Rocking the Classics English progressive rock and the counterculture
Update - extensive preview on Google books- spotted by Rich Cross.
So what was progressive rock all about then? Edward Macan has the answers.
In Rocking the Classics - English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (published in 1997) he does a pretty through job of taking prog rock apart to see how it worked.
I started buying records when I was 13 (1971/2) and soon had quite a few prog rock classics- Close to the Edge by Yes, Foxtrot by Genesis- which has Suppers Ready on it
Trilogy by ELP and a Van der Graaf Generator compilation… so I thought I knew all about prog rock. But I didn’t.
Macan is a musicologist and musician. Looking at the origins of prog rock, he finds them amongst the middle class youth of south-east England. As they were growing up in the fifties, future prog rock musicians would have listened to classical music at home- and been familiar with church (of England) music. A few, including Peter Gabriel of Genesis were choirboys.
So when they started to make music in the sixties, it was natural for them to draw on their musical roots, fusing classical and church music with rock. Their privileged background (fee-paying schools) also meant that they were drawn to the spiritual/ religious/mystical/ anti-materialism of the psychedelic counterculture rather than its radical politics. So if they had not invented progressive rock, they might have become dope-smoking trendy vicars…
Macan goes on to point out that even before punk came along to attack the trendy vicars of prog rock, the music had been criticised from its beginnings for its lack of ‘authenticity’ and its use of classical music themes and structures. Macan argues against this trendy sociologists approach to music. He points out that the same critics who said prog rock was ‘too complex, too grandiose, too ambitious’ also hated heavy metal because it was too dumb and stupid… and equally lacking in political consciousness.
So that if punk hadn’t existed, trendy sociologists would have had to invent it … which Ken Gelder [Subcultures Cultural histories and social practices, 2007, p 92-5] pretty much accuses Dick Hebdige of doing with his Subculture-the meaning of style in 1978. [OK Hebdige didn’t invent punk, but he re-constructed it for cultural studies text books.]
To finish up - here are a few quotes/ points from Macan’s book.
for the bulk of its participants the counterculture was ultimately more about spiritual transformation than political revolution. Materialism was seen as the root of all evil, the source of greed, violence, and social inequality...Indeed, the hippies were convinced that the material world was essentially unreal (an attitude that was strongly fostered by their drug use), and believed that attempts to change this exterior world were ultimately useless.(p.76)
Such beliefs in 'inner transformation or spiritual evolution rather than political activity' influenced progressive rock lyrics.
These beliefs also influenced the musical structures of progressive rock, which drew on classical music and
the Anglican liturgical experience made a profound impression on future progressive rock musicians. (p.150)
Classical music and the music of the Church of England was part of the social background of prog rock musicians and their first audiences - who were drawn from the prosperous/ comfortable middle classes of south-east England. The same background is likely to account for the lack of interest in the radical political aspects of the UK counterculture, which emerged (at the same time) out of the squats of west London- but no mention of this is made in the book so Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies [who were west London based]are not mentioned even in passing.
This idea of prog rock as emerging from a post-psychedelic English mysticism makes me think of John Michell's work- his books The Flying Saucer Vision, the Holy Grail Restored (1967), The View over Atlantis (1969) and the City of Revelation (1972) came out as prog rock was emerging - and were books I read while listening to the music. But again they are not mentioned by Macan.
In Albion Dreaming, Andy Roberts does discuss John Michell -and how his books provided the more mystical members of the UK counterculture with an alternative to taking the hippy trial to India - by locating powerful spiritual/ magical landscape in England itself, around Glastonbury and Stonehenge.
But rather than becoming part of the free festival circuit, the prog rock groups found a new audience in the USA. Macan suggests that this popularity came from the ability of progressive rock's English/ British 'nationalism'
provided a a kind of surrogate ethnic identity for to its young white [American] audience at a time when (for the first time in American history) the question of what it means to be a white person in America was coming under scrutiny (p155)
The huge popularity of Led Zeppelin's most prog rock song -Stairway to Heaven [eg no. 1 in a Detroit rock station poll of listener's favourite songs in 1978] is used to illustrate the point.
However by becoming stadium rock groups, the creativity of ELP, Gensis, Yes, Pink Floyd etc was slowly lost, so although their popularity peaked in the later seventies, their most artistically satisfying and 'progressive' albums were recorded between 1970 and 1974. Macan notes that Robert Fripp pulled the plug on King Crimson in 1974. Later Fripp said
The band ceased to exist in September 1974 which is when all English bands in that genre should have ceased to exist. (p.206)