Being a prog-rock fan in 2012 is a lonely business. As someone who co-hosts a monthly prog-rock DJ night at the Living Room, I’m profoundly aware of the apathy, if not downright disdain, that prog inspires in the majority of the population. So it’s shocking to see Slate devote a long article to the genre a great many people despise, even though they possess only the most superficial knowledge of it.
David Weigel of Slate is writing what looks like a series on prog, powered by the kicker, “The ever-so-brief rise, and the inevitable fall, of the world’s most hated pop music.” Oh, damn, I’m hooked.
In this piece, Weigel focuses on Keith Emerson, flamboyant and über-talented keyboardist for the Nice and Emerson Lake & Palmer, and provides a concise summary of prog’s origins and trajectory from innovative force to creative slump and laughing stock of the rock-crit establishment.
Here are some key passages:
You can’t completely kill an art form. Even if a musical genre becomes despised, it endures—on master tapes, on cut-out LPs, on Spotify or MP3-trade fora. Simon Reynolds describes how the “massive, super-available archive” gifted to us by the Internet allows anyone to rediscover anything, and pop music to gnaw its own tail. Hip-hop artists, our cultural magpies, comb through prog’s greatest hits to sample its stranger riffs and lost organ bleats. Modern, prog-influenced acts like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree can sell out midsized venues.
But if ever a form of popular music dropped dead suddenly, it was prog. Progressive rock essentially disappeared, and has remained in obscurity for 35 years, ridiculed by rock snobs, ignored by fans, its most famous artists—Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull—catchphrases for pretentious excess. …
The laugh-and-gawk-and-parody approach is fun but doesn’t explain why this music was popular, much less why critics liked it. Progressive rock, in its various forms, evolved out of psychedelia, out of classical music, and out of jazz fusion. In every case, its practitioners became obsessed with sounds and technologies and song structures and took them as far as they could. Pop songs became four- or five-part pop symphonies, with preludes and codas and repeating themes. Wasn’t this where music was supposed to go?