A Quick History of Why Progressive Rock is Better than Your Music
First off, let me tell you something about myself. I’m the kind of person who’s not big on having hard and fast tenets by which he runs his life. I encounter too many new and novel situations as I grow older that I find it impossible to say ‘this is what I want to do every time XYZ happens, always’. That being said, one thing I do try to espouse is that just because I might disagree with someone, that doesn’t mean that person is less intelligent or that I have any reason to look down on them.
All of that being said, progressive rock is the best music in the world, and if you chose to disagree with me on this you’re wrong and I hate you.
No, seriously though, I love progressive rock, and I’ve loved it ever since I first heard Rush play Tom Sawyer in what I can only assume was a drastic mistake on the part of MTV that resulted in the firing of many innocent VJ’s and probably a few burning moon-men placed on specific lawns.
I didn’t care that Geddy Lee sounded like he had been kicked in the balls repeatedly as a child, and I didn’t care that the cheesy synthesized keyboard sounded like something that would get ME kicked in the balls repeatedly. It wasn’t flashy, it clearly wasn’t popular, and none of this mattered to me in the least. It was musically impressive, it had an energy I had rarely heard before, and despite what “Salt Lake City Punks” will tell you, Rush (and all of progressive music) f’n rocks.
Now I would be remiss to act as if I was the first person to discover progressive rock. Truth be told, prog has been entertaining nerds and music snobs for decades. In fact, there was a time when people all over the world, normal people who would have otherwise been listening to horrible music, found themselves buying and listening to prog rock records. How could something like this happen? In 1967 a sinister plot was put into action with the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, John, Paul, George, and Pestilence
(I actually went as Ringo to a Halloween party last year, and I think I could have easily convinced people that Pestilence was some how involved).
With the release of Sgt. Peppers, pop culture saw what is widely considered to be the first popular music album that was created as one entire musical experience, instead of a collection of stand-alone tunes. For the first time, popular music was considering itself as a art form instead of just entertainment for the masses.
From 1967 onward other groups, mainly out of England, started experimenting with the album format in their own music. The Who followed their 1967 The Who Sell Out, a concept album which might have received a lot of the credit Sgt. Peppers did if it had come out first, with the quintessential rock-opera Tommy. In 1969 King Crimson played their first public performance and stole the show from the Rolling Stones at a free concert in Hyde Park in London. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, all of these extremely popular bands were secretly creating progressive rock, disguising their clever ruse by not calling themselves or their music progressive. In fact, no one used the term progressive rock until the late 70s and 80s.
Skipping ahead in history, prog quickly infected the rest of Europe, the USA, and Canada, continuing to spread like plague until Punk music became popular. 25 minute epics about elves and demons were replaced with 25 seconds of angry yelling and instrument bashing. Some prog artists continued to make music like Frank Zappa and Rush, but prog, a term that for the first time was being used to describe contemporary music, had become a dirty word and was mostly used when describing music you couldn’t dance to or rebel against authority with. The rise of disco did not help things to say the least (you can’t dance in 13/8 time sober, let alone on a raging coke binge).
Things were looking bleak going into the 90s. Prog couldn’t compete with the attitude of grunge, the message of hip-hop, or the fresh faced good looks and smooth dance moves of Boyz II Men and New Kidz on the Block. The popularity of MTV made things even harder. 12 minute songs with 4 minute guitar solos never really translated well into the video format (this is also why prog remains to this day totally absent from every karaoke machine ever). Then, when things looked darkest, a nerd of great power rose to lead the progressive masses out of the darkness. Al Gore invented the internet.
No, again, seriously, the rise of the internet saved the progressive rock genre. Slowly but surely, pockets of fans who never stopped listening to their old prog records started connecting with younger fans who heard their music teacher talk about Frank Zappa, who started talking to musicians who thought 20 piece drum sets and 7 string basses were cool, and so on. They began sharing music with each other, and the genre began to grow again. Thanks to the internet new fans discovered older bands, and new bands in one city could spread their music all over the world. By 2000 prog was starting to show life again. It wasn’t mainstream by any means, but the signs were there. You started seeing Dream Theater shirts popping up at Metallica shows, bands like Tool and Radiohead started gaining world wide attention, and as I said before, you would occasionally be able to see videos of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Rush.
During this decade prog has grown significantly, and the future looks extremely bright. There are many bands with world wide recognition such as The Mars Volta, Dream Theater, Muse, Tool, and Radiohead, some of which who embrace the progressive nature of their music, some who are indifferent to genre labels, and some who outright reject them. New bands are emerging from all over the world, and thanks to the internet the prog community is able to experience all of them. Progressive rock artists have their tracks featured on almost every version of Guitar Hero and Rock Band (not that you should ever play Guitar Hero over Rock Band for any reason ever). Dream Theater recently sold out Radio City Music Hall for a performance featuring a full orchestra, a style of event usually reserved for the biggest artists in music. Many artists who flirt with progressive rock, such as the technically amazing jam band Umphrey’s Mcgee and the Sweedish death metal band Opeth, are extremely popular within their own genres and help bridge the gap from one style to another. There is also a yearly worldwide tour, Progressive Nation, that exists to promote new progressive music to a growing fan base. If you look around, progressive rock is in the best shape it’s been, ever. It’s been slowly building momentum for decades, and it’s finally starting to come to a head. I don’t expect prog rock to be a genre featured one night on American Idol (there would be probably be a few vocal chord injuries), but I don’t think I want to ever see that kind of thing either. I’m happy that prog is becoming popular, but that’s not why I love it.
I love it because progressive rock is the best music in the world, and if you chose to disagree with me on this you’re wrong and I hate you.