Right, so first off the bat I’m going to deal with one potential criticism that I clairvoyantly anticipate coming my way: yes, Rick Wakeman is a tool. I know it, you know it, and deep down, I’d like to think that he knows it. Obviously Steve Howe was a genius, and the rest of the members of Yes were incredibly talented; but let’s be honest, their best album was The Yes Album, and that was their last pre-Wakeman outing. Your honour, I rest my case.
With that out of the way, we can move on to business. At the root of the problem as I see it is basically dogma surrounding the term ‘progressive’, as in ‘progressive rock’. At the time it was no slur- a by-word to describe those groups not moving within traditional pop structures, experimenting with textures, effects and time signatures, to me that’s the very essence of what is exciting about the creation of music. However, post-Wakeman, shall we say, people began drawing a line under the hallowed canon of mainstream-accepted Floyd, and discarding all that they saw as ‘pretentious’. It’s usually lazily attributed to the rise of Punk, but I’d say it’s more to do with the fact that the later crop of ‘progressive’ musicians were up their own arses. Phil Collins (and sorry to bang on about him, but seriously) Rick Wakeman epitomise this for me.
I’m prepared to let off Peter Gabriel purely because he was such a great musician, and because ‘Solsbury Hill’ is one of my all-time top records (as they say in High Fidelity)- but I strongly suspect that he, like my other super-leftfield prog hero Mike Oldfield, was, as I delicately put it earlier, up his own arse.
Prog never really recovered from this mainstream perception, at least for those under a certain age. It’s been a dirty word for many since the late 1970s. But ‘progressive’ rock did not die. It evolved. At the end of the 1980s, a young man was releasing bizarre, structureless psychedelic rock pieces on underground labels in the UK, supposedly by a mythical, lost ‘70s prog band. His name was Steven Wilson, and the band was called Porcupine Tree. The music, such as it was, largely consisted of home demos, but over the course of ten years he gradually accumulated musicians to make his ideas a reality. By the end of the decade, they released Signify, a turning point in their career. Progressive rock was back.
Except that it didn’t need to be revitalised by its parent scene anymore, for something rather more remarkable had happened. A cult British band, growing for sometime in stature on the basis of two well-laid out, accessible grunge records suddenly emerged from a lengthy recording process with a new record. The record was called Ok Computer, and it changed everything. Here was the record where every major trend in guitar music from post-rock to shoegaze to no-wave to prog to grunge to britpop met; sometimes it wasn’t coherent- not all of the tracks were universally adored by fans- but it represented the first mainstream success for a ‘progressive rock’ record for a young band in nearly twenty years.
As Dr. McCoy would no doubt have pointed out- “it’s Prog, Jim, but not as we know it!”- indeed so. Though Radiohead have always refuted links to prog rock, it is undeniably of the genre, at least in its purest, original meaning. The proof: is it progressive (i.e. does it intend to drive music to a new place)? Yes. Is it rock? Listen to ‘Paranoid Android’ and tell me it’s not.
After this, Radiohead lost their nerve in the face of success, and have moved on to create other, challenging sounds, but if anything are now more Krautrock than prog most of the time, but that’s ok, because Neu! and the others’ influence was soon to be felt elsewhere as well.
At the turn of the 2000s, the modern progressive scene really re-emerged. The Pineapple Thief formed (though they would experience little success for many years); Oceansize began to write songs such as the first iteration of ‘Heaven Alive’ (that would end up on their sophomore Everyone Into Position, five years later); Amplifier were taking last-album Soundgarden and marrying it to space rock, all within a Rush-esque power trio. Elsewhere, Devon lads Muse had finally put out their debut, Showbiz, an album heavily indebted to Rage Against the Machine and Radiohead’s The Bends, but which showed an inkling of the genius which was to come on its successor. In Aldershot in the South, The Cooper Temple Clause and Vex Red were marrying the industrial approach of Nine Inch Nails and electronica of Squarepusher and Massive Attack with Nirvana and post-grunge bands such as Silverchair. Let’s not forget that across the pond, Tool were about to celebrate their tenth anniversary, and the krautrock-inspired garage prog monster that was The Secret Machines emerged on the New York scene.
Final thought: whilst I’m aware that Picasso said that “if you imitate nothing, you create nothing”, and that it’s basically impossible to be original, you can still try your best to take of your surroundings and make something more. That’s what unites these bands, and without them, my life would be a whole lot duller.
That’s why I say three cheers for progressive rock! Hip, hip, hoo- …oh. Just me then.