The Problem of Prog - Genre Week


Pink Floyd playing Dark Side of the Moon at Earls Court, 1973 – Photo by Tim Duncan

It was not planned in advance that this article should be published the week following EMI’s exhaustive and superfluous re-release of Dark Side of the Moon-– the landmark album, of course, by legendary ’70s British psych-prog band Pink Floyd — but it is timely. John Mayer once said that “every musician passes through Hendrix International Airport eventually.” If Hendrix is the obligatory pass-through point for the music of guitar-lovers, then Dark Side of the Moon is the equivalent for all lovers of the long-form musical experience.

Since there’s a lot of needless and repetitive commentary on the record floating about the internet in recent weeks, I’m kicking myself to narrow down something original to say about it. As with all totem-esque, greatest albums ever made, this is no small task.

What I do find that what’s not discussed often enough about Dark Side is its appeal as– and let the stoner jokes begin here– a musical and intellectual gateway drug. Critic Anthony DeCurtis, who has been featured frequently in the pages of Rolling Stone and those ‘Classic Album’ documentaries, has made the most potent remarks about the record’s particularly youthful appeal. Like so much classic rock from the mid-’70s, DeCurtis writes that a listener’s introduction to Dark Side of the Moon often serves a place as a musical rite of passage for budding young anti-authoritarians just at that right age when their evolving minds are at their most susceptible to the introduction of a paranoid social consciousness. I’m sure that evokes most people’s experience with the record as much as it does my own. Though no one ever tells you how that gateway drug can lead you down some really dark and strange paths marked by wizards’ capes, synthesizers, concept albums about future dystopian alien societies on other planets, and 12-minute guitar solos.

Yes, I’m talking about prog rock, a genre that, like liberalism as a political philosophy, is adored more subconsciously than its actively identified with. If you love bands like King Crimson, Genesis (either Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins’s Genesis, doesn’t matter), Rush, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Mars Volta, Tool, Mastodon, Primus, Coheed and Cambria, or depending on whom you ask, even Radiohead, chances are you may still not be at all familiar with the term.  Generally speaking, there are no concrete lifestyle choices associated with loving prog rock, save for a weekend warrior’s fear of capitalism, a strong likelihood of chronic marijuana use, and a long-term post-adolescent affair with D&D.

“Prog” (short for “progressive”) is often used as a pejorative to describe rock music whose principle features highlight the astronomical technical performance abilities of the musicians creating it. This as opposed to making effective artistic statements based on established musical forms– you know, like regular good music.

In layman’s terms, it is the music of maximalists and show-offs, epitomized by Juilliard and Berklee graduates making effective use of their otherwise vain advanced music theory educations by playing in time signatures no one born on this planet could dance or tap their feet to. Further, history (especially the ever-revisionist history of music critics) only remembers the genre’s landmark releases as, at best, the overachieving imitations of pop’s true innovators– or Exhibit A for why punk had to happen. From that vantage point, prog rock is supposedly synonymous with pretension, even if its most ardent listeners and artists (whether they consciously identify with the genre or not) are probably the most humble, probably socially inept, and all-out geekiest people on the planet.

As they charge, prog tends to be a ‘soul-less’ music because of it’s circular dependency on a musician’s technical abilities. In other words, the point of prog is to make the most complicated music imaginable. While maintaining the challenge of rock and roll and the prestige of classical training, all other aspects and ambitions of art in between– lyricism, emotional efficacy, interpretive quality, and outward universal appeal– become of a lower priority for the average prog band.

There lies another curious side effect of participating in a ‘soul-less’ artform: the mass audience that does find genuine emotional resonance is not a market small or stupid enough to ignore. In discussing bands like Rush and Pink Floyd, you’re talking about artists whose record sales have tallied in the hundreds of millions. Only a few years before Michael Jackson’s Thriller were album sales records established by the biggest, most bloated rock opera of then all, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Simultaneously, we’re not talking about a breathing community that can be neatly and chauvinistically identified by a moniker of no more than two syllables. There are soul people (this is obvious from a single viewing of The Blues Brothers), there are punk people, and metal people, and so forth. The translation of a musical genre into the lifestyles of those who love it says volumes about how they’re moved by the music they listen to, and that’s no small portion of the world.

However, that tends not to be the case for the average prog fan in a way that’s far more familiar to the area of athletics than to music or the arts. As I mentioned in a humorous article for Sports Week many months ago, the prog listener isn’t all far departed from a sports fan, and the music does make for fine spectator sport. They love their favorite bands like a team competing against others in their division for who can write the longest song of all time.

In which case, the utility of the music for the listener becomes, if nothing else, escapism. By enjoying prog, you’re somehow putting off the more pressing questions of life that a more contemplative and realistic approach to lyricism would somehow warrant.  Instead, you’re listening to hear the lightning-rapid sparks in Bill Squire’s basslines, Neil Peart’s atomically calculated drum solos, and how high Steve Walsh’s voice can go… not the words he’s actually singing.

So it’s a bit of a strange title to slap on Dark Side of the Moon, or even Pink Floyd on the whole, given how none of their members could be considered virtuoso players of their respective instruments in any way (no, not even David Gilmore). In fact, their limited but punctuated awareness of jazz theory and flavors gave them a punk-esque, “Hey, I don’t really know what I’m playing but it sounds nice!” approach to structural complexity, that infrequently stumbled on soulful territories.

More often does the beauty of their very simple music rely on their effective use of mid-tempos and empty space–characteristics that are in no way shared with Rush or Genesis, though shared affections of titanic song-lengths aside. Denoting Floyd’s place in prog unjustly undermines the strength of their individual songs and the demonstrated mastery of form therein. Perhaps because Roger Waters’s legacy is so tarnished with textbook, band leader asshole-ery, it’s difficult to praise his proficiency and effectiveness as an auteur even though the man has no doubt been the originator of the majority of the band’s “hits.”

Naturally, given the coincidental timing of both EMI’s re-release of Dark Side and obligatory 20- year anniversary reissues of Nevermind, an occasion has arisen to compare these records in all the obvious ways. Billy Corgan mentioned this in an essay for the latest Rolling Stone cover story on Dark Side:

<blockquote>In it you have one of the most psychedelic journeys ever committed to tape and it’s one of the most successful records of all time. I was just talking to somebody about Nirvana’s Nevermind and said the same thing. Nevermind was such a weird thing when it came out, and you’d think that instead of trying to make everything normal and everybody fit into these cookie cutter boxes, people would look at those successes and say, “Just let a band do what they want, let’s let a band just be weird and make a weird record. It can work.”</blockquote>

What’s forgotten often as it is here is what both records did for their respective genres, by which I mean not just for electric guitar-based music on the whole but how they changed the two ugliest words in the musical dictionary: grunge and prog. Not coincidentally, both labels are routinely considered not worthy enough for the power or glory of either record, even if these albums undoubtedly lead to the eventual popular rise and demise of those genres.

For instance, there’s no denying that without Nirvana there would have been no Puddle of Mudd, even if placing Nevermind alongside its unintended consequences is unfair. In the same way, Dark Side of the Moon also fathers some truly embarrassing offspring, like say, Rick Wakeman’s alternative soundtracks to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Which leads me to a pointed observation on how we use genre titles, which my experience finds has been either to associate ourselves with the music we love and find the community of people who share that interest, or to hide the music we despise and the people who listen to it in the same sock drawer, where we will never find them, regardless of whether any of it sounds alike.

Punk and metal are things to be celebrated and fought for like one’s own political beliefs, and in the case of the former, the two are intertwined. Labeling a band “grunge” or “prog” is a form of social othering that is a large reason why the music listening audience today appears so individualized and fragmented. Such labels help us talk about the homogeneous ugliness pf music (dissonance, pretension, pain for pain’s sake, melodrama, rudimentary suburban isolation, etc.) usually made by the imitators of those who have made that ugliness all sound so beautiful.

Be it decade-based anniversary re-releases or just typical insatiable desire for collectors’ cash by record conglomerates, hopefully nothing will ever tarnish that beauty, or the delight in rediscovering these records again and again.