PROG ROCK & THE CRITICAL REACTION IV
The Twilight Era
by Gary Gomes
"In the hour of my madness, when my hair is turning grey; when the milk has finally curdled and I've nothing left to say. When all that I've believed in, is no longer quite enough…"-Keith Reid, Procol Harum, from "In Held Twas In I"
"Chew Gum, Chew Gum, Chew Chew Gum Chew" –The Residents
"Dad, We're all Devo!"-Devo
When last we spoke, Progressive Rock and its mutant cousin jazz-rock were developing chops and sometimes astounding technical proficiency at an astonishing rate. Production technologies were developing at breakneck speed, and given certain economic and cultural realities (the advent of massive multi-track decks, the increasing cost of vinyl because of the energy crisis, click tracks and increasingly sophisticated synthesizers), the actual sonics of music were changing rapidly between 1973 and 1975. A small recession, similar to the economic downturn in the late 1960's, threw a lot of records in the cutout bins (lots of my early records were procured that way), the record industry was going through profound changes. Early in the 1970's, singer/songwriters started pushing rock groups out of the record bins, especially, but not exclusively , in the U.S. The UK was not immune with Elton John and Cat Stephens' success. France, Germany and Italy lagged behind and still churned out some group records, but the fact that the lyrics weren't in English (except in cases of groups like Can and Kraftwerk) limited market share in the UK and USA, which were still the largest markets. Record producers, now from the younger generation, actually tried to determine what would sell with kids better.
Production, with few exceptions, became softer and smoother. Elasticity of rhythm was lost with click tracks. The expense of vinyl made profit margins on records more important. Although in the mid-70's more experimental groups started to emerge, like Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North in the UK, Happy the Man in the U.S., Pere Ubu (which could be seen as a blend of King Crimson and the Velvet Underground), the Residents and others developed a new kind of progressive music. But record company support was passing or shallow. Although major groups still sold (Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, ELP), new groups were having trouble being heard. Oddly enough, several groups that started to show popularity but had experimental tendencies broke through for a little bit (Gong, Van Der Graff Generator, Gentle Giant, Roxy Music), but the latter two groups gradually simplified their sound, with GG lasting until 1980, but nearly unrecognizable. 1974-1976 seemed to be the last gasp of truly outside progressive music that was in the mainstream.
Some cite the rise of punk as the reason for this, but commercial pressures and the rise of disco (which was much more popular than Punk) and changing demographics had more to do with the change than the evolution of a musical form that had been in place since the late 1960's. Lest we forget, Iggy Pop and MC5 were around at that time and punk-like groups had been around throughout the 1960's. Progressive bands were getting more expensive to present live, but they were still astonishingly popular through the late 1970's when a combination of New Wave and MTV in the 1980's seemed to take their place.
What really happened in 1975 was that many of the mainstream progressive bands seemed to disappear-ELP and King Crimson either went on break or were disbanded; Gong changed leaders; experimental tendencies were restrained, and experimental groups developed their own labels and had limited distribution. Jazz rock was still around, but was becoming a bit more formulaic. So there was a kind of a void in the musical world that Punk rushed in to fill. It had a new energy, groups could form with basic knowledge of playing, and independent labels, pioneered by jazz, folk and experimental musicians, became popular. Along with Punk, a new ethos against lengthy solos developed, not amongst audiences, but through a combination of record label interests and limited technical ability on the part of musicians.
So Punk killed the dinosaurs? Not really. A confluence of economic and social factors came together to force progressive rock out of circulation. Just as minimalism was viewed as the savior of classical music because it supplanted 12 tone, indeterminate, and serial music of all kinds (this will be the subject of a future article), the new simplicity of Punk as an ethos was around for a couple of years, but lasted as a legend for 20 years; minimalism and punk seemed to dominate the New York Times through the mid-1980's, for example. However, the odd thing is that progressive music never went away.
It survived in a compromised form in the music of Frank Zappa, the true father of progressive rock as we learned it, until his death. Captain Beefheart lasted until 1981 before he retired to painting. Keith Emerson had a very rich career in Japan in the 1980's and variations on ELP survived into the 1990's. Yes and Genesis changed, then Yes changed back again. Marillion is the best known progressive group with the recognizable accoutrements--long concept pieces, lots of keyboard, a guitarist who used sustain like a club. Rush is also basically a progressive rock band and Pink Floyd survived into the mid-1980's. But some new wave artists also used progressive rock concepts, Talking Heads, Devo, Pere Ubu, Tears for Fears, Oingo Boingo and my favorites, Wall of Voodoo had progressive elements in them. The late 70's through late 80's, with the advent of techniques used once by people like Steve Hackett, produced a new generation of guitarists who weren't afraid to solo and show off. Some high concept MTV videos also had progressive rock influences; they were taking the music to a visual medium, a technique pioneered by the stage shows of Genesis and Pink Floyd. The progressive musicians who remained (like the Police's Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, who both played in progressive rock ensembles) adopted their abilities to a new reality. Steely Dan, with their complex arrangements, could be loosely classed into progressive rock. More importantly, the music never went out of style in Italy, South America, and Japan. The U.S. and the U.K. lost track of it, but not the rest of the world. And the Residents never went away.
Around the turn of the 80's, instrumental virtuosity started making an impression again, while the appearance of grunge gave many musicians license to pilfer old forms again. So from Pearl Jam's adoration of Hendrix, to Tool's King Crimson-inspired music to the shoe gaze players, all of a sudden instrumental music was popular. Some groups, like Colosseum, actually reformed. So did the Nice in 2002. Some newer groups started covering songs and recreating popular progressive acts (the Musical Box and other bands specialized in Genesis, there were and are various Yes tribute bands, and there are a multitude of Pink Floyd tribute bands). The interest seemed renewed, and new bands with new sonic textures emerged. Dream Theater and the Mars Volta are among the better known progressive bands and there are many other new ones. NEAR FEST was very popular, and there are various progressive music organizations around the U.S.
The music business has changed radically since the late 1960's to the early 70's. Big labels are not the powers they once were, getting radio program play time on free access radio stations is difficult, but internet and paid radio are being utilized. For better or worse, the mass market label delivery system for strange music seems gone forever. Several bands who came up during the 1960's and 1970's openly acknowledge that they could not get the exposure now they could at that time and were grateful for entering music during that era. It should be remembered that many bands labeled as progressive only initially received airplay--if any--through underground or pirate radio stations in the United States and the UK. When the marketers got a hold of FM underground stations, college radio became the only market to be heard in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and many morphed into mini-PBS talk show models after a while.
The new interest is not really new- it has been building as the baby boom generation retires, with no need to apologize for what they liked, and with some disposable income. They form the backbone of the audience, but I have seen many younger people interested in it, and the many avant garde musics it helped spawn. The audience, though, is more catholic--you are less likely to see someone who is solely interested in progressive music only. The increasing recognition that good music exists regardless of idiom is one of the foundational precepts of what later became progressive rock. While I don't hold a hope that we can de-categorize music soon, the interesting thing to me is that we are seeing a post modern merger of sounds, and it seems that everything is possible.
Let's see how long this lasts, and let's bring Xenakis into the mix! And let's bring free jazz back in as well, where it was in the beginning of the experimental period.
(NOTE: if a name you like is not listed in the bands in these articles, please rave to us about the ignored band or person.)
See Part 1: The Beginning- Prog Rock love and hate
See Part 2: The Foundation of Progressive Rock- Eclecticism as a End in and of Itself
See Part 3: The Maturation of Prog Rock- The Advent of Technique
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