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.
Third, prog is rarely about attitude, unlike much rock music (think everyone from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to the Ramones), or about fame (think everyone from the early Beatles to Madonna to Lady Gaga), or about social change (think everyone from Buffalo Springfield to Janis Joplin to Bono to . . . are there any young pop artists concerned about real social change?), but about serious, penetrating, and pervasive art. As art, prog certainly can include attitude, fame, social change, and almost anything else imaginable, but none of these things serves as the prime motivator in progressive rock. Art does.
Fourth, as mentioned in the second point, progressive artists thoroughly enjoy creating an atmosphere, sometimes a self-contained world through which the entire package is birthed: the music, the lyrics, the album art, as well as the live presentation.
As to live performances, no group or person took this further than Peter Gabriel did when he served as lead singer and flautist for Genesis in the first half of the 1970s. Gabriel would don a myriad of costumes and act out a variety of roles, often spontaneously and to the surprise of the other members of the group. The outrageous costumes hindered not only the projection of Gabriel’s voice, but, through his clumsiness, the integrity of the equipment necessary for live performance.
In regards to album art, one can almost always identify a Talk Talk album by its James Marsh cover, and a Big Big Train album by its Jim Trainer cover. But of the artists associated with prog acts, Roger Dean is probably the most famous and iconic. His art for the English group Yes — found on the front and back covers as well as in the inside sleeves and liner notes — in the early 1970s is not only gorgeous but inviting. The themes evolved gradually from album to album. Often, Dean’s art depicted lush worlds, held together in a mystical fashion, with technology serving people in a humane and organic way. While there was a hippie-ish element in the scenes, they were no more outrageous than what Romano Guardini promoted in the 1920s, Wilhelm Roepke and Russell Kirk in the 1950s, and Robert Heinlein in the 1960s. Indeed, I can’t help thinking the leader of the modern crunchy cons, Rod Dreher, might approve of such art as humane and natural at once.
Perhaps the most important aspect of progressive rock is found in this fourth point. Progressive rock does not aim to move the heart or the passions in the way most rock music does. Instead, it aims to harmonize soul and mind and connect the horizontal to the vertical, the sea to the sky. It invites the listener in as a participant, immersing him fully into the art rather than placing the art (if most pop music can be called art) next to or near the listener.
As such, progressive rock is to rock music what Imagism (e.g., T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot) is to poetry. It takes a modern form, and it fills and animates it with a well-ordered soul, an essence commensurate with its form.
But again, prog rock is not easily defined. A fifth and final point about its definition is this: Progressive-rock concepts rarely can be explained in the span of a two- or three-minute song. Genesis took 94 minutes to tell the story of Rael in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; Rush took 21 minutes to tell the story of failure to resist tyranny in “2112”; Jethro Tull needed 44 minutes for the story of Gerald Bostock in Thick as a Brick; Marillion took 71 minutes to reveal a suicide in Brave; and Big Big Train took 58 minutes for a man to die and examine his life in The Difference Machine.
Unlike any other form of popular music, progressive rock always takes its time in developing, and it often plays with notions of time, not just in the time signatures, but in the lyrics and the concepts as well. While J. R. R. Tolkien probably never listened to progressive rock (though Arthur C. Clarke did), it’s hard to believe his elves in Rivendell or Lothlorien did not. Even jazz has only a few examples of concept albums, such as Miles Davis’s brilliant Sketches of Spain. In this, progressive rock has far more in common with ancient and medieval poetic epics, 18th-century symphonies, and 19th-century song cycles.
As my non-prog friend from the beginning of this piece noted after enjoying Big Big Train’s 23-minute masterpiece, “The Underfall Yard,” “I wish you’d told me how long it was going to be. When I started listening to it, I had no idea I’d miss dinner.”
I’ve never been shy about my love of progressive rock. I’ve been listening to it since the very early 1970s. Though I wasn’t born until the second half of 1967, I had much older brothers who introduced me to a lot of it, all good, at a very young age. As far back as I can remember, Yes, Kansas, and the Moody Blues were played in our house. Indeed, our local radio station, Wichita’s KICT-95FM, played album rock and progressive rock from as early as I was aware of such things. We also listened to much classical music, but regular pop music never really held any sway in the Birzer household.
Many of my own personal moments — the type of moments so vital to a person’s memory, personality, and makeup — come from awareness of certain albums. I stared for hours at the Roger Dean paintings inside Yessongs as a young boy; Genesis’s “And Then There Were Three” first played in my ears the night I saw Bill Buckley destroy a Russian ambassador in a debate on TV; I first heard Pink Floyd’s The Wall while visiting my oldest brother at the University of Notre Dame, and the next day we sat in Zahm Hall and watched the Americans beat the Soviets in hockey; Brad Liddy and Troy Swartz introduced me to Rush’s Moving Pictures as we shared an unjust detention at Liberty Junior High, spring 1981; an advance copy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden shocked me to my very core in 1988 after I returned to Notre Dame, having just spent my sophomore year at the University of Innsbruck; Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight sustained me during our Cecilia Rose’s death in a way comparable only to the security provided by T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” And, the list goes on.
Though these particulars are mine, I’m certainly not alone in having had such music influence so many aspects of who I am.
Serious listeners of prog rock in North America include classical guitarist and award-winning poet Kevin McCormick; economist Steven Horwitz; philosophers Chris Morrissey, Aeon Skoble, Lee Cole, John Hittinger, and Khalil Habib; sociologist Pete Blum; political theorist Will Ruger; cultural critic S. T. Karnick (who wrote about this very topic on this very website, nearly a decade ago); art professor Greg Scheckler; theologian and Ignatius Insight editor Carl Olson; University of Georgia archivist Craig Breaden; entrepreneur and social activist Mike D’Virgilio (who also happens to be the brother of Nick D’Virgilio, one of the best living rock drummers); and, as he admitted this past weekend, Reagan biographer Steven Hayward.
By no means a shabby list.
Aside from living on the same continent and all being male, what do these men have in common? Though Catholics and Jews predominate, there are also Protestants, atheists, and agnostics on this list. More important, there’s no radical left-winger on the list. Kirkians are at one end of the group, libertarians at the other, with a few moderates in between. Indeed, there’s probably not a single person on the above list who would identify himself first and foremost with a political tag.
Frankly, what decent person would?
Does this mean that prog rock itself is somehow conservative or libertarian? No, but the creators of prog and their listeners do tend to reject the inanity and commercialism of mere pop and rock as well as the wishes of mass man, the mediocre, and the merely democratic. The music (in form and spirit) itself, often inspired by dystopian literature, rejects Leviathan, Mars, and Demos.
It’s hard to imagine that my generation has not been significantly influenced by the libertarian lyrics of Neil Peart of Rush. I write this with absolute certainty regarding myself , and with only a little trepidation do I speak for many when making this huge claim. “From a better, vanished time . . . ” Peart understood.
As I watched Rush play “Tom Sawyer” on The Colbert Report a few years ago, none of the song’s power or intensity seemed diminished to me. In ridiculous public-school detention in 1981, as a lonely and confused 13-year-old, I could relate to Peart’s “his mind is not for rent to any god or government.” While I’ve certainly and happily rented my mind (for what it’s worth) to JPII and B16, I’ve never given a moment — even in charity — to the government. A year later, when Peart wrote, “Some will sell their dreams for small desires,” I assured myself I would fight for integrity and human dignity. Do I give the NRO reader the mind of a 14-year-old raised in a dysfunctional family in otherwise idyllic Kansas? Yes, I do.
But, good Lord. What would I give to know that all 44-year-olds had once taken such words to heart while in junior high?
Prog is not only not dead, it is thriving in a way it hasn’t since the early 1970s. The Internet has democratized — in the best sense — the way we encounter music. A group destined by the gods of profit to corporate irrelevance but intense beauty can now reach a willing and gracious audience.
If you’ve made it this far, I give you these recommendations. In the current revival of progressive rock, you won’t go wrong with anything produced and written by guitarist Matt Stevens (his band, The Fierce and the Dead, is brilliant as well), the Tin Spirits (led by the Anglo-Saxon demigod of strings and guitar, Dave Gregory), Frost* (serious but Monty Pythonesque in all that it does; and, yes, the asterisk comes with the name), Marillion (fragile music and lyrics, the kind that stir the soul to its very depths), and Gazpacho (the Norwegian band with the name of a Spanish soup; mythic to its core in every way).
Though Neil Peart joined Rush in 1974, the band continues at full force as the members approach age 60. Without question, some of the band’s best work has been produced over the last decade — after Peart tragically lost his wife and daughter — and the upcoming album, Clockwork Angels, though very hard rock, looks as if it will be another excellent endeavor.
Of the more recent bands, the group that most truly inherits the mantle of true progressive rock is the Anglo-American band Big Big Train (BBT). Formed in 1990, Big Big Train is akin to the finest of wines, only getting better with age. This is a cliché, but in this case it is true.
Greg Spawton, Andy Poole, David Longdon, Dave Gregory (yes, that same Anglo-Saxon demigod mentioned above), Nick D’Virgilio, Rob Aubrey (producer), and Jim Trainer (artist) have created the finest rock music since the early 1970s. Not that BBT is some derivative cover band. Far from it. Without exaggeration, I can write that BBT does nothing without a drive for perfection and without astounding intensity. Every note, every lyric, and every brush stroke has its place; the last several albums have exemplified justice in its highest, classical form. It doesn’t hurt that the band leader, Greg Spawton, identifies himself as a libertarian.
But, really, is this what conservatives and libertarians want, to listen to artists who identify themselves as we do in all things? No, of course not. We’re not simple-minded ideologues, and what perilous conformity we would create. We cherish real diversity, the ability of the individual person to be what God created her or him to be, to express himself in excellence, and to rise to the highest things. We want brilliant art, good humanity, solid form, and sanctified soul. In all of these things, Spawton and BBT deliver. Indeed, they’re first and foremost interested in the integrity of a thing.
Their last album, The Underfall Yard (2009), ranks up there with any music created since Bill Haley first introduced rock music to the western world. We might even make a bigger claim. The Underfall Yard is as interesting as any music created since Dvořák passed from this world.
Sixty minutes long, The Underfall Yard praises the gentle ingenuity and social order of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods in England. Almost utterly English in its tone and expression, the album captures the mythic soul of an era. With a fragile but virtuous invocation of an autumnal twilight of a culture, the album begins with the appearance of the evening star, always a sign of hope. But, through the hour of immersion, the listener visits fallen aristocrats, bygone brickworks, and decaying railways.
The song that is most profound in its lyrics is “Winchester Diver,” the true story of a man, William Walker, who spent years fixing the flooded area that was ruining the foundations of Winchester Cathedral. Spending hours at a time in darkness, sustained by an oxygen tank, the diver could hear the Mass celebrated above him while encountering what he assumed were visions of demons and hell below him. In this purgatorial moment, progressive rock reaches its height — a connection of the earth and the sky, the water and the land, heaven and hell. The human person, filled with integrity and determination, finds himself surrounded on all sides by adversity. In the end, though, he perseveres. The cathedral remains in form as well as in spirit.
The final song, the 23-minute “The Underfall Yard,” expresses the same longings as the rest of the album — the longings of progressive rock and, ultimately, of the human condition.
Twelve stones from the water
the clouds are gathering again,
filling up the sky,
it rains on England.
Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.
Those days have gone, those days . . .
Those days have gone,
their names are lost
the stories left untold.
Under an ordinary star
we are just moments of time,
it is the end of the line
this place is worked out.
Those days have gone.
their names are lost
the stories left untold.
With BBT, as with much progressive rock, we see loss, chaos, and the abyss pressing in around us, but rarely do these things overwhelm the man of integrity, at least not forever. Sword (or guitar) in hand, he stands firm, preserving the best of what came before and protecting what is to come.
— Bradley J. Birzer occupies the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, and is a professor of history, at Hillsdale College.