The Show That Never Ends, David Weigel (Norton)
Close to the Edge, Will Romano (Backbeat)
David Weigel’s book claims to examine ‘the rise and fall of prog rock’. In 289 pages of overview and history (plus notes and index), with little critical or personal input, he regurgitates and juxaposes reviews, interviews and articles from the past to examine the phenomena that was progressive rock. In the current issue of The Wire magazine, Chris Cutler points out that ‘music is one big thing and the people who do it are constantly stealing and borrowing from other genres. It all evolves together.’ In Weigel’s world, however, prog rock is a genre separate from anything else: he seems oblivious to how postpunk bands like Magazine, XTC and Simple Minds reinvented the keyboard in music, drawing on the prog rock punk had supposedly banished, how ambient might be linked to prog rock and krautrock (which doesn’t really get a mention at all), and he doesn’t want for one moment to admit how silly the sub-Tolkien fantasy worlds evoked in many 1970s’ epics really were.
I’m a big fan of King Crimson, Yes and Van der Graaf Generator, but since I left school back in the 1970s you wouldn’t catch me trying to defend them as the best thing since sliced bread, nor would you have ever found me listening to ELP or Jethro Tull, let alone associating the latter with prog rock. It doesn’t take most musical listeners to realise that ‘taste’ is a major factor in the scheme of things, and that it really doesn’t matter if a lot of other people prefer a lot of other music, be it pop, metal, grime or reggae. Especially in the digital age where we are awash with music, and rarities are easier than ever to hunt down and listen to.
Anyway, I digress. Wiegel has a clear hierarchy of bands he rates, so much of this story centres around King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull and Yes. He sometimes allows Van der Graaf, Soft Machine, Rush and Genesis into the mix, and occasionally throws in some details about obscure Italian and other proggers, but not a lot. Later in the book he discusses Marillion and the rise of neo-prog, but then the book kind of peters out, with a nostalgic wave backwards to ‘proper’ prog rock in days gone by. Done and dusted, the end of his musical history, prog rock is over.
The back cover suggests that this book is a ‘completist saga that leaves no chords unexplored, no story untold’ but I’d beg to differ. This is a poorly researched and badly written book that totally deserves its appalling cover of a winged tiger standing on a doubleneck guitar! If this was an album it would be a quadruple live album soon relegated to the sale and secondhand bins.
Will Romano’s Close to the Edge is subtitled ‘How Yes’s Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock’, which seems a bit of a silly thing to say, but his book is a much more coherent and informative read than Weigel. Romano offers a critical context, some band history (and band future) as well as details of how the album was composed and recorded, as well as the ensuing promotional tour. He not only draws on critical and journalistic material but interviews he has conducted with the band, so there’s plenty of fresh material woven into his thesis.
Romano includes chapters on Yes’ lyrical wordplay and Roger Dean’s art work, as well as a critical assessment of ‘the impact of Yes and Close to the Edge‘. It is, it has to be said, a bit po-faced and over-the-top at times, but Romano makes a clear argument and writes well, even though I suspect I’m not alone in actually preferring other Yes albums! He also does have a sense of humour about his project, one clearly shared by the jovial grump Rick Wakeman, who is, it seems, always ready to offer a quip, pun or bad joke.
1972 was a long time ago, and there’s plenty of contemporary debate about whether rock music was a 20th Century phenomenon that does not function in the same way today, as we navigate and access digital worlds, or if it has simply moved on. People are still listening, albeit in different ways, and new music of all sorts is still being made. Romano’s book works well as a kind of sociology text (without meaning to), an exploration of a past age where LP records were important in every way, from cover design and lyric sheet through to the music and engraved run-out grooves. Whether we need to argue about which LP was best, greatest, or which genre bands could be labelled as seems less and less important; wider contexts, connections and associations, more and more so.