Two weeks ago, in preparation for my first-ever academic lecture on progressive rock, I asked a very close friend of mine to listen to a prog song, one I consider a modern masterpiece of music and art. “Progressive rock?!?” he exclaimed. “What is that, Birzer? It sounds as if Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and John Dewey have formed a band. Nothing progressive is good.”
This was certainly not the first time I’ve had to explain to a friend what progressive rock is. And, this friend in particular has been teasing me about this subject for nearly two decades. He’s a classical and opera purist now, though haunted by a disco past.
The fact is, progressive rock is nearly indefinable. Even those credited with making progressive rock reject the title as often as not. Prog fans, too, obsess over what group or album or (less likely) song is or is not progressive. Once there’s some semblance of an agreement as to prog quality, the fans then obsess over what type of progressive rock the group or album in question is: symphonic; proto-; crossover; metal; post-; folk; math; space; fusion; Kraut; Canterbury. Though I’ve been listening to such music for nearly 40 years, I’m still fuzzy on several of these categories. I also tend to be rather “big tent” in what I count as prog — as I am in my conservatism (too conservative? too libertarian?) and in my religion (too Catholic? not Catholic enough?).
Several things can be stated definitively (well, somewhat) regarding what progressive rock entails.
First, it’s almost always full of really odd and variable time signatures, sometimes within just a few moments of a song. Rarely does the common rock/pop/jazz signature of 4/4 predominate. It happens, but often as a brief moment between 7/8 and 9/8. Much of this is inspired by late 1950s jazz, such as that by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and by a number of impressionist jazz groups.
Second, while in its specifics prog is fully open to music from all times and all places, the world over, progressive rock generally is very European in its structure and in the atmosphere it creates. Because progressive rock has always tended to sidestep or ignore blues-based rock, mainstream periodicals such as Rolling Stone and journals of opinion such as the New York Times have assumed progressive rock is a betrayal of progressive culture rather than an embracing or enhancing of it. After a very short flirtation with prog, music critics rejected the genre as pretentious and over-the-top.
Though “progressive jazz” had been used as a term of approbation for non-trendy, non-danceable jazz since the 1920s, the term “progressive rock” saw print for the first time in the English language only in 1968, in the Chicago Tribune. The mention carried no deep disgust or praise, just a recognition that this was not regular pop or rock.
In the summer of the same year, the New York Times lamented that by making “the leap from sewer to salon, pop music has ceased to be an adventure.” Though “musicially advanced,” progressive rock had made its art “emotionally barren.” Even the most intellectual of critics, the paper continued, could see that the “new, cerebral audience has endangered that raw vitality” of rock. A few months later, the Times again proclaimed that the “rock hero (who is almost always a social outcast) is a liberator in musician’s drag. His sexual display in the face of institutionalized repression becomes an act of rebellion.”
It’s hard to imagine Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, or Geddy Lee flaunting phallic sexuality.