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Knockin’ Prog Rock

Is progressive rock dead?

One might get that impression from an opinion column that ran last month on one of the political websites I read regularly. In “Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment,” National Review Online critic-at-large Kyle Smith writes a mostly-dismissive obituary for the genre.

But to paraphrase Twain, rumors of prog’s demise, and of its failure, may be greatly exaggerated. I still listen a lot to the bands that are lumped in with prog, and I think a lot of other rock music fans do; what I hear on SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks reinforces that impression. And if selling concert tickets and records is any measure, prog rock acts were hugely successful well into the 1980s.

(Smith’s piece appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by “The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock,” a book written by a Washington Post political reporter, David Weigel. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps it isn’t as cutting as the online column it may have inspired.)

Smith starts off by identifying the eponymous subjects of the rockumentary spoof “This Is Spinal Tap” as a parody of prog rock. And it’s true that the fictional band apocryphally was inspired by one of the titans of prog, Yes, and in particularly one of its early ’70s tours. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the movie, other than that hilarious the-amplifier-dials-go-to-11 bit.)

But Smith conflates the fictional excesses of Spinal Tap with the actual over-the-top moments of some prog artists and uses them in an indictment of the entire genre. Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson, under the influence of cocaine and cognac, attempts to swim from the Bahamas to England? A rock musician on drugs and alcohol doing something stupid? Keith Moon in a hotel room?

The critic-at-large also identifies some bands as prog that I, at least, never considered to be part of that rock classification — Jethro Tull, for instance. And in dismissing the prog rock phenomenon as “a bizarre sonic detour,” Smith says that detour was “first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” — two landmarks in rock music that are considered by many to be among the best albums ever.

But Smith’s ultimate put-down is inspired by an Emerson comment that ELP’s concerts were meant to induce “an even bigger better orgasmic peak than ever before.” The critic’s response is that prog rock is nerd rock, and that an ELP orgasm is the only kind its aficionados would ever have in the presence of another human. Translation: prog rock listeners ain’t gettin’ laid.

However, Smith transitions during his piece from calling a prog rock “a rocket that crashed a few yards above the launch pad” — a curious description for a type of music that sold zillions of albums and filled arenas — to crediting it as a noble if failed experiment. And to pointing out that creativity often involves risking failure, and that process is how art progresses.

Smith isn’t anywhere near the first to take a few whacks at progressive rock. I can think of a couple major figures in rock music who have been even more dismissive.

I once heard U2 frontman Bono aim some particularly withering fire at the genre, but have since been unable to find the quote. (Ditto for Bono’s directive that rock fans should not listen to the oldies, which spared me the expense of buying those early U2 albums that I like better than their later stuff.)

In the cable rockumentary “Which One’s Pink?” Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats trashes prog as middle class, and says that he at first felt that way about Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon.” He and the Rats never produced anything nearly as impactful, which may explain the grudging respect Geldof admitted he had developed for the album and the band.

Smith ends up acknowledging that progressive rock produced some works of lasting value, like “Dark Side of the Moon” and King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” To that I would add “Close to the Edge” by Yes and “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis, among others.

Those artists and works represent what I like best about prog: the sense of experimentation, of tackling themes and topics with more depth and interest. “Close to the Edge,” for instance, was inspired by the Herman Hesse novel “Siddhartha”; “South Side of the Sky,” from Yes’s “Fragile” album, is about climbers dying on a mountainside. Genesis’s “Selling” takes its inspiration from poet Ezra Pound, and perhaps also his poetic nemesis, T.S. Eliot.

Smith at one point in his commentary notes that rock had gone in little more than a decade from Little Richard and Chuck Berry to the like sof King Crimson and Yes. And he celebrates the fact that, after prog crashed and burned in the late ’70s and early ’80s, rock returned to what he calls “four-minute bonbons.” (Arguably, it has devolved into spoken poetry accompanied by nondescript rhythm tracks — but don’t get me started on rap.)

True, the three-minute single and the 12-bar blues format have been the staples of rock and roll from its beginnings, and the genre regularly has its “roots revivals.” (Almost as often as disco made a comeback, and reggae became the Next Big Thing.)

But limiting rock to its simplest form would deny us things like “Layla,” the second side of “Abbey Road” and most of Steely Dan’s oeuvre. (OK, it would also have spared us “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” but you can’t make an omelette without laying some eggs.)

In closing, before you can write progressive rock’s obituary, you need to perform its autopsy, which would include identifying what it is, or was. It’s hard enough to define rock and roll, the definition of which has been stretched to encompass a lot of pop, folk, country, jazz and other genres besides prog. But that’s a topic for another week.

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