Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Passing Fads: Prog Rock

Embiggened by fellow shooter Chris Holden and the idea that a column should be more than, "Hey, here's what I was thinking about yesterday!", Jordasch has decided to embark on a journey through some of the less explicable trends in pop culture. To read the full introduction to "Passing Fads," click over to this thing.

Holy crap, did I like a whole lot of crap when I was more of a kid. Rap rock may have been the worst of my former musical beaus, but my taste only got slightly less inept when I moved from middle to high school. I traded overwrought alternative rock for overwrought emo, metalcore, and, most notably for our purposes here, progressive rock.

For a few years, noodly assholes like the Mars Volta, Muse, and Coheed & Cambria - I came to my senses before I discovered the old guys - filled my iPod with their nine-minute, string-quartet-featuring epics about aliens and possessed ten speed bikes (I shit you not). These were songs about important things that sounded really serious and stuff. Plus, they had absurdly unnecessary instrumental acrobatics, which sound cool to people who read guitar magazines. Suffice it to say, I grew up, discovered my internal pretension/bullshit radar, and now regard neo-prog with the same scorn that any self-respecting music snob should. What sounded important when I was in high school started to sound self-important as I neared my twenties.

But not all grown-ups are similarly prog-averse. Some adults, even some adults without ponytails, actually like prog rock. They proudly trumpet their allegiance to bands like Rush and Yes and try to argue that Styx always got a bad rap. Okay, maybe that was just Adam Sandler in Big Daddy. But even the stars of movies I don't hate seem to like prog. So what is it about this undeniably lame genre that makes seemingly cool people (both real and fake) fall head over heels? Because, let's be honest, there's nobody who dabbles in prog.

Rise to Power: Ironically conceived (and probably still intended) as a way to shoehorn some more "artistic credibility" into pop music, prog was first propagated wittingly by some really pretentious British dudes in the late 1960s. Other, equally pretentious British (and American) dudes made the first incursions into the general realm of progressive rock, though. Frank Zappa's Freak Out! and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper are commonly cited as the most significant forebears to the genre. The form, if not the intent, was all there: vague conceptualism, reckless experimentation, lyrics that made no fucking sense. But these songs weren't long enough, the subjects matters not quite silly enough to qualify as real prog.

Top of the Pops: By the time the early '70s rolled around, progressive rock had taken its grubby fingers away from painting Warhammer miniatures and wrapped them around the proverbial throat of the musical zeitgeist. King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, like most prog "masterpieces" drew praise from some and scorn from many others. The always acerbic, sometimes inscrutable Robert Christgau called it "ersatz shit", probably responding to Pete Townshend, who called it "an uncanny masterpiece." Regardless of the quality, Crimson King showcased the weird time signatures, odd instrumentation, and sci-fi politicking the genre became known for. Quintessential albums by Rush, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, and Soft Machine exist on both continuums of lameness and relative quality (everything by Rush makes me want to die; I like the British Invasion undertones of Yes). Bands like Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra, on the other hand, managed to wed proggy excesses to more commercially-friendly templates (blues rock and the Beatles, respectively).

Non English-speakers, too, refused to be deprived of the instrumental heroism and opposite-sex-alienating qualities of prog. Scenes in France (Magma, Gong), Germany (Krautrock stalwarts Neu! and Can), and Italy (Goblin, New Trolls) showed off progressive rock's ability to transcend language and culture.

Fall from Grace: 1974 was sort of a catastrophic year for prog. Scene founders Yes, ELP, Genesis, and King Crimson all either called it quits or underwent major personnel changes. Peter Gabriel left Genesis (thus improving his own career and destroying that of his former band's in one fell swoop), Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson, Rick Wakeman left Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer became...Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The influx of no-bullshit/no-solos musical trends like punk and post-punk didn't help these dinosaurs stay relevant, either. Bands like Rush, Genesis, Queen, and Pink Floyd were left in the cold, dark wilderness of pop culture, forced to play sold-out arena shows and sell millions of records.

WHY, GOD, WHY: It's easy to understand the existence of hardcore prog fans. After all, people who LARP need something to cut off fake limbs to. But I've always found it difficult to fathom why those bands I mentioned above, especially the more explicitly proggy Rush, managed to sell all those millions. During my Wall phase in my freshman year of college, I remember marveling at how the same people who had made "Funkytown" a number one hit could enjoy an album that featured songs like "In the Flesh" and "The Trial" (sample lyric: The way you made them suffer/Your exquisite wife and mother/Fills me with the urge to defecate).

But Pink Floyd especially did write some undeniably catchy songs. The band's biggest album, Dark Side of the Moon, features three songs destined for radio ("Time," "Money," and, to a less extent, "Breathe") and six whacked-out instrumental/psychedelic excursions. The Wall is much heavier on strange stuff, but "The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2" was massive and hooky enough to convince consumers to shell out for the double-length Wall. I think the runaway success of these albums is predominantly a consequence of the lack of options available to the music-buying public at that time. This was three decades before digital music stores were even a glimmer in Steve Jobs' eye, after all. You wanted the single, you bought the album.

It probably also evinces the public's occasional desire for escapism. The world's never been a friendly place, but listeners exasperated with Nixon, OPEC, and the Vietnam War were probably stoked to be able to put their head in the clouds for a hot second.

Back to the Future: As I alluded to in the "Fall" section, prog never really died. Yeah, some of its biggest bands broke up and experienced lineup changes, but those lineup changes actually served to make some of those bands even bigger. Relieved of Peter Gabriel's restless desire to not make shitty music, Genesis were free to dispense with the prog and concentrate on making soulless pop rock under the able tutelage of that guy who wrote the song from Tarzan. Plus, my introduction to the genre via bands like the Mars Volta and Coheed & Cambria shows that good 'ol fashioned prog-ass-prog is still alive and well. It just grafts itself onto a willing genre like a face-hugging xenomorph and goes to town.

Prog even has vague flirtations with coolness through its continued presence in hip-hop and electronica samples. Goblin's "Tenebrae (Main Theme)" has the distinction of being one of the only credited samples on Justice's masterpiece, Cross, and Kanye West just got all Robert Fripp on our asses when he sampled King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" on his new (and excellent) single, "Power."

And, let's not forget, metalheads have always been uncool. Prog is like a second language to those guys.