Prog is Alive & Kicking in 2018 – Pt 1
Jerry Lucky Commentary January 2018
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2018 All Rights Reserved
Always on the lookout for how the rest of the world sees Progressive Rock, I recently came across an article of interest in the New Yorker magazine entitled “The Persistence of Prog” by “critic at Large” by the name of Kelefa Sanneh. Now in the interest of full disclosure, no I do not read the New Yorker but news aggregate sites on the internet can sometimes be a wonderful thing. That’s how I landed on this piece, an article by the way that was originally called “The Prog Spring” when it appeared in the June 19th 2017 print issue of the magazine. Naturally an article about Progressive Rock music in a magazine (on-line & print) piqued my interest.
In a nutshell the author in the opening paragraphs give a very nice overview or introduction to the world of Progressive Rock’s early days and even touches on many of the genre’s defining elements, even to the point of mentioning the Mellotron. He then goes on to, what I would say, misdiagnose the reasons for prog’s demise and then correctly assert how as he puts it, “the genre’s bad reputation has been remarkably durable.” He then takes us through a tour of some of the best books written about Prog, sprinkles in some history of two legendary prog-haters, namely Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. That complete he continues in the article, marveling at how the bands, each in their own way, defied the musical business and yet sold millions of albums. Mid-way through the piece, I was even more surprised at the author’s willingness to say something more about lessor know (to the mainstream public anyway) bands like Gentle Giant and some of the Canterbury crew like Soft Machine. The article was a pleasure to see, even if, as it seems likely, it was provoked by the book he was reviewing, a book which I look forward to reading. Sanneh writes as a person who, if not actually likes or enjoys Progressive Rock as one who understands and appreciates what the genre offers.
As the author rightly points out, critics of old, that original wave of critics in the sixties and seventies including the two mentioned above, repeatedly savaged progressive rock as being something they felt was anathema to rock music. These critics hurled disdain anytime they could at Progressive Rock’s “high faluten” ways. They never appreciated prog’s efforts to look beyond either the history of the rebelliousness of rock music nor the musical constraints of rock music being nothing more than just a four/four beat tune.
It’s been great to see that in the last few years those kinds of critics, burdened by such a restrictive view of what rock music can be, seem to be fewer and fewer and today’s music journalists don’t always exhibit those same prejudices against Progressive Rock. This is so, primarily I think because they come at the music from a different time and place with a frame of reference that has no baggage, or at least not the same kind of baggage. Their music history incorporates far more contemporary takes on rock music than ever occurred to either Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau. And that’s a good thing.
There are still bastions of what I’ll label anti-prog sentiment most notably those writing in Rolling Stone. Even though Sanneh refers to a Rolling Stone critic liking the sound of Emerson Lake and Palmer in an April 1971 article it didn’t take long for Rolling Stone to lose that appreciation. As a holdover from the mid-sixties Rolling Stone, recently sold to new owners, does indeed have the ability to draw on its extensive historical reservoir not much of which was kind to prog. On a side-note it’s always puzzled me how Rolling Stone was able to write if not glowingly about the experimentation to do with Psychedelic music at least appreciatively and yet when it came to the experimentation in the Prog genre, to say something positive seemed a cross too painful to bear. Still even with that esteemed publication there is hope for change as new writers pick up their quill’s and scribble.
If there was anything about the article that displeased me it was perhaps the tone as laid out in the title by the use of the term “persistence” and by that I mean it came across like we were all clinging to the old bands, those first wavers so to speak from the seventies. My buddy Jean Roby put it nicely: “the author seems to imply that, even though prog rock could not disappear, it remains more something of the past, than a thriving and kicking musical genre that attracts much more musicians and fans than Sanneh seems to imply...” The author has little or nothing to say regarding how the prog genre is flourishing around the world with dozens of bands holding the prog genre flag high. Instead, he, like so many writers looks for prog in what I would say are all the wrong places pointing to “prog” influenced artists such as Hans Zimmer, Tool, Meshuggah and so forth. He tends to do what so many do these days and that’s look for “prog” in their own sphere of musical likes rather than actually looking for what I might call legitimate Progressive Rock bands. This is something I’ll be focusing in next month’s commentary. I’ve long postulated that there are likely more Progressive Rock bands “Aline and Kicking” today, in 2018 than there ever were in the seventies. Well now, thanks to some amazing research from my friend Jean Roby, I’m able to support that premise with some numbers, numbers that I’ll be sharing next month. Stay tuned.
Let me wrap up by saying I don’t wish to be too critical about the article in the New Yorker magazine. I really enjoyed the piece. Hopefully a few of those who read it back in June or discovered it after the fact like I did will see their way to discovering how Prog is Still Alive and Kicking.
Let me know what you think.