Whatever happened to prog?

Progressive rock can be seen as a barometer of the Zeitgeist of its time. Not only was there optimism, but there was also a widespread belief that it was possible to do things differently. All sorts of things, really.

Last night, I watched ‘Prog Rock Britannia’, a BBC documentary about progressive rock. Mainly focusing on a handful of groups starting in the late 1960s and reaching their creative zenith before the mid-1970s, the film has insights to offer about cultural change, group identities and even the political, and this does not just apply to those who happen to be fans of prog rock. The period starting with the Summer of Love (1967) and fizzling out during the recession of the late seventies, which would soon bring Thatcher and Reagan to power, represented a window of opportunity which was unprecedented and has, so far, not been replicated. It was as if the future were wide open, essentially benign and open for experimentation. The music scene was part of this generous, undogmatic, freewheeling spirit (that of ’67 rather than ’68). You could play in a 15/8 rhythm and still stay in decent hotels when on tour. You could produce concept albums with 23-minute songs and impenetrable lyrics vaguely based on ancient Tibetan scrolls, and the world was at your feet. You could search for unusual chords and unheard voicings, you could compose dauntingly complicated pieces of music merging influences from Stravinsky, Bo Diddley and West African drum patterns, and your work would still be filed under ‘popular’. There was an extraordinary creativity in popular music, with its epicentre in Britain, from around 1967 to around 1976, which closely paralleled the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time.

The optimism and creativity of this time is long gone, but perhaps it is time to revisit it. Indeed, it is possible to read both mistakes, dead ends, lost opportunities and genuinely useful visions into the history of prog rock. Let’s have a look.

The first, tricky question, still discussed regularly by aficionados on internet forums and over beers, concerns the boundaries of the category of prog. Now, the first law of group theory states that there must be criteria for group membership. Groucho Marx famously quipped that he’d be loath to join a club that wanted him as a member, and group membership is often assigned, from the outside, to people who would rather be someone else. In an influential text on ethnicity, the anthropologist Fredrik Barth delineates ethnic identity as a function of self-ascription and the ascription by others. I cannot reasonably claim that I am a Chinese, even if I should feel Chinese all the way down, unless a critical number of significant others accept my Chineseness. Otherwise, I’d just make a fool of myself by trying to lay claim to a Chinese identity.

Belonging to a group confers and presupposes both meaning and utility: It has to make sense in the broader context of my self-understanding, and it has to provide me with some kind of resource, material or immaterial. As a rule, smaller groups have clearer and stricter principles of membership than larger groups, and are more acutely aware of their identity. As a minority, you are continuously confronted with your minority identity, while members of a majority are far more rarely reminded of the fact that they are a majority.

Minorities, acutely aware of the necessity of boundary-work, tend to bifurcate. In Life of Brian, the Judean Liberation Front gets into trouble with the rivalling Liberation Front of Judea, and in the world of prog, classifiers, such as the people responsible for the excellent Progarchives website, have a field day applying labels, sub-labels and, in rare instances, sub-sub-labels. For example, there is Kraut (Can, Faust, Guru Guru and Amon Düül, not to forget Amon Düül II); there is Canterbury of course (Hatfield & The North, Caravan, Soft Machine), and, naturally, Zeuhl (Magma and its permutations). And then, obviously, there are all the others.

Yet – as any student of social identity soon comes to realise – quite a few people, not least artists, have such a strong minority identity (or perhaps it’s just their individualism) that they eschew any label at all. (James Joyce, for one, famously declared himself a sovereign nation.) So Peter Hammill, whose career spanning over four decades has been extraordinarily brilliant and prolific, has always tried to wriggle out of the straitjacket ‘prog’, although he is widely seen as a quintessential progressive artist, an icon even. To take another example, Pink Floyd are seen as a prog band by many outsiders and casual listeners, but prog fans tend to be ambivalent: Although Floyd were an innovative band in their first decade, creating new soundscapes and dreamlike atmospheres reminiscent of the kinds of things progressive bands did, their music is actually quite mainstream in the sense that it is mostly based on twelve-bar blues, and with conventional instrumentation. I should say that it is mostly not prog, but with strong prog elements until ‘The Wall’. Zappa? He was a universe in himself. File not under prog, but under Frank.

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The BBC documentary didn’t quite manage to convey this diversity, and yet it is important for the wider implications – cultural as well as political – of prog. The general narrative of the film is credible enough, even if simplistic. It starts around 1967. The focus is exclusively on the UK, which is fair enough. When The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, by far their most sophisticated record up to then, in terms of composition, instrumentation and sound, they showed the world that the language of pop and rock could be extended in all sorts of directions, and that there were in principle no limits.

Around the same time, young bands such as The Nice, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and Soft Machine were, in their own ways, extending the language of pop and rock, introducing lengthy improvisations, unexpected chord changes, real musicianship and/or unconventional instruments. Their slightly younger cousins were inspired and began to experiment on their own. So by 1970, lots of people had formed bands aiming to extend and experiment and develop rhythmic music in new directions – Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Caravan, ELP and so on. At the outset, record companies and audiences (typically great-coated art school students or precocious sixth-formers, nearly exclusively male) were thrilled. This new, more complex, adventurous music – scarcely dancable, but fresh and exciting – gave expression to a belief in a future which was as malleable as it was mostly good. The American philosopher and prog musician Bill Martin accordingly titled his book on prog rock Listening to the Future.

But then, the standard narrative continues, routine set in, the most successful bands became musically self-indulgent and were in the grip of megalomania when designing their stage shows; as the concert venues grew and visual effects proliferated, they lost contact with their audiences, they got jaded and began to show off their skills for the sake of it; and when the punk rock revolution came in 1976–77, fuelled by visceral rage, it spelled the end of the pretentious dinosaurs of prog. Good riddance to them, as it were.

It is necessary to revise this version of history, if only because it is wrong. OK, there were some prog groups that morphed into pretentious, pompous stadium rockers in the mid-1970s. But they were not typical. Emerson, Lake and Palmer is the most obvious example, but Yes were not far behind. Genesis, for their part, made a conscious decision to make ‘more accessible music’ in the late 1970s, reinventing themselves as a straightforward pop group with an occasional nod to their more complex and less danceable past. But what about everybody else? — Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant more or less went bankrupt and had dissolved by the time Reagan became president. Camel and Caravan soldiered on, but with diminishing interest and income, playing in ever smaller venues. Some of the musically most exciting groups, such as Hatfield & The North and its successor National Health, never made it far beyond the university circuit, and were forced, largely for economic reasons, to throw in the towel anyway. Soft Machine split into smaller projects, mostly jazz, session musicianship and modern classical composition. Gong, which was not mentioned in the BBC documentary, has gone in and out of existence in different formats until the present day, with the aging Aussie beatnik Daevid Allen (bless him) as the only common denominator. Robert Fripp of King Crimson dissolved his group years ahead of the punk revolution, in 1974, but he has reformed the band on numerous later occasions, always updating the sound, the personnel and the approach. This music was not about gyrating hips, but nor was it about money and fame. Most of these people simply loved the music, and continued making it as long as they could.

Add to this the underground that remained underground, and had no intention of becoming mainstream. The loose alliance of avant garde rock groups called ‘Rock in opposition’ (RiO), formed at the initiative of the drummer and lyricist Chris Cutler (of Henry Cow and Art Bears) in the late 1970s, was largely unaffected by punk, new wave, Bruce Springsteen and reggae. They had never aimed for world domination in the first place, and were accustomed to staying in grotty hotels and depending on a variety of sources of income. Driven almost exclusively by musical agendas (and a bit of angry left-wing politics), and relying on the loyalty of a small circle of devoted listeners, they were effectively vaccinated against the twists and turns of mainstream fashions. There is a clear and strong continuity between Christian Vander’s work with Magma in 1971 and his present output; similarly, the most recent Univers Zéro album, Phosphorescent Dreams (2014) forms part of the same musical project as 1313 from 1977 – sombre chamber music with a thundering rhythm section which may just be sufficiently loud to qualify them as a rock ensemble.

There is another kind of difference, which partly overlaps with the contrast between the mainstream progressive bands and those that defined themselves as avant garde. (King Crimson, incidentally, is in an interesting intermediate position here. Fripp enjoys having fans, but they shouldn’t be too numerous.) And it concerns the relationship between the music and society.

Progressive rock around 1970 was a middle-class genre. Groups were typically formed at art schools or even at public schools (which, in the UK, are not public, but private). As the author Jonathan Coe says in the BBC documentary, prog rock groups were not particularly interested in society or politics. Their worlds were either quirky and eccentric, or Tolkienesque, or mythical, or all of the above. Tony Banks has explained that for him and his chums in Genesis, talking in a direct way about girls and sex, which the three-chord rockers did, would simply not be viable – it would feel vulgar and inauthentic; so instead, they drew on Greek myths and classical literature for inspiration. Gentle Giant based several of their songs on Rabelais, while Jon Anderson of Yes created lyrics which were sometimes powerful and evocative, sometimes meandering and vacuous, but at a safe distance from current affairs.

In the highly politicised and polarised Britain of the late 1970s, it would seem that progressive rock had become irrelevant, tasteless even. It spoke neither to the class struggle nor to the young man’s desire to bed young women. This is a valid point. There were nevertheless exceptions. Peter Hammill has written strong songs about such subjects as apartheid and nuclear meltdown. Peter Gabriel wrote the famous ‘Biko’. Even Jon Anderson wrote the lyrics for ‘Don’t kill the whale’, but by then (1978), the creative energy of Yes was almost gone. In general, there was no strong social engagement in prog, apart from the occasional hippie commune idealism for which Gong and Steve Hillage became famous. The main political voice of prog belongs to Robert Wyatt, the original singer and drummer of Soft Machine and later an important solo artist. Wyatt has been a communist for more than forty years, and his social engagement is evident in nearly everything he has done since the late 1970s.

In bridging the worlds of prog and the musical avant garde on the one hand and radical political engagement on the other hand, Wyatt illustrates the main shortcoming of most prog. It was not about proficiency or complexity; as long as musicians have something to say and are willing to communicate with their audience, most of us don’t mind a bit of complexity. Nor was it really about megalomania and excess. ELP were an exception in this respect; the vast majority of prog bands played at modest venues and hardly made any money at all. The downfall of progressive rock as a mainstream phenomenon in the latter half of the 1970s was mainly a result of its failure to engage with the burning issues of the day. Or, put more charitably, the dreams and visions conjured up by most prog bands were incompatible with the more bad-tempered, conflictual historical situation leading up to the Thatcher–Reagan era. As always, there are exceptions, and the aforementioned family of bands and projects emerging from the technically dazzling, musically daring and politically left-wing Henry Cow have continued to address political issues in radical and confrontational ways, but they have remained a well-kept secret to everyone but the initiates. I guess it somehow stands to reason that ‘The song of investment capital overseas’ never made it into the Top Ten.

The early demise of the visionary optimism and reckless displays of creativity characteristic of early prog rock is nothing to celebrate. That the crude brutality of punk and the banalities of partisan politics should replace the optimism, experimentation and playfulness characterising the music scene just a few years earlier was not a sign of progress, but of decline. As Mont Campbell (previously of Egg and National Health) puts it: The premature end of this movement could be compared to a three-year old suddenly dying. You learned to walk and to talk, but you never got the time to develop into something mature and enduring.

Some of you will disagree with this conclusion. But look. Granted, there is a contemporary prog movement, but although some of these groups are excellent and make some really good music, they do not have forty years of continuous musical development to build on. They continue to be inspired by albums made by Yes, King Crimson and Genesis in the first half of the 1970s. It is also true that many of the oldies regularly reunite and play their classics as well as a number of, invariably inferior, newer songs. Nice it may be, but innovative it ain’t.