Vol. 1, Issue #7 April 28th - May 11th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Progressive Rock: Barbarians Battle Through Space

Growing up during the progressive rock era always reminded me of a scene out of the sci-fi animated film “Heavy Metal.” Richard Corben’s character, Den (voiced by the late John Candy,) is a 98-pound teenage geek who gets pulled through a vortex into a world where he has a He-man body and battles animal-headed, machine gun totting warriors against a backdrop that mixes ancient Rome and the dark ages with the promise of heroic and scantily clad sex. While earlier generations came of age to Little Richard or The Motown Sound, my age group first understood the world through album long symphonies. Of course, the last thing you needed running through your head when approaching a young lady during puberty was Rick Wakeman’s “Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table,” complete with orchestra and chorus.

While the two terms were interchangeable, “Progressive Rock” was usually applied to Americans, who could get downright poppy in the middle of an epic LP, like Todd Rundgren or Steely Dan, while “Art Rock” tended to be saved for our European heroes. If the band was really obscure and indecipherable, like Hawkwind, Tangerine Dream, or even pre-“Dark Side of The Moon” Floyd, it was called “Space Rock.”

Regardless of which name you use, it was really just another line of the blues that Mr. Berry started in the fifties. The proper beginning came, as many things do, from The Beatles, specifically from their baroque psychedelic years that gave us “Sgt. Pepper…” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” Most see King Crimson’s 1969 debut album, “In The Court of the Crimson King,” as the first true “Art Rock” album, but after that point, it really gets blurry as to who was psychedelic and who was progressive. The term even crossed over with Glam, such as in the case of David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Roxy Music.

As psychedelic became old hat at the end of the sixties everything started being marketed as progressive, thus you have the strange journey of English musicians who heard The Yardbirds and wanted to play the blues, dropped acid and formed a psychedelic group, only to be marketed art rock once their album was finally released, as in the case of Yes. Lyrical rafts floating down the Mississippi were traded in for starship trooper helmets, and the folkie wisdom of the blues received a philosophical makeover by Nietzsche. The search for a good woman turned into a search for the Holy Grail and whatever lies beyond the infinite.

The major difference I’ve always seen in comparing psychedelic rock to art rock is that psychedelia could still have street credibility in a three minute song, like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which is backed by 3/4th of what would become Led Zeppelin, while to be art rock you had to carry on for five minutes at a minimum, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

As a child I was always fascinated at how fast culture changed before my eyes; you could hear it in the music too, as everything transformed from three-minute Beatle gems, like “P.S. I Love You” to the epic suite on side two of “Abbey Road.”

Art rock came in at this over-sophisticated, if not outright decadent, point in rock music, but it is interesting to note how barbarism was a common theme in so much of it. Recalling the famous Oscar Wilde quote about American, rock did go from barbarism to decadence without hitting culture in between. The vein and muscle popping heroic-realism of Frank Frazetta’s art work on book and magazine covers fueled the lyrics of Triumvirat’s gladiatorial concept album “Spartacus,” Hawkwind’s charge into the beyond in “Space Ritual,” and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s (ELP) “Brain Salad Surgery,” which opened with a rousting version of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and ends with the computer taking over the pirate starship (and note: “spaceship” was too fifties a term for the first Star Trek generation).

Like all marketing, the concept soon got out of hand. The artwork on the album covers started to define the music. The influence of Roger Dean’s album covers for Yes went from mind blowing to inane by the time his images were pirated by lesser artists for the covers of Boston and Kansas. And both of those bands were a part of the proletarian rock movement, along with Styx and Journey, that took progressive images (in both their album cover art and their lyrics) and went on to become heroes to shirtless rednecks throughout the world. At that point even a wildcatter could get high and stare at a Roger Dean poster for an hour, and still respect himself in the morning. And can anyone tell me why Boston’s logo is on a starship with the city of Boston encased in its bubble?

Progressive rock never really died, as decadence is something that music just has to go through from time to time. The dying shriek of progressive proper was Asia in the 1980s, not only because they were a band made up of former members of Yes, King Crimson, and ELP (Palmer actually), but also because Roger Dean was brought back in to do the cover. In the years since we’ve even witnessed progressive’s influence on alternative music, in the case of The Smashing Pumpkin’s “Tonight, Tonight,” Bush’s “Glycerine,” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

Is Philip Glass really contemporary classical music, or is it just progressive rock dressed up in tuxedo?

There is still a contemporary progressive movement, with bands such as Porcupine Tree, Mogwai, and The Flower Kings, and earth shattering progressive music still raises it’s head from time to time, like Sigur Ros’s “Staralfur” from Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” However when you look for seventies influence among the contemporary keepers of the flame, you are more likely to hear the trademark drones of Eno rather than the manly keyboards of Nektar or The Alan Parsons Project.

I love all of the groups mentioned in this article, even Journey on occasion (Hey! You NEED a copy of “Any Way You Want It” just in case you find yourself on a golf course) and I keep up with the contemporary side, but sometimes I feel cheated. I miss the elves and barbarians battling over their gods in outer space. Where is that big assed, topless Frazetta girl promised to me in my dreams?

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.