Monday, June 24, 2013

What is Prog

Classifying anything is an interesting exercise, and one I discuss with my students. We have, for example, columnar and cuboidal epithelium - these are defined by their classical examples (and look like the names suggest) and yet there is a continuum - slightly taller cuboidal epithelium, shorter columnar, through to something which is midway between the two. If you tracked down through the trachea an into the lungs you would move from pseudostratified columnar to columnar to cuboidal and finally to squamous. And you probably wouldn't (until that last) find a sudden change, but rather a gradual change and shortening. But we like to put things in boxes.

And I am no less a creature of that than anyone else - have used various terms over time and also been unsure what grindcore and other dance forms I hear about are.

So prog rock?

In some ways it is defined by what it spawned - punk was a reaction to it. A blog by Dave Stafford, a purchase of Porcupine Tree and an article about them all made me wonder what it is.

Of the groups I listen to some are core prog rock: King Crimson, Genesis, Yes and ELP; Jethro Tull are often put in there as well, as are Pink Floyd. And, as I say Porcupine Tree (I bought a live double album by them becaise I kept reading the name, Steve Wilson is remastering KC and the money actually went to charity). So what might they have in common?

Complex instrumentation - yes, they all have more that guitar, bass and drums: though some only a little beyond that: Tull in its later incarnation won the hard rock grammy and never really got into strings or much synth; Porcupine Tree sound like a standard rock combo to me; throw the Beatles into prog if this is the criteria. The others, OK - and also showing classical training (you can't go much beyond staging Pictures at an exhibition!)

Extended song cycles: KC's only real one was the second side of Lizard. But Cat Stevens had the Foreigner Suite, The Incredible String Band is playing here at the moment & the first album of theirs I got (from my sister) was U. And is Dark side really a suite or some songs held together by intertrack stuff? I might accept longer average track length, moving away from simple songs.

High level musicianship - which includes a whole lot of other people. Is 10CC prog rock?

Bloated overstretching: KC was never bloated, and I don't think Tull was. ELP went along way on that line, as did Yes. But again I don't think they were orphans here. 

Lyric directions - a fair bit of teen angst (but that is rock more broadly), some science fiction mystical stuff (again, so what), paranoia: but again we could be in the realm of a whole host of bands.

Cover art - Roger Dean and Hipgnosis scream prog rock: but they also did covers for other genres and forms (books, advertising) but they perhaps create a bit of the aura.

Perception of their audience - they recognise that their audience is willing to countenance complex and long pieces of music, that they trust the artist enough to give them something different, to try new directions and to travel with them (although not always happily [I still have mixed feelings about the Beat KC]). But again, this is not just prog. Bowie, the Beatles, Eno, Bill Nelson to more or lesser extents (off the top of my head) have trodden different pathways: not just one album (like Neil Young's Trans, which I happen to love) but regularly to some extent (I don't have enough Yes to really tell). And let's not mention Miles Davis (oh, I just did).

In the end it's hard to see what these bands have in common to be called prog - let alone others I have only really read about (Van der graaf, Focus, and many more). If you lay the factors over each other there isn't really a set that says this is prog to me. 

Reflecting on it, perhaps if we say for each of these groups 'who are they like' that gives an answer to the key prog rock artists: they aren't really like anyone else. They may have imitators - and when they stop sounding unique they go off (Tull around Rock Island). They become just another rock band (and often a bad one: ELP during and after Works). 10CC isn't progressive because it was working within the accepted song format.

So, I think I think that Progressive in terms of rock music primarily denominates groups that extended - progressed - rock into new different and exciting areas including outside the song format (why Bowie and the Beatles aren't prog). Which is why I probably wouldn't put Tull in that camp. And now it has come to cover anyone who works within the tropes established by those prog pioneers.

Or maybe I am just an old man reflecting what was the main music of my youth.

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