The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock By David Weigel, $27.
Thanks, Dave Weigel. Now I’ve got “Owner of a Lonely Heart” pinballing in my head.
The only Billboard No. 1 song by Yes, released in 1983, has the technical sheen of the band’s best work from the 1970s. But, as Weigel notes in his chronicle of progressive rock, The Show That Never Ends, “This was a different time; bouncing block chords no longer sounded so bad.”
Well, to these ears they did. Raised on the sophisticated rhythms and melodies of Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer—whose composition “Karn Evil 9” provided the book’s title—I was in no mood for prized idols’ pop concessions. (Eh, Phil Collins gets a pass for Face Value.) Of course, everyone has to eat, but I couldn’t help see prog rock’s descent into prog-lite as another sign of the Apotheosis of the Bean-Counters, the Reagan-era market-is-right ethic that still drives much of small- and large-C culture.
Weigel acknowledges record company pressure for hits, but the Washington Post political reporter has little to say about the play of politics or sociology in music, such as the general atomizing of taste and identity in recent decades. Rather, a restless music press enamored of punk and New Wave combined with progressive musicians’ own pretentiousness to raze the house that Procol Harum and Soft Machine built.
That ostentation might have proved a handy foil for punks, but it grew from an elevated sense of taste. As Weigel notes, British prog pioneers like Keith Emerson, Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel sought to push rock past its American blues and R&B beginnings by absorbing European classical and folk influences. The Moog synthesizer helped, too, and even drummers like Bill Bruford loaded up on arcane percussion instruments and top-heavy time signatures.
Weigel says the book began in 2012 when he worked for Slate, which asked reporters to take a month covering something outside their beats, so maybe cultural fracturing seemed too much the busman’s holiday. But he brought his notable skills as a reporter to the project, interviewing scores of musicians and deeply researching the archives of music journalism. So if his book isn’t a social history, it’s certainly a music wonk’s delight, full of anecdotes about how egos puffed and bruised; how bands formed, fell apart and regrouped; and how the band that brought us “Yours Is No Disgrace” found some with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”