My Prog Rock Fanaticism, 1973-75

It all started just after Christmas in 1973 when I stole $20 from by brother John’s wallet and claimed I found it while walking home from school. John, 15 at the time, had been working at the downtown Sheraton Hotel in Rock Island, IL, and was flush with moolah, so he didn’t even notice my pilfering his cash stash until a week afterwards, when he then realized my recent fortune had been at his expense, which he immediately reported to our Mom, who’d just gotten home from a business trip to London, Ontario, Canada.

I couldn’t return John’s 20 bucks as I’d blown it—along with another $10 of my own money—on a bunch 8-track tapes: Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, and The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge by Yes. John beat the crap out of me and kept the tapes, but I listened to them more than he did anyhow, so it was a beating worth the score. Our older brother Mike, home on leave from the Navy for Christmas in 1973, had purchased John and me a bitchin’ Panasonic stereo 8-track player, but John was always either working or hanging with his friends, while after my Dad’s death I became an increasingly socially isolated loner resorting to hiding out in my room, so I used it much more than he ever did. I eventually shoveled snow off a ton of sidewalks in my neighborhood to earn back the $20 I’d stolen from John, thus the matter was settled to his and Mom’s satisfaction once I paid him back. [NOTE: John informs me he bought those 8-tracks, although he agrees I probably pilfered money from him and spent it on other tapes, and since he tormented me a lot of time, it wasn’t unusual that he smacked me around for this, or for any number of reasons.]

To say I was obsessed with Progressive Rock was clearly evident by the fact I played the fuck out of those tapes every day. I was dazzled by the skilled musicianship and sonic complexity that these albums exemplified, mixing Rock & Roll with Classical and Jazz elements, and while the lyrics were often goofy and pretentious, the amazing music more than compensated for the shitty poetry. This was grandiose, ambitious, and majestic music far beyond the traditional Pop and Rock music of the day, much more European in its approach and less influenced by the African-American Blues that had kick-started Rock & Roll in the 1950s and held influential sway over most of the major American and British bands in the 1960s. Prog Rock attempted to be smarter, less sexualized, more lyrically diverse, and artier than traditional Rock.

Even a Prog Rock band’s album cover art was raised to a higher level like the musicianship of its bands. Yes had the utterly amazing, air-brushed, otherworldly fantasy landscape artwork of Roger Dean adorning all their covers from Fragile forward, and on ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery, the band hired Swiss futurist painter Hans Ruedi “H.R.” Giger—who was a half decade later the set designer for Ridley Scott’s seminal Sci-Fi outer space horror film Alien—to create an insane, surreal, futuristic, Sci-Fi-meets-horror design that was, in 1973, and maybe even today, the coolest cover art ever.

You could get stoned, listen to Yes or ELP, and totally lose yourself just gazing at their magnificent-looking album covers. Ah, the 70s; we didn’t have today’s preponderance of of computers, smart phones, online streaming content, video games, and innumerable cable TV channels to entertain us like kids today have available to them. We basically had books, FM radio, and records. TV was comprised of three channels, ABC, CBS, and NBC, and later PBS, that went off the air at midnight. So gazing at album cover art, or reading the album cover’s liner notes, was great fun while we listened to the music contained within that cover, or while reading whatever book caught our fancy at that moment, like A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for instance. Or we’d have that day’s newspaper sprawled with us on our bedroom floor, perusing it for baseball box scores and player stats. We had numerous cheesy board games or decks of playing cards we could play with our friends, and that was about it for indoor activities.

True, not every tween kid in the 70s read books extensively, but I did. After my Dad died I became lost in obsessively intellectual pursuits and less involved in sports and other normal childhood activities. My Mom bought me a set of World Book Encyclopedias that I read so much I memorized a considerable amount of the data contained within their 22 volumes. What’s the capital city of Mozambique? The chief export of Belgium? What famous battle was fought on October 25, 1415? Who were the first five Roman Emperors? The first seven US Astronauts? To what Kingdom, Phylum, Order, Class, and Family do baboons belong? Dude, I studied and memorized all that shit until I was a walking human Wikipedia, and all while Brain Salad Surgery or Close to the Edge was blaring out of my Panasonic Stereo speakers. I was a weirdo, sure, but I after that I was basically able to ignore most of school from 7th through 12th grades because I’d absorbed so much knowledge during my tweens.

Yes: Virtuoso Musicianship and Silly, Foofie Lyricism
Yes’s lead singer, Jon Anderson, had a lovely, high-pitched wail that went well with Steve Howe’s brilliant guitar playing, Chris Squire’s complex bass lines, Bill Bruford’s dynamic drumming, and of course the magical keyboards by first Tony Kaye and then even better by Rick Wakeman, he of the flowing blond hippie-Viking hair and sparkling capes; if ever a Rock star looked like a Classical Music virtuoso, and was widely respected like one, it was Wakeman. Wakeman was one of the most talented and accomplished studio musicians of his era and appeared on nearly every great British artist’s record in the late 60s and early 70s, acts like David Bowie, Elton John, Cat Stevens, T Rex, Al Stewart, and even Black Sabbath. When he joined Yes he definitely raised the Classical music credibility of the band. Howe was an accomplished classical guitarist on a wide array of electric and acoustic guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. Meanwhile Anderson, an interesting if not accomplished lead singer, fancied himself some sort of hippie shaman poet, mixing Eastern themes with his own goofy pothead vegan philosophy, trying mightily to affect Yes’s lyrics with profound, meaningful, and spiritual depth. It didn’t always work, but it was certainly less annoying than the thuggishly stupid misogyny of Crotch Rock or the highly overrated junkie chic of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

Rock critics in 1973 lambasted Yes but loved Lou Reed, who basically strummed a guitar badly and mumbled silly nonsense with his droning, dull, monotone voice; when Bowie produced Reed’s most famous album, Transformer, the hardest part of the process was getting the doped-up motherfucker in the studio to record anything, and what made the album any good was due to the brilliance of Bowie and Mick Ronson—in fact mostly due to Ronson—not Reed’s, who was, really, a lazy, dope-addicted moron and extremely creepy. But he was cool in his black leather jacket and mirrored shades, the urban junkie prophet, which to Lester Bangs and all the other booger-eating, dipshit Rock critics of the day, gave Reed street cred as a “real” rocker. When Reed later broke from Bowie and produced his own albums, they were totally unlistenable piles of malodorous shit. Meanwhile, Yes actually tried to make beautiful music with great depth, feeling, and artistry, of course with unparalleled musicianship and audio recording craftsmanship, and for this they were dubbed uncool and mocked relentlessly by the critics.

Perhaps none of the guys in Yes were capable of playing in the New York Philharmonic, but they aspired to such a hoity-toity goal, which was more than you could say about Keith Richards or Eric Clapton, who just wanted to emulate the simple, sharecropper, barely-educated black bluesmen they worshipped. Let’s face it, while Muddy Waters was cool and his music was super cool, I’m also sure he couldn’t quote Shakespeare or discuss Kant’s philosophy. In fact, he couldn’t even conjugate verbs with any degree of expertise, which is understandable for a black American man raised in the pre-Civil Rights extreme poverty of the tragically racist South. Richards and Clapton were more like the Prog Rock musicians than the Delta bluesmen they worshipped, which meant they were all middle class Englishmen with somewhat posh university educations (if only briefly), but at least the Prog Rockers aspired to be erudite and eloquent—even if they came across as pretentious and grandiloquent—intellectuals while Richards and Clapton dumbed down their posh, educated side to be “cool” like their Blues heroes, even down to affecting their hard drug habits.

A typical Yes song had multiple time signature changes and long, highly intricate instrument solos by Howe and Wakeman, plus lovely vocal melodies by Anderson and Squire, moreover, as I stated, the words Anderson sang made little sense, yet sounded fucking beautiful, so it was easy to forgive their whimsically elegant and yet laughably vacuous meaning. It was a lovely, ethereal, otherworldly, mind-blowing sonic experience. Grandiose is a great word to describe its overall effect. Majestic. Inspiring. And, yes, even overwhelming. But it wasn’t mindlessly dumb like a lot of Rock.

I was about ten when I first heard Yes, so their lyrics sounded cool and fascinating to my childish self, but as an adult I chortle when I hear such silly piffle as, “My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love, It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above, I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand.” Like, what the fuck does that mean? I listened to those lines from Close to the Edge hundreds of times and could NEVER quite figure out what Anderson was babbling about. But the music sounded amazing, so who cared? I never could understand what Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was singing on their seminal debut album Murmur, yet it remains one of my favorites of all time. No one knew what the fuck James Brown was babbling on most of his killer grooves, but who cared, they rocked. The same here with Yes’s best work.

Here’s Yes’s epic, 19-minute symphonic piece Close to the Edge, which has four parts:

I – The Solid Time of Change
II – Total Mass Retain
III – I Get Up, I Get Down
IV – Seasons of Man

Yes’s grandiose orchestral sound must have been insanely difficult to record back in those long-ago days on analog tape, and legend has it drummer Bruford quit the band after Close to the Edge because the long, arduous, precise, multi-take and multi-overdubbing recording process nearly drove him mad. But with amplifier and speaker technology starting to get amazing by the early 70s on high-end hi-fidelity systems, it sounded magnificent on a good stereo or quadrophonic system. On good headphones it blows your mind. I cannot tell you how many times I smoked a fuck ton of pot and lost myself with this album, hundreds and hundreds of times just in the 1970s alone. Say what you want about Yes, but their music didn’t get subjected early to the law of diminishing returns over multiple listenings quite like your average Pop song, which started to get boring after hearing it on the radio 10-20 times over the course of a few weeks. It took over two years and hundreds of listenings for Close to the Edge to start boring me. By that time I’d move on to something else anyhow.

Yes – Close to the Edge: Parts I – IV – Close to the Edge (1972)

Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (ELP) – Bombastic Musical Athleticism 
ELP relied on keyboardist Keith Emerson’s almost insanely athletic skills on a vast array of organs, electric pianos and harpsichords, and synthesizers, and meanwhile drummer Carl Palmer and bassist and vocalist Greg Lake played and sung with equal abandon to create a sound of explosive, energetic, and maddeningly complex Rock songs that were enhanced with as much studio wizardry as early 70s analog recording technology could make possible. The band’s musical ambition was both vast and bold but also annoyingly pretentious at the same time, but if there’s one thing a listener can testify about playing an ELP record, it is that it will not be a boring experience.

Here’s ELP’s epic 30-minute song Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery. On my 8-track of the album, each part, or “Impression” of the song as the band called them, was contained on 3 of the 4 2-track stereo runs of the tape, and as the player switched the tape head to each run, you’d hear a visible mechanical click as the tape head shifted back to the beginning and moved to the next 2-track run. Yes, it was weird using this ancient early electronic music content medium, but at least with an 8-track you could pop it into a player and it could, theoretically, keep playing to infinity or until the player lost power or the 8-track’s internal mechanisms broke down. With vinyl records you had to get off your ass and flip them over to play the others side, an annoying act when you’re stoned out of your mind and comfortably situated in bed, on a couch, or in your favorite recliner. If you were lucky enough to afford a reel-to-reel tape deck, and we were a few years later when my brother Mike brought one home from when he was stationed at Okinawa, you could play/record about four hours of music on its 7″ reel before you had to change or rewind the tape.

This is about as close and Rock & Roll ever got to be considered like Classical music, an electronic symphony of multi-dubbed instrument and vocal performances that the band painstakingly recorded in the studio. All three band members were accomplished musicians (as far as any Rock musician can truly be), so this song sounds astonishingly complex, way beyond what most Pop music had ever tried to accomplish, and to a kid like me in 1974 this was magical and highly addictive.

The lyrics tell a dystopian futuristic tale in the brilliant 3rd Impression (beginning at the 20:30 mark of the below video), my favorite part, with verses I memorized through obsessive listening sessions in the winter of ’73-’74, and which, once memorized, I wrote in my journal. Unlike Yes, ELP’s lyrics told stories that made sense, and were, relatively, quite well written pieces of poetry, fraught with strange and dark images of a bleak, freaky, nightmarish world overwhelmed by conquering fascist computers over a mankind that created the, all in a struggle for dominance in a world decimated by nuclear war and famine and environmental destruction, where a blade of grass is a rare thing to behold. Sure, it wasn’t Wordsworth or Byron, but it wasn’t stupid either like your typical mind-numbingly oafish Rock tune. Here are the 3rd Impression’s words:

Man alone, born of stone
Will stamp the dust of time
His hands strike the flame of his soul
Ties a rope to a tree and hangs the Universe
Until the winds of laughter blows cold

Fear that rattles in men’s ears
And rears its hideous head
Dread…Death…in the wind

Man of steel pray and kneel
With fever’s blazing torch
Thrust into the face of the night
Draws a blade of compassion
Kissed by countless Kings
Whose jewelled trumpet words blind his sight

Walls that no man thought would fall
The altars of the just
Crushed…Dust…in the wind

No man yields who flies in my ship
Let the bridge computer speak
Load your program. I am yourself

No computer stands in my way
Only blood can cancel my pain
Guardians of a nuclear dawn
Let the maps of war be drawn

Rejoice! Glory is ours!
Our young men have not died in vain
Their graves need no flowers
The tapes have recorded their names

I am all there is
Negative! Primitive! Limited! I let you live!
But I gave you life
What else could you do?
To do what was right
I’m perfect! Are you?

The hubris and arrogance the band exuded to record this insanely virtuoso performance, let alone perform it live, was a major accomplishment even if you think it’s sonically pretentious and its lyrics excessively grandiloquent. No matter what you think about it artistically or as a Rock & Roll fan, it’s a major achievement in 20th Century recorded music.

ELP – Karn Evil 9: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Impression – Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

Both bands went far beyond the simple confines and formulas of Pop music and definitely expanded the possibilities of where a Rock song could go, both for its betterment and yet  equally to its detriment, as their long solos and excessive and often silly bombast could get tedious after a while, no matter how brilliant the musicianship. Still, to my ten-year-old ears, this music seemed to be coming from outer space as far as I could tell, this weird, magical, and electronically orchestral sonic insanity that pushed recording technology and hi-fidelity stereo playback systems to their extreme limits.

In 1975 I switched my allegiance from Prog Rock to Led Zeppelin after my brother bought Physical Graffiti, and that was the end of my Prog Rock period. Heavy Metal became my obsession for the next few years until Blondie, Talking Heads, The Cars, and The Police stole my heart in 1979. And in the 80s I turned to Punk, Post-Punk, New Wave, Prince (a category all unto himself), Hip-Hop/Rap, and Alternative simply because I grew extremely bored and oversaturated by music from the 70s, or Classic Rock as it’s now dubbed. The Clash became what the early 70s critics wished Lou Reed had really been, but clearly wasn’t. And Joy Division was fucking brilliant. As was The (English) Beat, Prince, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Pixies, Sonic Youth, et al.

Prog Rock took a beating by everyone after about 1977, some of it justified as the bands grew unbearably bloated and grotesque by their excessive pretension and self-adoration, but much of their early work was some of the best music ever recorded by Rock & Roll artists. The brilliance, artistry, and dazzling musicianship was breathtaking and highly original. Let’s not forget that Prog Rock had some of the highest highs of what music could become through deft playing, modern electronics, and sophisticated recording technology. The biggest bands sold millions of records in the early 70s, moreover they sold a buttload of tickets to their shows all over the world. So let’s give them some goddamn credit for being great and well loved by millions of fans.

Much of the ex post facto negative piling on by the hateful Prog Rock sneermeisters is just snotty and self-loving arrogant assholes trying to raise up their own “street” cred, like, look how cool I am, dude. Hipsters gush over Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, yet neither in their heyday sold many records; were they that good? Hardly. The Ramones were cool, but they couldn’t play more than three chords, and while I adored Joe Strummer, the man could barely play guitar. Say what you want about Keith Emerson, Steve Howe, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, Carl Palmer, or Chris Squire, but they were amazing musicians who raised the level of how great Rock & Roll could sound if played by skilled craftsmen like these gentlemen. Maybe they took it too far sometimes, but most of what they recorded was great shit. Inspiring. Epic. Memorable. Grand.

I was never too cool that I couldn’t admit I once fucking loved Progressive Rock with an almost unhealthy obsession. Prog Rock records, along with the books I read while listening to them, helped shape a good deal of my young intellect. And for that I am eternally grateful. Mostly I am unashamed to heartily admit this fact with every fiber of my being: Prog Rock was brilliant.

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