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How Prog Rock Went from ‘70s Success to Present-Day Punchline

We spoke with David Weigel, author of the new music history "The Show That Never Ends," about the big rise and massive fall of the genre that included bands like Genesis, Rush, and Yes.

by Patrick Lyons

Photos courtesy of David Weigel and W.W. Norton & Company / Lead photo of Rush by Fin Costello

To casual 2017 observers, progressive rock (or “prog rock”) is commonly-used shorthand for “lame.” Forget the virtuosic instrumental prowess, inventive minds, and immense popularity also associated with the genre. Close your eyes and play a word-association game with the bands Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, or Rush, and unless you’re a devoted fan of any, odds are you’ll conjure up images of stage costumes, pimply fans, your dad playing air guitar in his garage, excessive stage setups, double-necked guitars, and bloated concept albums. This impression is reinforced by modern media.

After a female-only screening of Wonder Woman made headlines last month, a humor site ran the satirical story, “Male-Only Screening for New Rush Documentary Causes Absolutely No Uproar.” F is for Family, comedian Bill Burr’s animated Netflix show set in the early ‘70s, features a scene in which he and his prog-obsessed son attend a concert during which a low-budget prog band (hilariously named Shire of the Frodo) gets booed offstage in favor of Lifted Riffs, a sexed-up Led Zeppelin homage that performs a spot-on parody of “The Lemon Song.” Of course, prog was most famously sent up by This is Spinal Tap!, which ruthlessly attacked every aspect of the genre, from its ridiculous stage shows to its alleged connection to classical music.

David Weigel’s new book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, begins with a scene that plays right into this stereotype. In it, he and thousands of other fans embark on “Cruise to the Edge,” a prog rock version of the increasingly-popular cruise ship music festival, complete with a title referencing Yes’ genre-defining 1972 opus, Close to the Edge. “Hawaiian shirts unfurl,” Weigel writes, “revealing tattered Yes tour tees and gear from forgotten festivals.” Washed up acts and even cover bands abound, much to the delight of an audience who appear to have severe reservations about letting their prog flags fly around less enthusiastic landlubbers.

But although Weigel does a great job throughout the book of defining a subculture that’s been so lambasted over the years — delving into its bands’ outlandish egos, investigating Rush’s inherently lame image, discussing the quick and brutal “fall” mentioned in the title — this is unmistakably a passion project. Weigel, whose “day job” is political reporting for The Washington Post, has been a prog fan since his early teens, and has dreamed of writing this very book since he was in college.

He brings the no-nonsense clarity of his primary reporting work to The Show That Never Ends, presenting a legible timeline that’s just about the polar opposite of the head-spinning song structures and time signatures favored by the bands he covers. The book’s source material is both secondary texts — old music magazines, band biographies, past prog anthologies — and interviews conducted by Weigel himself, all of which requires a “Notes” section that’s nearly 30 pages in length. You may find more concise histories or compelling opinions on prog (Weigel’s not one to editorialize), but as a one-stop-shop for all things factoring into prog history, The Show That Never Ends is peerless. Curious to hear an expert’s take on a genre that was once so popular but now so frequently mocked, I spoke with Dave on the phone.

MERRY JANE: You do a great, exhaustive job of covering the genre from rise to fall to rebirth, but I’m curious about your personal history with prog.
Dave Weigel: I was born in 1981, and fell into this the same way that a lot people fall into liking something that has been culturally shoved aside. I was into heavy metal when I was a kid, and then discovered that this guy Mark Prindle, an online record reviewer who liked metal and whose recommendations matched with my tastes. He also liked Yes and King Crimson and all of these progressive bands. I just went out and bought all of these Yes tapes at outlet malls and said, “Oh, [Prindle]'s right, this is just so expansive and interesting in a way that other rock is not.”

I would listen in a sub-optimal format — cruddy tape in a Walkman with $10 headphones on — but even through that I heard plenty. When I kept investigating — going to concerts, buying albums on CD, listening the way you should listen to this stuff — I became convinced. Probably the first people to hear me talk about how there should be a book about this music heard me say that when I was in college 15 years ago.

Did any of your peers share your interest, or was this mostly a solo pursuit?
Around me, it was pretty solo. Some friends could be sold on Genesis and a few other things, but they generally had pretty mainstream '90s and 2000s rock tastes. There was a fan base online, a group called
Music Babble that I was a member of, started by people who had written for Mark Prindle's website. I remember going on vacation to San Francisco in 2004 and meeting these people for the first time and singing along to [Emerson Lake & Palmer's 20-minute-long song] "Tarkus" in the car. So there were fans but we were fairly outnumbered. We were fans of something and we were deeply aware that the rest of the world was not.

How did you set out to differentiate your book from existing prog histories?
What I thought I could add as a full-time political reporter, somebody who spends his time trying to describe complicated, often terribly boring things to people, was a reported narrative of this stuff, similar to the books I'd read and enjoyed about punk, hip-hop, no wave, hardcore — a lot of stuff that wasn't as popular and didn't carry as far as progressive rock. I really paid for and read every single relevant thing I could. I looked at it pretty forensically, like I would look at anything in politics.

I didn't want to do a "top ten" sort of book, even though before I knew what to really look for, a lot of my knowledge of pop music was based on lists I read in Rolling Stone and places like that. I'm not above that, but I realized that my own focus and my own obsessions would better lend themselves to something where I'm in the background describing and curating it a bit, but not putting a heavy hand on it. There are times — and I do this in my political reporting too — when the people I'm talking about put a hand on the scale and say that they wish they hadn't recorded this album, or that they only did this for money. Then I'll be pretty explicit.

Jethro Tull photographed by Richard E. Aaron, courtesy of David Weigel

Were there any common misconceptions that you set out to correct?
Prog was extremely popular in America, and not everything that's popular deserves to live on with laurels in history, but I thought what was left out was that this was more popular than a lot of stuff that came along and allegedly obliterated [prog]. In reality, I thought a lot of the bands were petering out by the time punk came around. I think the key is that there is a punk aesthetic, there is a real action you have to take to get into that scene and identify yourself with that, whereas progressive rock was not really like that. You could become an "anorak," this British word that I use a few times in the book, this person that collects every album, but it was more in the ether — radio, festivals, and giant concerts.

It was something popular, but what interested me in going back and looking at this, was a period where extremely popular music could be so intricate and so evocative of all these other influences. You had people going to concerts, lighting up a joint as soon as it started, and they're listening to interpretations of 19th century classical composers. It was a public mania that was also rebellious. I wanted to demonstrate that the artists themselves and the people signing onto this listened to music that was a lot more daring than what was on the radio in competition.

Nowadays you can’t really escape prog’s uncool reputation. What do you think is the biggest factor in that perception?
I just think that there's music you can dance to, and music that is harder to dance to, and this is harder to dance to. You absorb it more as something where you're sitting around, or hanging out with like-minded people at a concert. You're not putting this on and jitterbugging.

The music that you can dance to ends up being cooler, it's more evocative of the place, it helps you get girls, etc. I don't lean too much into it in the book, but the progressive rock fan base was more male than lots of things happening at the same time, like punk and all that. I'll caveat that — there are a lot of hip hop samples of some of this music. You've got these amazing basslines and percussion parts, especially of Yes, a little bit of ELP. Kanye West has since become more of a minimalist, but there was a time when he sampled a lot of stuff from the era. So you can repurpose it for dance music, but that's not what it was at the time.

One critique of prog that’s stuck with me is Lester Bangs’ live review of of ELP during their Pictures at an Exhibition era. He just seemed so turned off by any rock that wasn’t blues-based, and it seems like a lot of other American critics felt the same. Why do you think that was the case?
I think it's because they came from that tradition where American musicians claimed credit for inventing all of this music, from blues onward. They were the progenitors of a lot of stuff then, not just stuff that was good, but stuff that was primal. So a lot of progressive rock seemed, as Bangs was pretty good at explaining, antiseptic compared to that. To tell you the truth, going through this I was surprised at how much there was in terms of critical appreciation for these albums at the time. Even the stuff that people would later roll their eyes at, it was much more respected than I expected going into this.

Part of it too is that the role of the critics is pretty big in this book in a way I don't think is possible anymore. You'll hear about Pitchfork giving something a zero and that hurting a band's sales or career, but it's still not quite the same level of influence, due to the fact that there's not the same level of access. If you’re writing a profile these days, typically you get 20 minutes in a hotel. But back then bands were giving these long hangout times to journalists who then had a big role in shaping their story. And then they turned on [prog] — not every journalist, but some of them did, and some were replaced by journalists who found punk more interesting.

Soft Machine photographed by John Williams, courtesy of David Weigel

One thing I found surprising was that, across the board, alcohol seemed to be the prog musician’s drug of choice. Am I crazy for thinking that there were more psychedelics, or at least some weed, involved?
I kind of did too, frankly. I was surprised by the same thing. I expected otherwise because the music is so well-appreciated by enhancing your senses — I'll use that euphemism — and when you go to these shows, that's often how people are listening. I would ask everyone, and there were a couple — Daevid Allen of Gong is pretty open about how much drugs he did, and cocaine played its role later in the genre’s narrative, but only for a couple of years. That's one thing I thought humanized these guys a bit, that their lifestyles were pretty similar to the punks who allegedly were the real, pure musicians. They got together, they drank beers, they lived in hovels where they could, they rode in vans — their buildup was exactly the same as every other exciting evolution in rock.

What prog-influenced or prog-adjacent modern genres do you feel are best at carrying on the legacy nowadays?
I was already a bit there, and I was definitely convinced by Steven Wilson, but I came around to progressive metal, and it remains super interesting. That's kind of the last big new thing you've got. I had to dial it back, because I was listening to so much new music. I felt that I might be missing something, and I ended up saying, “I have to stop and focus on what's in the book.” But I haven't found a new band that I’m obsessed with. I'm pretty open; I'll go see shows and stay for the opener, but I haven't found anything I find as inventive as [peak-era prog].

A lot of the invention I hear, the music that makes me go, “Oh, this is different, this is melodically complicated,” is electronic music now. And, as I do in the book, you can draw through-lines and it's pretty clear that the way we receive electronic music was shaped in a big way by progressive rock. But in terms of bands, some of the progressive metal stuff, I have Tool and Dream Theater in the book, but I don't have Protest The Hero or some of the stuff I enjoy that's labeled as math rock.

Music primarily prized for virtuosic technical skill was rarely popular before prog broke out — as you point out with the 19th century Lisztomania phenomenon — but do you think that’s become even less bankable since the genre’s “fall”?
The tragedy is that nothing is bankable. In the course of writing this, I talked to some newer musicians who are not progressive rock artists but like it a lot, and they have the same gripes, which is thanks to the way licensing works and everything else that's happened to the music industry. You can't make money at all unless you're Kanye. Even the guys at the top of the field right now, they're not Keith Emerson, 1977, getting cocaine sent to him in these giant boxes.

The gap between the marketability of a niche genre and a semi-popular band in a big genre has probably shrunk a lot because of the way the viability of the industry has changed. What I discovered that is, in terms of the venues these guys would play and the marketing behind the albums, no one these days is doing that great. So even the guys who've been kicked out of Olympus are, by extension, not doing that badly.

Purchase ‘The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock’ on Amazon.

Follow Patrick Lyons on Twitter.


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Patrick Lyons is a music writer based in Portland who is equally enthralled by black metal and Southern rap-- catch him making maddeningly eclectic choices on the aux cord.



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