Saturday, October 1, 2016

Two prog-rock keepers

Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell's YES IS THE ANSWER (AND OTHER PROG ROCK TALES) (2013) is a collection of 20 essays, mostly hilarious, mostly about classic progressive-rock acts and why we still love them so much. Or not.
Not all the essays are great, and some of them are only distantly connected to prog-rock. But the spirit of the book -- the deep affection that most of the contributors have for prog -- make it hard to stop reading in one big gulp. It's awfully tough to put down. I laughed all the way through it, and if you're a prog fan, you'll probably love it too. Even if you still keep your weakness for prog locked in the closet.
FAVORITE PARTS -- Novelist Rick Moody is hilarious from the first sentence while trying to defend the MANY ego-driven excesses of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. At the same time, he shows why those same excesses made ELP ... pretty great. For awhile. Rock critic Jim DeRogatis contributes a long, affectionate remembrance of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Wesley Stace is hilarious about prog's biggest weakness -- its silly lyrics -- and also shows why some of those lyrics are pretty marvelous. Joe Meno writes about why he STILL can't listen to Rush while driving -- because he was involved in two life-altering car wrecks while Rush songs were playing on the radio. (This essay is funny too, believe it or not.) Jeff Gordinier talks about how seeing a Styx concert converted him overnight from prog to punk. (Which seems a perfectly legitimate response, to me.)
There are several essays about Genesis -- one made me consider again why I had problems with Peter Gabriel's gravelly, guttural voice back in the day, something that's always been a blank spot for me. Several writers also talk about Rush -- how geeky they are, how there seem to be NO WOMEN in their universe, and yet we love them still. At least sometimes.
Many other bands and genres are also discussed -- Be-Bop Deluxe, King Crimson, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North, Caravan, Robert Wyatt, the Canterbury scene, Focus, Pink Floyd, Steve Howe, Peter Banks, The Nice, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, the Incredible String Band, Henry Cow, Magma, and lots more.
The least successful essays are those that are farthest removed from prog. I admit I didn't finish all the essays. But I got a lot of enjoyment out of YES IS THE ANSWER. And it was especially nice to read a bunch of writers whose hearts were in The Right Place about this stuff. They know that some of the things that make prog embarrassing are also some of the reasons why we fans love it so much and hate to see it abused. That's pretty uncommon to find in writing about this genre.

Will Romano's PROG ROCK FAQ (2014) doesn't include everything else you'd ever want to know about prog after you've tackled DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY. I think much of FAQ reads like a sequel to Romano's prog-rock history from a few years back, MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY. And that's a good thing.
There are chapters on early prog-rock pioneers I guarantee you've never heard of, and some later chapters that read like they were dropped from MOUNTAINS. (There was a rumor that at least one chapter dropped from the earlier book was about Van der Graaf Generator, left out because they were just a little too obscure. There's a long interview with their great saxophonist David Jackson that talks about WHY VdGG were never much more than a cult act.)
FAVORITE PARTS -- There are long looks at prog-rock "epics" (THE LAMB, DARK SIDE, "Echoes," TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS, RELAYER, THE WALL, etc.), concept albums that really aren't (AQUALUNG, THICK AS A BRICK, etc.), interviews with prog-rock designers and artists (album-cover art was a key part of the package), a long history of Happy the Man (one of the great overlooked prog acts, their CRAFTY HANDS still sounds great), why prog went out of style, prog's intense bashing from critics (Romano missed some great putdowns, and even critic Lester Bangs sorta liked ELP), and much much more. Hey, there's even a chapter on Asia in here. But not Styx.
I'd be thrilled to read a whole lot more of this kind of stuff....

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