I was speaking to my friend the other day, and we were both discussing our father’s respective music tastes. Without going too deeply into what was a relatively brief conversation, one point did strike me. His dad is a big fan of prog rock, namely, Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis, but also King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, and the rest. Coming from two completely distinct socio-economic backgrounds, I from the north of England to a working-class family, and he from the south-west, whose father made his money as an executive in TV, it made me wonder, why exactly do people like prog rock?
As in all the discourse surrounding what is ostensibly an over-blown genre of music, it seems to point towards the fact that it is posh folk that lap up prog like a cat with milk, and the rest of us are seemingly left confused by it, perhaps under the assertion that we’re not educated enough.
As someone who has been tied to punk in various capacities over the years, through the music I was brought up on, and by virtue of the fact that I went to a state school, I’ve always felt weird about prog-rock as a whole, even if I love Pink Floyd and The Mars Volta dearly.
There just has to be something about prog-rock that made people love it that goes far beyond socio-economic factors, as there’s a lot to delve into from King Crimson to Dream Theater and even Black Midi.
The story around the genre is all too familiar. It was the successor to Sgt. Pepper’s and the incredibly influential Canterbury scene, with acid jazz and classical music mixed in for good measure. This was music getting truly cerebral, embracing high culture. After all, Jon Anderson of Yes once called it “a higher art form”.
Writing in The New Yorker back in 2017, Kelefa Sanneh offered up an interpretation of what the genre actually is: “In April, 1971, Rolling Stone reviewed the début album by a band with a name better suited to a law firm: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The reviewer liked what he heard, although he couldn’t quite define it. ‘I suppose that your local newspaper might call it ‘jazz-influenced classical-rock””.
The mastermind of King Crimson, Robert Fripp, once explained that “we want our albums to last”, and clearly, for some, they have. The genre is dedicated to what it perceives as progress, even if it sounds like garbage to many.
Prog started off as a fairly well-meaning, loosely tied together set of groups and became a fully-fledged genre after the term ‘prog-rock’ was conceived, thus giving people a label to use positively or negatively. However, more than any other movement in history, it became pompous, bloated, and a parody of itself. Capes, exploding pigs and synthesisers the size of planets became the name of the game, and any wow factor the audience felt soon dissipated into a general feeling of anger at these excessive arseholes who clearly hadn’t looked in a mirror for a long time, particularly given just how terrible the 1970s actually was.
These warlocks rumbled on until punk finally came along, on a witchhunt for music’s resident pointy-heads. They burnt down their ivory tower, establishing a new kingdom, one founded on passion, discussion of how God-forsaken the real world was and cynicism, rather than R. D. Laing and complex time signatures.
This isn’t entirely true, though. Even if prog-rock did become the most despised genre in popular music across the late 1970s and ’80s, there has always been a market for it, as many of the most prominent bands carried on in one format or another until at least the ’90s, and some of the biggest prog-rockers – such as Peter Gabriel – even managed to reinvent themselves. The genre splintered into many different forms, influencing rock, metal and pop in various capacities.
Robert Fripp, possibly the most self-aware man in prog-rock, is quoted in Edward Macan’s 1997 work Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture as explaining that as soon as the genre stopped covering new ground and instead became a set of conventions that could be repeated and imitated, it ceased being “progressive”, nullifying what he views as its original power. Elsewhere, Fripp labelled the majority of prog-rock lyricism as “the philosophical meanderings of some English half-wit who is circumnavigating some inessential point of experience in his life”, which partially accounts for how the genre became so hated by the punks.
It’s clear that the way that we view prog-rock, particularly with our invariably post-punk lens, is what causes us some misunderstanding about how it came to be, and just how it has managed to survive total oblivion all these years. Even though it has been guilty of taking itself way too seriously, there are elements of the genre that are meant to be nerdy and carried lightheartedly, as you would with The Twilight Zone or B-movies. Take this point by David Tobocman, in Esthetic Lens, for example: “I say the seriousness of prog is just a fulcrum made for tipping on — it’s an inherently goofy genre. Smiling is allowed.”
Prog-rock is intrinsically nerdy, and it will always remain so, as punk will always harbour some form of fury. Whether it be Tool using the Fibonacci sequence to write their music or Yes utilising Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, prog set out to be much more than three chords or twelve bars, and that is exactly what it achieved.
Duly, there’s no real surprise that it is such a polarizing genre, as it’s always prided itself on being focused on high culture, even if all of Dream Theater or Yes’s technical posturing does absolutely nothing for you.
In my opinion, this eye on high culture is really what appeals to more ‘well-to-do’ citizens like my friend’s father, as well as neckbearded nerds with wild imaginations. It’s a multi-faceted genre that actually has something for everyone, as the differences between Genesis, Tool, and The Mars Volta are actually quite stark. This reveals the underlying point, prog is a fluid genre, and even though it is certainly standardised, as Fripp contends, it helped us think about how we approach music differently and outside of the rudimentary influence of the blues. Music today would be a completely different landscape without the likes of In the Court of the Crimson King and The Dark Side of the Moon.
For many people, prog-rock provides an escape; surely it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, does it? The genre has its place, and even though much of it is utterly ridiculous, we cannot totally dismiss it. Let me leave you with this, in terms of literature, we wouldn’t disregard the fantasy genre, would we?