There’s always a discussion happening somewhere about how a given genre of rock is just about ready for its comeback. That discussion rarely, if ever, involves progressive rock. It’s nearly impossible to imagine prog again attaining the massive success of its ’70s heyday. Back then prog rock, characterized by virtuosic instrumental passages, high-blown lyrics, and fantastical imagery, achieved truly popular success, as bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull sold millions. But by the end of the decade, the genre fell out of widespread favor — where, with scant exception, it has remained.
In his forthcoming book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Progressive Rock, David Weigel, who covers national politics for the Washington Post, recounts the history of progressive rock — and makes a compelling case for its reappraisal.
In the book, you describe prog as rock’s “weirdest” and “best” rebellion. I’ll give you weirdest, but best?
I don’t want to play down other movements in rock, but a lot of rock is derivative or just reassembles stuff that’s come before. What I like about progressive rock is that it was about people really innovating: using new technology like Mellotrons and Moogs, composing 20-minute suites — the music was defined by invention. I hear more newness in progressive rock than I do in anything else. When I was a teenager — I’m 35 now — I was getting into punk at the same time as I was getting into progressive rock, and I would get bored halfway through a punk album. I don’t want to say that all the progressive rock musicians were Miles Davis, but there is a parallel in how they would change their sound so they wouldn’t get bored. That desire for invention is what I love most about the genre.
The typical narrative of prog’s downfall is that punk turned bands like Yes into dinosaurs. But you argue that the two genres have a lot more in common than people tend to think.
I don’t think you can understand any change in the culture without understanding what it is rebelling against. Twenty-year-old punk musicians who were trying to blow up prog rock in 1977 were the same age the prog musicians were when they started out. It’s the same rebellious energy driving both genres. The difference is that when the guys in Genesis were teenagers, their way of rebelling against formulaic pop was to say, “Our album is going to be a musically complex re-creation of the Book of Revelation,” instead of “Let’s play songs that are 90 seconds long and jump into the crowd.” The same synapses were working in both cases. The rebellious thing to do in the late ’60s was to make bold, complicated music, and there hasn’t been a turn like that since. There hasn’t been anything based on technique, with the possible exception of the jam-band scene.
So if it wasn’t punk, what turned prog into the niche thing it is today?
It’s interesting, because if you look at rock magazines from the ’70s, progressive record labels like Harvest and Virgin were taking out full-page ads, and the sales pitch for their artists was always something like, “You’re going to expand your mind listening to this. Listen to this thing that’s never come before.” That’s just not how music is marketed now; everything is supposed to be instantly accessible. I’m not condemning all pop music — depending on how active my brain is, I might listen to the Katy Perry song about politics instead of Steve Hillage — but what’s being marketed is candy, and people are missing the really sophisticated stuff. It’s also worth remembering that the early ’70s was a period when people were buying LPs, going to massive concerts with quadrophonic sound — they were ready for big, ambitious stuff. Progressive rock could be an immersive musical experience. You had to actually sit there and do nothing else but listen to the music for 45 minutes in order to appreciate it. That’s something a lot of people used to want to do. In the age of Adderall, it’s hard to find a substantial audience that’s willing to do that. There are just so many more distractions now.
At the risk of generalizing, why is the audience for prog almost all older white guys?
That kind of audience homogeneity is unfortunately common to multiple strains of popular music. I think when progressive rock broke boundaries, it tended it go in European or synthetic directions. Occasionally there were bands like Jade Warrior that, in a kind of Orientalist way, tried to bring in Eastern sounds but … what I’m trying to say is that progressive rock was never very soulful. In the book I quote somebody describing [King Crimson bandleader] Robert Fripp as the whitest guy ever, and I think that’s basically accurate. When I go to a show, it’s mostly white faces and they mostly belong to people older than me. At the same time, progressive rock is very popular in Latin America and Japan, so it’s hard to say. I guess the homogeneity you’re talking about is partly due to the nature of the music and partly due to who the music is marketed to.
What album should someone curious about prog start with?
I’d start with King Crimson’s Red or In the Court of the Crimson King. Both of those have really accessible riffs and rock structures and then zoom into outer space. And if you listen and say, “I wish they’d just get rid of the violin and flute sections,” then maybe progressive rock is not for you.
I always feel like The Yes Album is the easiest prog album to get into.
Well, yeah, that album is good because it has big pop songs with elements that get a little bit more complicated. It might be my personal bias, but those two King Crimson albums I mentioned were the ones that made me realize how exciting progressive rock was. But I won’t disagree with you. Yes’s Close to the Edge was another one that unlocked the music for me. If you like Close to the Edge or [Jethro Tull’s] Thick As a Brick, you’re probably going to like progressive rock. Those are like the 101 courses. A 201 course would be Soft Machine.
We talkin’ Third?
Yeah, which I love. That album usually stops people unless they’re huge jazz-fusion fans.
This is a random question brought on by the fact I was listening to all ten minutes of “Achilles’ Last Stand” today: Does Led Zeppelin count as a prog-rock band?
I don’t think so. I think the record collections of people who have [Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s] Brain Salad Surgery also have Led Zeppelin IV nestled nearby, but without getting into it, Led Zeppelin weren’t super inventive. They were not a band that was trying to push boundaries that much. They were just a very loud rock band.
I respectfully disagree. What’s a great prog album that even most prog rock fans haven’t heard?
Probably the Triumvirat album, Illusions on a Double Dimple. They’re a German band, and as with many things in the ’70s, the Germans went to more interesting places than a lot of the English artists would allow themselves to go. It’s amazing just how much of this music there is. Once you dip your toe into the genre, you realize the ocean of it is vast.
It’s hard to argue that prog was political, yet you make your living covering politics. Where’s the overlap?
I’m attracted to outsiders and difference. The first stuff I covered in politics was the libertarian movement, something small and intense and interesting. I’m just as fascinated by those same qualities in progressive rock. In the same way that I’m not really interested in being a White House reporter, I’m far more interested in talking to someone like Steven Wilson than I am in talking to Justin Timberlake.
I’m saying this as a fan of the music: Is there anybody in prog rock that you’d point to as being a particularly good lyricist? Aside from a very few folks, lyricists often seem like a real weakness for prog bands. The words are either too airy-fairy or portentous or obtuse.
Lyrics are really my weakness, too. I’m much more of a melody person than a lyrics person. It took me a decade to understand simple singer-songwriter stuff. But I think John Wetton’s lyrics for King Crimson were dark and interesting. And Ian Anderson’s lyrics [for Jethro Tull] are funny, in a way that not a lot of music allows. He was taking the piss out of what his peers were doing. Progressive rock is complicated music, and maybe too ambitious for its own good, but, and this is something that often gets lost, the guys doing it were having a lot of fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed.