Redeeming the Uncool: The Show That Never Ends

It’s appropriate that political reporter Dave Weigel has released The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Downfall of Prog Rock in 2017. Just after we’ve finished one of the most divisive elections (and the Democratic party continues to hold a primary fight for some reason) we get a survey of the most divisive subgenre of rock music. Critiques of prog rock vary from complete rejection of music deemed over-the-top, pompous, and unlistenable to views that the genre marked the pinnacle of rock music as a true art form. Yet the history of prog isn’t as clear cut and Weigel attempts to briskly explain why we got the music and what ultimately killed most of it by the end of the 1970s.

Weigel centers The Show That Never Ends around major tentpoles of English prog —— Robert Fripp’s King Crimson, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (the title is pulled from an ELP lyric) —— with others appearing for periods ranging from short segments to only passing mentions. The end result is a book that tries to bring some sense and order to a group of musicians that sought to reject order at every note. In contrast to counterparts like the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton that drew influence from American blues music, prog rockers rooted themselves in Anglican Church music and classical works. As a result prog, at least in part, helped construct an English identity in the post-war years as the British Empire saw it’s power decline. With Ian Andrerson’s flute, Keith Emerson’s Moog, and Peter Gabriel’s vocals and costumes, English artists both conquered charts and left critics (and many listeners) befuddled as to what exactly they were experiencing. While some prog rock songs are mainstays of classic rock radio, much of the genre resides in twenty-plus minute songs that only devoted fans seek out on a regular basis.

And therein lies the great issue with prog rock, it simply got too weird. While Jethro Tull’s “piss take” of Thick as a Brick, an album length song spread over two sides of a vinyl record was a smash hit, the equally elaborate follow-up A Passion Play marked one of the first cracks for the genre both with critics and fans. Lead singer Ian Anderson chalked the failure up to people not being willing to listen to the record multiple times before they got it, but the complex, nearly incomprehensible lyrics of the genre began to grow old while artists continually tried to expand to greater things. ELP’s last truly great album saw a supporting tour that involved a full orchestra and a road crew who size undoubtedly contributed a great deal towards furthering climate change. By the end of the 1970s many of the bands quit, and those that left largely moved away from the genre, turning towards more commercially viable rock. Yet the legacies lingered, and while prog has continued to remain uncool and the butt of jokes for many rock fans, it continues to have a devoted fanbase of both musicians and fans. The end result of Weigel’s overview is a revisionist history that presents prog as less of pretentious art and more about young men figuring out what exactly music could do. As Weigel notes, even though the genre’s low points were incredibly low, when it went right, the genre produced some seriously great rock music. Weigel desires credit for at least attempting to restructure a genre that has spent much of its afterlife in a hazy mist of jokes and myths.

Yet like most prog rock albums, Weigel’s book is uneven. In parts it reads like a radio edit of a prog rock song, stripping down to the most basic material in the interests of appealing to the greatest mass of people. At other times Weigel gets as in-depth as any twenty minute song. The end result is a dizzying mixture of detailed discussions, particularly of Robert Fripp’s experimental music of the later 70s and 80s, and stories missing important context. Chapter 5 concludes with Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist for Yes, leaving the band in 1973 after growing so bored he ate curry on his equipment mid-concert. For the next few chapters Wakeman is contentedly creating records centered around Henry VIII and King Arthur, only to reappear as a member of Yes in the early 1980s without explanation (he and lead singer John Anderson quickly leave though). What happened? The answer is Wakeman rejoined Yes in 1977, playing on Going for the One, one of the band’s first turns away from prog rock both in terms of the more direct music and the lack of a sci-fi Roger Dean album cover.[ref]The cover portrays the backside of a naked man gazing up at skyscrapers. If you care to, it can probably be read as the band emerging from their fantasy worlds into reality and working to find their new identity.[/ref] Yet none of this is discussed, leaving anyone without memory of the period potentially confused. While this was probably the most egregious instance, there’s a variety of other points throughout where Weigel gets ahead of himself by mentioning bands or events that only get covered later in the work. As a result the book falls into the unfortunate area between needing additional pages or tighter editing, either of which would’ve probably helped to a degree.

There’s also a part of me as a historian that wishes Weigel hadn’t kept so closely to the music itself. The book involves close dissections of the musical qualities of many of the songs, but rarely expands the discussion beyond the technical. Weigel notes he was most interested in British prog rock because it came first and many of the North American and continental Europe bands that followed were merely echoes. Yet there seems to be tantalizing questions in why a genre so rooted in British identity grew so popular outside the UK and particularly in Italy. Additionally, Weigel notes that Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway moved away from fantasy and towards a gritty real-world story of a Puerto Rican boy in New York City, yet a discussion of what this signified for an era dealing with the oil crisis and other political difficulties is missing (or why we got a genre rooted in fantasy at the end of the 1960s and the Vietnam Era). Finally, the book generally mentions that prog became the punching bag of critics with the rise of punk but it never really discussed the why or puts the declining prog genre in proper discussion with the new surging punk movement.

For all the unevenness, Weigel’s book is a worthwhile read. In collecting a history of prog, albeit relatively brief, Weigel has done an important service of brining together old magazine archives and interviews into a single place. The Show That Never Ends provides a much deserved redemption of much of prog rock and provides even casual fans reason to turn on some of the music.