How The Most Hated Rock Music Style Went From Chart Topper To Laughingstock – Forbes
Between the late 60s and late 70s, the grandiose genre known as progressive or âprogâ rock dominated the album charts. Bands like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Pink Floyd sold tens of millions of records. A side-long synthesizer epic called âTubular Bellsâ by Mike Oldfield stayed in the Billboard charts for 280 weeks, helping to launch Richard Bransonâs Virgin empire with the decadeâs biggest hit. Then it all vanished faster than a teenager could stash his bong in the closet when he hears his parentâs car in the driveway.
That story is the subject of a new book by Dave Weigel, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock just out from W. W. Norton. The book not only makes a strong aesthetic claim for the music and the artists who created it, but tells a story of interest to both fans and readers interested in the business of popular culture.
“Seen all good people turn their heads.”
For forty years, prog has been seen not just as a fad that passed, but an embarrassment. It is remembered for its excesses: the bloated concept albums, the preening prima donnas, the concert spectacles featuring banks of synthesizers and exploding pigs. While many of the groups plodded on into the 90s and beyond, they are lightly regarded outside of a hard core of mostly male fans who self-identify as the nerds of the music world.
Weigel attempts to bring some balance to the critical conversation by tracing prog from its origins in the post-Sgt. Pepper British music scene to its afterlife as a cult phenomenon and nostalgia tour draw. Along the way, Weigel offers sketches and anecdotes of the musicians who earnestly tried to expand the expressive range of rock music beyond the three-minute pop song, and were among the first to experiment with electronic synthesizers and new recording techniques, laying the basis for todayâs electronica.
Weigel, best known as a political journalist for publications like The Washington Post and Slate, is more of a fan than a full-blown music scholar. He brings balance and sympathy to his subject, dispensing with the snark and condescension that characterizes most critical discussion of prog. He takes his subjects and their ambitions seriously, even when recounting their missteps and excesses. Sometimes, simply describing a project like ELPâs Tarkus album, a symphonic rock suite based on the concept of a giant weaponized armadillo, renders additional mockery superfluous.
“Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.”
Weigel also reminds contemporary readers of how commercially successful prog rock was in its heyday. King Crimson, Genesis, Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues were just a few of the prog-rock superstars who routinely sold millions of copies of records of dense and obscure music. Pink Floyd did even better; their 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon did not depart from the Billboard album charts until 1988 (741 weeks!), selling an estimated 45 million copies.
All that money fueled a music industry economy that is nearly unimaginable today. Bands received six figure advances and had years to complete their albums. Tours involved hundreds of pieces of equipment and armies of roadies to assemble elaborate stages. The original British prog-rockers inspired other acts in North America like Kansas, Styx and Rush that also scored big on the charts and dominated radio playlists.