In popular music, the word “progressive” is the equivalent of “elite” in politics: a term once taken as a compliment for its indication of advanced thinking that came to be used as an insult for the same reason. Foucault called this kind of linguistic reappropriation “reverse discourse.” Yet meanings can sometimes go forward, then backward, take a turn, and move ahead again, as the word “queer” has done over the years. “Progressive,” in its musical usage during the second and third decades of the rock era, signified the laudatory attributes of conceptual adventurism, virtuoso musicianship, and intellectual ambition. It was used to describe acts such as King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Before long, the word came to be associated with the more dubious qualities of grandiosity, pretension, gimmickry, and self-aggrandizement. Weaponized with these new associations, “progressive” would still be used to describe exactly the same bands, who had fallen from favor by the late 1970s, when punk rock jammed the pop discourse into reverse by asserting the upending values of bluntness, brutality, antiprofessionalism, and crudity of various kinds.
The Kingdom of Crimson had come under siege, and progressive rock—or “prog,” as the music magazines dubbed it—would never reclaim its old honors. Today, the genre is generally treated as a historical joke or as pop-culture shorthand for the oppressive arrogance and bloated self-seriousness of the white male boomers who made up its core fans. Few critics or music historians have attempted to consider the prog phenomenon in much depth until fairly recently. In 2013, editors Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell put together Yes Is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales, an anthology of essays in defense of the genre by 20 writers, including Tom Junod, Rick Moody, and, astoundingly, two women, Margaret Wappler and Beth Lisick. Two years later, a series of high-minded if overly zealous short books on the music and its sphere (among them, The Progressive Rock Encyclopedia and Prog Rock History: The Canterbury Scene) appeared by way of CreateSpace, an independent publishing platform. Now David Weigel, a national correspondent for The Washington Post, has written what may be the first serious reconsideration of progressive rock for a general readership, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.
Weigel addresses, early in the book, the epistemological challenge of discussing progressive rock. “Defining or categorizing this music is basically impossible,” he writes, handily dodging a task that is basically his job and certainly is possible, though difficult in the same way that defining any genre or style of art always is. Every term of category for music—from Baroque and Romantic to shoegaze and dubcore—is imperfect, but still useful as a tool for examining the art. Weigel’s solution to the problem he calls impossible is to approach it as a reporter: Over the course of his book, he lays out a narrative of the history of prog through vivid descriptions and quotes from the musicians involved, leaving it to readers to construct their own understanding of the music.
Weigel comes closest to identifying the elements of progressive rock by listing, in one brief passage, three qualities or “musical modes” that he has found in it. The first is retrospection (Weigel’s italics), which he describes as an effort to “replace the standard American-derived influences of pop rock with English and European influences.” What he’s presenting here is a historically framed rationale for ignoring the strain of blackness, the African-American quality, that defined American popular music and informed a great deal of British pop at the time. The second is futurism, which Weigel sees in “the use of new sounds and new nonrock influences,” such as the sonic possibilities of synthesizers. And, finally, experimentation, which Weigel lets keyboardist Dave Stewart define as “doing our own thing.” Prog rock was, in Weigel’s words, “music that copied nothing and could be replicated by nobody.”
While narrative in form, The Show That Never Ends is polemical in strategy. As Weigel states flatly, he conceived his book as “an argument for progressive rock.” Its method, though, is not one of rational persuasion, but rather one of endearment through close contact—the principle of the Stockholm syndrome applied to rock history. Weigel has no grand theory of prog, and he makes no more than passing attempts to build a case for the music on aesthetic grounds. In fact, The Show That Never Ends is strikingly thin on critical analysis of the music itself. What the book offers instead is an intimate look at the people who created it, engendering empathy (and sometimes sympathy) for them and their mission to fill the world with tales of gnomes and knights and fairy-dust showers of Moog-synthesizer notes.
Weigel neatly frames The Show That Never Ends with his own first-person account of a prog–nostalgia package tour, “Cruise to the Edge”—five days and four nights floating around the Caribbean with well-aged veterans of the scene like percussionist Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Tony Levin, onetime bassist for King Crimson; and Roger Dean, the visual artist who bedecked countless prog LP covers with images of cosmic medieval surrealism. After colorfully establishing prog as both a phenomenon of receding memory and an object of enduring cult worship, Weigel heads back in time to observe a handful of budding prog musicians as they grow up in the triumphant, hopeful atmosphere of postwar England. Michael Giles, one of the drummers for King Crimson, tells him: “The only reason I’ve been able to come up with as to why we became musicians was because there wasn’t anything to rebel or fight against.… If we were trying to escape, it would have been from a kingdom of nothingness.”
According to Weigel, “Many of the musicians who became ‘progressive’ said the same.” Indeed, most of the artists he interviewed—-and he talked to a great many key figures in the prog-rock world, including singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe of Yes; lyricist Peter Sinfield of King Crimson; and bassist Greg Lake, a founding member of both King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer—sound a lot like each other. That is to say, they come across like charming, slightly daffy old Englishmen disposed to gleeful yammering about kingdoms and nothingness.
Weigel has a weakness for a story well told. In addition to the interviews he conducted himself, he draws freely from previously published interviews with prog musicians. Most of the anecdotes he relays are flavorful and dramatic—so much so, in some cases, that one can’t help but wonder if Weigel did all the fact-checking that a respected Washington Post reporter would be expected to do. After all, most of his sources, being well-seasoned rock stars, have done many, many interviews over the decades since the rise of progressive rock. It is inevitable that their anecdotes would harden over time, as their tellers molded and reshaped and polished the yarns for dramatic effect.
Ian McDonald, the multi-instrumentalist who helped found King Crimson (as well as the late-’70s hit machine Foreigner), recounts how, at the age of 15½, he spotted a newspaper ad reading “something like, ‘Band Musician Wanted, 15 Years Old.’” By “answering that ad,” Weigel writes, McDonald got “thrown into the military to play in a band.” Oh… really? How did that work? Were branches of the military in the United Kingdom accepting enlistees under the age of 16 at that time? And wouldn’t someone that young need the written consent of a parent to join? (The answers to the last two questions are “no” and “yes.”)
A bit later in the book, we hear about the success of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” As Gary Brooker, the lead singer and keyboardist for the band, recalled in a story that Weigel retells, the song had just risen to number one on the English charts when
Brooker and his bandmates stepped into a Chelsea boutique called Dandy Fashions. The Beatles had beaten them there and “were standing around a harmonium singing ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ the very moment we came in,” said Brooker.
The Beatles—all four of them?—crooning the Procol Harum song in a fancy clothing store at the precise moment that Procol Harum walked in? OK… sure.
By way of the sources that he uses to tell the story of prog, Weigel presents the rise of progressive rock in evolutionary terms. Like countless other writers on music of many kinds, including jazz and hip-hop, he seems to take as a given the proposition that music follows an inevitable course, growing ever more complex in ways that require ever-higher levels of technical skill to create and ever-deeper levels of sophistication to appreciate. To the degree that this seems like an anthropological scheme, it’s one from a school of thought that anthropologists themselves rejected around a century ago. Musical change, like cultural change, doesn’t follow some preordained scheme to fulfill a European ideal.
Weigel quotes Jon Anderson, the lead singer for Yes, in an interview from 1971, describing having recently talked “about the possibility of rock music—in the next 10 years—really developing into a higher art form. Building up the same way classical music did into huge works that last and stand the test of time.”
Along the same lines, Mike Oldfield, the multi-instrumentalist responsible for Tubular Bells, the sensationally successful instrumental album of synth-pop mood music, describes how the record “was thought of as the zenith of the achievements of rock and roll, where it was all supposed to be heading.”
The underlying idea was simple and, indeed, treacherously simplistic: Rock improved when it became more like classical music—in other words, more European. Skip the light fandango… here comes prog in a paler shade of white.
Throughout The Show That Never Ends, Weigel seems to take it as axiomatic that longer works are better works; that complexity is an outgrowth of musical seriousness; and that new sounds are more stimulating than familiar ones. He gives little consideration to a wealth of contrary propositions, such as the idea that value is not a function of a song’s duration; that emotional impact and sheer pleasure are worthy objects of ambition; and that the stimulation of the new can prove to be something fleeting.
Still, for all the simplemindedness and Euro-centricity in the prog scene, there was something important at its heart: creative ambition. The failures of progressive rock are its grandiosity and pretentiousness. The most astute and disciplined prog acts, like Pink Floyd, figured out how to give their ambitions a creative form, instead of a merely gargantuan one, and created classic albums like The Wall. Groups like Yes, by never saying no, made embarrassments like the 1973 album Tales From Topographic Oceans, a monstrosity of ostentatious show, inchoate spirituality, and faux intellectualism. The band’s ambitions were engulfed by its pretensions.
By bringing the reader close to the people behind the music, The Show That Never Ends succeeds as an evocation of the spirit of creative ambition that stirred a wave of musicians to make progressive rock. It’s heartening to see that spirit take flight, however briefly, before crashing from the weight of its own bloat.