After almost half a century, Prog is as misunderstood as ever
For years dismissed as too white, too male and too uncool, Prog Rock is now getting its own album chart. Does that mean we're ready to take it seriously, asks Chris Moss
by Chris Moss
Genesis's Peter Gabriel in his Prog pomp Photo: YouTube
I’ve never really understood anything about Prog Rock, which is a little odd since we are the same age. Though the Beat poets, folk music and jazz prefigured some aspects of the sub-genre, the 1966 Mothers of Invention double album, Freak Out! is routinely cited as the beginning of Prog proper. According to Rolling Stone, the record – Frank Zappa’s debut – “declared the arrival of a visionary weirdo who dabbled in doo-wop, pop-song parody, protest tunes, art rock and avant-garde classical.”
By 1976, with glam and disco having waxed and waned and the Sex Pistols’ brand of raw punk rock in the ascendant, the “progressive” part of the name seemed to be some kind of joke. What could be progressive about all that ostentation in the midst of a land sacrificed to Maggie, misery and mass unemployment? What was future-leaning about the great banks of keyboards, 100-piece drum kits, complicated time signatures (Yes’s ‘Miracles of Lie’ is in 17/8 time) and lyrics inspired by Tolkien and Merlin?
Punk girls wore binbags with holes that showed off their nipples and thighs. Capes were deeply uncool. Where was the sexiness in bands fronted by hairy, intense, self-absorbed males who were not so much youthful as ageless – and whose fans all seemed to be men, too?
Earlier this week, the Official Charts Company and Prog magazine launched the UK’s first album chart dedicated to Progressive Rock – responding, perhaps, to the growth of vinyl sales. The extreme belatedness seems to be utterly in keeping with a scene and sound that has always seemed out of kilter with – if not downright disdainful of – contemporary cool.
It presents, though, an opportunity for those of us far outside the Prog stable to reassess the scene. How much of what we think we know is actually myth? How important has Prog’s contribution been? And will Prog fans welcome the mainstreaming of their music half a century after its genesis. Or, rather, its Genesis – and its King Crimson, its Pink Floyd, its Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and its Jethro Tull?
“It was a much more complex picture, particularly as some progressive bands started to use synthesizers more frequently into the 1980s, or absorbed the social anger of punk, or experimented with other sounds, such as the Canadian prog band Rush using reggae rhythms in common with The Police.
“These nuances are often overlooked in a linear history of music in which prog rock is typically consigned to the 1970s and undid itself through its own grandiosity.”
Much of punk’s anti-establishment anarchy was marketing. Punk itself was largely mapped out around Chuck Berry riffs, which post-punk artists derided. Many punks later admitted they had grown up listening to – and enjoying – the music they had to pretend to loathe. “You'd have to be daft as a brush to say you didn't like Pink Floyd,” Johnny Rotten told music website The Quietus in 2010.
You’d also have to be daft to think that the clips reycled ad nauseam on the telly - Peter Gabriel dressed as a wallflower and Rick Wakeman’s mythological arena shows on ice – were the norm. Celtic and otherworldly mythologies did influence Prog bands, but they drew on many other sources. Van der Graaf Generator tapped Philip K. Dick’s novels. Rush read Mark Twain.
And was Prog really the white male movement the media, and some of its practitioners and fans, led us to believe?
Prog bloggers justify the genre’s maleness on many grounds: the “unemotional” sound of the music; the absence of pleasant melodies; the male themes in the songs (one web commentator gives “shining flying purple wolfhounds” as an example); the fact you need lots of free time to listen to a concept album from start to finish (while women have housework to do!); its geekiness, which makes it like “trainspotting”.
None of this stacks up. Women read vampire, sci-fi and fantasy novels. Women geeks are trendier than ever. Women go to Radiohead gigs (Radiohead are the official Prog inheritors). Men do housework, too.
Allan Moore, professor of popular music at the University of Surrey, advises detractors to get a hook on the filters we see Prog through – especially the music press.
“Prog attracts musicians who want to test their abilities with tricky chord changes and rhythms. There was an ideologically suspect belief among 1960s music journalists that you could only write and perform good music if you were unaware of what you were doing. Of course none of the journalists were successful musicians.”
Moore says that a lot of the negative or cool journalism “is really a form of envy – though the [journalists] would not like to be told that!” Other preconceptions, he argues, stem from the same ideological confusion.
“'White' and 'male' relates specifically to [Prog’s] origins in the late 1960s college circuit scene, where it was the antithesis of music for dancing, which were supposedly what females and non-whites wanted from their music.
“You really can't separate out the music from the beliefs which accompany it on the part of both musicians and listeners, and which normally remain subconscious.”
Despite the bad press, Prog is resurgent. “Since the millennium there's been an explosion of brilliant bands,” says Moore. “Wobbler, Thieves' Kitchen, Porcupine Tree, Sky Architect, Knifeworld, Big Big Train, Presto Ballet, Beardfish, Unitopia, Spock's Beard, Flower Kings, Syzygy, TransAtlantic. There are a number of American and European bands, especially Scandinavians. And they’re all more interesting than what’s on this first chart.”
So will the official chart matter at all to Proggers?
The answer is no, on at least two counts. First, Prog fans were never given one in the '70s and '80s by the music press – when just about every other genre had its own chart – because, says Allan Moore, of “a belief… that Prog fans tend to be more interested in the music than in everything that goes with it such as fashion and hype, so what purpose does a chart serve?”
That seems fair enough. But there’s also something wilful and wise about the Prog contingent.
“Mainstream chart recognition doesn't matter as much to Prog fans,” says Martin Halliwell. “In fact, often when a Prog song did well in the pop charts, there were grumblings among fans that the band had sold out. There has always been a tension among Prog fans of a band doing too well commercially.”
Rock on! In the age of Syco, One Direction, Beyoncé and YouTube, that kind of disdain for laurels and lucre is genuinely and indisputably Prog.
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