of our cult heroes, from Anthony Braxton to Iannis Xenakis.) For the real rock avant-garde, you started with the stark and hard-edged music of King Crimson and worked your way “leftward,” into the more experimental (and Dada-inflected) sounds of Canterbury-based bands like Gong and Soft Machine, and from there to the offshoots and “side projects,” such as ex-Softs-drummer Robert Wyatt’s trio Matching Mole: heavy on the mellotron, with its delectable synthetic-orchestra sound (again: rock + drones = musical bliss).
As far as Weigel’s calling prog “subversive,” well yes, it was an artistic attack on musically unadventurous pop music. One thing that solidified, to our teenage selves, the obvious superiority of this musical universe — in contrast to that silly and awful “glam rock” that was all the rage across campus — was its super-Englishness: not only did Robert Wyatt not try to sound like a black American (unlike cornball Mick Jagger) but he sounded so hyper-English (what was that accent, Isle of Man?) that it was hard to make out some of the words! (“I don’t have any affiliation with those gangs out there,” Wyatt himself told Melody Maker in 1975, addressing the music-for-teens question directly.)
Prog seemed to be rock music for adults. “It’s an import,” we proudly told our high school friends, who didn’t really collect records the way we did. (Did anyone “collect” mass-produced albums by, say, Jethro Tull, which were sold by the millions and as common as wallpaper? Our records, with those lovely laminated British covers, had the added charm of rarity.) The grass was greener in England, in avant-garde England. At the same time, we knew these groups were fans of early Zappa (a proud product of Los Angeles) and of Captain Beefheart’s ultra-weird masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (a product of Woodland Hills!). Prog-rock was an exclusive club, our club. Maybe it was a Los Angeles–London club. Who the heck was David Bowie, anyway? A loud, showbiz-y Hollywood act. (And why was it that we knew instinctively that Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music belonged in the progressive vanguard, without being able to put our finger on precisely why? It’s just one of those mysteries …)
I must admit to getting annoyed at Weigel’s over-generous use of musician gossip, no doubt culled from his weighty personal library of old Melody Makers and tattered issues of CREEM. I did not dig all these tedious rehearsals of ancient grudges and mutual back-stabbings. (Strangely, I can recall having that same feeling when I was about 10 and reading a tell-all paperback about the Beatles by Anthony Scaduto.) Weigel doesn’t speculate about how long the classic prog-rock albums will last (nor does he indulge in any supplementary lists of “best” records, another oversight), but the audience for this kind of stuff disappearing is about as likely as the late Arnold Schoenberg releasing a hit record. It’s silly to flat-out “hate” complexity in music, even rock: you take it or you leave it.
“Oh, I see we have a group of intellectuals in the audience,” John Lydon snarled down from the stage at one of the first Sex Pistols concerts in London. The barbarians had come. I remember reading that quote in an issue of Melody Maker in 1977. (“He was not far wrong,” the reporter noted. “Practically the entire staff of Virgin Records was in attendance.”) A signal moment, you would think, and not in a good way.
Anthony Mostrom, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is currently a book reviewer and travel writer for the L.A. Weekly.
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