Circular Cruises/Prog Rock

From Eccentric Flower

«Circular Cruises


Prog Rock

18 June 2009

I gather that I narrowly escaped growing up liking progressive rock.

The first cassette (when I first began buying music, it was too late for vinyl and too early for CDs) that I ever purchased with my own cash and on my own initiative was 2112 by Rush, because I heard one of my uncles playing it and I decided it was interesting enough that I wanted to have the whole thing. Other early purchases were a couple of Kansas and Styx albums. I liked Electric Light Orchestra a lot, but was very bad at recognizing bands from radio play, so I didn't actually buy any. I did manage to identify who did "Bohemian Rhapsody," and on that basis began a long string of Queen purchases. I think that sums up the earliest voluntary music of my childhood, other than a couple of hand-me-down Aerosmith cassettes, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.*

But it's not as simple as all that. For one thing, I realized that apart from 2112, I didn't actually care for Rush's long navel-gazing instrumental stretches and Geddy Lee's voice annoyed me. I already knew John Anderson's voice annoyed me, which is how I ended up never listening to much Yes except for their atypical 90125. On the other hand, I liked Dennis De Young's voice - at least at the time - so it clearly wasn't a general prejudice against that particular male vocal range; but I abandoned Styx early on, long before I learned some of these other things - but I didn't realize why I got fed up with them quickly until later.

(This will be about prog rock eventually. Just be patient. I'm working toward a point here.)

If I had had the facility to realize it at the time, I would have noticed certain patterns:

- I like strong vocals and especially vocal harmony. The tracks I am most willing to accept from 90125 are the ones where they all harmonize. Eventually I discovered a whole vein of music that was considered retro and declasse even then, doo-wop acts and The Andrews Sisters and other old business that valued strong vocal lines, not to mention the rare modern act that takes care with their vocals - but with what I had available to me early on, it was difficult to tell. For example, how was I to know that the only bit of Kansas material I really liked was "Carry On Wayward Son," and that primarily because of the vocals? It took me two Kansas albums to realize they were a one-trick horse to me, but even then, I didn't know what the trick was.

- I like smart, witty lyrics with singers who enunciate clearly. I didn't realize until years later that this was because I was raised in a family that appreciated (and participated in) musical theatre on both sides. I hate mumblers, and whiny nasal men who drone their songs. I like singers who sing crisply with trained-sounding, projecting voices - and who are given crisp things to sing.

- I didn't like long instrumental noodlings - then. It's taken me a long time to appreciate the two-minute solo, much less the four-minute solo. I remember buying a Queen live album (as a record) and wishing I'd bought it on cassette so that I could easily skip the endless farting around in the middle of "Brighton Rock." Later, after some years with no Queen and repurchasing a great deal of it, I find I like the instrumental bits of "Brighton Rock" much more than I used to ... but I still like the vocal parts better.

- I mostly like the standard verse-chorus-bridge format, and I like it short and sweet - but I've become much more open to songs which don't fit the three-minute-pop-song template since then. This one's important, and we're going to come back to it in a second.

- I like operatic, multi-layered crap with Big Storylines - but I have a lot less patience for it now than I did then. It's that grandiosity that attracted me to 2112. But the grandiosity must have direction. I would not have been able to say it in so few words back then, but the problem with Styx is that they never seemed to be able to figure out what they wanted to do. They had the grandiose down pat, but there wasn't any substance behind it. (Later I realized this is because Dennis De Young is a hack, but never mind that.)

I think that last is the Broadway influence again - I think now I was unconsciously trying to find rock music that fit my idea of what music was - which was either musical theatre or my dad playing either classical or ragtime piano. Those were my crib influences. My mother listened to random things on the radio sometimes, and one never could tell what she'd like, but my father had definite tastes and I didn't realize until only a few years ago how much those tastes affected mine, especially since I spent years avoiding all "classical" music entirely because of him trying to force me to appreciate it.

At the time, if I had known about the label "progressive rock," I would have said that progressive rock was trying to capture that big, operatic feel - but now I'm not sure. Certainly that was true of the sort of progressive rock I liked - but the more I read about "what is progressive rock?" the more confused I get. I don't think anyone knows for sure; there are just a lot of people pretending they do. I think everybody is defining prog rock in their own terms, to encompass things they want in the set and exclude the things they don't.

What does seem clear is that prog rock was based on the idea of getting away from verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-playout (or, if you're Tom Petty, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-playout) - away from the structure that not only dominated all of pop/rock music up to that point but which had a strong legacy in folk and blues songs before rock music even existed.

But because that is such a broad idea - a genre based only on the rule of "we don't do it this way" - prog rock can, indeed must, contain multitudes.

And ultimately, I think that one standard of "we don't do verse-chorus-bridge here" is why I would have rejected prog rock pretty early in my musical development anyhow. Because I like verse-chorus-bridge. I think that standard evolved because it is pretty much the perfect form for songs. It got to be the standard for a reason.

Combine that with the other likes and dislikes I describe above, and it becomes obvious that I was interested in prog rock for the wrong reasons. I was looking for things in it which overlapped with it only coincidentally. That is, some prog rock had strong, lucid vocals, but it wasn't a defining feature; some of it had strong storylines and operatic layering, but that wasn't a defining feature either; and in at least one case (song structure), I wanted something that I was pretty much guaranteed not to find there.

But it seemed like the only game in town at the time. I mean, what was the radio playing in 1978? Fleetwood Mac, probably. I thought Fleetwood Mac was crap even when I was ten years old. I still think it is crap today, I've just gotten more sophisticated at realizing why I think it is crap.

Fortunately, I didn't have to wean myself off prog rock. At the time the main source I had for Music The Radio Wasn't Playing was my youngest uncle, and right about this point, my youngest uncle suddenly discovered what I later learned was called New Wave (another term which I believe has no actual meaning). Suddenly it was all about The Cars and The Police - two groups I still adore today. New Wave was much, much closer to what I wanted - it meant I had to sacrifice the overblown operatics, but it meant I got the pithy, wiseass, sometimes bizarre pop songs I was craving - that I didn't know I was craving.

I have suffered historically from an inability to identify what is going on in music. With music, the "I don't know what it is, but I know what I like" cliché has been the story of my life. One of the things which inspired this essay is that yesterday I downloaded some Police albums (I'm gradually restoring things which I haven't heard for years because I owned them as dying or dead cassettes), and I was listening to bits of Regatta de Blanc and thinking, "How could I have not realized how reggae-influenced this is?"

The answer: Because until a relatively short number of years ago, I could not have told you what a distinctly reggae beat sounded like to save my life. I knew there was one, but I couldn't have said what it was. I don't think I can, even now, tell you what makes the reggae beat the reggae beat - I have learned to know it when I hear it, but I can't describe it. (I also can't tell you what time signature a song is in, and it baffles me that so many of my friends can.)**

So I suppose it's understandable that I have so much trouble with labels like "prog rock" or "New Wave," because my response to a term like that is, "But what does it sound like?" Hearing, for me, is knowing; and with music, nothing but hearing works for me. (This is why I am so happy to see MP3 services which offer previews of songs.)

I have changed over the years. In addition to discovering artists everyone with a brain already appreciated (e.g. Cream is more than just "White Room," Jimi Hendrix actually was all that and a bag of chips - I learned both of those things only last year), and reconciling and re-obtaining the fun and games of my past (I repurchased my Queen collection, and yup, I still like them), my tastes have very clearly evolved - and they have evolved in favor of liking more music that I would have, back in my adolescence, dismissed as too formless, tedious, or pointless.

I listen to a lot of Frank Zappa. I listen to even more Pink Floyd than I did as a kid, which is saying something. (I remain consistently fond of their psychedelia; far less tolerant of the operatic stuff like The Wall, which I used to adore when I was a sullen teen; and far more tolerant now of their long rambly pieces like "Echoes.") I discovered that, given the mood, I can even sometimes enjoy purely noodling-around stuff like Jethro Tull. (I realize Aqualung has lyrics, and I gather that some of them are even pithy and cynical, but the whole thing still strikes me as basically a 43-minute instrumental. Thick As a Brick is overtly a 43-minute instrumental.)

So I think this whole "prog rock" thing bears reexamining. And, in some cases, re-hearing. I mean, how can you know? All three of the artists/groups in the paragraph above have fallen under the prog rock label at some point in their checkered careers. Jethro Tull has lived and died under it. Any genre which can contain both Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa, however briefly they both flit into and out of it, is obviously rather amorphous.

So, what's prog rock to you? And what parts of it do you like? And what do you like about it? Tell me what you think.

* I don't know why my uncle had that particular Elton John album and no others, but for something like ten years or more, the only Elton John I knew was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It may have been fortuitous; since then I have heard a lot of Elton John, and I still like none of his other stuff nearly as much.

** I have the same issue with metrical feet in verse as I do with keeping track of rhythm patterns. The problem is either that I hear emphasis differently or something, or I assume the emphasis can vary so much that it's all moot. For nine out of ten words we will agree on whether it's iambic, but then I will throw you a curve ball and insist that a particular word is trochaic and you'll think I'm crazy. Similarly, with music, I get the same rhythm you do, but I may not agree with you about which is the important beat in the measure - assuming I can tell where the measures are at all. I dunno. Maybe it's brain damage.

Copyright © June 2009. All rights reserved.

Personal tools
eccentric flower