Why is Progressive Rock So Controversial?

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Let me begin by saying that the Wikipedia article on progressive rock is a good read for both those familiar with the music and for the uninitiated. It offers far more background than I can give in this post, although I differ with some conclusions of the article. Another good resource can be found here: http://www.jimdero.com/OtherWritings/Other%20Prog.htm

Progressive rock (sometimes called Art Rock) seems to have its roots in the year 1966. It was then that the Beatles began to incorporate elements of both traditional classical music, such as, the chamber music of Eleanor Rigby, and, modern classical or avant-garde music, such as the use of tape loops on the Revolver album, into rock. It was also when Bob Dylan started experimenting with the rock song form, extending his songs over ten minutes in length, and employing surrealistic lyrics with literary themes and references. Moreover, a month after Dylan’s double album Blonde on Blonde was released, Frank Zappa released his double LP Freak Out (possibly the first concept album) which includes the over 12 minute The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet and the 8 ½ minute Help I’m a Rock (Suite in Three Movements) containing a memorial tribute to the avant-garde composer Edgar Varese.

Another important early progressive band was Love, an integrated group whose African American lead singer Arthur Lee mastered both a menacing early punk style, as on My Little Red Book and Hey Joe, as well as a genre-defining progressive vocal style, as can be heard on Signed D.C., a song about a drug overdose that somehow inspired Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues to write Nights in White Satin. This is all on their debut album released in March 1966 (before the albums mentioned above). Of course, their masterpiece is Forever Changes which features tasteful use of orchestration that sounds very contemporary.  And, despite the feel good name of the band, the album is quite cynical and dystopian lyrically. Other early progressive bands include, Procul Harum, The Moody Blues, The Nice and Pink Floyd.

Most are probably more familiar with bands that formed around 1969, such as, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Genesis. These bands probably cause the most controversy. However, it seems that even which bands should be included as progressive is controversial. For example, some writers now exclude Pink Floyd because they were not (in their opinion) “virtuosos”.

I can only speak from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in the greater New York area. I don’t know which bands were considered progressive in Rio de Janeiro or Rome or even San Francisco. I can say that the progressive rock fans that I knew in New York were the most musically inclusive of all of my friends. Along with the aforementioned groups and individuals we would include the following: Jethro Tull, Santana, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Grateful Dead, Focus, Hawkwind, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Caravan, Colosseum, Jeff Beck, Strawbs, Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, Mike Oldfield, Jade Warrior, Kraftwerk, Nektar, Weather Report and more. What tied it all together for us was a love of improvisation and the willingness to experiment.

Progressive rock, like jazz before it, enjoyed a brief period of mass acceptance and popularity. In the 1970’s progressive bands like Yes and ELP played to sold out stadiums, earned gold records and had massive radio airplay. What could have led to its current state of being almost universally ignored?

I believe that a few different elements are at play:

  1. Critical opinion as an influence on popular tastes. As mentioned before, the critics anointed punk rockers as being genuine artists and branded progressives as being “pretentious”.
  2. Listening to music that is both composed and improvised requires a great deal of cognitive processing and most people are not willing to commit to this effort for very long. This is being borne out by MRI studies performed on musicians who can recognize improvised music from composed music.
  3. Experimental music is an acquired taste. Popular music adheres to a strict and predictable formula where a familiar chorus is featured and repeated. This is similar to why most people would rather eat potato chips than a salad.
  4. The virtuosity of progressive  musicians made some uncomfortable; They thought this challenged their less accomplished favorites.

We have all heard the charge that progressive rock was pretentious, that is to say that it had an exaggerated, or undeserved sense of importance. Yet, how were these musicians exaggerating their importance? They were merely composing works that pleased themselves, referencing their influences, just like any other musicians. The same charge could have been made against Duke Ellington when he elevated jazz to an art form. It was the critics who had been pretentious when they, for example, looked for meaning that wasn’t there in the lyrics of Lennon and McCartney or Dylan. Now, in the 1970’s, these same critics were on a quest for authenticity, finding their holy grail in the form of punk rock. This is nothing new, when Chicago blues players like Muddy Waters first played in England critics did not like their sophistication and complained that they were not primitive enough.

The exponents of progressive rock in the seventies were actually trying to be true to themselves. Ian Anderson, for example, felt inauthentic when he was singing American blues. He rediscovered his own roots and began writing music and lyrics from a particularly British point of view. Rick Wakeman of Yes studied at the Royal Academy of Music; He wasn’t pretending to have an interest in classical music. Procul Harum had two members who were capable of writing their own orchestrations. Frank Zappa could transcribe the extended improvised solos he had played in concert while travelling afterward on the tour bus. These people were not pretending to be something they were not. Meanwhile, the “authentic” punk anarchists The Sex Pistols were actually a manufactured band put together by a clothing store owner to publicize punk fashion. Should the progressives pretend that they could not play their instruments and did not understand music in order to please the critics?

I, for one, found progressive rock to be a revelation. When I saw Yes during their tour for the Yes Album, juxtaposed against the main act Humble Pie, I happily realized that rock music was not just about being tough and getting laid. It could be about ideas and questioning why we are here.  When I saw King Crimson or Frank Zappa I experienced challenging music that I could not sing along to but that would make me think. And when I saw Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, I knew that I may never be able to play like him but hearing his music enriched my soul. And I knew that his talent did not invalidate the accomplishments of other dissimilar artists.

Hopefully, someday the critics will get over their aversion to improvisation and complex music and their sanctimonious devotion to the orthodoxy of pop conventions and the so-called authenticity of punk and rap. Until then, I will put on Close to the Edge and get lost in the moment.

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7 thoughts on “Why is Progressive Rock So Controversial?

  1. Thanks for the post on this!

    You may remember that most American critics where never much supporters of Progressive Rock. Most American critics in the 1970s where more focused on lyrics and social implications than the quality of music. I remember the L.A. Times, which were more-or-less anti-prog-rock actually give a good review to Gentle Giant’s Missing Piece album — their first album where the group abandoned their voice to try to survive the impending decline of Prog-rock’s ability to generate quality income. The lyrics of “Bet You Thought We Couldn’t Do It” are particular difficult to listen to for long time fans:

    “I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. And if you did we wouldn’t try
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. But if we didn’t we would die.

    “We built our house stone by stone. Little help, we were on our own
    Made the town, tore it down. Now you know, tell me how it feels.

    “We’ve been waiting such a long long time. To fit the pattern, fill the rhyme
    Now we can’t stick in our old ways. Now it’s out we’ll see how you feel”

    As the glory days of progressive rock faded, there were still new fans discovering Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP, VDGG, King Crimson and the rest. Through the last few decades, it has always given my great pleasure to find someone in the late teens or early twenties singing praises of Peter Hammill, KIng Crimson, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, etc. This music is basically classical music and will live on from now on, available for the enjoyment of all generations.

    One thing that is particular obvious in retrospect, is that during the late 1960s and early seventies there was also a progressive-rock style and that many groups in general pushed their music to be more interesting in terms of rhythm, harmony, length, topic, instrumentation and arrangement. One hears this stylistic influence in most of the successful rock bands of the early seventies. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin had a progressive element. Queen was a progressive band that would have been much different if not formed during the progressive-rock era. One even hears traces in more mainstream, AM music including Stevie Wonder, the Fifth Dimension and even traces in the later Carpenter albums.

    In Europe, with their greater musical sophistication, the appreciation of progressive rock was more prevalent than in the U.S. Gentle Giant was very appreciated in Italy during the 70s and I suspect, even today, Europeans of many ages are familiar with the progressive rock classics.

    Progressive Rock is classical music and like Stravinsky, Wagner, Beethoven, etc. met with some controversy. Some classical music is immediately abandoned (Josquin, Ockeghem, Buxtehude, Zelenka, Bach, Mozart) to be rediscovered by later generations. Sometimes the rediscovery happens a generation or two later, sometimes as in Zelenka’s case it takes a little longer.) Sometimes as with Beethoven, there was never any abandonment. I think there are many composers/musicians today that appreciate the progressive rock of the 1970s and are influenced and inspired. If it is still controversial, that is is a very good thing. I think, though, the times of controversy have long past. It will never again be popular any more than Machaut, Ockeghem or Ives. But it will continue to be admired and respected.

  2. Well said! Progressive rock bands did more for rock music then any other style of music except the Blues in my opinion as one who still loves to still listen to some of the artists you mentioned in the post today and everyday,

  3. Interesting read up. Critics aversion to prog rock is part of the reason why I gave up on taking modern music criticism seriously. It’s all about authenticity and lyricism rather than musicianship.

    I’m off to check out The Nice and Love, though I can’t find Procul Harum on Tidal. I’ll to save them for YouTube.

    Best!

  4. Personally you hit on many of the reasons why I hate prog rock, & it has nothing to do with critic’s opinions of it, (though I did tend to agree with them after the fact once I read them). There’s nothing there that appeals to me.

    It was pretentious, & comparing it to jazz is insulting jazz for one simple reason; Prog rock has no soul to it, & because of that it’s always sounded & felt contrived & artificial to me. Jazz, like blues, real country, R&B & the best R&R has soulfulness at it’s core, & to fail to grasp that shows an absolute lack of understanding of the genre. Technical virtuosity has it’s place, but without soul it merely becomes a form of musical masturbation.

    You mentioned the Beatles influence on it. Well the bad thing is prog rockers took the worst aspect of the Beatles impact, (their use of British music hall styles), & applied it to overwrought, pretentiously “heavy” lyrical & musical themes. In retrospect there was nothing “heavy” about the lyrics or the musical themes in prog rock, thus it’s pretentiousness. Also, lumping Love in with prog rock is an insult to a great band. Love was more along the lines of Jefferson Airplane or the best of the Doors, minus that latter band’s own pretentiousness, & I love the Doors), but more & better.

  5. Mark, thanks for the comment. I too love soulful music and am a blues musician. Although I am not a jazz player, I have known a few in my time and even had the pleasure of meeting Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheney, and Frank Zappa. I know enough about the genre to understand that “soulfulness” is not an essential element. Some critics have argued that swing is essential but even that has been disproved.

    When soul jazz first burst on the scene in the 1950’s it was greeted with skepticism by Be-Bop players who considered those who played it as sell-outs. It took an awfully long time for even post-bop musicians to warm up to rock and roll and the Beatles. This is not surprising since Be-Bop was not initially accepted by Swing players.

    There is more jazz music that is composed and notated (contrived, if you will) than the average listener realizes – albeit, usually with a section that is improvised. When Ellington came along, I’m sure that some fans of the great Louis Armstrong felt that Duke was pretentious because he was composing orchestral, chamber, and solo works in the classical style. Or, perhaps, Gershwin was being pretentious when he combined jazz with symphonic music. The same could be said of Gunther Schuller with his Third Stream music.

    Greg Lake, who just passed away unfortunately, admitted that maybe they (ELP) were pretentious but they were just trying to move the music forward,to be original – this is what progressive means. Keith Emerson, who we also lost earlier this year, played in British R&B bands before he was in The Nice and ELP. I can certainly hear the influence of jazz great Jimmy Smith in his playing. To say Emerson lacked soul betrays a lack of understanding, as Smith was one of the great soul jazz artists. If you listen to Steve Howe of Yes you will hear both the influence of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. I could go on.

    I certainly meant no disrespect to Arthur Lee and Love by linking them to the progressive or art rock movement. I think I made the connection clear in my post. You may not like progressive rock music – I get that. That does not give you the authority to attack my knowledge of jazz. There is some jazz that I don’t like. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t jazz. I also don’t like opera – it reminds me of overweight, sweaty people yelling at one another, yet that doesn’t make me enough of an authority on the art form to invalidate those who think that it is the ultimate expression of human intelligence and beauty.

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