Academic journal article Current Musicology

Periods in Progressive Rock and the Problem of Authenticity

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Periods in Progressive Rock and the Problem of Authenticity

Article excerpt

Though "largely ignored" by much mainstream popular music scholarship, and "largely despised" by most critics (Macan 1997:3), the genre of "self-consciously complex" rock music usually known as 1970s "progressive" (or "prog") rock was very popular and influential across England and North America in its time (Holm-Hudson 2002:2), and its fan base remains dedicated to this day. Progressive rock exhibits a startling eclecticism and diverse sources of influence, and as such is notoriously difficult to define from a stylistic point of view (Holm-Hudson 2002:2). The label "progressive" instead implies association with the late 1960s counterculture (Macan 1997:13-14, 144-66) and, more directly, an aesthetic of experimentation and artistic freedom at a time when recording technologies were developing rapidly and record companies enjoyed a large degree of financial success (Moore 2001:65). Overall, though, the genre is perhaps "best remembered" for "epic subject matter," "gargantuan stage shows," and "dazzling virtuosity" (Macan 1997:3), and, in the wake of the Beatles' 1967 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for developing a rock music that seemed to invite the audience to listen rather than dance (Covach 1997:3).

Of the numerous tropes surrounding progressive rock bands, some of the most pervasive and persistent concern the perception that these groups' music and public personae are indebted to the classical music tradition. Edward Macan argues that "the defining features of progressive rock ... are all drawn from the European classical tradition," and these range from "orchestral" timbres to extended structural forms to "metrical and instrumental virtuosity" (1997:12-13). In all likelihood fans do not hear these references the way a musicologist would, but the perception of complexity, seriousness, and "depth" in the style does mean that many fans consider the music a sort of rock-based "art-music substitute" (Bowman 2002:184-89; Covach 1997:8). In interviews, Jon Anderson of Yes has talked about "creating music that is around us today in an orchestral way" (quoted in Covach 1997:7), and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP) has somewhat patronizingly stated, "We hope if anything we're encouraging the kids to listen to music that has more quality" (Bangs [1974] 2002:52). While onstage, progressive rockers often move very little so they can concentrate on their individual parts and seem "serious" (Keith Emerson's animated knife stabbing of his keyboard during ELP performances is a notable exception), and characteristically many bands attempt, like classical musicians adhering to a written score, to recreate the sonic experience of a recorded album (Macan 1997:64; Bangs [1974] 2002:49).

I argue that progressive rock may also evoke the "classical" in the ways these groups changed stylistically at strategic points in their careers to mark their artistic development, akin to the periodizations many find in the work of classical composers, such as the ubiquitous use of "early," "middle," and "late" labels for Beethoven's music. As James Webster has shown in his studies of classical music history, periodizations are shot through with understated but critical value judgments. Webster outlines three chief periodization narratives. An "originary" narrative valorizes the "early" period, an "organic" narrative valorizes the "middle" period, and a "teleological" narrative valorizes the "late" period. The narratives that a given periodization presents can seem so compelling that we may ignore pieces within a given "period" if they do not fit the expected characteristics of that style, and we may marginalize the music of entire periods if our narrative tells us that a different period contains more interesting or important music (Webster 1994, 2001-2). (1)

The specific case explored here concerns the widely acknowledged changes in progressive rock in the early 1980s, when many prominent bands' increasing use of digital signal processing and simpler, more conventional song forms led audiences and critics to identify the beginning of a new period in the genre characterized by commercialized and "inauthentic" releases. …

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