Writer Marc Weingarten talks about the heyday of prog rock after the publication of his new book, "Yes is the Answer."
[Updated] Prog rock is the forbidden musical love. It's too silly, too bloated, too fixated on technique, and too much a part of another time to take about openly. But for a generation of teenaged (primarily) boys (primarily), it was also a meaningful part of growing up. At the age when music is crucial to your social identity, prog - progressive" - rock drew a line between us and them, and because of that it's no surprise that the essays in the new book Yes is the Answer and Other Prog Rock Tales (Barnacle Books) tend toward memoir.
Editors Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell collect stories on Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Todd Rundgren's Utopia (one of the few American entries in a predominantly British genre), King Crimson and more. Musician contributors stretch the boundaries of the genre as Peter Case contributes a piece on The Incredible String Band, and Wesley Stace (also known as John Wesley Harding) writes about Soft Machine. Writer/musician James Greer goes back to its sweet spot, though, talking about the impact of Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on Guided by Voices.
It's the rare writer, though, who can get around prog rock's central hobbit-shaped stigma, illustrated by Roger Dean. Nobody treats it as a guilty pleasure, but Rick Moody documents everything wrong with Emerson, Lake and Palmer before getting to why he likes them anyway. Margaret Wappler, one of the few female contributors to wander into a very pronounced Guyville, writes about teenaged lovemaking in the '90s with The Court of the Crimson King as the soundtrack. Listening to the album again in preparation for the essay revealed the distance most of the contributors had to negotiate:
Maybe I can blame too much time working as a professional music critic or the cold-eyed logic of being older, but it just didn't move me in the same way. Whatever footpath I had once taken into the music as an adolescent, using it to underscore sexual discovery and intellectual tomfoolery, seemed closed to me now. If my fiancé put this on tonight as mood music for the boudoir, I would laugh and be instantly paralyzed. What am I, a background handmaiden in a Hieronymus Bosch painting? Am I supposed to slither on the ground with a vine around my neck?
Recently Marc Weingarten and I talked about prog, and he started by saying, "Anyone under 40 isn't going to relate to this book. It's so fixed in that era - early teens in the '70s" - an assessment that I think is right and wrong. The details of Yes is the Answer and the bands discussed are very much about the '70s, when freeform FM radio provided a place where music like this could not only be aired but make sense. But prog's tendency toward grandeur still raises its mellotron'ed head in contemporary British rock, and American post-rock charts a similarly lengthy, musically exploratory course for a place beyond the mainstream. The faerie queens and castrati vocalists may be gone, but the impulses behind them never die.
To me, it seemed like prog took The Beatles to a logical conclusion.
That's right. Sgt. Pepper was the jump-starter for the whole thing, for sure. Conservatory-trained British kids heard that record and realized, "Oh, we can do rock 'n' roll in our own way and maybe do something cool with it."
It's the other side of garage rock. Those bands heard The Beatles, Stones and Kinks and figured, "This is great, but it would be even better if it were harder." Prog bands heard them and thought, "Wouldn't this be cool in 7/4 or 9/4 time? Or had movements?"
Totally (laughing). There's this little five year sweet spot starting in '69 - the first King Crimson album starts the whole thing, even though The Moody Blues came before, but that's not really prog - to '74 or '75. That's when it was good. It was adventuresome stuff. There was a lot of experimentation going on.
I grew up in New York, and my parents were classically trained musicians. When you're a kid and you hear that music, you're like, "Wow, this is advanced. One step beyond what we think of as rock, taking it somewhere else. Of course, it didn't in a lot of ways, but you're very taken by it when you're a 15-year-old.
It said that there's something else going on out there. At that time, if you're listening to AM radio-
- Radio was firmly rooted in pop music in those years -
- or Kiss, Rolling Stones, Boston, Aerosmith -
It wasn't dumb. This wasn't dumbing things down. It wasn't Kiss. It wasn't The Rolling Stones on the downslope before Some Girls, even though the Achilles heel of prog rock was some of the most atrocious lyrics ever written. Even Peter Gabriel - just terrible.
For the longest time, I thought the line in Yes' "Roundabout" was "In and around the lane / marlins come out of the sky / and they stand there." But that didn't make any sense, so I decided it must be "marten" - the bird. "In and around the lane / martens come out of the sky / and they stand there," but why would martens stand there? That didn't make any sense. I didn't realize until I read the book that it was "mountains come out of the sky," but how is that any better than marlins?
It's worse (laughing) It's much worse. Even as a kid, I chose to graze over that; it was phonetically interesting with the music. Jon Anderson was good at that.
But these guys were my Justice League of America, my superheroes with their capes. I loved the grandeur of it, but as a kid, you're taken by that. But sometimes a little pretension is a good thing; I kind of miss that now. I wish bands would overreach more, even if they fail to grasp what they're reaching for. I like the idea of rock stars being rock stars. Punk leveled everything out. Now If I can make a living at this and people can see me…, but these guys meant business. Maybe it's something about the British sensibility, but these guys were like, Fuck it, we're touring with a 70-piece orchestra. We're going to have theater in the round with a rotating stage, we're going to have projections that no one has ever seen before. Pink Floyd runs into this too with The Wall tour and the giant pig during the Animals tour. I find it all endearing. It is pandering to the male, adolescent sensibility, but that's okay. It's fun.
I was pleasantly surprised going back and re-listen to Yes and discover it was more muscular than I remembered. I checked out side one of Yessongs and it moved pretty well.
Prog rocks, which had a lot to do with the rhythm section - [Bill] Bruford in Crimson, [Phil] Collins in Genesis. Those guys were muscular players, Crimson being a whole separate thing, and [Robert] Fripp being the only guy who didn't fall by the wayside with his reactionary views on punk. He embraced punk, he embraced post-punk, and consequently made a huge contribution to that genre, as opposed to Greg Lake and these other assholes who didn't get it at all. They were rendered obsolete, but Gabriel and Fripp got it, and that lengthened their careers and made them interesting artists for a while. I love Fripp's stuff. He's one of my guys.
One of the things that was drew me to prog was its look. I bought a cut-out copy of Genesis' Nursery Cryme on the strength of its cover, and the pictures of Foxtrot and Trespass on the inner sleeve made me want them too. Nothing else on the market looked like that. Rather than working to be contemporary, they seemed outside time. You had the Roger Dean Yes covers -
They suggested whole other worlds.
No question, it was about the iconography as much as anything else. That stuff really got to us, even though none of it made any sense. God, those gatefold covers. This had to happen in the vinyl era; it couldn't have happened at any other time because of those gatefold covers. That was a huge part of it for sure. Then there was Gabriel's insanely outlandish stage persona with all those costumes. That stuff is crazy!
Why doesn't stuff like that happen today?
I don't know. I think rock is so rooted in a punk ethos, even bands that aren't necessarily punk rock bands. It was such a sea change in the way to think about rock 'n' roll, and we haven't got out of that. Although, you look at The Flaming Lips, right? They did that Dark Side of the Moon album, and they have paid homage to Pink Floyd and said how much they love them. Of course, the last Lips record [The Terror] collapsed and died.
I like that they're taking chances, even if they're daring their audience to walk away.
I agree. They're the one band that does that. That sprawling two-disc thing they did [Embryonic] was pretty difficult to listen to, but they may be the one that continue to take chances. That's why I'm attracted to the Lips - I like that they think of doing other things than come onstage with two guitars, bass and drums and play a set. And have the benefit of making money on the road, so they can afford to make records that don't do anything.
The whole punk thing is so ingrained they think it's aberrant behavior to step away from that. Although I did Of Montreal the other day and they had dancing bears, sort of like the Lips.
I'm put off by a band that seems surprised that people are there and watching them. They're in the same clothes they wore in the van for the last eight hours, and act as if it's a mystery how they arrived at that moment.
Fuck that. I love a lot of that stuff, but as you said earlier, why can't bands overreach and take chances anymore? Of course, we have to talk about how the studio era is over, so bands don't go into studios with producers and budgets. You can't make a Tales of Topographic Oceans anymore.
Part of the problem is that the days of major labels are largely behind us, certainly labels that will indulge a band as it tries out counterintuitive commercial ideas.
Yeah. Of course we'll release your three-record set, no problem. Yes could do that and sell a million records, but [prog] is rooted in the old record industry model. You needed that large platform to launch yourself into the prog stratosphere. It needs to done big. It needs to be writ large.
If you're not on a major label, you probably don't have the financial wherewithal to record that music in the way that it needs to be heard.
I had mixed feelings while reading Rick Moody's piece on Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I enjoyed it, but I hated the band.
On the other hand, I came to really enjoy Pink Floyd.
They're one of my favorite bands because it's simple. It's the opposite of prog in a way. We have a Floyd piece in there, but they're not - well - maybe they overlap, but it's simple music. Then I love all the Syd Barrett stuff.
When I was in high school, everybody had Dark Side of the Moon, so my internal contrarian said no to it for a long time.
I was the same way. I refused to go to The Wall show. All my idiot, burnout friends were going. Now I can listen it; then I couldn't.
I still struggle with The Wall but Animals is great. Animals is the end of Pink Floyd for me.
I don't like The Wall except for "Comfortably Numb," but Animals is terrific. The pre-Dark Side stuff like Meddle is great, and there's stuff on the other records like Atom Heart Mother, but I think they're great.
But you've got to pick your spots with this genre. I'm not sure how well the Gabriel solo stuff holds up now. His second album is half a record. It's equally as silly as Genesis. It's a bit more muscular but it's not that much more advanced.
When Rhino reissued Genesis in two box sets, I checked out the post-Gabriel Genesis and was pleasantly surprised by the first two albums after he left, though Collins' lyrics are painfully cute. When you listen to the music they made before Steve Hackett left, it's mind-boggling how they became a pop band.
The unlikeliest of mega-rock mega-stars. They outsold all of these bands. They're the biggest selling prog rock band by far, but Yes is definitely the ur-prog band. You want to talk about the prog values and the criteria that go into them, they are the band. They embody prog more than any other band.
They looked prog.
They had the puffy sleeves!
Rick Wakeman had the Prince Valiant haircut.
I love that stuff. Wakeman with his mylar cape and shit. (laughs) There's a great BBC doc on YouTube, Prog the Britannia, and Wakeman gets it. He can laugh at himself now, unlike Keith Emerson, who's such a dolt.
It seems like prog, if you really want to define it classically, is a category of 10 bands or so.
That's right. All white males. Not a single woman in the genre at all.
Or in the audience, I expect.
It's a male genre, this and metal.
But when it was played on the radio, it was played next to Led Zeppelin's 12-string, acoustic stuff and it didn't seem as odd as it does now.
It seemed all of a piece back then. It goes back into that ambition thing we were talking about: Let's bring in British folk, let's bring in elements of jazz. It was a fusion of all that stuff together that was so appealing, as opposed to just one thing.
Yes, but that was also what killed prog for me, because it seemed like it didn't believe in rock 'n' roll, like rock 'n' roll's not good enough unless it quotes Bach or is played in odd time signatures.
Right. When you're a kid, it makes you feel superior. I like this advanced music, while you listen to Aerosmith. It gives you cache as a kid.
Cache as the lonely guy. It played into your sense of being misunderstood and alienated. Your friends are listening to Boston with girls and getting kissed, while you comfort yourself with the knowledge that you have better taste.
They don't get it. Totally right. But you slide out of it. You realize prog is fairly absurd.
I and my partner in the book mounted a show here in L.A. last November where we actually played the stuff. Wow, that took some doing. It took weeks to figure this shit out. It was fun as hell, though. I'm a drummer, and there was so much counting going on. They're so perverse, We'll do this section in two measures, then the next time we'll do it in three, then back to two then we'll do it in four, then - (laughs). It was a blast.
Did playing the music tell you anything about it?
It gives you a heightened appreciation for it. Steve Howe's guitar parts in Yes are pretty terrific, at least the best of it. In prog, when they were concise and could get their ideas across in six minutes, they were great. When they were sprawling and it was Topographic, not so good.
Yes is the Answer is out now. Weingarten curated a prog playlist exclusively for My Spilt Milk. He selected a number of King Crimson tracks, but since the band's albums are not on Spotify, it's only represented by one of tracks that is a prog cornerstone, "The Court of the Crimson King." Another choice, the title track from Genesis' masterpiece, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was omitted for the same reason. Pink Floyd at its proggiest is also missing on Spotify, but the list still serves as a fair primer for the breadth of music that at one point or another was considered prog, and it highlights the form's musical values. He left out North American bands Utopia, Styx, and Rush (which isn't). Rush may be able to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it still can't get love from anyone but its fans.
Updated 1:11 p.m.
In the first version of this story, I wrote that Rush was not included in Yes is the Answer. It is included, and the text has been changed to reflect that.