Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment

Bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) (L) and David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead singer and guitarist for the fictitious band “Spinal Tap” (Reuters)
Its story deserves to be told fondly, albeit with a waspish tone of disbelief.

To look at them, the gentlemen constituting Spinal Tap may strike you as heavy-metal musicians. The film of their strange odyssey, with its narrator “Marty DiBergi,” is formally modeled on The Last Waltz, “Marty” Scorsese’s documentary about The Band, a country-folk-rock outfit. But the genre to which Spinal Tap belongs spiritually is progressive rock.

Spinal Tap’s interests ran more to mythical creatures frolicking beneath (well, at least around) Stonehenge than to hot rods or smokin’ in the boys’ room. They’re English, they’re classically trained, they’re grandiose, their reach is forever hilariously in excess of their grasp. That episode in which the band members dramatically appear on stage in sealed pods, one of which fails to open on cue, actually happened to Yes drummer Alan White, who was stuck in a giant seashell until roadies managed to bust him out with pickaxes.

To back up a performance of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s song suite about the Knights of the Round Table at an outdoor venue, combatants were to take the stage in medieval costume to enact a battle sequence. But so icy was the stage that the knights had to be played by ice skaters, who wore fake horse’s heads on their chests. Pure Tap.

A keyboard tech for the band, prone beneath the instrument during a live performance so he could fix broken hammers in real time, became a meal flunky who spent a show handing up to Wakeman, alcoholic drinks and little foil boxes of chicken vindaloo. Progressive-rock keyboardist Keith Emerson once found himself pinned to the stage when his giant Hammond organ fell over on top of him as he was playing it during a concert. Emerson averred in all earnestness that his concerts were meant to induce “an even bigger better orgasmic peak than ever before.”

Tap, Tap, Tap. Progressive rock is the nonpolitical description that stuck to the pretentious, arty, classical-and-jazz-influenced bands, most of them English, who created the music fad of the early 1970s. With their mystical themes, their surreal and sci-fi album covers, their outlandish costumes (capes, fox heads), their obsession with faeries and aliens and loopy 20-minute synthesizer solos, bands such as Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led rock down a bizarre sonic detour first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Prog rock was the exclusive domain of a certain kind of nervous, experimentally minded, cautiously intellectual young white guy.

It was nerd rock. College rock. Dungeons & Dragons rock. Pimply-virgin rock. The “orgasmic peak” of a suite based on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition would be the only kind its partisans would be likely to experience in the presence of anyone else.

Prog rock was, largely, terrible. But it was also kind of glorious. Its story deserves to be told fondly, albeit with a waspish tone of disbelief, as it is by the Washington Post political reporter David Weigel in his book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. It’s a book ideally suited to the Spotify age: Anyone who has a subscription to one of the streaming music services can simply call up whatever track Weigel is talking about and share in the appreciation. Describing music is famously hard sledding, and Weigel’s technical details about broken dominant sevenths and flatted thirds are too recondite for me, a non-musician, but having virtually all of the music he’s talking about at your fingertips makes this well-researched book highly satisfying.

Progressive rock was a rocket that crashed a few yards above the launch pad. King Crimson’s album In the Court of the Crimson King, a top-ten record in the U.K. that went gold in the U.S., marked a major breakthrough for the genre at the end of 1969, and by its peak in 1973–74, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), dragging along its 13 keyboard units and 285 pounds of mixing boards, was according to Weigel the third-biggest live act in the rock world, behind only the Rolling Stones and the Who. Also in 1973, Mike Oldfield’s instrumental prog-rock album nonpareil Tubular Bells, which yielded the theme from The Exorcist, hit No. 1 in Britain, sold millions, and built Virgin Records, whose first release it was.

These were anything-goes years of gonzo experimentation, men in codpieces and wizard robes, fanciful yet dreadfully earnest stage shows. Yes did an entire album side of interpretations from War and Peace, ELP opened an album with a nutty take on the hymn “Jerusalem,” and Yes keyboardist–turned–soloist Wakeman had a top-ten record consisting of six instrumentals inspired by the wives of Henry VIII. Albums had titles such as “Brain Salad Surgery” and “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” Kansas came up with a song called “Incomudro-Hymn to the Atman” and another called “Lamplight Symphony.” Todd Rundgren essayed a 35-minute track called “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire.”

Had it really been just a decade or so since rock had been defined by trifles such as “Long Tall Sally” and “Not Fade Away”? Now frontmen were solemnly intoning lines such as, “Every day a little sadder, a little madder, someone get me a ladder.” Heralding the 1974 release of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Peter Gabriel of Genesis declared, “This will break all bounds and records previously set for pretentiousness.” On tour he would appear, Weigel writes, “Clad in a yellow body sock decorated with bulbous objects somewhere between genitalia and gourds.”

Traipsing across a tutti-frutti landscape of sonic adventure began to grow wearisome, however. Bad omens portended. In the Bahamas in the winter of 1976, fueled by three grams of cocaine and three bottles of Cognac, Emerson decided to swim to England. “We realized that it was quite a long way,” he explained, “but we had a compass.” Also, people started to notice the music was insufferable — pedantic, moronic, thundering, blundering, likely to induce extreme-duration virginity. Exhausted by it all, an NME critic wrote of a 1977 concert by Rush what might have been said of any number of other bands: “It was heads down for the first of their long Science Fantasy epics and, after that, epic after epic after epic. As far as I could tell, there was little point to them. They were no more than a lot of riffs . . . loosely thrown together around various concepts. Titles like ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ and ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ give a fair indication of what to expect.”

Prog rock was a noble experiment, a beautiful folly, as naïvely questing as youth.

Punk and disco and country-rock and metal shoved prog rock into the remainder bins. Outgrown by Gabriel, the Phil Collins–led Genesis found its Invisible Touch, and Yes turned to hard rock. Music once again was broken down into sweet four-minute bon-bons, crafted and structured instead of bloated and aimless. Out went the 7/4 time signatures, the mysticism, and the Mellotrons.

Some of progressive rock endures — King Crimson’s still-haunting if ridiculous single “The Court of the Crimson King,” Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Genesis’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” Still, prog rock failed. It was a noble experiment, a beautiful folly, as naïvely questing as youth. We should salute its ambition if nothing else.

Pretentiousness, writes Dan Fox in his book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, “is the engine oil of culture. Every creative motor needs it to keep running.” He adds, “One reason art is labeled pretentious is because it embraces creative risk, and risk often entails failure. Failure is one mechanism by which the arts move forward — just as it is in science. Not every artist can make a masterpiece, yet it’s the experiments that quietly stumble forward that lead to them.”

Let’s honor those stumbles, even the ones that occurred in sparkly silver space boots.


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— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.


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