Thursday, October 27, 2016

Thinking too much

Been reading a pile of books on music, progressive rock, etc., most of which have been disappointing in some way.
During that Portland trip back in August, picked up three of 33-1/3rd's series about classic albums -- on the Beach Boys' PET SOUNDS and SMILE, and on Van Dyke Parks's SONG CYCLE. I figured maybe the three could shed some light on each other.
Well, not really. Didn't learn much new from Luis Sanchez's SMILE or from Jim Fusilli's PET SOUNDS, though Fusilli maybe made me appreciate a few little touches on PET SOUNDS a little more. Sanchez's book unfortunately came out before the SMILE SESSIONS box-set. I'm sure he could have written a better, stronger book with that box in hand. But this is all pretty well-covered ground.
Did learn a few things from Richard Henderson's SONG CYCLE. I remember the Van Dyke Parks album as being so insubstantial it barely seemed to exist even while it was playing on the turntable. But that was a long time ago, and I might feel differently if I stumbled over a copy today.
I do know that it was too arty to be rock and roll. And that was back when I thought I was open-minded. While I'm still open to musical experiments today, they'd better have a point and a goal -- and I lean much more toward a catchy tune with a memorable chorus. I barely have the attention span to sit through a 20-minute experimental opus today.
Did learn more about Parks's subsequent career, and those of the folks around him who helped make his first album happen. And it's always good to reread the stories about Stan Cornyn's hilarious print ads for Warner Brothers albums back in the day -- about how the WB spent $35,000 on Parks's album ... and only about 200 people heard it.
But overall, 33-1/3rd's series seems kind of thin. I always want MORE. The books should be longer, more detailed, something. The books seem better when the best sections are featured in 33-1/3rd's GREATEST HITS volumes.

Ah, progressive rock. After YES IS THE ANSWER and PROG ROCK FAQ, I couldn't stop myself. Went ahead and ordered Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell's BEYOND AND BEFORE (2011) and Stephen Lambe's CITIZENS OF HOPE AND GLORY (2013), both of which try to be prog-rock histories. Maybe should have stopped.
Hegarty and Halliwell's book is scholarly and distanced -- they are more likely to tell you about the cultural and social impacts of prog rather than whether the music is any good. I'm not sure that I WANT to know that Yes's "Yours is No Disgrace" is a protest against the Vietnam War. (How could they tell?) But there is a nice long section on Kate Bush and other prog-rock women singers and songwriters.
This book will take a heckuva lot more heavy reading before I can come to a final judgement about it. Enjoyable, but....
CITIZENS OF HOPE AND GLORY is more down-to-earth -- even though Lambe thanks Jerry Lucky of THE PROGRESSIVE ROCK FILES and Charles Snider of THE STRAWBERRY BRICKS GUIDE TO PROGRESSIVE ROCK, two of the weaker prog books out there, for their research in getting him started.
Lambe charts prog's course through a bunch of notable albums -- some of which he doesn't even like, some of which aren't even a band's best work. And a bunch more albums are noted in passing. There's a section on how and why prog fell out of fashion, a section on neo-prog, prog-related artists (Roger Dean, etc.), prog-associated instruments (the Mellotron, etc.), and a coda on prog's rebound today.
I don't buy Lambe's assertion that prog peaked in 1971 -- too much good work came after that -- but I like that his definition of progressive rock is wider-open than some, and I enjoy his capsule album-reviews and wish there had been more of them.
Though this one will also take more in-depth reading, of these two books a knowledgeable prog fan should start here.
My own book on progressive rock may get finished one of these years real soon now -- but I keep thinking I haven't quite heard ENOUGH to be a real authority yet....

No disappointment here: Alan Reder and John Baxter's LISTEN TO THIS! (1999) (great title, I was gonna use it myself) interviews more than 100 rock, blues and R&B performers from Gregg Allman to Robert Wyatt and gets a list of their all-time favorite songs and albums, plus their picks of the best of their own work. This is a lotta fun and you'll be surprised at some artists' faves. Hours of browsing here. A good book to wake up with.

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....