Friday, May 29, 2015

Progressive What?

A few people (very few) know that I've stepped away from my sci-fi/fantasy world to work on a memoir/progressive rock manifesto. Since this type of writing not only is new to me, it also lends itself well to posting excerpts from it on this here blog site thingy. The other day I participated in a discussion on Facebook that circled the drain of the age old question, "Who were the original progressive rock bands or artist(s)? Since I had already spent the energy addressing this question in my book-in-progress, I felt well qualified to provide a few answers. But it's an intricate study, one that is too big for Facebook. And while this question resides in the "How long is a piece of string?" bubble, considering my credentials (or perhaps my stupidity) I had to at least make an attempt to come up with an answer. Keep in mind this is still in rough draft form and I have also edited out a bunch of swears so as not to offend everyone. Anyway, here it is in full, offered up as a sacrifice in all its vulnerability. 

 So where did it all begin? Well…who can say, really, how, when, or where the sweet baby who grew into this monstrous musical behemoth was born?  Was it Robert Fripp and his creation, King Crimson? Maybe Syd Barret and Pink Floyd should get credit for their experimental innovations. Sure, if you listen to that early Floyd material you’d be hard-pressed to navigate the maze that leads to Prog nirvana. But it’s there. Believe me. Maybe Pete Townshend and his orchestral approach to rock composition influenced others to open their sphere of influence and turn rock into a more formal pursuit. Certainly Tommy is labeled as a “rock opera” and Quadrophenia expands in that tradition. But The Who are firmly implanted in classic rock, perhaps one of the best rock bands ever. After all, they won the war they were thrust into between Mods and Rockers, and would probably sneer at the idea of being considered Prog cornerstones. Led Zeppelin is sort of in the same boat. They introduced us to a whole new sound when it came to rock, with Robert Plant’s piercing vocals, Jimmy Page’s blues-based electric guitar, Bonham’s wild-man drumming, and John Paul Jones showing us that bass-players are more than just frustrated guitarists. They were heavy. They were intricate. They were at times emotionally beautiful, and so much better than your average rock and roll band. But again, they’re pillars of classic rock and heavy metal, who at times displayed some progressive leanings. In other words, Prog did not, and cannot define them. To get to the real roots of Prog you have to dig down further.

So is there a more direct, clear cut path from the British Beat scene of the 60s to the psychedelic and Prog scene of the 70s? I’m talking as the crow flies, is there one titular act leading straight to the moment that blew the lid off the Pandora’s Box of rock and roll and opened the door to something future Prog enthusiasts would glom on to? I don’t claim to be a music historian, although I always thought that if I ever got into academia I could throw together a pretty damn entertaining history of rock and roll course, with a lot of begets and flow charts and family trees and such. For example: The Nice begets ELP who begets Asia, who begets the beginning of the end for real progressive rock.

The aforementioned King Crimson begets a brain of great artists including ELP and Yes (and for that matter post-Genesis Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, David Bowie, but now we’re really pushing across borders). In essence Robert Fripp is like the Godfather of one of Prog’s most prominent families, and I'd go so far as to say that without his shadow looming over the genre it would have been an entirely different, less colorful landscape.

But is that where it started?

You may or may not know the name Arthur Brown. Here’s a hint. He’s the God of Hell Fire as authoritatively stated in his biggest hit Fire. In the late 60s Arthur Brown combined pop music with theatrics, doing all kinds of crazy shit no one had ever dreamed of before, like including pyrotechnics along with unique costumes and elaborate staging. No wonder Peter Gabriel mentions him as an influence along with several artists later associated with Prog. He even worked with the likes of Hawkwind, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa. But as far as Arthur Brown goes, he could just as easily lay claim to the Godfather throne of another prominent family more closely associated with Shock Rock or Metal.
Stay with me here. If you wanted light reading pick up a Stephen King novel or something by Dostoyevsky. 

To get back to the question at hand, if British pop, psychedelic rock, classical, jazz, and folk music had this mutant baby (I’m not sure how the biology of that works but just go with it), who’s responsible for planting the seed? If you ask a group of self-proclaimed “Proggers” expect a wide-variety of answers, lots of name-calling, and perhaps a few thinly-veiled threats that wouldn’t pack much weight outside the halls of a comic book convention because let's face it, most Prog enthusiasts are, in fact, nerds. I’d bet good money that at any given time there’s at least one debate in progress on the social media pages (you know, the Facebook, the Twitter, and the like) where Prog fans are eagerly voicing their opinions on the origins of the genre.

“Class, who came first?”
Several hands eagerly shoot up in the air.
Nerd number one. “Ooh, ooh, I know.”
Nerd number two. “Pick me! Pick me!”
Nerd number one slugs nerd number two in the shoulder.
Nerd number three simply blurts out the answer without waiting to be called on. “Moody Blues.”
Teacher pulls out a Glock and puts a bullet between Nerd number three’s eyes. “Not quite the answer I was looking for.”

In truth the answer is as convoluted as the quest to discover the one true religion; there is no single answer. Prog has several sects and schools and such and as in spiritual beliefs, I choose not to declare emphatically which is correct, but simply provide an overview of their differences and where their paths might cross. So just as the very definition of Prog can get a little wibbley wobbley, with multiple facets cut into the genre, it took multiple pieces and parts all coming together in a swirling vortex of musical and cultural synchronicity to create the birth of a new genre of rock music. 

Having said all that as long as I’m here and this my book, I’m going to go out on a limb and spill who I'd put my money on, a wager that might be surprising but not without legs.

It was the Beatles. Who else did you think it would be? The Beatles started everything when it comes to pop and rock. Like Jesus split the timeline of our calendar, you can look at modern music (the stuff those fool kids listen to) and argue that the Beatles built the wall that separates everything into a before and after scenario. And just think about this for a moment. Had the Beatles not gone all supernova at the tail end of the sixties, what kind of music would they have carried over into the 70s? And don’t tell me to look at their solo work as an indicator (although if pressed I would say some of the stuff Paul did with Wings is borderline progressive). John, Paul, George, and Ringo did some great stuff individually, but their collective work is as different as American football and that game the rest of the world calls futbol. My theory is that the Beatles, had they stuck together, would have become one of the seminal progressive bands in the rock era of the mid-to-late 70s. Had that have happened maybe Prog wouldn’t have been left in the annals of rock history as something that never went beyond cult status. 

I also have theories on Hendrix, the Doors, and Buddy Holly as well, but, again, those are for another book (don’t hold your breath, this non-fiction shit is hard). 

Monday, May 11, 2015


The mind of the musician being analogous to alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, and drug addicts is almost too obvious. Except alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, and drug addicts have those meetings you find in church basements across America with coffee and donuts holes, and people with names like Bob or Janice anonymously laying bare everything their addiction cost them and their loved ones. Supposedly it makes them feel better. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never heard of an organized support group for musicians, which isn’t surprising considering how pathetic we are at giving a shit about anything that goes on in church basements unless there’s a crap-ton of instruments ready and waiting with the end game being to make as much noise as possible until the pastor comes and throws you out.

Try to imagine a passion burning inside you that takes priority over everything else in your life. You wonder what it’s like to function in the real world so you walk the fine line between your artists’ soul and holding down yet another pointless and irrelevant day job. Like most musicians your passion doesn’t pay the bills, so you try to conform only to discover most everyone you come in contact with can't possibly understand what’s really going on inside you. Relationships at home are strained, especially of the intimate variety. At some point, after years of inner turmoil, you long for a little normalcy in your world, so you push your musical fantasies aside and try to walk away, put on a tie and blend in. That's when you learn the foolishness of turning your back on the one thing you love. The musician gene is tenacious. At some point an opportunity invariably comes along and you think, “What harm could there be in playing a one-night stand?”

Next thing you know you’re back in the throes of it all. Having spent all your hard-earned money buying back the equipment you pawned, you’re left shivering in the cold, wandering the streets in search of an open-mic night, or a jam session with some heroin addicted hair band making god-awful noise in a musty industrial park storage unit. You use the Penny Saver like hopeless singles use, looking for like minds to bring affirmation to your addiction. It’s a grim scenario, but when you’re fondest memories are those acquired from countless nights huddled outside the back door of some shithole-in-the-wall nightclub, chain smoking Marlboros in between shots of Jack and snorts of baby powder, reveling in those final anxiety-ridden moments before you climb on stage and bust out your chops to a room full of half-coherent drunks. The adrenaline rush from the smell of bleach and cheap booze, from losing yourself in a performance, from mind-melding with your on-stage brethren, from the gluttonous feeding frenzy off the energy buffet in a room jammed wall to wall with writhing flesh; it’s as hard to explain as it is to forget. Certainly your audience can never fully comprehend why you’ve slit a vein and spilt your blood simply for their amusement. “Give me two liters plasma, stat. They want an encore.” You can’t buy this euphoria from an Indiana trailer park meth lab, that blow to the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, that je ne sais quoi, that right there is worth all the doubt, the debt, the depression, and busted relationships that litter your broken past. That right there is living.