Friday, January 30, 2009


In my last blog I argued that bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) represented, within a rock context, the fundamental values of modernism: complexity, individuality (as exemplified by the naming of the band eponymously), virtuosity, and mastery. I think I’m correct in that observation, and I think the point is true of all bands one might consider exemplary of so-called “progressive rock.” Indeed, I think all the supposed masterpieces of progressive rock have been judged under the evaluative terms characteristic of modernism. Having continued to think about the issue over the past few days, I think the special value of ELP is that their career conveniently serves to trace the rise and fall of “progressive rock.” Using the band’s popularity curve as an example, it becomes clear that the so-called “heyday,” or widespread popularity, of progressive rock in fact lasted a brief time, peaking in 1974, thereafter subsumed by other movements, including “glam rock,” disco, and, of course, punk. Progressive rock was, by 1978, an anachronism, meaning that the sort of modernist values represented by the movement were no longer endorsed by the rock ‘n’ roll avant-garde, progressive rock being perceived, by then, as elitist. British bands such as Yes and King Crimson were irrelevant by 1978—in fact, by that date, King Crimson had been long disbanded (the first time). Simon Reynolds writes, “Punks were supposed to purge their collections of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, or at least hide them in the cupboard” (Rip It Up and Start Again, p. 20). As I mentioned last time, the pejorative British term for bands such as ELP, Yes, and King Crimson was muso. Musos were musicians who were considered overly preoccupied with technical virtuosity at the expense of authentic expression. Stated somewhat differently, by the late 1970s, progressive rock was considered inauthentic, while the sort of music that supplanted it—reggae, ska, and punk, for example—in contrast, was considered “authentic.”

Using, arbitrarily, the release date of King Crimson’s IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING as the starting point for so-called progressive rock (October 1969), then the period of progressive rock’s greatest popularity lasted about five years, peaking about mid-1973, the bookend at the other end being ELP’s WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (August 1974). Although not released on CD until 1997, ELP’s EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL 1970, recorded during the band’s first formal appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 29, 1970, should be considered that group’s first album. Including that album, a few selective examples of prog rock’s development can be seen here (all release dates UK):

King Crimson – In the Wake of Poseidon 5/70
Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Yes – The Yes Album [“Classic” Yes line-up; recorded 10-11/70]
ELP – Emerson, Lake & Palmer 11/70
King Crimson – Lizard 12/70
ELP – Tarkus 6/71
Yes – Fragile 11/71
King Crimson – Islands 12/71
ELP – Trilogy 7/72
Yes – Yessongs 5/73
ELP – Brain Salad Surgery 11/73
Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans 12/73
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black 3/74
ELP – Welcome Back My Friends... 8/74
King Crimson – Red 11/74

By 1974, however, as is well known, the movement began to fragment. Rick Wakeman left Yes, Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson on 24 September 1974 (about six weeks or so before the release of RED, by which time King Crimson was a power trio), and in August ELP released the live album WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS…, subsequently taking a lengthy sabbatical. Shortly thereafter, in December 1974, Yes released RELAYER, and then it, too, took virtually a three-year hiatus.

In retrospect, the disbanding of King Crimson and the contemporaneous withdrawal of both Yes and ELP, was historically significant, but not for the standard reasons. The Sex Pistols emerged as a significant musical force in 1976, and in January 1977, The Clash was signed to CBS Records for a significant sum. What this musical shift represents is not so much a reaction against what came before (what rock historiography typically claims), but a paradigm shift. It is true that punk marked a new phase in rock music’s youthful insolence, as opposed to prog rock’s insolent iconoclasm in the form of “rocking the classics“ (but which actually represented the reproduction of ideology). In effect, progressive rock was to rock ‘n’ roll what bebop was to swing: the triumph of the muso. Punk rock was rock’s putative reclaiming of amateurism in the form of rhythm and sound, but it also effected an ideological transformation in music as well: when the famed progressive rock bands made their “comebacks,“ they had been transformed as well.

No comments: