Friday, December 11, 2009

Essay: Prog Rock As Rebellion

I want to rattle a few cages. I want to wake some people from their mundane ordinary existences and make them think about the world around them. When most people consider anti-authoritarian attitudes in music, they automatically think of Punk. Any regular to this blog will quickly realize that I do not consider Punk rebellious. In fact, to my eye, Punk is the soundtrack of conformity. This may be a shock to anyone who grew up during the late-70s and saw the rise of Punk's status as the flag for fighting the machine. However, in my case, growing up in the 90s meant that Punk was already well established and accepted as mainstream. It was very visible in the media and was easily marketed by large corporations to any young person looking for a soundtrack to break things. You may be able to sympathize then when I claim that, to me, Punk was the machine. This probably has something to do with why I turned to Progressive Rock.

Prog, to me, was everything that wasn't mainstream. It was music fuelled by creativity and imagination. Growing up in the education system in Ontario, Canada in the 90s, being creative and imaginative was not necessarily something that was encouraged. Conformity was expected by all, teachers and peers. If you did something different, you were shunned and punished. It seemed all so constraining. This is why, in my teens, I spent the vast majority of my spare time wandering between used vinyl record shops in downtown Toronto. In the very earliest years of the 2000s Vinyl had yet to begin its resurgence. I quickly found a calling in the experimental albums of the early 70s. This magical music from another era was everything that mainstream music of the time was not. The fantastical cover art, from the screaming twisted face on In The Court Of The Crimson King to the elaborate imagination of the paintings by Roger Dean, seemed like something that would never be allowed by the reality-show obsessed culture that ruled the day. I connected with the sprawling side-long epics. The three-minute pop-songs heard on the radio simply left me cold.

I was fairly known in high school for trumpeting the virtues of Progressive Rock. I couldn't understand the criticisms that were associated with the genre. How could a form of music that was built upon a foundation of creativity be brushed off as pretentious wanking? What was wrong with a musician taking time to learn how to get the most out of their instruments so that they could express themselves in a way that the three-chord punks really could not? Isn't art all about self expression? Isn't art about creativity and imagination? Isn't trying new things what art is all about? Isn't music considered art? Throughout my childhood, you would be hard pressed to think of music as anything more than a formulaic product meant to sell plastic discs.

While the notion of Progressive Rock as rebellion may be a difficult one to fathom, please consider my example as to why I believe there is nothing more rebellious. As our culture seemingly continues its drop into the netherworld of stupidity, put up some resistance and join me on my crusade to preserve my creative mind. Instead of watching the latest mind-raping insult to your intelligence on TV tonight, pull out your copy of Relayer instead and put your mind to work conjuring up the images that are the product of the lush music and epic artwork. When everyone else in society insists on being dumb, what could be more rebellious than thinking?


Palmer said...

Punk was certainly rebellious in its early stages. 1975-77, maybe.

Prog was rebellious as well, though in a different ways. I think that today, prog is the true indie because very, very few prog bands get signed to major labels and, generally speaking, prog bands are doing it for themselves, so to speak. Marillion pioneered the use of the Net as a way to connect to fans and to get fans involved in making sure the band is able to record and tour. This may be consumerism but music is also a business.

Prog bands are almost exclusively relegated to small labels and to niche promotion. Major media outlets want little to do with them so prog is, in many ways, an underground phenomenon.

TDub said...

What is often forgotten about prog is the standard of musicianship that so many players of the best bands offered. Part of the reason prog is "prog" is because players such as Chris Squire, Steve Hackett, Keith Emerson, Jan Akkerman and Robert Fripp were/are amazing players and couldn't find musical peace in a 12-bar shuffle or 3-chord rock arrangement. They stretched out and took their instruments and music to previously unknown heights. Cool blog and keep progging! Cheers.

Paul Di Meglio said...

@ Palmer
I agree. I don't doubt that Punk in its initial stages was all about fighting the machine. I just find it funny how quickly the machine was able to package and sell Punk as a marketable product. I don't think you could ever really do the same for Prog.

The Marillion example is actually a perfect model for the future of music in general. Bands connecting to fewer but very committed fans directly and giving them exactly what they want. Like I said in my comment to the other post you commented on (confusing eh?), I still think we're sitting just on the verge the big crash of the 'old ways' and the internet still hasn't reached it full potential of culture-shock. We're going to see some big changes over the next few years. Well, I'm guessing here, but an educated guess it is.

Paul Di Meglio said...


Exactly, that's what its all about. Too often though, it's that musicianship that has caused many people to dismiss Prog as being the domain of show-offs who really don't care about the songwriting. We know that isn't simply the case. With those musicians you mention (well there are some that would argue about Emerson...poor Keith) the musicianship was really the gateway that allowed them to expand what they could do as songwriters. It isn't just about flaunting your chops, you have to be able to compose as well. Once you know how to play your instrument inside and out then you throw open the doors to more adventurous and creative composing. That's the point...but we already know that.

Thanks for reading!