Scientists say cockroaches are one of the few things that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Add prog rock to that list. Defined loosely by its intentional complexity, over-instrumentation, jazz elements, and classically-trained, ambitious musicians who rejected simpler, visceral forms of rock, the “progressive” form known as prog rock has been dissed and dismissed since it paraded its feathered hair onto the scene in the early 1970s. Even though its progressive ethos progressed itself out of existence, the prog oeuvre still has legions of fans and just as many enemies.
Why? In The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh examines the genre to search for answers. Did prog ever achieve its lofty goals of pushing rock into “a higher form of art”? I mean, where do you go when you’ve already reached the stars? Down into hell? For some, hell is an Emerson, Lake & Palmer synthesizer solo without end, or even one with an end.
The genre’s primary appeal, though, was not spiritual but technical. The musicians presented themselves as virtuosos, which made it easy for fans to feel like connoisseurs; this was avant-garde music that anyone could appreciate. (Pink Floyd might be the most popular prog-rock band of all time, but Martin argued that, because the members lacked sufficient “technical proficiency,” Pink Floyd was not really prog at all.) In some ways, E.L.P. was the quintessential prog band, dominated by Emerson’s ostentatious technique—he played as fast as he could, and sometimes, it seemed, faster—and given to grand, goofy gestures, like “Tarkus,” a twenty-minute suite that recounted the saga of a giant, weaponized armadillo. The members of E.L.P. betrayed no particular interest in songwriting; the group’s big hit, “Lucky Man,” was a fluke, based on something that Greg Lake wrote when he was twelve. It concluded with a wild electronic solo, played on a state-of-the-art Moog synthesizer, that Emerson considered embarrassingly primitive. An engineer had recorded Emerson warming up, and the rest of the band had to convince him not to replace his squiggles with something more precise—more impressive. In the effortful world of prog, there was not much room for charming naïveté or happy accidents; improvised solos were generally less important than composed instrumental passages.
The audience for this stuff was largely male—Bruford writes ruefully that, throughout his career, women “generally and rather stubbornly stayed away” from his performances. The singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, an obsessive prog-rock fan, suggests that these musicians were “afraid of women,” and that they expressed this fear by shunning love songs. What they provided, instead, was spectacle. As the American crowds got bigger, the stages did, too, which meant more elaborate shows, which in turn drew more fans. Weigel notes that, in one tour program, the members of Genesis promised to “continually feed profits back into the stage show.” (At one point, the show included a stage-wide array of screens displaying a sequence of hundreds of images, and, for the lead singer, a rubbery, tumorous costume with inflatable testicles.) Yes toured with sets designed by Roger Dean, the artist who painted its extraterrestrial album covers. Dean’s innovations included enormous, sac-like pods from which the musicians could dramatically emerge. Inevitably, one of the pods eventually malfunctioned, trapping a musician inside and prefiguring a famous scene from “This Is Spinal Tap.” The competition among bands to create bigger and brighter spectacles was absurd but also irresistible, and quite possibly rational. American arena stages, like LPs, needed to be filled, and so these bands set out to fill them.