Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation In Three Movements, BBC4

by | Jan 4, 2009 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

An exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, chronicle of prog rock, but which failed to escape the Charybdis-like whirlpool of history that justly condemns it as the worst music in the whole of humanity.

What was good about it?

• While the music was atrocious, an effort was made to analyse how such an appalling atonal, indulgent cataclysm ever became pre-eminent in music, often eliciting the same dismayed tones more often reserved for documentaries about the ascent of the Third Reich.

• It explained how prog was born of the fire of 1960s counter-culture, which was ironic given that it became the preserve of the cerebral conservatives. The progenitors of the music were, as is commonly the case, quite good – it’s what followed that has blackened the name of prog. Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper both sent out the first pioneering probes into the inky void of “intelligent music”.

• And it’s this self-appointed appellation, and an aspiration of musicianship and erudition, that most damns it, for example Pete Sinfield of King Crimson claimed, “If our song sounded too simple, then we made it more complicated.” Meanwhile Rick Wakeman, among many others, appear proud that prog was “thinking persons’ music” apparently unaware that if its possible to think during music then it isn’t enveloping the listener with its suffocating beauty – “thinking” during music should be akin to breathing underwater.

• The area in which intelligence can be a boon, emotive, acerbic, poetic lyrics, was also the area that has done most to ridicule prog rock. We were told that because most of Genesis had sheltered public school lives they were incapable of writing evocative lyrics that connected with the public, and so sought refuge in Lord of the Rings and pseudo-philosophical gibberish – think Kula Shaker – while Yes’s lyrics were worse than the inarticulate compositions found in txt messages scrolling across the bottom of the screen on Sky Sports News, where the illiteracy perversely becomes a badge of authenticity.

• What the programme brilliantly showed us was that in much the same way as the dinosaurs, an analogy frequently made to describe previous generations’ culture, were an evolutionary misstep by planet Earth, so prog rock was a misstep by popular music (and it was ‘popular’ music not some kind of mystical hybrid of classical, King Arthur and extraterrestrials), which was virtually annihilated by the seething comet of punk – which all but destroyed itself in the impact, leaving way for the more imaginative Kraut rock and post-punk to flourish.

• Although perhaps the Middle Earth musings appealed to the audience as “95% were men”.

• Each of the arrogant proclamations by such luminaries of the scene, such as ex-Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, was segued with excerpts from utterly, utterly bad songs. But at least we only had to endure them for about 30 seconds; some had durations greater than any Mayfly had ever lived.

• Richard Coughlan’s moustache that could enable him to snare a harem of 100 female walruses, while also making him an appetising target for any wandering polar bear.

• The thoughtful contribution of Mike Oldfield, whose decent Tubular Bells offered relief from the anti-music of Rick Wakeman et al.

• Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) proudly banging his British Steel-sponsored drums on a local news show. Palmer revealed that the set weighed 2.5 tons, and that concert stages had to be specially reinforced to withstand the burden.

• The amusing simmering bitterness of prog rock towards punk. Bill Bruford called it “a return to infancy” (if it was, it replaced a decrepit old man with a horn to his ear and flaking skin). Ricard Coughlan, meanwhile, spat “only the British Isles fell for punk” – this is because – for ill or good – the British Isles is willing to embrace new forms of music to vivify and stimulate what has become stale. Watch the Grammys or the MTV Europe Awards if you don’t believe us.

• Writer Jonahan Coe’s measured assessment of prog, even if we disagreed with his defensive statement that “prog is the one musical genre that people write off without embarrassment – it’s all shit”.

What was bad about it?

• Some of Nigel Planer’s commentary was occasionally too reverential. “A voyage to unchartered territories” was how prog was initially described; they may have been “unchartered” but it doesn’t mean someone had to go there. Similarly, Phil Collins defended Peter Gabriel’s extravagant stage shows because “no-one else was doing it”. Again, that’s not really any sort of reason for doing something so pointless.

• Bill Bruford: “The smartest thing I ever did was get born in 1949!” This made him about 18 in 1968, as the world supposedly changed, and able to be swept along with the ever so exciting culture of the era. But where are the figureheads of that “golden age” now? Broadly speaking they are either conformist politicians, innovators who now religiously practice appeasement and mediocrity or gibbering carcasses washed arbitrarily up on the beaches of retrospective documentaries importuning the audience that they enjoyed their prime in a time of change while simultaneously mocking them for being born too late to savour the same kind of substance by association.

• Prog was helped by the general shift in music away from meandering ditties towards pop music that was characterised by BBC Radio One. While this had brought much good to the nation, it sadly now stands as a rotund monolith of unkempt decadence under its standard of Chris Moyles.

• Phil Collins: “I wonder if I hadn’t cancelled my audition to be Yes’s drummer, what my life would have been like.” We wonder, too. Perhaps he would have been caught in the inexorable pyroclastic flow of punk that reduced prog musicians to ashen shadows, thus meaning 30 years later his music wouldn’t have been used on a chocolate advert seducing thousands of impressionable youngsters to his music.

• Tony Banks’ assertion that music offered public schoolboys, such as himself and other members of Genesis, “an escape from a pre-determined career choice” in the civil service. Most people at school wonder if they will ever get a job of any kind, and so don’t have the luxury of a “career choice”, pre-determined or not.

• Ian Anderson: “It’s not cool these days to play your instrument; play a solo, something that speaks. That’s not part of this age.” Sadly this is a generic example of an old man lambasting contemporary culture. Each era has good and bad music – the 70s had post-punk and prog rock.

• In fact, it’s quite difficult to convey just how atrocious prog rock really is, but imagine being strangled by someone with ticklish fingers, who has halitosis and the head glaring with the luminosity of the sun while the contents of a hippopotamus’s colostomy bag is pumped into your mouth. And acts as a warning from history to all those who believe that music can’t get any worse – it can, there could be a prog rock revival.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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