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Recognizing Brilliance of the Progs

September 30, 1996|MITCHELL J. FREEDMAN | Mitchell J. Freedman is a lawyer with Dillard and Freedman, Santa Ana. An amateur musician, he played keyboards in a garage band or two in his teens. In 1984, he was part of a political punk band known as Men Without Work

Robert Hilburn's review of the new "Progressive Rock Collection" CD was an unfair attack on perhaps the greatest rock movement ever ("Prog-Rock 'Supernatural': Well, the Packaging Is Nice," Calendar, Sept. 15). Hilburn has long attacked progressive rock as "pretentious." This attack, however, has always been specious.

One may describe as "pretentious" any music that asks people to listen carefully and think about what is being played. One may easily find as much "pretentiousness" in Miles Davis or Charles Mingus as in the premier "prog" band, Gentle Giant. And I defy anyone to tell me many Talking Heads' albums don't have "pretensions" that are as silly as anything ever recorded by Yes. However, as much as I enjoy Talking Heads, I'll take Yes' best works in 1971 and 1972 over the best Talking Heads any day!

I have long believed that progressive rock was the bastard child of bebop jazz and late '60s rock as much as it was "classical music" applied to rock. The key prog ingredients were strong musicianship, as well as counterpoint and rhythm or time signature changes within compositions. While Yes lyrics were generally laughable, the lyrics in Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Tull, Zappa, PFM and others were generally laudable. Even 1970s' stars such as Elton John and Billy Joel recognized the brilliance of the progs' work. John was quoted in Melody Maker magazine as saying Tull's "Thick as a Brick," released in 1972, was the greatest rock album of all time.

Chet Thompson, the drummer for the jazz group Weather Report, was criticized by rock reviewers for joining Genesis to back up Phil Collins in the late '70s.

Thompson responded by noting that Weather Report's main influence was--surprise!--Genesis. He said his bandmates in Weather Report were excited for him to have an opportunity to play with such great musicians.

Hilburn claims the influence of progressive rock in later years was essentially zero. Wrong! Johnny Rotten said Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator was the main influence for his vocal style and later, his first Public Image album. The association of Fripp and Eno with Blondie and other New York New Wave bands is well known.

Also, Peter Gabriel and Hammill had albums with African influences before Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." In fact, King Crimson's "Lark's Tongue in Aspic" (1973) is a precursor to the whole 1980s' love affair with African sounds. In the '90s, one hears progressive elements in Smashing Pumpkins, Tracy Bonham, Nine Inch Nails and other "alternative" artists.

Even the sleek production styles of the '80s came from the progressive movement, as producers for artists such as XTC, Oingo Boingo, Soft Cell, Flock of Seagulls, Kate Bush and others would readily acknowledge.

While disco and lame "soft rock" were stinking up the 1970s, it was incomprehensible to me that rock critics attacked the progressives, who made brilliant albums in which almost every song was terrific. I have since concluded that these rock critics either were ignorant of music theory or had an elitist belief that rock must always be simple to be "real."

The progressives were the last pure movement in rock where music was primary, not formulas and not necessarily social commentary. And don't blame "prog rock" for wannabes such as Styx, Journey, late Kansas, Boston, ELO, etc. Using them to attack progressive rock is as invalid as using Mellencamp to attack Springsteen, Gary Numan to attack Elvis Costello or pitting Andrew Gold against Paul Simon.

If anyone is interested in learning more about progressive rock, please contact me at my office at (714) 953-9936. I can easily provide a list of "must get" recordings, most of which are currently available on CD.

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