I hesitate to publicly take issue with Rob Sheffield for several reasons. First off, I find him an engaging, sharp, funny writer. Second, I'm acquainted with him and we share warm kind feelings for each other as people, I think. Thirdly, he's one of the greatest audiences I've ever had. Whenever I run into him and we converse, his laughter at whatever attempted witticisms I drop is the most appreciative I have ever heard. Knowing Rob and his pop tastes as I do, I wasn't surprised by some of the less charitable perspectives on prog (or "progressive") rock that he puts forward in his New York Times Book Review assessment of the essay compilation Yes Is The Answer. And in point of fact said review confirms, to my mind, some of the things I suspected about the book when I paged through it at a printed matter emporium and mused that this did not look like the prog-rock book I was looking for, if in fact I was looking for such a thing.
As described by Sheffield (and his description jibes with the impression I had paging through it) Yes Is The Answer seems a rather silly book, and if I'm going to read a book on prog rock, I'd prefer it to be either entirely po-faced or uproariously funny rather than rather silly. Rob, however, takes the book's silliness as a cue to propound upon the silliness of prog rock itself as far as he's concerned, and to look down his nose at the social lives, particularly the sex lives of its enthusiasts. As for its makers, he chortles at the fact that Yes once stocked a recording studio with bales of hay to evoke a properly rustic atmosphere for inspiration. This IS indeed silly, but hoe much more or less silly is it than spending tens of thousands of dollars on heroin and/or cocaine, as so many other rock musicians, progressive and otherwise, have done? But he reserves most of his nyah-nyah you can't get laid disdain for consumers of the genre. One of the book's essayists, he notes, got turned on to the music of the loosely-defined Canterbury Scene by a high-school girlfriend; "not a typical prog story, to say the least." In his kicker, Sheffield states "oblivion seems entirely suited to prog, which at its best functioned as a shelter from school, from sex, from the frightening adult world." Even without parsing too closely, this seems a curious stone to have been thrown by the author of Talking To Girls About Duran Duran. The implied demand that a more acceptable music is one that assists teens and post-teens in facing that adult world seems, frankly, unrealistic. But really, the fallacy of the generalization stems from a not-uncommon rock crit problem, that is, mistaking one's practice with that of a sociologist's.
Sheffield's actually not even ten years younger than me, so my initial mental rationalization for his curious contempt doesn't hold, entirely. And since I never even liked sociology, let alone believed that critical practice compelled me to attempt any form of it, I can only respond with anecdotal evidence that for a number of my confederates in the late '70s, a taste for prog not only embodied zero contradiction to an engagement with adulthood, but also constituted a palpable asset to it. For instance, and not to tell tales out of school, but take My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™. When I arrived at William Paterson College in 1977, he had transfered to NYU but was still a legend at the college paper, for his photographic acumen, his merciless sarcasm, his way with "the ladies" as some used to call them back then, and his ability to recite all of the dialogue from the 1933 King Kong. I didn't meet Ron until spring of 1978, at the funeral of a mutual friend who COULD have gone with me to see Richard Hell at CBGB on the weekend of his death, but instead went out to Central Jersey and...well, it's a long story...and at the funeral I asked him about the Kong thing and he responded with the exact contempt and merciless sarcasm that such an inquiry might warrant when delivered at a funeral. Ron eventually got around to forgiving me this trespass, and we became friends, and soon I was hanging around the basement of his folks' place in Clifton, which he had redone into his bachelor pad. He had an awesome stereo of separate components—I had only ever had variants of a Close-And-Play myself—and a huge record collection of mostly classical and prog. I was mildly appalled, really. King Crimson had its moments, I had to admit, having affected an appreciation of Shoenberg and Coltrane in my high school years, but despite my fondness for Eno and such I was at this point a reasonably dedicated punk rock person. "How can you listen to Yes? I mean that vocalist is the worst. And those lyrics!" "Eventually you learn to hear through it, or past it," Ron shrugged. "And you're complaining about lyrics? What about the Ramones?" "They're ironic," I nyah-nyahed back. We were both schmucks, but he made a little more immediate sense.
The point I'm taking my time getting to is that the component-stereo and sophisticated-musical-tastes combination was a crucial component of Ron's mystique in the dating department. It was I, Mr. Punk Rock and Socially Conscious Lyrics and I'm Against Society Man and all that other shit who had a bit of struggle. This is not to say that I came around to prog out of a desire to enhance my appeal to the opposite sex. My first college girlfriend, to whom I gave the flower that was my sexual innocence, was an exemplary suburban Punk Rock Girl (her copy of The Basketball Diaries was festooned with "I love you"s in the margins of the passages describing the most debauched instances of drug abuse), and when I brought home (to my first apartment, which I shared with a college roommate in Paterson, New Jersey in the late '70s, in case you're wondering where I earned my "street cred") a copy of Art Bears' debut album Hopes and Fears, which opens with an austere cover of Brecht/Eisler's "On Suicide" sung by Dagmar Krause in her direst sharp tones, she pronounced her conditional approval on grounds that it was bracingly abrasive. Which indeed it was.
The College Girlfriend, Ron, and myself, eventually started experimenting with making our own music. Ron was a keyboardist, and a pretty good one I thought (he remains to my mind sometimes frustratingly dubious with respect to his abilities in this respect), the CG played guitar, and I played a little guitar, and bellowed, and had an outsize personality, not necessarily in that order. We had another friend, a college poet, who wrote lyrics and also bellowed, or wailed; and we dicked around in various permutations trying to write songs. We thought that our differing sensibilities—Ron's prog taste was supplemented by a slight Ray Manzarek jones, and a lot of his compositional inspiration was taken from the film score work of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann; CG was a big Stones person; I was "literary" and obnoxious—might create interesting material. We were not particularly correct, but we persisted, and were very constructive in coming up with band names: Transparent Things (I know, I know), Plan Nine, etcetera. Eventually CG and I broke up, and she took up with more competent and dedicated musicians who later went on to stints in real bands such as The Brandos and Dramarama (look 'em up!). But Ron and I kept at it and eventually we, in the decades-later-to-be-immortal-words of Art Brut, formed a band.
Whether or not we were any good (and the debate continues to this day as we, having reconvened largely for the purpose of continued fellowship, slouch toward the completion of a professional-grade recording of material we "composed" over thirty years ago), our unusual concept—to create music that melded the complexity of certain prog with the DIY attitude and dissonance of punk and post-punk—was a way of enabling us to engage the world rather than retreat from it. We had to do things—write material, rehearse it, and play it in front of people. Our parents weren't involved in the project. Ron and some outside friends had rented a house, and that became the GHQ for band activities, the protest of certain neighbors and roommates notwithstanding. When drummer McCallister either quit or was fired (I honestly don't remember which...he's a cop now, if you were wondering), we had to go out and find a drummer, and we were blessed for a year with the best one in not just the Hoboken/North Haledon scene but in all of northern and central Jersey, Stanley Demeski, then also of the Phosphenes and Winter Hours (both of which bands really, really hated us) and later of the Willies, then the Feelies, then Luna, and now the Feelies again. If you're familiar with his work, you know that Stanley nails the 4/4 like nobody's business, but what you might not know is that, like his fellow one-time Feelie Anton Fier, he at one point in his development learned every drum pattern on the notoriously difficult (and some might say secretly proggy) Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Our band had one highly questionable (and unsingable-over) tune called "Refraction," the main section of which had a 9/5 time signature. Once Stanley left the band, that number left the repetoire. Actually, the whole band kind of fell apart; we couldn't find an adequate let alone competent full time replacement drummer, and the band's front man was such a mikestand-kicking prima-donna non-singing asshole that nobody really wanted to work with him any more. Guess who?
Anyway, the ideal remained alive in our sensibilities if not our musical practice. You might not remember this, but the reformed King Crimson—the quartet with Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford and Captain Fripp, and no mellotron—actually had some New Wave cred given Fripp's and Belew's session work with Bowie, Talking Heads, Blondie, and so on. Artificial Intelligence aimed to meld Gang of Four and Pere Ubu with Henry Cow, and the distances between those bands was not as huge as some might imagine. (The distinctions might not be cost-effective to poptimists such as Sheffield, I allow.) Even as Ubu founder David Thomas was running Seeds and Alice Cooper licks through a darkly arty iteration of Cleveland weltschmertz, he was engaging in correspondence with one-time Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler, with whom Thomas later worked as a solo artist. Cutler himself drummed in an iteration of Ubu that included its biggest commercial successes, including the college-rock quasi-hit "Waiting For Mary."
The point is that there was/is more to prog and its tendrils that is dreamed of in the institutional philosophy of the New York Times these days, Jon Pareles' presence at the paper notwithstanding. The sectarian anti-prog bias, not to be paranoid, is I think reflected in the illustration for Rob's review, in which Genesis-era Peter Gabriel is seen in stage makeup with mouth agape, an image meant to evoke a snicker. I do not laugh, because I'm vaguely aware of how many column inches the New York Times devotes to Lil Wayne, who, objectively speaking, doesn't present a much more overtly "admirable" visual picture. Also, one need not like what Gabriel did in order to appreciate the line his theatrical mode of presentation points directly to Lady Gaga. But again, this is par for the course for an institution that gifted us with the phrase "cultural vegetables," and at which a top reviewer interpreted an assignment to write on a book about video games as an occasion to voice his dislike of Jethro Tull.
Prog rock, Sheffield snarks in the final line of his notice, "is the genre that gave the phrase 'comfortably numb' to the language." Except The Wall (a problematic record but maybe a better one than you remember) is the work of an arena-rock band—that's part of its whole subject. As spacey as Pink Floyd's music got, it never approached prog's level of difficulty (Dave Stewart, the Canterbury Egg/Hatfield/National Health guy as opposed to the Eurythmics guy, once observed of a Robert Wyatt concert he participated in that it "turned out well despite Nick Mason's inability to play in 7/4") or popularity.