Saturday, December 8, 2012
IN PRAISE OF OLDER MUSIC
For me, as a teen who loved music, I found the emergence of the Prog Rock bands as a revelation. Finally, rock musicians seemed to be taking bold new chances and actually learning to compose, arrange and perform as serious musicians. I was introduced to the genre by my friends Rob Fraser and Dave Jack. Rob had 8 tracks ( ! ) of the Moody Blues' album "Seventh Sojourn" and Dave was a fan of Yes. Dave had me listen to Yes' "Close To The Edge", and, because of these musical exposures, I was hooked.
For some unknown reason, I find myself looking back at the genre not only with much nostalgia, but also a longing. I watched the half time show at the recent Grey Cup and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. A cadaverous Gordon Lightfoot made me wish for musical legal euthanasia, and the modern artists Carly Rae Jepson and Justin Bieber made me cringe. So, back through the vaults I went looking for salvation. I found it in my old discs of the Prog Rockers.
Just what constitutes Prog Rock is highly debatable and entirely subjective. My definition of Prog Rock has evolved through the years, and puts the genre into three categories: True Prog Rock, Semi-Prog Rock, and Wannabe Prog Rock. Here is the break-down:
True Prog Rock takes its form in the pioneer bands of the genre. The emphasis is on long, convoluted, thoughtful and original compositions, often arranged into symphonic movements. Inspiration for these compositions often comes from classical and jazz music, literature, philosophical treatises, classical and Biblical sources, and, to be sure, pharmaceuticals. Virtuousity in the instrumentation is essential: these people aren't three-chord guitarists, skiffle drummers, or honkey-tonk pianists. They are among the most gifted players, both technically and creatively, ever heard by the human ear. They eagerly embraced the technical advances of the time: this is the heyday of electronic sound. Most importantly, they displayed complete courage and audacity in their music : these bands were not afraid of anything, and didn't seem to worry about putting out material that flew in the face of established rock music. They had their detractors, for sure, but they won over a legion of followers who knew they were listening to something significant and wonderful.
The bands in True Prog Rock category include the Moody Blues (who learned to move beyond their "Go Now" blues rock of the mid 60's ) , Yes ( perhaps the best practitioners of the genre ), Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull ( of the "Thick As A Brick" era ), and early Genesis ( featuring Peter Gabriel ) . It is interesting to note that all these bands were British.
Once the True Prog Rockers became fashionable, especially on newly formatted FM radio, and concerts on college campuses, other bands began to follow their lead, although with less pretentious overtones. These bands are what I call the Semi-Prog Rockers. Here's where the debate really heats up. Just how do you characterize something that is "semi" anything? For example, does Led Zepellin qualify as a Prog Rock band? Some say no, because of the heavy American blues influence in many of their songs, and in Robert Plant's vocals, reminiscent of Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker. For me, however, as Led Zepellin evolved, as their song writing became more sophosticated, as John Paul Jones' keyboards took on more electronic and haunting qualities, they sounded very much like True Proggers. But the blues never left them. So, for me, Led Zepellin becomes Semi-Prog, still to be ranked with the True Proggers, but perhaps a bit more palatable for main stream listeners. Other Semi-Proggers would include the Who ( outstanding compositions, but so bloody loud ! ), Uriah Heep ( lyrically impaired, but good players ), Supertramp ( great musicians, but with a Top 40 feel to their songs ) and Queen ( trending into Glam Rock, but still great virtuousos on their instruments).
As the mid-seventies rolled around, the Prog Rock genre became corrupted. Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Moody Blues disbanded, Yes and King Crimson went through awkward and messy personel changes, and Peter Gabriel left Genesis, taking the creative heart out of that band. Proggers launched solo careers with mixed results: Gabriel became more mainstream, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman stayed true to the genre but lost their following, and others turned in medicore efforts. But the influence of True Prog Rock continued to be felt in newer bands.
Then, along came disco and ruined everything.