Thursday, June 18, 2009
Dissimilar Cousins: Yes, King Crimson, and Why Some Prog Sucks
The eminent French post-structuralist critic Jean Baudrillard has observed “Perhaps the world's second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.” This is not apropos of very much at all, save the fact that there is a certain intention announced by the writer of any essay that begins with a quote from Baudrillard: the intent to stultify the reader with unremitting arrogance. Old Jean has a certain point, however, though I do wonder how this played out in the original French; it should be noted that “boor” is what I think he was really going for, and who knows how much was lost across the linguistic hedgerows along the way. Regardless, I’m laying down the gauntlet early, and this promises to be the most overwhelmingly sententious essay yet presented for your delectation here within the none-too-humble halls of The Progressive Rock Hall of Infamy.
Why? Very simple. After repeated demands from visitors to the Hall that I actually explain what “Prog” is, a working definition from The Curator is going to be entwined into this essay to provide much needed context on why some bands are Prog and some aren’t; far, far more importantly, by analysing the two albums I’ve chosen to represent the triumph and catastrophe of Prog, I will at last have an opportunity to explain why I think Prog is, above all other forms of rock, open to catastrophic depredations and eschatological foul-ups because of the very nature of the music. What allows it to triumph, in short, can also render it asunder in the hands of over-ambitious dolts who really don’t know where their ideas are heading. This essay also will allow me to elevate my personal Prog Hero- Robert Fripp- while dealing what will hopefully be a death-blow to the incomprehensibly overrated and beloved 70’s Arena Prog staple, Yes. Not that I set out for such things, but I must say: if this doesn’t warrant a few death threats, then I’m really getting off of my game here at the PRHOI.
Because I hate Yes. Just absolutely fucking despise them. I blame them for allowing Jon Anderson to sing, I blame them for Rick Wakeman’s rampant ego and late-career preening sentimentality (some curmudgeon- he plays like Richard Clayderman plugged into a wall of amplifiers, only more treacly and GAY!) , I blame them for bands like Albatross who made a memorable mess of things during the first Prog-O-Caust broadcast several weeks ago, I blame them for Jimmy Hotz and men wearing brooches and concerts performed in horrible pants and bad bouffant Prog-dos and repetitive solos and inspiring Dream Theater to live their miserable fantasies and any other excess that killed Classic Prog which can not be directly attributed to pipsqueak Keith Emerson and his gargantuan ego. This is a love-fest of hatred, a deep yearning to despise and loathe what other men adore, to set me apart by sheer vitriol and vengeance from the mass of suckers who have taken this crass hokum down to the vein-laden root. Eat that "Roundabout", you curs, and while you're down there wallowing on knee-pads of indignity, here it comes- A Taste of My Hate.
I hate Anderson’s bitchy-ness, Squire's 25-pound bass, Howe’s increasingly-epicene appearance whilst singing about wizards, that dude from the Buggles with his big glasses and their boy-toy guitarist Trevor Rabin who made them go pop, and I’d like to hang Rick Wakeman upside down over hot coals and put a bag of rats on his head. I hate the song "Wondrous Stories" like I hate people who recruit child soldiers in Africa, and I’d rather listen to audio from the Great Guyana kool-aid acid test of Jim Jones for eternity than hear "Starship Trooper" even one more time before I die. I hate their fans, their cult, their standing in the Prog world, all of their albums and their goddamn families, too- down to the last little Wakeman from any of his four perversely fecund unions. Yes is more despicable than AIDS and more annoying than the entire Osmond clan; I literally cannot listen to them without wanting to go out and hurt baby animals.
And of all their records, the one I find most unlistenable is the one I just was listening to for the purposes of this essay. Relayer. 1974, modest-sized hit, a just-before-Christmas release after the monstrosity of Tales from Topographic Oceans was sprung upon the world like a zombie plague in January; Yes literally bookended the year with heaping piles of faeces thrown into their fans’ faces, doing god knows what in the months between, other than loading up their bowels with more platinum scheisse, that is. A year of overwhelming excess and ego perhaps not seen since Napoleon crowning himself Emperor, a scabrous and indefensible assault by a band who had something approaching rabid contempt for their public. The murder of Prog began with these two albums, completely out of control, tuneless, meandering like a wet-brained derelict and as bloated as a Gabor sister loosed upon a Vegas prime rib buffet. TFTO is justifiably loathed by most sensible music fans, but Relayer has somehow got a pass; I’ve reviewed it elsewhere (and that should have ended it), but my point today is to compare this mess to the near-perfection of an album with similar artistic designs and made by musicians of a similar caliber, and within one year of Relayer’s release. I’m talking about King Crimson’s stunning 1973 release Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, an album I’ve been listening to for thirty years and what I still consider to be the definitive statement of ambitious and arty Prog, both abstract and concrete.
So much in common, as I’ve just said above; nobody denies that Steve Howe can play guitar (he’s easily the best thing going on Relayer) and there is a veritable Rickenbacker cult that has sprung up around Chris Squire, and while I don’t like his style Patrick Moraz is more than capable, and blah blah blah. All the accommodations and apologies made, no one can deny the Yes-men learned to play, and play (technically) very well. Yet the Yes effort is a catastrophe, totally unlistenable, and Crimson’s is probably the greatest Prog album of all time. It’s not like Fripp and Co. weren’t letting fly with whatever they felt like: the opening cut is almost fourteen minutes long, and other than the surprisingly tender ballad which follows, every other track clocks in at over seven. The Mellotron is still part of the Crim’s arsenal, but it is relegated to a far smaller role; this album is rife with Jamie Muir’s frantic percussion giving a slightly Eastern feel to the proceedings, and David Cross all over the production with an at-times flat-out-evil-sounding violin. Wetton and Bruford do what that pair does, which is keep themselves under control but drop in the occasional tasteful notion reminding you that there are multiple ways to listen to a King Crimson composition, a multiplicity of experience virtually unheard of outside of Prog and only very rarely attained within. Each composition is full, unique, and perfectly realized; and it is that key word composition which defines why the over-the-topness of Larks’ succeeds brilliantly and Relayer makes me want to steal a car and go on a cross-country killing spree. Of baby animals in petting zoos.
There’s a lot going on in both Larks’ and Relayer, but the latter just seems like a mess. The reason is that there is absolutely no focus to the most ambitious tracks. Album opener "The Gates of Delirium" is noisy, obstreperous, disjointed, slapdash and sounds like it was cobbled together from a thousand takes with the band never actually ever in the same room for any of them. The second track is so worthless I’m not even going to name it, the only reason for it existing seemingly Howe’s fucking Grade-A solo that is delightfully sloppy, rough-hewn, with nasty tube distortion and modulated perfectly in the true style of a classical rondo. But, no matter how good the solo, the rest of the production is, again, utter chaos and heading nowhere at breakneck speed. It’s pointless to even mention the last track, which is more of the same, or the unconscionable gall of the record company to include several “bonus” tracks on the CD release, as if having more bamboo shoved under your fingernails is some kind of treat once you’ve accommodated yourself to the sensation of utter agony that makes up this majestically incompetent bit of narcissistic effluvium.
Now, back to the pure joy and beauty of Larks’. A real psychedelic-prog experience, there’s a host of sound effects and production virtuosity going on throughout the record, but not one track on this masterpiece ever drifts away from the central idea guiding it: these are compositions, not puerile excuses for solos wrapped around studio-bound noodling, and wherever Fripp as bandleader wants the songs to eventually go, they get there with dignity and fervor, tremendous introspection and punctuations of fantastic noise. The superb solo on "Easy Money", for instance, is an organic part of the song, not something thrown in for Fripp to masturbate with, and the Mellotron, percussion, Bruford’s drumming and Wetton’s wonderfully tasteful bass line move things along as much as Fripp’s pensive, frankly melancholy guitar work. I dislike trying to describe in words what something “sounds” like- for god’s sakes go get this album and a decent pair of headphones and prepare for a real fucking experience- but in order to separate Larks’ humility and mastery from the farrago of Relayer’s vulgarity and entropy, this one time I have decided to forgo my reticence and do what I can to point out how much effort went into the Crim’s masterpiece, and how little thought went into the latest entry in the Yes junkpile. Pretentious, precious, orotund, distasteful, garish, incredibly noisy and ultimately silly, albums like Relayer are why the average music listener hates Prog and why the mere mention of the word in public usually earns one a series of sneers. And never- and let me repeat NEVER- an offer of a phone number or a quickie make-out session with the girl just having to know what this band was Peter Gabriel was in when he was younger. And with good and goddamned clear reason. I honestly think it would be easier to explain things to a girl if she was poking around my computer and found child pornography than if she investigated the dread "PROG" folder on my Docs and found all eleven versions of Kohntarkosz I have. Eleven, man- can you dig it? There's therapy for pedophiles, but Magma fans are in it for the long haul.
So, why does Prog end up failing so often and in such a disastrous fashion when it does? The reason, I think, begins with the problem most people have in even defining what the music is. Everything from Black Widow to Queensryche is called Prog, and there is an unending debate in the halls of the respectable Prog establishment about whether a band is symphonic or crossover, true folk prog or merely Harry Potter music. In short, there are an endless list of influences that can make up something “Prog”; fusion, noise, metal, psych-style guitar-driven rock or keyboard-dense electronics, the classical influences of the ELP-wing of the genre or the outrageous eclecticism of the wholly unclassifiable Van der Graaf Generator. It would be very difficult to do a series of “Bad Punk” shows, since for one thing the entire idea is a bit of a redundancy, and for two these bands have at their disposal a mere three chords and two time signatures and you can be boring and repetitive but it’s very difficult to make bricks without straw and build a gas chamber, if you follow me. But I’ve had absolutely no problem rounding up three entire shows worth of Bad Prog, with a fourth on the way and this one perhaps the most shocking and horrifying of all. And anyone who has listened to the shows, I would hope, would have to acknowledge the true diversity of the monsters put together in The Curator’s infernal Prog lab, DJ Micah and I playing music from many different bands, countries, and from across even differing social systems. And yet still Bad Prog reigns. It’s a tough beast, this Bad Prog, and to be honest, looking at my notes and tracks I’ve meant to play but haven’t got to, there’s enough material here already for at least six more shows, and keeping to the fantastic standard of incompetence established early on with the playing of the Albatross and Paul Gaffey records; you just fucking wait ‘till you hear what we’ve found from the amateur and home-brew Prog community, for you have heard nothing yet.
Prog is of such vast inclusiveness that it is probably best to limit the word to describing the almost-wholly-British group of bands who emerged from the Psychedelic scene of the late 60’s and listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and decided to really just freak out and make music that would get on Top of the Pops only by blessed accident. Literary, musically vast, containing more than a little of the Canterbury scene’s whimsy and humor, this “real” Prog also had a far darker side; Genesis records were about little girls being molested by disembodied Jack-in-the-Boxes and Armageddon taking place in a quiet London living room, and Peter Hammill’s vocals were so histrionic and disturbing that there was no way to hear them and not understand that this was a tortured man writing very, very personal songs of loss. But the moment you go that route, all of a sudden French bands like Atoll and Magma aren’t Prog- which is just fucking ridiculous, as Magma may be the most “progressive” and best Prog band of them all- and of course the entire Scandinavian scene has to go since Day of Phoenix, though sounding very British, were from Copenhagen and not Manchester. So I really don’t know what to tell you, to be quite honest.
All I can say is that if there is one word which sums up Prog, it is ambitious; bands producing Prog seemed always to be doing anything but worrying about making the pop charts, which explains why the fall of Collins-era Genesis and Wetton projects like Asia are such miserable, unequivocal failures. The moment the money was more important than the music, even great bands and players could turn to shit.
Of course, bands like Yes- who always were shit- went this road too, and at least very little was lost to the world in that Anderson confined his Eastern blathering to one track on the monumentally execrable Big Generator, hosting the stupidest song ever written, “Holy Lamb (Song for the Harmonic Convergence)”. The full torments of Tormato (I can’t believe I’m writing that every time I write it, no matter how many times I do it) are legion, but the end of Yes, and therefore of the last classic Prog band making “hit” records, came only with an album so insufferably lame that no Yessie I know will publicly defend it. Why they defend utter garbage like Relayer is another question, one I hope I have offered an answer to here. But as for what Prog is, what it isn't- it's one of the most subjective questions I've ever investigated; one of such personal taste and definition that, like sexuality or one's opinion of Baudrillard, it's best kept to oneself and only allowed vent amongst friends. - TR
MAJOR ADDENDUM: Having had time to think about it, I have note of a much-more-than-glaring omission that is terribly common when discussing the amorphous transition from Psych to Prog. I mentioned Sgt. Pepper's in the above text because it is the most obvious and oft-cited example of the wholly British attempt to make drug music more "serious", and the fact that none other than Bill Bruford mentions it as the most important album as far as "where Prog came from". I would like to add an extremely important second to that list, hardly my own idea of course, but to leave Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn out of this discussion is beyond criminal. Listening to it as I type, this is clearly a proto-Prog album, at the same time as it exists as probably the best British Psychedelic album ever made. Sometimes you really have to go back to the classics and be humbled- what an amazing album.
As far as I can tell, the loss of Syd Barrett is a rock casualty matched only by Jimi Hendrix and far, far more devastating to the future of the music than relatively inconsequential deaths like Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain. "Interstellar Overdrive", while being also a triumph of production, is more importantly a kick-ass freak-out of epic proportions, leaning far more in the direction of where Crimson would eventually go than the rather straight-up blues rock of contemporaries Pink Fairies or The Deviants. This is not a knock on those two hugely important bands, or Edgar Broughton's trip blues, either; it's simply an acknowledgment that the Floyd was very, very special, transitional and evolutionary, and that Syd Barrett was a fucking genius. I welcome comments on this, as I'd like to know more about the subject myself as to the "birth" of Prog, and of course am very open about the lacunae in my own knowledge. I still think Piper is every bit as important as Pepper's though, and absolutely its equal in terms of music and transcendental genius. - TR