Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful.
“We are the most uncool people in Miami.” So begins, promisingly enough, David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Weigel, along with 3,000 fellow Yes-heads, Rush-oids, Tull freaks, and votaries of King Crimson—cultural underdogs all, twitching and grimacing with revenge-of-the-nerds excitement—is at the port of Miami, about to embark on a five-day progressive-rock-themed cruise: a floating orgy of some of the most despised music ever produced by long-haired white men.
Do you like prog rock, the extravagantly conceptual and wildly technical post-psychedelic subgenre that ruled the world for about 30 seconds in the early 1970s before being torn to pieces by the starving street dogs of punk rock? Do you like the proggers, with their terrible pampered proficiency, their priestly robes, and their air—once they get behind their instruments—of an inverted, almost abscessed Englishness? I don’t. At least, I think I don’t. I like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is a kind of wonderful satirical compression of prog rock, a fast-forward operetta with goofy existentialist trappings and a heavy-metal blowout in the middle; I like the bit of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that became the theme music for The Exorcist. And there are contemporary bands I adore that have been grazed by prog: the moody, alchemical Tool, the obtuse and crushing Meshuggah. But for naked prog, the thing itself, I seem to lack the mettle. The trapped, eunuch ferocity of Geddy Lee’s voice, squealing inside the nonsense clockwork of Rush, disturbs me. And Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans is an experience to me unintelligible and close to unbearable, like being read aloud a lengthy passage of prose with no verbs in it.