Most commonly referred to by fans and detractors alike with the shorthand term “prog”, progressive rock is arguably the one branch of the pop music family tree most likely to elicit sharply divided opinions. Boasting a fanbase that has a borderline religious devotion, prog has been long overdue for a book length canonization. I don’t know if David Weigel’s latest book, The Show That Never Ends, will be the definitive statement on the history of progressive rock, but it’s a solid contender despite being in an uncrowded field. Writing a chronicle of prog’s trajectory through the pop culture sphere which begins with its early pioneers and brings us to the present is no small feat. Much like his subjects, Weigel has staked out an ambitious mandate for a 278 page book. Nevertheless, The Show That Never Ends is eminently readable and, for my money, is as satisfying an overview as one would hope for given its length and scope.
As one might expect, The Show That Never Ends focuses on the biggest movers of the progressive genre. The career arcs of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, ELP and King Crimson are given a generous space while the also-rans, second stringers, side projects, one-off supergroups and fan favorites are also given a hearing. The leading lights of the Canterbury scene are also given a fairly robust treatment. Fans of Soft Machine, Gong, Caravan, Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, and Robert Wyatt will doubtless enjoy Weigel’s respectful recognition of the significance these players made to the movement.
Weigel’s focus remains primarily centered around the genre’s British origins. When he finally turns his attention North America, it’s limited to Rush and Kansas. Any book that covers this much territory is bound to leave some people dissatisfied. One can easily imagine the indignant proclamations of outraged prog fans everywhere as they debate the exclusion of [fill in the blank]. I’ll add my indignation to the bonfire by stating that I was disappointed by the short shrift Magma received and I was absolutely gobsmacked by the twin omissions of Henry Cow and Saga.
Even at the most superficial level, Weigel’s account poses worthwhile questions. Is there a subgenre of rock more maligned than progressive rock? Was this hatred manufactured? Was punk the natural course correction rock historians have long claimed? Should rock even be “progressive” in the first place? Is prog elitist pomp or is it populist high culture? Are the pioneers of progressive rock geniuses or charlatans? Was the emergence of progressive rock an organic phenomenon or was it simply the product of upper crust Brits with too much idle time? Does prog even matter anymore?
Prog was and is ambitious music. By and large, rock’s calling card was its libidinous energy, hedonistic lyrics and its primal simplicity. It was mostly designed to piss off your parents and priests. It was also mostly a soundtrack for getting wasted, defying authority and getting laid. In the wake of the release of Sergeant Pepper’s and Pet Sounds, proggers sought new horizons. The progressive rocker wanted to liberate rock from the rigid confines of blues based harmony and the pedestrian grind of 4/4 time. The characteristics of “high art” music suddenly became raw materials for an alchemical transformation in the incantatory fires of rock’s furnace. Anglican church hymns, classical harmonies and structures, jazz improvisation, and English folk were all fair game. Lyrics no longer fixated on banalities like romance. Instead, proggers took to themes that drew from fantasy, sci-fi, history, religion and the occult. From the ferment of Britain’s rock scene in the mid and late sixties, the progressive rock genre took shape. Prog became the soundtrack to late nights, black lights, and bong hits for a mostly educated, upwardly mobile middle class in Europe and America.
There’s something about hymns, they’re simple and they’re direct but they have a kind of connection. – Tony Banks, Genesis (p. 12)
Weigel is clearly a fan and his treatment of the subject matter is very sympathetic overall. However, he is an establishment writer, and he is attempting to play the role of neutral arbitrator of events. While this approach serves to make this an entertaining and reasonably informative synthesis of a significant slice of rock subculture, it also feels painfully banal and aggressively anodyne in places. Particularly when it comes to the musicians’ proximity to the military-intelligence community, the Tavistock Institute, the Royal Society, the British aristocracy, the Labour Party or the occult.
I was so involved, I didn’t know what to think
This is very apparent when recounting Robert Fripp’s time at Sherborne House in the mid-70’s after the demise of the first iteration of King Crimson. It’s especially curious given that Fripp’s exploits within and without King Crimson comprise a fairly significant portion of the book. Along with Keith Jarrett, Kate Bush and George Russell, Fripp had developed an interest in the cultish teachings of George Gurdjieff. He had befriended Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates and had done so during a time of pure isolation from the outside world. According to Fripp, it was a time that was “both physically painful and spiritually terrifying” (p. 180) Weigel cites a quote from a 1978 interview in which Fripp confesses that “Sherborne filled its residents with the “the kind of cold that freezes the soul” (p. 180). I found myself wanting to understand more fully what Fripp might have meant by that, but Weigel drops it on the floor and explores no further. Instead, he goes on to recount the Hall and Fripp collaboration which resulted in the Hall solo record, Sacred Songs. It’s not a secret that Sacred Songs was inspired by Hall’s fascination with Aleister Crowley. Surely, Weigel knew that this was the common ground between Hall and Fripp’s interest in Gurdjieff’s esoteric teachings. Furthermore, he ignores the vast influence of John G. Bennett, the founder of the International Academy of Continuous Education, on the various strands of New Age thought we find today. Weigel abandons a juicy lead which links this artistic movement with the proliferation of what now passes for “spirituality”.
I think that whoever is listening to it should feel the same thing, that they are in tune and in time with God. – Jon Anderson, Yes (p. 72)
Sinfield reached into his notebook and pulled out “King Crimson,” a term he had come up with to fill in when “Satan” didn’t fit a rhyme. (p. 43)
Choice, choice, freedom? I have no choice, I can only do the will of God, this is freedom. – Robert Fripp (p. 197)
The same superficial gloss is given to his casual mention of Jon Anderson’s spiritual beliefs, the deeper inspiration for Christian Vander’s vision, the Roches’ fascination with Wilhelm Reich, the gnostic overtones to Peter Gabriel’s focus on Carl Jung, ELP’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Giger’s occult inspirations as well as Daevid Allen’s fairly well publicized fascination with ritual magick. This may seem like pointless muckraking, but it gets to the essence of what proggers were actually saying as artists. Weigel obviously thinks this is an unfairly maligned genre and that it should be accorded more respect. Prog is a cool soundtrack for smoking weed and most of them were first rate virtuosos, but all the proggers had something to say at some level. The messages seemed to run the gamut from an attempt to create meaning from nothing to messianic zeal. To selectively emphasize these things seems like journalistic malpractice.
The only reason I’ve been able to come up with as to why we became musicians was because there wasn’t anything to rebel or fight against. We weren’t doing it with another agenda as a means to escape. If we were seeking to escape, then it would have been from a kingdom of nothingness. Michael Giles, King Crimson (p. 10)
This tendency is especially egregious in his treatment of Rush. Weigel exposes himself as yet another progressive partisan hack when discussing Neil Peart’s affinity for Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. As usual, he appears to think the British Labour Party has nothing for which to apologize, and Neil Peart’s critics were completely justified. He ensures that the critical scorn heaped on Rush was clearly spelled out in case there’s any mystery about what the woke intelligentsia thinks of you dumbass LOLbertarians. Not only does he fail to mention that Neil Peart went on record with a softened stance on libertarianism in 2012, but he openly aligned himself with the Democratic Party in a RS interview from 2015! Weigel had ready access to this information while writing this book. Why else would you place so much emphasis on his former libertarian convictions if not to feed the already overheated Ayn Rand hate mill? He even goes out of his way to score easy ideological points by mentioning Rush’s refusal to allow Rand Paul to continue using their music on the campaign trail. See? Even Rush shut down Rand Paul. LMAO! Ooh. Sticking it to the Randian Objectivists. How #EDGY, Weigel.
Maybe his mind is for rent after all.
A casual glimpse of Weigel’s Twitter feed reveals him as a typical leftist stooge who fancies himself some kind of brave dissident embedded on the front lines of the Trump #RESISTANCE. In other words, the embodiment of kind of the anti-authoritarianism that formed the basis of the album he lionized, 2112. If Weigel had an ounce of intellectual honesty, he would cast a skeptical glance toward the Corbynistas and the Eurocrats. Ayn Rand wasn’t right about everything, but if he actually allowed himself to examine the grievances of #Brexiters without his ideological blinders, he’d recognize that Peart apprehended the harm Labour has visited on the UK with greater clarity than his fellow media lackeys. Progressives are contemptuous of libertarianism except when it’s convenient for their agenda.
His partisan allegiance is significant because it may explain his seeming unwillingness to examine the extent to which prog’s demise was driven by the very media establishment to which he belongs. It’s true that plenty of bands built careers defying the establishment consensus, but Weigel’s refusal to investigate his own people speaks volumes.
The downfall of progressive rock happened quickly, with an entire critical establishment [emphasis mine] seemingly rooting for its demise. (p. 200)
This is especially significant given that the media’s pretense of neutrality has been revealed as a contemptible lie in the Trump era. If we take the case that the media are handmaidens of the deep state who are merely taking orders from an elite class more invested in cultural engineering than journalism, Weigel’s observation suggests much, much more.
You can force people to go into trances, and tell them what to do; it’s mass hypnotism, and you’re really setting yourself up as God. – Dave Brock, Hawkwind (p. 96)
Speaking of establishment elites, his ideological blinders also stunted his ability to investigate the extent to which prog was being encouraged by the social engineers of the Tavistock Institute and Royal Society or the extent to which they were under the influence of MI6 assets. Curiously, he included a quote by Crimson alum, Gordon Haskell, which speaks directly to all of these possibilities. My suspicion is that Weigel’s decision to include this quote was to hold him up as a conspiracy obsessed lunatic with an axe to grind against Robert Fripp. Of course, Weigel doesn’t explore any of these allegations, and allows the quote to go unexamined.
“The King Crimson weapon is musical fascism, made by fascists, designed by fascists to dehumanize, to strip mankind of his dignity and soul,” he said later. “It’s pure Tavistock Institute material, financed by the Rothschild Zionists and promoted by two poncy public school boys with connections to the city of London.” Gordon Haskell, King Crimson (p. 62)
Weigel concludes with a brief overview of prog’s unlikely resurgence in the midst of the nihilistic howling that defined the 90s grunge aesthetic. Led by neo-prog revivalists like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, The Mars Volta, Opeth and Spock’s Beard, prog had absorbed a more muscular and metallic edge from its stylistic progeny, but it seemed even more anachronistic than in its previous generation. Despite what is implied in the term “progressive” in contemporary parlance, I contend that there’s something reactionary about playing or enjoying prog in 2019.
We’ve become accustomed to the idea of the pop culture sphere being a quintessentially Darwinian ecosystem. It is the epitome of a dominance hierarchy in which the lowest common denominator generally captures the biggest market share while those who swim against the tide get bulldozed. It cannibalizes itself, but only to reflect and refract the most fashionable aesthetic trends and sensibilities of the moment. Prog’s sonic and compositional innovations were eventually flattened and absorbed into blueprints for virtually every style that comprised the 80s once the punk template had been firmly established as the new artistic orthodoxy.
While there’s usually enough bandwidth for a mass market Serious Artist or two who reaches an arena sized audience, you generally find the contemporary progger playing a 1000-seat venue or at a niche festival like ProgDay. The idea that a multibillion dollar rock industry which extends into every corner of culture is in any way rebellious or transgressive is a pathetic joke. Even if it’s loaded with odd metered rhythms, dense harmonies and extended psychedelic jams. Subsequently, the very idea of playing a form of rock music, the ultimate anti-tradition tradition, which adheres to a set of bygone ideals however loosely defined can only be seen as…well….conservative.
Prog was a byproduct of the 60s counterculture, and embodied the utopian idealism of the Flower Power generation which originally coronated it. As subsequent generations of rockers turned increasingly hedonistic and cynical, the Holy Mountain of progressive rock continues to attract acolytes precisely because it at least stood for something. Even if proggers had disparate goals, the fundamental message of the pursuit of a transcendent ideal seemed to be the binding force. I suggest that for today’s musicians, progressive rock is seen as something akin to a sacred calling. A spiritual cosmic journey that will always beckon mystics, dreamers, and charlatans along with the hardiest and most dedicated souls.
The existence of David Weigel’s history of progressive rock is a laudable achievement all by itself, but it also happens to be a fun read. Perhaps it is churlish to nitpick and we should simply enjoy the fact that it is here in the first place. If nothing else, we proggers are an opinionated bunch. You develop high standards when you’re an idealist.
By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally run its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic. The whole underlying goal – to draw together rock, classical and folk into a surreal metastyle – was inherently an optimistic ideal. At its best, the genre engaged listeners in a quest for spiritual authenticity. We took ourselves too seriously, of course, and its po-faced earnestness could lapse into a moronic naivete, but it never gave way to bitterness, cynicism or self-pity. – Bill Bruford (p. 250)