There was a time when it was difficult to find books about progressive rock, be it general surveys or about individual bands. Those on bands seem to appear first, particularly photographic histories, whilst now there are plenty on the market based on a narrative history of the genre. (Even more recently, autobiographies and biographies have begun to be published too). So, there’s plenty for the prog reader to immerse themselves in.
Mike Barnes is a music journalist (MOJO, The Wire, Prog) and author of an acclaimed biography of Captain Beefheart. For this book he has interviewed musicians, music business insiders, fellow journalists, and DJs, used along with the testimonies of some fans. Some of the interviews seem to be for his journalism over the years, although there are specific interviews for this book. The first noticeable point is that Barnes takes the standard approach that progressive rock was a British phenomenon, although he acknowledges that it wasn’t uniquely so.
This is pretty much a history of progressive rock from the late Sixties and through the Seventies, with a belief that it ran out of vitality in the middle of the latter decade. Some may argue with that, but it cannot be denied that most people’s idea of a classic prog rock album would be pretty much be with a release date of 1975 or before. Not really a contentious issue, but one likely to cause some debate. It’s not that there is nothing but bad prog albums since that date, but more that they are consolidating the genre not furthering it. You might feel a bit miffed if an artist or band you like falls within that, but when you think about it, it’s hard to argue against.
The book moves at a good pace and sensibly reviews a series of bands rather than tackling the era year by year. It’s good that Barnes doesn’t just keep to the main prog bands of the era, but also delves a little into less obvious bands such as Egg, Henry Cow, Gracious, and Curved Air. His analysis seems fair too, being critical only when he feels he needs to be rather than being negative towards this style of music. There are occasions when you’ll think that a comment is wrong, but it maybe that the source of your original fact was incorrect. Some of this is just being picky though! (for example, I thought that Jon Anderson’s father was an insurance man and didn’t work on a farm). There are chapters too on the fashions of the era, drug use, festivals and the impact of punk. What there isn’t is a look at what was going on with society more generally: the experimentalism in the arts, the politics and events of the period and how progressive music interacted with it, for example whether the oil crisis in the middle of the period impacted on the production and even sanction of multi-album releases. There is an argument here that this rather than punk made progressive rock “fade away”. Record companies basically removed their support and favoured the punks as they were simpler and easier to produce. It should be remembered just how big some of these bands were as the genre is often viewed as a niche one. Pink Floyd and Genesis were, and remain, massive bands of high commercial value.
Barnes does dispel some of the myths that have grown around prog rock – the belief about the predominance of songs about hobbits, the impenetrable lyrics when compared to those of other styles and such like. (It remains true that women were under represented in progressive rock, but surely this is true of all styles. How many female glam rockers were there? But that’s no excuse).
Barnes maintains the belief that progressive rock was a genre played only by the middle-class for middle-class listeners. This is a common thread amongst books on the subject, and just like them this book provides little evidence for it. The belief actually raises more questions than it answers. Is there anything wrong with the middle-class making rock music? How do we know that only the middle class were listening? (It’s just an observation, but your writer comes from a council estate in the north of England where he and many of his mates listened to progressive rock in the 1970s). It is a form of inverted snobbery that believes only the working class should be able to do a certain activity. But this side-tracking us and has little to do with the book directly.
This book is a really good addition to the growing library on progressive rock though. Its biggest weakness is “written on the tin” really – it covers British bands in the 1970s only. There are mentions of foreign bands such as Focus, Neu!, Can, Tangerine Dream, PFM and a few others, but often disappointingly fleeting. There is almost no mention of RPI more generally and little about what was happening in the Scandinavian countries. But that is not the remit of the book. Imagine how big and detailed it would be if he had tried to be all inclusive!
So, this is a really good read and almost guaranteed to add to the big discussion on progressive rock.
Paperback: 608 pages
Publisher: Omnibus Press
Date: 27th Feb. 2020