The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock
David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock traces the arc of a semi-vague movement in rock history, devoting a good deal of space to the usual suspects of Yes, Genesis, Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, etc., while highlighting various bands who may have fallen under the radar for some listeners (me, for instance). If nothing else, the book provides a jumping off point to discover new music, but unless you’ve already submerged wholeheartedly into the waters of 20-minute long epics, this book will not wade you in gradually via the shallow end and let you get used to the temperature. You’re getting thrown into the deep end and will likely drown.
Weigel doesn’t hand-hold, so that when he delves into the history of chaps named Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt – two people I had never heard of – he doesn’t give the reader the benefit of context. In the hands of a better writer, I would have expected a brief “…who would later form Soft Machine…” No such luck. Mercifully, a few pages later he applies this technique for Michael Giles, as “…the future drummer of King Crimson.”
But until the Weigel anchors the reader firmly in the 1970s and the bands that gained traction, the book is a bit of a mess, devoting a page to one band, then a page to another, so that it’s hard to find one’s bearings. The promising prologue is the only thing that kept me turning the page at first, but once we reached 1970, I was all in, finishing the book in just over a day (which, for me, is quite an accomplishment).
Once again, I had my handy streaming service next to me throughout the reading of this book, playing hours of music to see if any music struck a chord. Recognizing that I didn’t give compositions the same chance I would have had I shelled out $7.99 for an LP in 1980, here are some of my hasty conclusions:
1) I hadn’t considered Procol Harum a prog rock band, and really, I hadn’t considered them at all. But after streaming through half an album, I’ve decided that I need to investigate them more fully (I'm listening to them as I write this blog). Aside from their breakout hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I have no clue, but I like what I’ve heard thus far.
2) The funnest fact I learned was that the vocal/organ line of Yes’s 20-minute epic “Ritual” was sampled for a song by De La Soul called “The Grind Date.” Now THAT was something Jon Anderson couldn’t have foreseen back in 1973 as critics were panning the double album, Tales from Topographic Oceans (one of Yes’s best).
3) The prog rock bands that hit the big time were likely the best, so give a hand to the masses for taste. I listened for a while to Soft Machine, Van der Graaf Generator, Gong, etc., and more modern bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, and none of them grabbed me.
4) Given the inclusion of Gong, I was surprised that 10cc wasn’t given a brief shout-out, as the quirky nature of the music is similar. Styx too is mentioned only in passing on page 214, a little surprising given the content of their first several albums.
5) Two additional bands that I’d like to investigate more are Hatfield and the North, and Gentle Giant. My ears perked up for both and I’ll need to add them to the list along with Procol Harum.
6) A great deal of space is devoted to Robert Fripp, from his King Crimson output to his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, and I found both the man and his music to be insufferable. I’m not a fan of Bowie’s Heroes and Gabriel’s second album, and last night I listened to the Daryl Hall release Sacred Songs – terrible. And then I found a King Crimson concert recorded just last June from the Chicago Theater – a concert I actually considered going to until I learned that neither Bill Bruford nor Adrian Belew would be on stage – and I’m so glad I saved my cash. Aside from the song “Three of a Perfect Pair,” I guess I’m simply not a Fripp fan.
7) As a vinyl purchaser, I’ve occasionally had a Jethro Tull album in hand before placing it back in the record bin (they tend to be pricey). After listening to Thick as a Brick in its entirety, I think I’m going to pass on this band. Aside from a few songs, they aren't my cup of tea. However, I have to give Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull a bit of a shout-out, as his 1980 description of why prog rock went out of favor is spot on:
Ten years ago, there was a great deal more flexibility and freedom both in radio programming and in terms of the record company policy, as to what they would take a chance on.
I agree, but the rise of the Internet and home recording studios of course changes all of that. As connoisseurs we can listen to anything we want whenever we want, and I imagine that aside from the terrible metrics that Pandora uses to crap out the same old shit time and time again, there has got to be access to interesting, innovative music at everyone’s fingertips. The trick is finding it. If I put in a Yes song in Pandora and press play, I’ll get the usual Genesis, Kansas, Styx and Rush – nothing that exposes me to interesting bands I’ve never heard of, including many of the bands explored in Weigel’s book. But I suspect if I were 20 years-old and cared more, I would find the music I was longing for.
For the time being, I’m going to go backward and explore some of the bands I missed the first time around. And then I’m going to put on Close to the Edge. Because really, it doesn’t get any better than that.