Perfect Sound Forever

PROGRESSIVE ROCK AND CRITICAL REACTION

Part 1-The Beginning
by Gary Gomes
(August 2017)


Prog Rock; Love and Hate

There has been a rash of interest and reviews around Progressive Rock with the publication of David Weigel's book, Welcome Back My Friends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Of course, there have been earlier books written on Progressive Rock, including more analytical and scholarly works by Macan and Martin, but Weigel is an esteemed journalist who writes for the Washington Post, and in point of fact, progressive rock's reputation has been going through a reevaluation lately.

The reasons for the utter disdain in which progressive rock has been held for so long seem to be more ideologically than aesthetically based, somewhat akin to the low art status of Maxfield Parrish and Klimt paintings--traditionally held as being inferior art, but reconsidered over time, or more aptly, L. Frank Baum's series of Oz books. 20th and 21st century critics have had difficulty with excess of any type. This was the period that ushered in minimalism, the sleeping pill of the creative arts.


Earlier Progressive Movements: A Brief Summary of Western History

Progressive movements in music date all the way back to the 14th century in Europe-probably earlier. The record set The Art of Courtly Love compiled by the late David Munrow, the pieces from the Avignon papal court, are frenzied and avant garde (chromatic music, employing all twelve tones, in the 1300's-1400's) sound extraordinarily experimental, even by modern standards. The unpopularity of the Avignon court, as well as major inconveniences like the plague and a century of wars led to a more conservative environment.

Later, Johann Sebastian Bach often worked outrageous improvisations and a bit of a twelve tone row into his work. In Bach's case, the popularity of his technique actually led to his descendants putting the brakes on experimentation and improvisation. Specifically, the late classical tradition allowed no room for improvisation. Although improvisation was maintained in the classical organ tradition and among certain exceptional musicians like Franz Lizst, most buckled down and played what the composer wrote. Wagner's intense free tonal centers gave way to Brahms' structures, while laying the foundation for Schoenberg to synthesize the expansion of tonality that Wagner popularized while fixing it to a new structural system--the free tonality of Pierrot Lunaire gave way to the structure of serial music.

Early 20th century music introduced a series of wild pioneers from Bartok to Stravinsky to Schoenberg to Ornstein to Antheil to Vermeulen to Ruggles to Cowell to Varese to early Shostakovich and Busoni and others who came up with novel ways to organize music by expanding the tonal, percussive and time palettes through exploration of expanded tonalities. Then, although some composers retained their experimental edge, others went into some obscurity for a time, while others (Stravinsky most famously) adopted neo-classicism for a long while, only to integrate serial techniques and space in his later, less well-known works like "Canticum Sacrum" and "Agon."

The idea that music (or history for that matter) runs in patterns is not at all new. Marx called it thesis-antithesis-synthesis (what is startling is that he did not realize this same cycle would envelope Communism, which was supposed to be the end of a long class struggle and would, in essence, create a society in which history would end.) Other philosophers thought of it before him. Strangely though, the same millennial thinking seems to exist in music. Every movement thinks it is the final movement, the end, but that is essentially stagnation. No change cannot be maintained, ever. Change always occurs.

So, while jazz changed after the war and became more complicated with the advent of bebop and later, experimentalism from people like Kenton, Marsh, Tristano, Roach, Monk and others, cool jazz was waiting in the wings. A pivotal figure in cool was Miles Davis, who started as a bebop trumpet player, but a fairly limited one. Cool fit his stylistic approach very well. But the Brubeck and third stream --Gunther Schuller, etc. and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the unclassifiable approach of Charlie Mingus--came along and moved the music in a slightly different direction of increasing complexity, until free jazz came along and, through Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and most notably, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Paul Bley (all of whom had some roots in bebop) and blew off the hinges.

I can still recall the arguments between the "new thing" and the moldy figs in Downbeat magazine. Coleman and Taylor could be discounted as charlatans (and also praised by classical musicians like Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein) by the defensor fidei jazz critics, who claimed that the new thing didn't swing, was "anti-jazz"--Dolphy and Coltrane and even Bley had impeccable jazz credentials, having been sideman with extraordinary jazz musicians like Ellington, Mingus, and Jaki Byard. Yet they wanted to learn from Coleman--and later, in Coltrane's case, Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, and Pharaoh Sanders. They must be crazy. Even today, Coltrane's final recordings are viewed with some suspicion by jazz purists.

At the time, the free jazz tradition came as close as it ever did to popular acceptance. But in the late 1970's, Concord jazz (new trad, led by Scott Hamilton), ECM (new cool, despite its embrace of Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey and the Art Ensember of Chicago) and the revenge of Wynton Marsalis, who couldn't make it in Sun Ra's Arkestra, but did find value in treating jazz like classical music (about the most modern his playing aspired to was the pre-electric Miles Davis Quintet) began what I would call the great reactionary period of jazz, despite the advent of player like John Zorn. Free jazz still existed, but its recording opportunities were curtailed by major labels. Jazz is now one of the least popular musical forms, partly because of the retreat from innovation, partly because of the distrust of improvisation, and partly because of the aging of an audience that liked experimentation or spontaneity.

Rock and Roll started off as a simple exploration of rhythm and blues and country and western (in some cases-I can't discern any county and western influence in Screaming Jay Hawkins or Little Richard, for example--but the blues element was very strong). Add in some folk harmonies, as were utilized by the Beach Boys, and you had a blend of simple chord changes (tonic-subdominant-dominant, or a 1-4-5 chord progression). Hit a C an F and a G on a piano and you have basic popular song structure, but that's also the chord sequence used in 12 bar blues, along with pleasing harmonies and an uptempo, danceable beat. Except for things like "Who Do You Love?" with two chords, most rock and roll covered this format.

There were certainly oddities that showed up in rock and roll, and you would sometimes get instrumental virtuosos like Dick Dale-pioneer of the super-loud rock band with his Fender guitar plugged into massive Fender Dual Showman amplifiers-but the formula was strictly adhered to, even in early quasi-classical novelty songs like "Nutrocker" (later covered by Emerson, Lake and Palmer!) and The Toys' "The Lovers Concerto" or some of the pocket operas of Roy Orbison, some of which had an almost-"Bolero" like construction, or even "Telstar."

But the interesting thing about progressive rock and its precursor, psychedelic rock, was that it originated in the recording techniques developed by Les Paul (multi-tracking), Ross Bagdasarian of Chipmunks fame (tape manipulation) and comedy record producers like George Martin, Over a few short years, sped up tapes to make singers' voices sound like birds, bizarre sound effects (like Joe Meek's recordings) and overdubbng (Les Paul followed by people like Phil Spector) became the recording industry norm. Andy Partridge from XTC pointed this out long ago. In one final bit of ignominy, one could consider Allen Sherman's vocal parodies based on classical melodies (see My Son the Nut, of which I was a huge fan) as being the foundation for taking classical themes and appropriating them for purposes other than those for which they were intended. Which leaves us with a tantalizing question, one not without consequence-was Allen Sherman really the unrecognized grandfather who laid the foundation for progressive rock? Of course he was, and so were Broadway musicals, electronic innovations, and new discovery of musical resources that had been ignored by audiences.


Historical Context

Years ago, in an interview, Paul Bley noted that the sixties absorbed three diffferent musical innovations that should have taken 30 years to absorb under normal circumstances--free jazz, electric rock with sustain and electronic music. This was unprecedented access to modes of expression that had not occurred since the early 1900's.

Very few creative movements start in isolation, In order to make a significant impact, the conditions have to be right to see something develop, grow, and mature. The 1960's represented a lot of change--civil rights, the Vietnam war, the ascension of socialism into the mainstream, the Cold War, and new economic prosperity all conspired to make access to other cultures not only a luxury, but an imperative. Mind expansion could be found in drugs, spiritual movements, and, as John Cage noted, in electronics. Also, the teen record buying audience expanded into hitherto unheard of size, and the advent of musical experimentation in very popular groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Who and many others that opened commercial inroads for many other groups to follow a similar direction. But not all groups copied each other--some took the freedom provided by the willingness of record companies to record new things as a license to experiment and move in different directions. This is fairly common knowledge, and the psychedelic culture encouraged not only blues experimentation, but also experimentation in different directions. Cream and Jim Hendrix are prime examples of this.

Also, the entry of musicians who knew about music than just rock and roll broadened the palette of sounds available, as groups like the Doors, Iron Butterfly, the Nice, United States of America, Spirit, Family, early Chicago, Soft Machine, and even the Who had musicians with both classical and jazz backgrounds from which they could draw, This inevitably led to 1) longer instrumental interludes played by more proficient musicians and 2) more experimentation and desire to break away from existing forms. Even groups normally associated with the punk reaction--the Velvet Underground, the MC5 and the Stooges--had classically trained and influenced player or were in part inspired by jazz, so the influences on all bands that arose at that time was fairly consistent. It was largely a matter of which direction the band chose to emphasize.

We will talk briefly about the transition from pop to psychedelic pop to progressive in the next installment. I think you will be surprised at some of the connections that existed during that era, and how the music industry started to change creativity in the early 1970's.


See Part 2: The Foundation of Progressive Rock- Eclecticism as a End in and of Itself
and Part 3: The Maturation of Prog Rock- The Advent of Technique


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