Prog Rock: Pomp and Circumstance

Progressive rock, that much-reviled seventies musical warhorse, makes a surprising appearance in the June 19 New Yorker. Kelefa Sanneh’s “The Prog Spring,” does not offer an unequivocally favorable cultural reevaluation. But it does serve as a welcome reevaluation of this hugely popular genre that fell—and fell quickly—into disrepute and obscurity.

Sanneh’s reevaluation is a welcome one, basically, for my own self-serving reasons: As a seventies teen, prog rock was one of my passions. I listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery—endlessly—on 8-track. I absorbed Yessongs—Yes’s behemoth three-album (that six sides’ worth) live compilation album. I had all of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums. Roger Dean’s artwork—the illustrator whose cosmic imagery was part and parcel of Yes’s identity—graced my bedroom wall.

In subsequent, post-teen years, I edited out this portion of my musical life, following the consensus that this enthusiasm represented a shameful aberration of good taste and judgment. The red-plastic shield I’d made in shop class—Rick Wakeman unimaginatively emblazed on its front—was buried in the nether reaches of my closet.

The fact that prog rock now merits inclusion in the New Yorker makes me feel better about myself. Kelefa Sanneh’s article does not entirely wipe away my internal shame. (I mean, purchasing all of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums? Really?) At least now, though, the music can be placed in context.

For all of prog rock’s pretense and high-blown babble, there was something inherently cartoonlike about the music.  Sanneh points out that the bulk of prog’s constituency was male. Teen males in the 1970s were not, as a rule, a subtle bunch. Prog rock was a spectacle all the way through, painted in big, bold colors: Keith Emerson’s pianistic bombast; the various bands’ onstage pageantry. The album titles were unwieldy, full of faux-grandiosity: Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Emerson, Lake and Palmer released an album (another three-record set, which seemed to be the fashion in those days) bearing the title Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends—Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Prog rock announced itself in no uncertain terms. Announcing yourself in no uncertain terms was every teenage boy’s dream.

There is one gigantic elephant in the room, vis-à-vis prog rock’s appeal, which Sanneh intentionally or unintentionally ignores. That elephant is cannabis. Prog rock was stoner music, pure and simple. Roger Dean’s trippy, fantastical artwork, the genre’s penchant for medieval references, the lavishness—all served as an aural complement to hordes of besotted seventies youth. Straight arrows or those involved in a more constructive lifestyle didn’t have the time to sift through six sides of Yes in concert.

The era of prog rock  was a much, much smaller world. Ignorance—denotatively—abounded. The music offered, Sanneh writes, “a thrilling sensation of ignorance…. you got the feeling that the musicians understood something you didn’t.” And this was true. The youthful audience was unaware that Emerson, Lake and Palmer were referencing William Blake and Mussorgsky, or that Yes had reproduced a snippet of Stravinsky. It would be stretch, of course, to imbue prog rock with an edifying mission. But there it was: Blake, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky. The music is pseudo-sophisticated only from an older vantage point—for those who know better, who’ve read Blake and are aware of Igor Stravinsky. High culture was at a great remove to the mass of this young audience.

Prog rock should get an additional pass because it spawned nothing. It came and then it went. Subsequent generations weren’t saddled with nutty synthesizer solos and odes to each and every one of King Henry’s wives. Prog rock remains a curio, eminently easy to avoid, to disregard.

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I’ve managed to resurrect some of my standard listening fare, circa 1977. I was prepared for the bombast—and there’s bombast aplenty–but my biggest surprise, overall, was how shockingly dated it all sounded: an ungainly musical form unable to function anywhere else outside its own narrow domain—akin to the loud guest who ruins your party.

Ultimately, though, I’m unable to summon any true critical objectivity. The music was such part and parcel of my adolescence that it evokes a time and place—an exercise in nostalgia.

Kelefa Sanneh does not, wisely, make the case that prog rock is deserving of critical gravitas. But neither does it deserve its eternal consignment to musical purgatory.

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