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11:55 a.m. - January 25, 2007
It's Prog Rock! Run Away! (Or Not...)
Two notes to begin:

1. The Holiday CDs have all been mailed out except for two. One I don’t need to mail, and one will be dropped in the mail next week.

2. Please, if you fall asleep during the following essay, wipe the drool from your mouth. Thanks.

My musical tastes are varied, but for the most part, I really enjoy shorter songs with some energy, whether in a rock, pop, metal or punk milieu. I tend to shy away from really long songs, and I think that while the Grateful Dead had some good moments, a lot of their stuff devolved into mindless wankery and noodling best enjoyed on substances. (Please, Deadheads, don’t stone me…)

Oh, sure, I liked “In-Na-Gadda-Da-Vida” when I was a kid, but what boy doesn’t like a drum solo?

One genre that I’ve slagged over the years for being ponderous, pretentious, boring and self-important is progressive rock, or “prog rock” for short. And sure, some bands from that time were all of the above. The fans were also a bit possessive and way over the top at times, as are all zealot fans. And the musicians were show-offs at times, especially when they kept trying to rock out in 9/4 or 13/8 or whatever darn time signature suited them. You really can’t dance to “Watcher Of The Skies” by Genesis.

Then there was a band from France called Magma, which not only wanted to record a 10-album suite based on this short story about a planet attacking earth, but they recorded their music using a language that they invented! Riiiiight! “Our art is so important that only we can understand it so we’re going to invent this language!

Yet, in retrospect that may have been a bit unfair. Especially when you consider that one of my main men, Frank Zappa, could be lumped into that category as he built complex, multi-part compositions based on classical themes and motifs.

And of course, my favorite Pink Floyd song is “Echoes”, which is about 23 minutes of intrigue and delight. Queen, ELO and Rush could also be considered prog rock, at least on some level. Queen II and 2112 definitely fit the mold, and then there’s the ever lovin’ “By-Tor And The Snow Dog” by Rush. Love it!

So I got to rethink this genre, and dipped my toe into it big time recently.

Now, I’m not going to say I’m an expert here. I haven’t heard anything by bands such as Blodwyn Pig, Gentle Giant, Gong, the Nice (where Keith Emerson came from), the Strawbs, Atomic Rooster (where Carl Palmer drummed), the Kraut-Rock bands like Can and Neu!, the many European bands. And yes, I know I’m a slacker for being shy on stuff by the Soft Machine. Sue me. And Hawkwind’s discography is a bloody mess. I’m not down with Procol Harum, either, as I preferred them rocking on in “Whiskey Train” to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”.

But here’s what I do know. Some of it isn’t bad – and yet some of it deserves its reputation as pretentious, portentous, snobby dreck.

So who are some of the classic prog-rock bands? And why should I listen to them?

The Moody Blues - You have to start here. A former beat band decides to change their entire sound and record Days Of Future Passed with the London Festival Orchestra. That’s a pretty snazzy album, even with the poetic nonsense that opens and closes the record (written by the drummer, of course, as drummers are natural poets). After that album, they decided to heck with actual strings, let’s use a mellotron. The mellotron has a very cheesy sound, now, as it’s a keyboard that uses tapes of instrumental sounds (like strings, or flutes) and it really dates an album when it’s used. They had some decent moments, a lot of psychedelic mish mash, and ran out of gas, only to come back in the 80’s.

I Recommend - Days of Future Passed, and then stuff like “The Story In Your Eyes”, “Question”, “I’m Just A Singer In A Rock And Roll Band” and “Lovely To See You”. For a hoot, “Legend Of A Mind” and “House Of Four Doors” illustrate that drugs will whack you out, but you can create some interesting stuff on them. (“Legend Of A Mind” is the infamous ‘Timothy Leary’s dead’ song).

Yes - The biggest name in progressive rock, and the one band most responsible for all of its bad publicity. To this day, they are making jokes about albums like Tales From Topographic Oceans, which was ONE song on each of it’s four sides. Yick. They had some good pop sensibilities, as evidenced by “Roundabout” and portions of some of their longer suites, yet at times buried themselves in self-important pomposity and lightweight philosophical hoo-hah. It’s telling that when actual rocker Trevor Rabin joined a reconstituted Yes in the 80's, they became bigger than every because “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” rocked, and was concise, and direct.

They did spawn a band, Flash, featuring two ex-Yes members that had a great hit in 1972 with “Small Beginnings” but soon went by the wayside. And while that song was great in a single edit, I haven’t heard the full length album version which is triple in length. Yes also gave Rick Wakeman his first stage, and he was the one who staged one of his albums as an ice ballet. Wow.

I Recommend - The Yes Album and Fragile, as they have the most ‘songs’ and the longer pieces are actually pretty rocking and not pretentious. I should check out Close To The Edge myself, but that’s when they start to fill up entire album sides.

Genesis - Before they became a vehicle for Phil Collins’ pop success after the Abacab and Duke albums took off, Genesis was very much squarely in the prog rock tent. Peter Gabriel was the lead singer, and Tony Banks really shaped the music. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is the climax of all their work, but it’s fairly indecipherable and has just a couple of memorable tunes.

They really did create some great work. “The Musical Box”, “Watcher Of the Skies”, “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” are all primo songs. It’s eerie to hear Phil Collins singing backup to Peter Gabriel and hear how much they do sound alike, really, in this material.

I Recommend - Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound are all good albums. If you can snag “The Musical Box” somewhere, do it, but the rest of that album (Nursery Cryme) is just so-so). Actually, the best early Genesis song is “The Knife”, and that dates before Phil Collins and Steve Hackett joined the group, and it’s on iTunes, to boot, since it’s under 10 minutes long.

Jethro Tull - This old warhorse went from a pretty solid hard rockin’ band that used a flute (and long winded pontifications from Ian Anderson) and really went all out into the prog rock world, with albums featuring themes and variations of one song (Thick As A Brick) to concept albums (A Passion Play). But songs like “Aqualung”, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, “Locomotive Breath”, “Teacher”, and “Bungle In The Jungle” show the power and potential of Tull done the right way.

I Recommend - Aqualung, though it gets preachy, it rocks in several ways. After that, pick up a hits compilation, unless you’re a diehard. I can only take Tull in small doses – definitely not 22 minute album sides.

Focus - A serious Dutch band with a blazing guitarist (Jan Akkerman) and a flautist / singer in Thijs van Leer. But they’re known for the bizarre “Hocus Pocus”, which is 6 ½ minutes of blazing guitar and yodeling. Yes, yodeling. This hit the top 10 about a year and a half after its release and was the inspiration for the first essay I wrote. Mostly, though, Focus is a dead serious band making dead serious artistic statements about something or other. Zzzzzz….well, except when Akkerman starts to play.

I Recommend – If you can snag a collection called Hocus Pocus, that’s your best bet. Though I want to get Focus III because it has maybe the single best title ever: “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!”

Pink Floyd - Sure, they were a prog rock band at their heart, after the Syd Barrett psychedelia was drained out of their system. All of their work from Ummagumma on is definitely right in the prog-rock wheelhouse. The difference is that starting with Meddle Floyd made it work both musically and thematically, until Roger Waters started being a megalomaniacal prick. Which I guess wasn’t such a long leap for him, really.

I Recommend – The live stuff on Ummagumma is great, and Meddle is fantastic. I think you know the other stuff. Avoid Atom Heart Mother though – it put me to sleep. Well, I guess you can find the album sleeve if you like cows.

Emerson, Lake, And Palmer - Hoo boy. Talk about pretentious glop. Yes, they’re impressive musicians, and yes they had impressive egos. But Greg Lake can’t write decent lyrics to save his life, Keith Emerson overplays everything, and so does Carl Palmer. Sure, I like “Lucky Man” and “From The Beginning”, but what in holy hell is Tarkus all about. And then, when they made the Works album, that was all just musical masturbation, to me. Whoop-de-doo! I can play 391 keyboards and record with an orchestra. Yeesh. Actually, the bombast is evident even in a simple song like “Jerusalem”, where it overwhelms the material.

I Recommend – Picking and choosing wisely. Some of their albums even they acknowledge as useless. Realisitically, iTunes is your best bet. By the way, “Lucky Man” wasn’t even supposed to be on the first album, but they were short about five minutes from their contractual obligation of music per album side, and so Greg Lake found this song that had been lying around since he was 12. And yes, Emerson almost ruins it by Mooging it to death. Ah, well.

King Crimson - Now, this is how you do long form songs. Their first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King does suffer from most of the songs meandering like Moody Blues ripoffs (I blame the Mellotron they used), but “21st Century Schizoid Man” saves it, because that song is just unbelievable. The band had a rough go, as Fripp basically chased everyone away (not by force, it just happened) TWICE. But then Bill Bruford came over from Yes to drum, John Wetton joined on bass and vocals, and David Cross came on board to play violin, and Lark’s Tongue In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black and Red were the result. Outstanding, really, with Fripp’s guitar work being both powerful and subtle, Wetton’s bass driving it, Bruford’s inventive percussion keeping things together, and Cross’ subtle and beautiful violin and mellotron taking up the space in a useful way. I have a live album (USA) and downloaded a live set from 1973, and want ANOTHER live set, because live they were tremendous as well, and always had interesting improvisations.

I Recommend – Those albums I just listed above, and turn them up LOUD. Wake the neighbors, call the children, and wig out when the gentle percussion and violin morph into this ungodly power chord during “Lark’s Tongue In Aspic, Part One.”

There you have it. I know I may have missed some, but by gosh, go ye out and rock progressively. Even if you’re a punk rocker or a metal head, you can find something good to great in all that I’ve mentioned here.


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