The Abadonment of Prog Rock: An American Mea Culpa

My personal ties with classic rock began in my early childhood (I’m talking five years old) when my brother and I would sit around our own our bedroom and hover over cheap turntable-the kind that had a built in speaker-listening to our parents’ LPs. That they let us play with the adult records was a miracle of parenting. Without scolding or prohibiting us from potentially scratching those sacred vinyl disks, we both learned about art and what it means to consume it. I was allowed to form my own opinions and taste, just as James was. More parents should do the same for their children.

And boy did me and my brother devour those albums. I remember my favorite album was Kilroy Was Here by the radio friendly prog rock band Styx. Looking back, I can see how music critics called it a failure of concept and cohesion,, but honest to god, as I write this I’m listening to the second track Cold War and am pumping my fist (I’m also am walking around my neighborhood looking an autistic man typing away on his phone). No question, it is cheesy but I think it works because of its stilted and mechanic sound–which, surprise is a reflection of the concept-critics can be so wrong at times–and an earnest product of the synth revolution of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

But this was my childhood, and I swear by my taste in music, was a sign of a developed ear. You may think I’m arrogant to say that but I shit you not, I taught myself how to play drums and the  guitar solely by watching YouTube. I even flirted with composing (thanks to pirating the Finale software) until I realized it takes years to develop that skill and is near impossible without access to orchestra’s or ability to play the piano, though I did develop enough with that beast of an instrument to be able to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Which will shock you when I make the argument that everyone has a developed sense of music, no matter how well you can identify the notes of a melody nor the chords of a punk riff. Which by the way, I simply can’t do.

I know this because 30 years later I can see how my brother and my own taste in music went separate ways, turned back around, then ran along parallel path, only for both to take an opposing corner turns when we had it the end of that road.

Whereas Styx was my spark of discovery, my brother James became hooked by the ’80s synth band Naked Eyes. Their self titled album was what might be a true gem of ’80s pop aesthetic, no surprise considering the group had originated with the guys from Tears for Fears. If you’t familiar with the former, just google their ecstatic cover of [look up artitst, which if you’re my age might remember from playing during a fast food commercial.

It’s almost interesting in how I would go on to hate ’80s synth pop in my mid 20s, along with progressive rock. I didn’t even know my former favorite band Styx was considered progressive (and honestly really were more pop rock) until I saw a live performance on TV last year and was shocked by how lead guitarist Tommy Shaw absolutely tore that guitar apart with his breakneck Jimi Hendrix on speed solos. What dumbfounded me was the sound of what I can only dub the prog Rock sound, a mix of mild reverb on the effects pedal and a signature gain level that makes it sound clean but with a bite to it. Kind of like 79s porn music. What grates me about this distinguished sound is hit it seems at odd at what I would argue is classical inspired music being played on an a contradicting electric six string that sounds like blasphemy.  

Classical to me is meant to be clean and devoid of heavy effects, save for a very slight reverb and possible delay–that or by going full on death metal and drumming up the fury of the defiant brass section of a symphony orchestra. If nuance is what is needed, death metal is antithesis to that notion. So few go for subtlety over bravery, to the point that only two I can think of are my personal favorites Gojira, or duck it, alt-metal group Tool.

For the longest time that sound is what made me want to gag when I heard prog rock. It all makes sense why I started to hate Styx after eighth grade and finally was allowed to watch MTV (my mom lets me listen to Styx but I can’t watch Nirvana–bless her confused soul). Alt rock from the period of ’91 to early ’00 became my person biased favorite. It has no desire at being aggressive thereby causing it to become the last rock genre to be classified as radio pop, a very weird thing to write when Lady Gaga has disco to its rightly earned place in music.

There’s genuine ethos and, post-Nirvana, undeniable melancholy. The anthem of this movement was YEAR “Sex and Candy” by ARTIST, who sounds like an in un-ironic Beck on his anti-folk magnus opus One Foot on the Grave (which I would argue is most paradoxically honest album). He’s bored and tragically sounds like a very tempered Kurt Cobain. It just works despite its effort not to be a big deal, which meant it was played endless on VH1 (the music channel I was allowed to watch which kind of explains my love of this boredom inducing expression of hanging out–I swear I belong to the Generation X, which the more I think about it might be the last age group to actually be rightfully classified ad one). All of this is to say it’s been a slow death since of the last vestiges of classic rock, starting with Elvis, followed by Beatles, carried through by punk rock, then grunge, to alt-rock of the ’90s. And if you listen to what is played on the alt-rock radio stations to today, you hear what resembles full on pop music, to the point where we rarely hear guitars on the alt-rock radio station anymore. This was Cobain’s legacy to the furthest it could stretch, unless you have the balls to think Nickelback is a revival. No, imitators like Bush and Seether were just crude Xerox copies of what was the texture of Nirvana’s hits.

And just as popular as Nirvana was on MTV, alt-rock achieved fame through endless play on the music channel. Seemingly enough, this popularity would somehow be expressed by the mega-popular show Friend. Honest to god, that eye groan inducing piece of pop literature was a fucking sign of hope but that we could be pop artists and have friends. Forever breaking up and getting back together, Ross and Rachel might be the most unhealthiest relationship I’ve seen end in a marriage.

Funny thing though. As I became a increasingly interested in films during my early teens, thanks Martin Scorsese, James would become an absolute devourer of music, to the point where you can ask him about an album and he can tell you just what year it was released, what position it charted at, and all the band members that played on it. Just like my own stated talents, my brother had developed his own.

Later on, I was the one studying to be a nurse, but because of an onset bipolar disorder, prematurely had to drop out of a competitive grad program. James wound up getting married a year out of high school and got a job working in soap factory for eight years. He would later go on to work as a medical professional. Just like our tastes in music, our lives formed a tracing of being veins on a tree leaf, seemingly predictable and not all the same time.

Life has a way of leaving you to blow in the wind, and where you land, you absolutely must make the most of your time there. Find a friend, write a song, Blake homemade videos on a cell phone, just do something instead of watching TV and becoming a lazy American. And you know what, if where you is hellish, fight back, and if it’s bad enough, put your life in god’s hand fall on the bayonet if you must. Just don’t give up.

Which goes back to my own point: even our tastes spin in spiral paths like the twists of a sourdough pretzel. And it would be James who would bring me back to prog rock when I asked for some recommendations of artists for something new to listen to. I was a little hesitant when he recommended the album I, Robot by the über intellectual prog rock band The Alan Parsons Project. But just as my parents let us both peruse through their record collection, I took up his suggestion.  And truthfully, it really clicked with me. I immediately asked for another album by them.

Let me tell you, if you’re seriously interested interested in Parsons Project and have a pop oriented taste I highly recommend listening through the two albums I listened to, starting with The Eye in the Sky and concluding with straight prog rock masterpiece that I, Robot.

It’s funny, no matter how hardcore, blues sounding, or progressive a talented band is, they will always end up making a pop album with a single that will actually chart on Billboard magazine (off my head I can name these bands who have done so; Fleetwood Mac, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even the punk pop duet Tegan and Sara).

I mention this because The Eye in the Sky is a complete 180 from I, Robot, Whereas the former is staple of the prog rock genre, what with numerous instrumentals and lack of melodic driving radio friendly hits, the latter is straight on pop album with only textures of prog. It’s extremely radio friendly and is the one to satisfy modern ears who were raised in Britney Spears. By following their de-evolution, you will have come full circle to what was coincidentally for the spark of 80s synth which then inspired all the Tegan and Sara’s, Taylor Swift’s, Carley Rae Jepsen’s, and Robyns of our generation who all have openly embraced that genre.

Which brings us back to prog Rock. Despite those damn grinding overkill of guitar solos, those bass were the first genre to make the synthesizer an acceptable weapon in intellectual’s arsenal. Without it Pink Floyd would never experiment funky avant gard and conceptual albums, nor would Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who I’m still hesitant to enjoy, be able to impress avid intellectuals.

You see where this is going? Everything can be traced back to something else, like rock to blues and country. I get so irritated when death metal musicians claim their music has nothing to do with the blues. Just follow the influences. Death metal–Metallica-Ac Dc–Cream–BB King–Robert Johnson. Those giants are damn shoulders you step on, and you come off as ignorant as deny their presence.

But back to the synthesizer. While it was prog rock that made it a staple of their sonic explorations, it was the Beatles who first introduced listeners the Moog synthesizer on the messy but listenable  album Abbey Road.

Interesting enough, the Beatles themselves started out as a lovey-dovey pop band, much like boy bands in the ’90s, with their innocent imploring of wanting to hold a girl’s hand.. And you want to know something that I read on Reddit? The Beatles pulled a reversal of career arc of the wildly different The Red Hot Chili Pepper. The punk ran metal bro’s that were named after a joke started out as freewheelin’ punk and metal ockers, morphed into soulful harmonizing beach boys pop band, to a radio friendly dance pop group. Even more funny, they released their own white album with the second and last masterpiece Stadium Arcadium.

Flipping this around, the Beatles started out as pop rock band towards a soulful earnest and soul expressing sound to finally a freewheelin’ rock ’70s band that culminated with their most classical rock sounding track appropriately titled “The End” the sloppy but yet absolute five star album Abbey Road.

You want a rock song that has a punch? On this track, not one, nor brow, but all three singer and songwriters–George, Paul, and John, rip off honestly some of the best guitar licks you will hear on in a rock song. Think about that: It would be as if Backstreet Boys out grunging Nirvana. It doesn’t even make sense. We wouldn’t experience a musician on that level 20 more tears. But then a pop and punk inspired contradiction in the form of singer songwriter m Kurt Cobain became the face of a genre that doesn’t even had a unifying sound absolutely and maddeningly left us with his band Nirvana’s soul cleansing live masterpiece MTV Unplugged.

Which brings us back to taste. We are all conceived in a union of the most binary contradiction in nature: a man and woman. A seed is inserted into a cell, the cell divides, a spine develops. We develop eyes and ringers and ties. As form develops further we form a parasitic relationship with a woman who both lives and dreads us.

I’m convinced this is where first true taste develops. We float in the amniotic fluid slowly develop a sense of rhythm, both burying and violent. We’ll kick out at this wall that traps us. And just in time we’re pushed out the uterus and exposed to the cacophony that is the harsh lights of a hospital overhead and beeping from heart monitor.

From that moment on the sensation will never stop. Light shine from the Suns and street lamps shine endlessly. The calm calm quiet of a mid-tempered fall day is cut by the rustling of dead leaves on the ground. The nature of the urban hive-minded hustle and bustle of New York City reminds us us of what it means it means to feel alive. It’s no wonder we can’t escape music. It’s the most penetrating art form of the most world, though we still even before the radio could be heard in the whistles of men and hammering against an clinging anvil.

Which brings us back to the present. Just as we are all conceived from same two clusters of cells from our parents, so must we share a common taste, no matter how hard we try to deny it. To act like one’s taste is more developed than someone else’s is to ignore that that you very well came from something you despise. Kind of like my own hatred of prog rock and ’80s pop music, which are both genres my brother James has developed his a very refined palate from. We just form a möbius strip, and whether we like to admit it or not, always start back at the end.

I haven’t even touched on rap, which crafts rhythm from samples of every genre under the sun-whether it be disco, rock, house music, R&B, electronic, and yes even as off this decade, other rap music.

These roots are there from the beginning with Sugar Hill Gang’s sampling of “Good Times” by chic. Rap is a closed loop and I will tell you right now it has always been the African American music–the aforementioned rap and samples, jazz and its roots to classical music, and blues and its ties slave’s descendant in Africa who would would have one person shout out a call and have another group people respond. The bottom line is, African American music has always embraced their own roots as other, while some may unfortunately call this appropriation (a well meaning idea that only reinforces seclusion and racism). It’s natural that Rap, the latest African American music, is the genre that open embraces these influences in an explicit manner. You won’t find anyone other genre with a such a wide range of taste and acceptance of others’ music.

Which is bittersweet, because so many Americans-many who we wouldn’t even label as racist-call hip hop “crap”, with the claim that rappers only write about sex and jewelry (though some do, this completely ignores the subtext of what this supposed superfluous message is running through a down beaten race)-which is a complete farce because supposed “real music” such as the often banal classic rock was equally known for drug charged lyrics that gloried the death that is a pill or powder and express the cliche of being on the hunt for pussy.

Which bring us back to the start of this essay. I was arrogant and wrong in my assertion that I was a far more qualified person to make judgments about taste no how well I can tune a guitar. The truth is, I can’t even play clean to even remotely sound like David Gilmour.

And really, it’s these biases the fog up the lens through which she be able to make sense of it. On paper it seems odd how my brother and I could once share the same origin of taste and heritage, and end up on such wildly different paths that have somehow managed to intersect a few times. He’s been my best friend since after high school and just as I was supposed to be a teacher, he was supposed to move to Kansas City with our favorite aunt and go on to nursing college. so many traits and divergent tastes while having nothing in common but blood. And yet we’ve both had completely different careers.

It’s odd how I was the valedictorian in my high school and was voted most likely to succeed, but wound up temporarily homeless in New York City 8 years later. I’m not homeless now, but it’s something that destroyed my very foundation of closed mindedness. There’s just something a human’s sees and experience that is an epiphany.

And it’s even odder at how the the mature brother, the one who struggled with dyslexia was once written off as a child by Catholic nuns and teachers, but would defy the odds and become a successful man with two beautiful children, and a rewarding career.

We both defied our destinies, and no matter how bad or good we’ve done this, have proven that absolutism of beliefs is rarely every right. People are fluid, and no one deserves to treated like they don’t matter, just as rap music shouldn’t, nor prog rock and 80s synth pop. And as I reflect on these moments and intimate life stories with which I’ve gotten the approval of sharing details about my brother’s life, I state that I don’t this with bitterness. I’ve long gotten over my arrogant sense of entitlement and taste, just as equally over my jealousy at seeing James achieve so much and watch myself grow Job like in my unfair cards dealt to me.

No, the reality is, we’ve crossed paths so many times in regard to our lives and tastes, that I know there I am confident in the glory of the lord  there will come a time when I can finally earn a living without having job (I do own my own business for the record? But that is a startup from which I have a long way to go). Just as I know James will one day undoubtedly have his own form of misfortune (which I sincerely hope is mild and painless). The thing is, I tell this because it was the only way  knew how to show taste and it’s many developments while exploiting my own family shameless in an effort to reflect how we come full circle on all of this.

James and I came the same two parents, so it makes sense we were both shaped by those days peering over an album cover in awe of the art work. I know why I liked Kilroy was Here. It featured robots and and darkly lit camera work. How the hell did they achieve that shot in the late ’70s early ’80s? Just as I’m amazed practical effects, I imagine it’s the same incredulous when people wonder how someone call sculpt poetry out of prose.

While James and I went on to develop our own unique but equally healthy taste, we shared one common love that only became apparent recently.

One record we used to play back in the days when I can’t believe I was allowed to have a turntable in my bedroom. Of all my parent’s albums, they owned one haunting album, Midnight Blue by Louise Tucker, that we bother we just spellbound by. The main titular song and only real tract that could be remotely considered as “hit” was a lyrically sorrowful ball of emotion, boasting a melody ripped from Beethoven’s [insert name of composition] but nicknamed “Midnight Blue”, and turned it into a de facto example of classical ’80s synth beauty and intellectualism. Needless to say, we both loved that album, and while I had forgotten about it years ago, recently found my passion rekindled when my brother recommended it to be 2 weeks ago after I asked for another suggestion after The Alan Parson’s Project.

No words can then capture how upset I when I tried to find it through the music service Tidal [insert link], They had the single Midnight Blue because it had released as a track on an obscure French collection of pop music, but not the album, no doubt because the album isn’t in print anymore. My brother is fortunate to have a copy of the CD-he had to contact Louis tucker herself who sells copies on her website. She even signed it after he emailed in, and I’m conjecture get that he gushed over it, and while I haven’t found the album on my favorite avenue, I have found the song that we were both mesmerized by as little boys playing in a sandbox.

We’ve come full circle, and really, it’s only by by revisiting our pasts that we can improve widen our tastes-and by extension works view. But just as James and I found the one song we would both argue is a haunting masterpiece, our paths have already started to divert again. I Haven’t convinced James to give Kanye West a chance, yet. He’s more of an Ice-T guy. Just as I am resistant to Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Music is a weird thing that brings out the inner elitists all of us. Jane Austen echoed this sentiment with art over a 100 years ago in her great novel Sense and Sensibility. It’s comical how we still are struggling with this seemingly important issue. So just ask yourself, if you can’t accept a black person rapping about the plight of poverty and celebrating success what does that say about your own taste?  Thus the your path begins again.

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About Michael Medlen

My name is Michael and during my free time I avoid having a day job. Strangely enough, this gives me the freedom to run this blog. I write just about anything that can be considered art. I also occasionally post articles that may or may not be relevant to the theme of this site. You’ve been warned.
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