Let me put rock critics on notice: Enough already with the Progressive-rock clichés. Give your heads a shake, it they’re still on your shoulders. Prog-rock produced some of the most interesting music produced in the last century.
While the Stones and other blues-based rockers were sowing gems in a field pretty well trodden, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) et al were—thanks to the space afforded by the LP—striking out into more experimental territory. A whole new canvas had opened up—anything was possible. Elements of classical, combined with English folk music, that great driving rock beat, and at its less successful, elements of jazz. In Europe it was Kraftwerk, Nektar, Van der Graaf Generator and other bands. Prog-rock grew out of the boundlessness of the ’60s, the creative genius of the early ’70s that produced so many classic albums. Before corporations stopped listening and let the accountants take over, typically folks with little imagination or esthetic sense. Gone were the days of the pioneering A&R agents eager to break new artists based not just on chart potential but sheer originality.
What’s great about these bands is that no one musician is the showcase. The instruments are used more like you would for an orchestra, where the effect is seamless, fluent. Pink Floyd achieves this beautifully on albums like Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Genesis tended more toward an English folk sound, very dreamy at times but always with fascinating lyrics—even Blake-like, when Peter Gabriel was the lyricist. Phil Collins steered Genesis into the post-Gabriel perfection of A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering but for sheer imagination and originality of writing Gabriel took the cup. He would later jettison this style of writing for the more stripped-down lyricism of his solo career. Most fans probably fall into two camps: those who prefer the mythic overtones of his early lyrics versus those who resonate more with the crispness of his later work.
ELP tended to go in a somewhat more rock-operatic direction, with keyboardist Keith Emerson doing a cross between Mozart and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Jimi Hendrix of the keyboards with all the right moves but thankfully no lighter fluid. If it hadn’t been for Greg Lake’s soothing English ballads it would have been hard to take at times. “Bombastic” was not an uncommon term critics lobbed against them. That may be so, but all three of these gentlemen were master musicians.
Carl Palmer may well have earned the distinction of having the biggest drum rack in history. And damn, can he play them. Once again, when it comes to percussion, Prog-rock claims the day. No more simple 4/4 time. Suddenly you’ve gone from a timepiece to another instrument graced with shades and tones that can ripple up and down the scale just like any other. Bill Bruford on the Yes Holy Trinity (keep reading), Phil Collins on just about any Genesis album prior to 1980, Nick Mason on Interstellar Overdrive, etc., etc. Helluva club of drum-slingers.
Yes was, like many of these other bands, a fantastic troupe of skilled, inspired musicians. Many Prog-rockers were classically trained, though it shocked my socks off to learn that Yes guitarist Steve Howe was NOT. Hard to believe, listening to some of his flamenco, quasi-classical solo guitar pieces on Yes albums. Better yet, unlike other Prog-rockers, Yes had Beatle-esque harmonies to die for. Add to that Jon Anderson’s transporting lyrics and the angelic clarity of his voice, and ahhh… that’s the ticket.
If Yes had done nothing but give the world The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge, a.k.a. what I call The Yes Holy Trinity, that would be masterworks aplenty. It’s what Keith Richards in his autobiography calls “song-weaving” at its finest. So while the critics have made a byword of Prog-rock, as in, ‘overblown, tedious, self-indulgent,’ etc., etc., in fact comments like these only reveal their own limited imagination. “Just give me driving three-chord rock with a catchy hook,” etc. etc. Fine on a Saturday night. But all the time?
And yet these same critics gave scant scorn to the ‘glam-rockers,’ even though the only one worth mentioning longer than a week was David Bowie. Okay, Marc Bolan. But most of these guys couldn’t play their instruments long before Punks couldn’t play their instruments. It was all shine-ola and lipstick. At least Bowie had some real genius. Some of his work in fact fits with Prog-rock. And I don’t just mean the instrumental pieces on Low or Heroes. I would even argue that the arrangements Bowie and Mick Ronson created on albums like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs had elements of Prog-rock’s oblique approach to songwriting.
Prog-rock took the best of all possible worlds into itself, when it worked. Naturally, like any work of art it either fails or succeeds, and when it did fail, it failed spectacularly. ‘Better to go out with a bang than a whisper,’ some might say. Prog-rock composers drew from the jewels of the English language and its great poets, the incredibly deep heritage of folk music, the magnificence and scope of the East, the already rich tradition of science fiction. The music has the capacity to bounce you out to the outer rim of the galaxy and back to your comfy chair on a sunny afternoon, slung in the pendulous notes of Chris Squire’s bass guitar loping like a wolf, Rick Wakeman’s crystalline keys teasing, taunting, the harmonies building layer on layer—lifting, lifting, daring you higher…
Postscript. While I can’t honestly say many of the albums post-1970s produced by Yes have grabbed me like their Holy Trinity, that’s true of most bands that have endured the intervening decades. They typically become better musicians but not often do they become better songwriters, oddly enough. There seems to be an element of youthful optimism and naiveté involved in great songwriting—a willingness to take grand leaps, as in all art.
The controversial replacement of Jon Anderson due to health problems is sad, though Jon Davison is his vocal doppelganger. Aging’s a bitch. For me it hit home when Alvin Lee of Ten Years After died. Suddenly a part of my youth was gone, and I’d just cracked 50. Bowie’s haunting refrain in Cracked Actor became sickeningly real: “I’m stiff on my legend / the films that I made / forget that I’m fifty / ’cause you just got paid.” The malaise that creeps in—the wearied will—is as bad as the aching back and shoulders. Dammit, my head still thinks I’m 18.
So to see Yes hauling ass on the hard road at their ages is impressive. For the band to take on ‘unplugged’ versions of great songs like Roundabout, Heart of the Sunrise, and I’ve Seen All Good People in their ‘Yes Acoustic’ concert was a leap of faith that took real balls. Songs we’ve loved for decades in their original versions suddenly sprang to new life. Sometimes the best revenge is nothing but sheer staying power.
God bless their not-so-furry-anymore heads. And that, my dear critics, is my final word. “Hearing your wonderous stories…”
NOTES & LINKS: The Wikipedia entry on Gentle Giant, one of the least commercially successful Prog-rock bands, is worth the read. It explains better than I can the technical features of musical composition that tended to be typical of the genre. I’m kicking myself for not hanging onto my LP copy of Octopus, one of their best works and rare now in its original vinyl pressing. Yes is currently touring Canada, the UK and Europe, so get your tickets!