Saturday, December 10, 2016

Prog-rock histories and guides

While I put off finishing my own guide to Strange Music (and wonder if I was put here to compile an oral history of progressive rock before some other '70s prog-rocker dies), here's a look at all the prog-rock histories and guides out there that I've had a chance to read. Let the buyer beware....
* Will Romano: MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY. The place to start. Beautifully produced, graphically flashy, well-organized, solid history of prog, with interviews of some of the genre's outstanding talents. Not everything in the book is prog (some British folk-rock acts), Romano doesn't always focus on an artist's best work, and a few errors slip in at the very end of the book, but overall a pretty superb job. I have problems with Romano's "Top 300" prog albums, but most of his opinions are very sensible.
* Mark Powell: PROPHETS AND SAGES. Powell takes a detailed look at nearly 150 prog albums, many of which I guarantee you've never heard of. Many misspellings and typos (I volunteer to proofread his next book), but I learned a LOT, and the behind-the-scenes stories of bands and studio adventures are priceless. A treasure-house of facts.
* Will Romano: PROG ROCK FAQ. Sort of a sequel to MOUNTAINS, with a few off-the-map artists, interviews with more musicians, in-depth looks at prog's concept albums and long compositions, and much more. There's plenty of room for more solid work like this.
+ Stephen Lambe: CITIZENS OF HOPE AND GLORY. Solid, detailed, down-to-earth history all the way up to the current Internet-based revival of prog. Lambe goes year-by-year surveying prog releases and hits most of the major titles -- though he doesn't always review in-depth a band's best work, and sometimes includes albums for their "historical significance" even if he doesn't think they're that great. An OK overview -- if you can't afford MOUNTAINS or PROPHETS, this is a solid place to start.
+ Paul Stump: THE MUSIC'S ALL THAT MATTERS. Possibly the first prog-rock history book, this is pretty solid and good-natured for as far as it goes (through the late '80s), but it could really use an update. Stump focuses entirely on British and European acts, but includes close-up looks at folks like Brian Eno and Van der Graaf Generator's Peter Hammill. Stump's gone on to write books on Gentle Giant and Roxy Music -- wonder if he's considered updating and expanding this...?
+ Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell: BEYOND AND BEFORE: PROGRESSIVE ROCK SINCE THE 1960's. Deep-think prog history by two British scholars. Looks at historical and social forces and their impact on prog's ups and downs. Lots of info on more recent acts and their albums, plus long sections on the works of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Good stuff here, but sometimes pretty heavy reading.
= Edward Macan: ROCKING THE CLASSICS. OK but dry recounting of the prog-rock era and some of its acts. Macan is a musicologist and takes apart some of prog's epics to see how they work ("Close to the Edge," "Tarkus," etc). Not bad, but heavy going on the technical details.
= Charles Snider: THE STRAWBERRY BRICKS GUIDE TO PROGRESSIVE ROCK. Snider reviews more than 100 prog albums in a "timeline" format from SGT. PEPPER to THE WALL. I think his timeline could have gone on a couple years longer. He has sentence-structure and punctuation problems, and sometimes mangles musicians' names and album titles. This makes me doubt his info when he mentions bands and albums I've never heard of. Discography mentions even more album-titles and artists, sometimes with more errors. Could have used a proofreader.
- Jerry Lucky: THE PROGRESSIVE ROCK FILES. Oh no. I read an early version of this and was so disgusted I've never bothered with Lucky's later updates. Lucky needed a proofreader badly -- he gets names, dates and titles wrong. There are MASSIVE misspellings, punctuation and sentence-structure mistakes that make the book a huge chore to read. TONS of opinions disguised as facts in a massively opinionated year-by-year recap. And Lucky spends way too much time defining prog and defending it from critics. BUT the whole last half of the book is a LONG list of prog artists and their albums, and Lucky includes dozens of acts I'd never heard of. This discography might be worth the price of the book.
- Joe Benson: UNCLE JOE'S GUIDE TO PROGRESSIVE ROCK. Uncle Joe thinks he knows a few things about prog because he's read the backs of a few album covers. But he didn't read far enough. This thin book covers the prog stars -- Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, ELP, Moodies, etc. -- but the information's available elsewhere, the discographies are paper-thin and the mistakes are huge. Don't bother.
AND: Amazon lists at least three expensive new prog-rock histories or overviews, at least one of which appears to be little more than a printout of Wikipedia web-pages about prog. Watch out....

ADDED 8 Jan 2017 -- Hey, I forgot about Jim DeRogatis's KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, a history and guide to psychedelic music. But DeRogatis isn't much of a progressive-rock fan -- at the end of his section on Prog, he says he considers most of it to have been "a bad trip." And it's a pretty spotty history from a rock critic who knows as much as DeRogatis does. Not heavily recommended. (Much later -- in the prog-rock essay collection YES IS THE ANSWER -- I learned DeRogatis is a closet Genesis fan. Strange....)

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