Prog and the Printed Word – Part 1
Jean Roby Commentary June 2015
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2015 All Rights Reserved
Today, most of us usually refer to websites to check up-coming releases, tours, events, or even a band’s demise. But since there’s much more about the Prog realm than « news », these resources seldom provide the scope and depth needed to grasp the broader picture of Progressive Rock, or even simple episodes of its story. And that’s where books come in handy.
Books about Prog started to appear in the ‘90s and, since then, every year or so new ones are published. As most of them are still on the market and make for a varied lot, it’s useful to have some ideas about their content : How do they view the genre ? Do they offer an objective overview or analysis, or a personal perspective ? Do they focus solely on the usual iconic figures or do they shed light on the genre as a whole ? Were they written to support theories about societal aspects at a given time and/or do they provide means to a better understanding of the musical and lyrical content ? In short, what are they saying that might benefit the reader, whether he’s a seasoned fan or just a curious outsider ?
Books about Prog are history books of some sort, and for them to be worthy, authors must follow a few basic rules : clearly define the purpose of the book, collect as much data as possible from multiple sources, then validate, select and analyze the data. There is one last rule – staying as objective as possible throughout the process to provide the reader with the most comprehensive and un-biased views –, but this is a line authors often cross. Although history aims to be as exact a science as possible, Prog has stirred so much passion (both for and against), and therefore some authors feel compelled to make a stand for their subject. It may or may not taint significantly their writings, yet it doesn’t imply that their books are altogether unreliable because they have a certain bias. It’s just that, here and there, we don’t have to take these authors too seriously. That said, we could file the books about Prog under four main categories :
• Category 1 : Specific Prog bands or musicians – This first category is the fatter one : iconic bands and musicians make for good sales. Written either from the inside, or the outside, these books mix biographical elements with interviews and comments from people associated with the band or musician at various times, and so on. They’re lavishly illustrated and usually include never-seen-before pictures, facsimiles of posters, press releases and other assorted documents. While they focus on given bands or musicians, they also offer views on contemporary bands or paint a general picture of the music scene, if only because musicians make contacts and keep ties, however loose, with one another. That said, the authors can’t stray far from their chosen subject – historical overviews are restricted to what is relevant to the story of the specific band or musician.
This category includes autobiographies, whether or not the musician was assisted by a professional writer. Being written in the first person, ideas, feelings, souvenirs and anecdotes are expressed on a personal level ; there can be candid, self-indulgent and/or intimate, even poignant, revelations about one’s upbringing, love life, possible addictions, moments of bliss or glory, self-doubt or delusion crisis, and so on. If their band(s) have been the subject of books, then some autobiographies may shed new light on some events or simply confirm what was already written.
The Extraordinary World of Yes, Farley (2004).Pictures of an Exhibitionist, Emerson (2004). Soft Machine : Out-Bloody-Rageous, Bennett (2005). Inside Out – A Personal History of Pink Floyd, Mason (2005). Syd Barrett : Crazy Diamond – The Dawn of Pink Floyd, Watkinson & Anderson (2007). Genesis : Chapter & Verse, Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett & Rutherford (2007). Pink Floyd, Povey (2008). Grumpy Old Rockstar and Other Wondrous Stories, Wakeman (2008). The Autobiography : Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More, Bruford (2010). Marillion : Separated Out… Redux, Collins (2012). Under the Ivy : The Life and Music of Kate Bush, Thomson (2012). Serge Fiori – S’enlever du chemin**, Thériault (2013). A Passion Play : The Story of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull, Rabey (2013). Lifting Shadows – The Authorized Biography of Dream Theater, Wilson (2013). Rush : The Illustrated History, Popoff (2013). Emerson, Lake & Palmer : The Show That Never Ends… Encore, Forrester & Hanson (2013). The Living Years, Rutherford (2014).
• Category 2 : Prog defined through a fixed time frame – Their authors usually consider that Progressive Rock has lasted from the second half of the ‘60s to the late ‘70s. Despite the short life span assigned to the genre, authors deliver lots of thorough informations, revealing insights and reviews, anecdotes and feelings. Whether their views are analytical or nostalgic, the underlying message often tends to come through : Progressive Rock was an era and has been dead since, up to the point where some of these books seem more like forensic reports. Other authors acknowledge that the genre still exists, though they imply more or less overtly that its relevance might not be what it was during the allegedly Golden Age.
Rocking the Classics – English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, Macan (1997). The Music’s All That Matters : A History of Progressive Rock, Stump (1998). Listening to the Future : The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968-1978, Martin (1998). Rock Progressivo Italiano*, Baotto & D’Ubaldo (2005). Le rock progressif anglais 1967-1977**, Pirenne (2005). Rock Progressif**, Leroy (2014).
• Category 3 : Prog as an on-going genre –This one gains more weight each year, as the genre has been gathering momentum and widening its audience since the turn of the millenium. Even though Prog has now achieved global status, some books still focus more on the UK and Western countries, thus sidelining bands sprouting non-stop from every corner of the world. Also, when surveying the « now » of Prog, authors might tend to cross the line, allowing their personal tastes to take over from time to time by turning the spotlight on bands or solo artists they view as more significant than others… even if or when public and/or critical acclaim doesn’t follow suit.
Encyclopédie des musiques progressives**, Lafiteau (2000). The Progressive Rock Files and The Progressive Rock Handbook, Lucky (2000, 2008). Anthologie du rock progressif – Voyages en ailleurs**, Alberola (2010). Mountains Come Out of the Sky and Prog Rock FAQ, Romano (2010, 2014). Beyond and Before – Progressive Rock since the 1960s, Hegarty & Halliwell (2011). Citizens of Hope and Glory – The Story of Progressive Rock, Lambe (2011). After the Flood : Progressive Rock 1976-2010* and Guida al Nuovo Progressive Rock 1990-2008*, Barbagli (2014). Prog 100 : Le rock progressif, des précurseurs aux héritiers**, Delâge (2014).
• Category 4 : Other aspects of Prog – This is the catch-all category. Progressive Rock owes much of its distinctive identity to particular instruments such as the Mellotron, and to the care given to cover art, sleeve design, tour posters and stage props, by such artists as R. Dean, H.R. Giger, W. MacMazzieri, H. Syme, S. Thorgerson (Hipgnosis), P. Whitehead, M. Wilkinson, etc. This category also includes takes on Prog bands’ association with movies, and books written for fans and/or musicians who want to cover iconic songs or albums.
Analog Days : The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, Pinch & Trocco (2004). Progressive Rock Guitar (Book & CD), Riley (2004). Taken by Storm : The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson, Thorgerson & Curzon (2007). Progressive Rock Keyboard : Hal Leonard Keyboard Style Series, Maske (2007). Mellotron : The Machine and the Musicians That Revolutionized Rock, Awde (2008). On the Beaten Path : Progressive Rock, The Drummers Guide to the Genre and the Legends Who Defined It (Book & CD), Lackowski (2009). Views, Dean (2009). The Making of Pink Floyd : The Wall, Scarfe (2010). Dario Argento : The Man, The Myths & The Magic, Jones (2012). Progressive Rock Vinyls**, Dupuis (2012).
The lists of books above present a personal selection ; by no means should they be viewed as exhaustive. Their main purpose is to provide the reader with relevant examples for each category, and also to offer a glimpse of the variety and the number of books currently avalaible in English, French and Italian, the only languages I understand. Whatever the category, some authors show a journalist’s ease of writing, mixed at times with the intimate tone of a confidant privy to revelations hitherto untold, while others favor a more academic approach, proposing theories, analysing lyrics and music (and also related cover art), deciphering plain or hidden meanings and linking them to ideologies, beliefs, artistic movements, trends of the time, etc.
So, there you have it, and now it’s your turn to make a move… unquestionably in the right direction !
* Published in Italian
** Published in French