Is the impending induction of Genesis the beginning of progressive rock getting its long-denied due from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Or is this just tokenism, a one-time exception made because of all the pop hits Genesis scored long after it had forsaken the arty, theatrical-rock strangeness and literary-mythic inspirations of the early 1970s, when Peter Gabriel was fronting the band? After soldiering on proggishly but not that successfully for a couple of albums after Gabriel’s departure in 1975, the remaining members cannily transmogrified (uncanny transmogrification having been a core theme of the band’s earlier music) into a cuddlesome, MTV-ready trio led by that endearing, nonthreatening chap Phil Collins.
From where I stand, Genesis earned the Hall with the last three albums of the Gabriel era: “Foxtrot,” “Selling England by the Pound” and “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” with Collins providing expert drumming and backing vocals and taking a frontman turn or two.
But it’s hardly idle speculation to wonder whether that version of Genesis would have passed muster with Hall voters without the massively popular, pleasantly disposable hits the band cranked out during the late 1970s and 1980s, including “Follow You Follow Me,” “Misunderstanding” and “Invisible Touch.”
If the Rock Hall’s voters want to put their ears to work in their future deliberations, rather than accepting on faith the commonplace critical disparagement of prog rock as a pompous, pseudo-intellectual perversion of the earthy rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, here are names and recordings for them to consider:
While this all-instrumental, Anglo-Irish-Euro-American band is more identified with the jazz-rock fusion movement of the 1970s, I don’t draw much of a distinction between progressive rock and Mahavishnu’s now-hurtling, now-lyrical sound, its master-musician chops and its serious themes. The albums “The Inner Mounting Flame” and “Birds of Fire” are the band’s chief claims on the Hall of Fame. Listen, and you’ll hear white-robed leader “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin’s fiery, speed-demon guitar, Jan Hammer’s keyboards, Jerry Goodman’s electric violin, Rick Laird’s bass and Billy Cobham’s drums swirling together, as closely attuned and interconnected as birds in a flock.
If you want persuasive evidence why critics lampoon prog rock, listen to “Tales From Topographic Oceans” for as long as you’re able, before it puts you to sleep. But the three early-‘70s albums before that all-time deal breaker are masterpieces, the defining single-band oeuvre of the prog rock genre: “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge.” As many have complained, the lyrics are kind of loopy and pointless albeit well intended insofar as they seem to be an early manifestation of rock aligning itself with environmentalism. But Jon Anderson’s piping-choirboy vocals are there more to set a mood and carry the main melody line than to occupy the mind, while guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Bill Bruford, bassist Chris Squire and either Rick Wakeman or Tony Kaye on keyboards foment disciplined wildness all around him. Yes in full flight rocks as hard as any band ever.
Graceful, smart, stylistically wide-ranging, and at its best, on the epic album “A Salty Dog,” deeply moving. The elegantly somber “A Salty Dog” has moments of sweeping, stately, symphonic grandeur alongside elemental blues and even calypso. “Shine on Brightly” and “Home” are other strong releases from the band’s peak period in the late 1960s; then there’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the one Procol Harum song everybody knows, which predated those albums while ripping off J.S. Bach in a prototypically prog-ish move from 1967. Gary Brooker is the most soulful of prog-rock singers, and the keyboards blend that his piano created with organist-vocalist-producer Matthew Fisher wasn’t far behind the Band’s great combination of Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. The prime Procol albums also feature ace drummer B.J. Wilson and the work of guitarist Robin Trower, playing to support the songs rather than exhibiting the unfettered guitar heroism of his Hendrix-inspired solo career.
The donnish guitarist Robert Fripp kept Crimson evolving and interesting far longer than any of its prog classmates. But the main reason for the Hall to let it in would be its magnificent 1969 debut, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” widely considered the first — and arguably the best — prog-rock album. I’ve been surprised that a whole decade of the 21st century has gone by without a prominent cover of the kickoff track, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song so frantically, maniacally charged with fear and loathing that it’s practically punk — which is probably why Bad Religion referenced it on its pre-millennial hit, “21st Century (Digital Boy).”
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Virtuosity and sonic and theatrical flash and excess were their trademarks, which made for lots of fun in live performance (Carl Palmer’s spinning drum platform decked in pulsing lights; Keith Emerson pulling out knives to one-up Jimi Hendrix with a ritual disemboweling of his Hammond organ). What band in its right mind would do a marvelous, if utterly ridiculous, sci-fi concept album — “Tarkus” — about a post-apocalyptic, metal-plated, bionic armadillo outfitted with enough weaponry to wage perpetual solo warfare (it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t swiped the idea)? Along with “Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” “Brain Salad Surgery” and a live, album-length rock adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” ELP provided ample reason for induction during the early 1970s, after which the band followed Yes and Procol Harum down the path of hanging on far too long, with far too little inspiration.
Other prog bands well worth delving into — although they haven’t a prayer of making the Hall because they didn’t make enough of a commercial dent — are the folk-rooted Strawbs (who in their early days collaborated fruitfully with Led Zep’s John Paul Jones and Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, and with whom Rick Wakeman served a superb two-album hitch before joining Yes), Gentle Giant (probably the brainiest, most adventurous and versatile prog band) and Atomic Rooster (whose best albums, “Death Walks Behind You” and “In Hearing of Atomic Rooster,” might especially appeal to fans of metal and hard rock).
To answer anticipated complaints: No, I don’t consider Hall inductee Pink Floyd and the unfairly excluded Jethro Tull to be prog-rock bands; I’d like to say that Roxy Music and Brian Eno were prog-rock acts, but that would be stretching it a little; and, yes, I do enjoy the Moody Blues, but despite their many memorable tunes and splendid vocal blend, I think they’re a little too commercially eager and intellectually soft for Hall inclusion.
In theory, Americans should have been able to play good prog rock, but in practice — unless you want to stretch definitions and include Spirit’s “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” — they never proved it, leaving the field to the Brits.
With all of that said, if I had just one thought to submit for Rock Hall voters’ consideration, it would be: Pick the Monkees already, for crying out loud.
And, going for the whole 9 yards, considering a few of the lightweights and short-distance runners you’ve let in (The Dave Clark Five??? Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five???), how in the name of Jann S. Wenner can you defend not having admitted Randy Newman, Love, Fairport Convention/Richard Thompson, the Turtles, the Zombies, Peter Gabriel (solo), Los Lobos, Roky Erickson/13th Floor Elevators, Dick Dale, Doug Sahm, Big Star and Nick Drake?
And if you say ABBA, I say the 5th Dimension.
Now, that would be progress.