In Defense of Prog!
by Justin Farrar | June 19, 2013
My jaw hit the floor while I was reading reading veteran critic Rob Sheffield's New York Times book review of Yes Is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales, a "literary anthology devoted to the sub-genre" edited by Marc Weingarten. Sheffield's piece isn't so much a review as it is a mouthy, and at times juvenile, dis of prog. He unloads all the tired clichés, in essence framing prog as nothing more than a silly rock fad in the '70s, one whose fans were more often than not teenage boys looking to avoid reality by retreating into the music's overly indulgent fantasy play and funkless wankery.
What blows me away isn't the fact that Sheffield doesn't much enjoy progressive rock. Rather, it's how his piece comes soaked in misinformed prejudice. Though he hints at the movement's influence on indie rock, hip-hop and dance music, to call prog a "fad" simply isn't correct. From heavy metal to disco, synth-pop to soul, progressive rock has had a profound impact on just about every genre to emerge over the last 40 years. Even punk -- whose disgust for '70s rock dinosaurs is a fundamental component of its mythology -- was inspired by prog. After all, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the infamous Sex Pistols) has always been vocal about the influence Van der Graaf Generator's Peter Hammill exerted on his sneering singing style. Likewise, Pere Ubu founder David Thomas has long been adamant that his band's music was an extension of the progressive rock tradition.
And then there's director, actor, writer and all-around weirdo celebrity Vincent Gallo (who used Yes' music to gorgeous effect in his film Buffalo '66). In his album review of King Crimson's The ConstruKction of Light (released back in 2000), he had this to say about the movement: "When I started listening to King Crimson and some of the better progressive rock bands then, it really felt like the ideas, sensibilities, aesthetics and certainly the music were complex and very new and had a real relationship with the most interesting younger people of the time." He then goes on to reveal, "The friends who I went to see King Crimson, Yes and Genesis concerts with, were the same friends who were hip enough to go with me to see The Ramones' first gig in Buffalo, and the same friends who later dug 'Spoony G'."
In just a few sentences, Gallo touches on what makes progressive rock so unique: It champions imagination, open-mindedness and experimentation in its attempt to tackle the complex issues that face humanity (which is precisely why so many prog fans were also into science fiction and fantasy). Can the music be overly indulgent and pompous? Most definitely! But that's a small price to pay for the kind of sonic daring that can be experienced on its greatest works, from Yes' Close to the Edge to Genesis' Foxtrot to Rush's 2112.