Every once in a while there’s a book that, for whatever reason, you’re reluctant to be seen reading in public. Depending on your age, David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock might be one. From the late 1960s through the first half of the 1970s progressive rock, a/k/a “prog rock,” was a powerful force. By the end of the decade, though, it was derided, even ridiculed.
As Weigel notes, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary describes prog rock as “the single most deplored genre of postwar pop.” It declined so fast that it was only 1984 when This is Spinal Tap, a peerless send-up of “prog rock” and some of the metal bands it influenced, was released.
Weigel’s book, the title of which comes from a 1973 album by prog rock powerhouse Emerson, Lake & Palmer, is a thoroughly researched and entertaining look at the rise, rapid fall and impact of the genre. Yet the nature and history of prog rock is such that it would create difficulty for any writer and, as a result, The Show That Never Ends stumbles with a couple unavoidable hurdles.
One confounding factor is the seemingly continuous changes in band personnel. Take drummer Bill Bruford, for example. In addition to forming two bands of his own, he was with Yes for its first five albums (1968-72) and part of a reconstituted Yes in 1991-92, part of two different incarnations of King Crimson (1972-74, 1981-84), the drummer for Genesis on its 1976 tour, and part of a band with three other original members of Yes in 1989. Or consider King Crimson. While its 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King is generally viewed as one of prog rock’s best albums, it came and went for decades with 21 different musicians in its various formations.
Despite that, Weigel, a national political correspondence for The Washington Post, seems at his best in delving into the origins and early development of prog rock, following a handful of its preeminent artists and showing the music it spawned. It also reflects the heavily British source of the musicians.
The biggest challenge in examining prog rock is the music itself. The musicians not only aimed at creating complex music with unusual time signatures they sought new sounds, largely through the use of synthesizers and polyphonic keyboards. Yes even bought Slinkys, put microphones on them and threw them down stairs. “If you put a lot of reverb on it, it sounds great,” said Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Moreover, Weigel notes, many lyrics “had as much or as little meaning as the listener wanted from them.”
Even with a straightforward and traditional approach to any genre, there’s the adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Add in the unusual and unconventional sounds in prog rock and the level of difficulty is even greater. As a result, The Show That Never Ends has passages like this one, describing the last track on the Yes album Fragile:
It started with a rumble, a 6/8 bass line from [Chris] Squire and a drumroll from Bruford. Then came [Rick] Wakeman, with a horror-film keyboard melody in 3/4. Back to the ascending riff, joined by Howe’s guitar. The melody suddenly changed, to a 4/4 beat, with the original riff being phased in slowly by the mix. Then a dropout, to a melody that Anderson had written on his acoustic guitar. The themes repeated, announced at various intervals on keyboards, by what the band came to call “Rick-recapitulation.”
Weigel’s efforts to translate this music into words are admirable but there’s a few too many times when they muddle rather than enlighten. Readers could greatly enhance their enjoyment of the book using streaming music services as a supplement.
Naturally, the most well-known bands, such as Yes, King Crimson and ELP, get plenty of attention. The book also examines the role of many lesser known artists in prog rock’s development and its legacy. Oddly, despite its success, Pink Floyd is discussed far less, although that is perhaps because entire books have been written about the band and by its members.
The reasons for the precipitous decline of prog rock are harder to define than the factors that gave rise to it. Declining record sales and Changes in the music industry led to labels dumping progressive rock bands. Yet listeners also abandoned the genre in droves, perhaps in response to the music’s complexity. Or perhaps it is just as simple as the fact the bands and the music tended toward bombast, pretension and self-indulgence. Yet Weigel makes a good case for prog rock’s role in shaping rock music and what would come. “They took the music far, far away from the basics,” he writes, “so that some later groups of jerks could take it ‘back to the basics’ and be praised for their genius.”