Entry for August 26, 2005

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The completely fab people at MOJO/Q magazines recently published a special issue entirely devoted to progressive rock, and by slapping Pink Floyd on its cover at precisely the right moment—circa their Live8 performance—probably sold copies by the arkload.

How sad, then, that due to the vagaries of fate—and the appearance of an additional advertisement at the very last minute—the following commissioned piece was paid for but pulled.

Luckily, in my personal quest to make use of any collection of text previously produced but as yet unseen for the purposes of this so-called “blog,” I now present you with the piece that represents the “American” take on Progressive Rock. Damn, it’s impressive!

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It’s May 1968. We are at the Gulfstream Race Track in Hallandale, Florida, at the first Miami Pop Festival. Eyes open wide, we are watching a crazy man who sings like Tom Jones ascending the scaffolding of the main stage, microphone in one hand, singing. Below him onstage are organist Vincent Crane and very young drummer Carl Palmer, riffing wildly, seemingly oblivious to the whereabouts of their lead singer, one Mr. Arthur Brown. Moments later, near the very top of the structure, the singer fiddles with his zipper, tugs rapidly, and then proudly announces to the befuddled audience: “I give you Americans….MY COCK!”

Fourteen years later in Detroit, I am asking an older—and quite wealthier—Carl Palmer about the very same incident. He cackles somewhat. “I didn’t see him actually expose himself,” he says, “but he did it quite a lot.”

Somewhere between those two points, progressive rock arrived, and America clutched it to its swollen bosom.

To my ears, it officially arrived locally in November 1969, when those of us at the West Palm Beach Pop Festival watched a then unknown British group called King Crimson feature an entire orchestra over the public address system, launched from what appeared to us to be some sort of odd-shaped organ. We’d heard it before—on Their Satanic Majesties Request, say—but always assumed we were hearing live strings; we’d certainly never seen a mellotron before. And those of us who’d read the festival schedule had been expecting this King Crimson to be a soulful Bahamian percussion act in the first place.

One might say prog rock then arrived full bore—pardon the expression—locally in little over a year, when opening act Humble Pie left the stage and a road crew then wheeled out a massive drumset, gong included, and a equally massive array of keyboards, including organ, piano, and a big box that looked like a telephone operator’s nightmare. The latter was a synthesizer, of course—the first one most of us had seen—and it would be played by Keith Emerson, formerly of the Nice, joined by Greg Lake of King Crimson and the same Carl Palmer of Arthur Brown’s acquaintance.

This of course was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, soon referred to by a growing legion of fans as ELP, in many ways the conceptual grandfathers of it all. For two reasons: First, their instrumental prowess—not slim—was conspicuously announced through a route of excess—via the raw amount of stage equipment, the deliberately extended length of songs, and theatrics that included Emerson’s lovably hammy stabbing of his organ with knives and Palmer’s delightfully choreographed use of gong. Secondly, in the tradition of the blues-based Cream and Blind Faith before them, this trio was a “supergroup.” Americans like baseball cards and Americans like supergroups, and in a perfect world Americans would collect them both.

Though a surprising number of obscure prog albums had already seen US release—Arzachel and the Egg albums were there in the racks, for example—no one had quite figured out if indeed an actual movement was afoot. One presumes someone somewhere, after intaking the requisite amount of cannibis for the standard rock epiphany, might’ve had an inkling of excess-to-come by staring at the truckload of equipment proudly laid out on the backside of Ummagumma, but many of us were caught unprepared. Especially when at least two bands we were already vaguely familiar with—blues-rockers-with-flute Jethro Tull, and apparent Beatles/Buffalo Springfield fans Yes—would become virtual prog demigods in short order.

“At one time it was very fashionable in London to do Beatles numbers but to draw them out,” bassist John Wetton told me in 1982, “you know, what the Vanilla Fudge did with the Supremes?” Wetton, in the prog/baseball card collecting world, may indeed be the genre’s most valuable player, with a resume that includes stints with Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, UK, and Uriah Heep, among other endeavors. “That’s where all these bands came from, make no mistake about it,” he said. “They all took Beatles songs, stretched them out to full blown arrangements, and then thought, `Wait a minute—why are we playing the Beatles? We get no publishing royalties on this. Let’s write one that’s a bit similar.’ The whole art-rock movement started with Spooky Tooth and all those bands–like Yes and Jethro Tull—rearranging blues numbers and Beatles standards and writing their own songs like that, then stretching them out further and making 15-minute epics out of them.”

The onslaught came, and Americans sat there transfixed as Steve Howe and company played not 15-minute epics, but the entire quartet of album sides that comprised Tales Of Topographic Oceans, all the while perched in a Roger Dean-designed stage set that Bilbo Baggins might mistake for his backyard. Indeed, when Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, notable for consisting of just one song, reached No. 1 on the American charts, rest assured that song was not “Cat’s Squirrel.” This was a market ready, willing and eager to see Rick Wakeman perform his Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table—and not just because of its accompanying bonus ice show.

If one wanted to put a finger on the precise point when prog made its final commercial stand Stateside before sliding into the cult/muso ghetto where it presently resides, consider the band I was speaking with in Detroit those years ago. That band was Asia—featuring Wetton, Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and former Buggle/Yesman Geoffrey Downes—a veritable prog supergroup-of-supergroups, who folded up their collective 15-minute epics into 3-minute long pop songs and saw their debut album hold the peak position of the Billboard album charts for 9 full weeks. Their biggest hit was “Heat Of The Moment,” but as they faded from the picture—and fade they did, quite quickly—the title took on at least a sliver of poignancy. And, perhaps to someone in some small Eastern European village, begged for its own concept album.

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