Pretentious rock on a grand scale

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

There is many a book that has been cooked up over a liquid lunch, but rarely has one been so obviously ill-conceived as The Show That Never Ends, which comes complete with hyperbolic blurb from the esteemed novelist Michael Chabon. Yet what David Weigel provides is a masterclass in how not to write non-fiction. To paraphrase The Producers, having picked the wrong writer, the wrong editor, the wrong researcher, where did the publishers go right?

The answer, sadly, is nowhere. I say sadly, because for some time there has been an abiding need for a good history of rock’s most reviled ‘aberration’: Prog (short for Pretentious Rock On a Grand scale).

It is almost impossible to stop oneself being offended by this book, whether one’s a Prog purist, a Prog denier or simply a rock historian. (For the record, I am all three.) It is ironic that the underlying problem with the book is conceptual, given that the concept album and Prog were, for a period in the 1970s, almost synonymous. Yet a potted history of the concept album is as beyond Weigel as is all context.

ELP, Yes and Van der Graaf Generator — all of whom receive disproportionate space here — emerge out of a vacuum. As do Jethro Tull, Genesis and King Crimson, whose body of work could carry the contextual weight.

Despite its subtitle, this book charts neither the rise nor the fall of Prog. Barely mentioning Sgt Pepper and the psychedelic origins of Prog, Weigel’s starting points are ELP’s eponymous 1970 debut and the 1969 formation of Yes, neither of which has any bearing on the birth of Prog two years earlier.

As for the fall — as sudden and abrupt as the demise of the dinosaurs (one EMI single by the Sex Pistols is all it took) — in Weigel’s transatlantic universe, there isn’t one. The story meanders into the 1980s, unlike any original incarnation of Prog’s progenitors.

I must admit, I feared the worst before I dug in. As a fully paid-up member of Rock Critics Anonymous, how could I not take umbrage when I saw the author was a political correspondent for the Washington Post? Who he, Jimmy?

The index set off further alarm bells. It includes copious citations for Styx, Kansas, Rush, Todd Rundgren and The Roches (!) — all of whom stand apart from any credible geographic or chronological reference point for Prog. Omitted entirely are any references to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Family, Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Can, Faust, Amon Dull, Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk.

And I can spare any fans of German Prog a trip to Waterstones. Here is the one sentence Weigel devotes to all the many bands from the second home of Prog:

The British press embraced, and unfortunately named, the ‘Krautrock’ movement of German bands that were more experimental and less wedded to old European song structures.

In this tome, Can get canned and Faust can go to the devil.

For those unaware that the Canadian blues-rock band Rush decided to become Prog only as its father form was gasping its last, one quotation Weigel cites does rather give the game away. It comes from Rush singer Geddy Lee:

As our tastes got more obscure, we discovered more progressive rock-based bands like Yes, Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson… They made us want to make our music more interesting and more complex.

In other words, these colonials’ change of tack comes after the fact. Whatever space a discussion of Rush’s opportunistic latterday reclamation of the name warrants, it should surely not come at the expense of the actual originators of Prog.

If one band is a constant thread in the one true Prog story, it is Pink Floyd. They certainly can’t have been largely overlooked by Weigel because of their obscurity, being the most acclaimed of all Prog bands, then and now. Writing Pink Floyd out of The Show That Never Ends is a bit like writing Jesus out of the New

Yet the first — and almost the last — mention of Floyd by Weigel comes on page 117, with the release of The Dark Side of the Moon. Their origins in psychedelia; their struggle to carve an original path after the departure of their founder/leader, the star-crossed Syd Barrett; hell, the release of chart-topping albums such as Atom Heart Mother and Meddle — both more revered than the entire ELP canon — warrant nary a mention.

Yet Weigel spends five pages describing the sessions for In The Wake of Poseidon, King Crimson’s lousy second album, a resounding flop from which it would take Robert Fripp and co. three years to recover. Why does it receive such largesse when Starless and Bible Black and Red — two bona fide classics Fripp, Wetton and Bruford crafted in 1973–74 — are not even accorded footnote status? I suspect because Crim’s second singer, Gordon Haskell, is one of a handful of figures from the Prog era Weigel has actually interviewed for his wafer-thin dissertation.

Most of the time he is content to surf Rock’s Backpages, a one-stop online cuttings service, and call it research. His acknowledgments do not include even a mention for Melody Maker, the English weekly whose decline and fall as the music paper of record almost exactly parallels that of Prog, to which it tied its mast from Genesis to disintegration.

All told, The Show That Never Ends reminds me of the student who spent weeks revising Louis XIV’s religious policies for his finals, only to discover to his horror that the paper was on French foreign policy. Undaunted, he began his essay: ‘In order to fully understand Louis XIV’s foreign policies, one need look at his religious policies…’ Weigel is that student, constantly answering questions no one has asked until we finally arrive at Styx, and a Cruise To The Edge of irrelevance.

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