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Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture

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Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw power Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw power and energy. Its dazzling virtuosity and spectacular live concerts made it hugely popular with fans during the 1970s, who saw bands such as King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull bring a new level of depth and sophistication to rock. On the other hand, critics branded the elaborate concerts of these bands as self- indulgent and materialistic. They viewed progressive rock's classical/rock fusion attempts as elitist, a betrayal of rock's populist origins. In Rocking the Classics, the first comprehensive study of progressive rock history, Edward Macan draws together cultural theory, musicology, and music criticism, illuminating how progressive rock served as a vital expression of the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with a description of the cultural conditions which gave birth to the progressive rock style, he examines how the hippies' fondness for hallucinogens, their contempt for Establishment-approved pop music, and their fascination with the music, art, and literature of high culture contributed to this exciting new genre. Covering a decade of music, Macan traces progressive rock's development from the mid- to late-sixties, when psychedelic bands such as the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, the Nice, and Pink Floyd laid the foundation of the progressive rock style, and proceeds to the emergence of the mature progressive rock style marked by the 1969 release of King Crimson's album In the Court of the Crimson King. This golden age reached its artistic and commercial zenith between 1970 and 1975 in the music of bands such as Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, and Curved Air. In turn, Macan explores the conventions that govern progressive rock, including the visual dimensions of album cover art and concerts, lyrics and conceptual themes, and the importance of combining music, visual motif, and verbal expression to convey a coherent artistic vision. He examines the cultural history of progressive rock, considering its roots in a bohemian English subculture and its meteoric rise in popularity among a legion of fans in North America and continental Europe. Finally, he addresses issues of critical reception, arguing that the critics' largely negative reaction to progressive rock says far more about their own ambivalence to the legacy of the counterculture than it does about the music itself. An exciting tour through an era of extravagant, mind-bending, and culturally explosive music, Rocking the Classics sheds new light on the largely misunderstood genre of progressive rock.


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Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw power Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw power and energy. Its dazzling virtuosity and spectacular live concerts made it hugely popular with fans during the 1970s, who saw bands such as King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull bring a new level of depth and sophistication to rock. On the other hand, critics branded the elaborate concerts of these bands as self- indulgent and materialistic. They viewed progressive rock's classical/rock fusion attempts as elitist, a betrayal of rock's populist origins. In Rocking the Classics, the first comprehensive study of progressive rock history, Edward Macan draws together cultural theory, musicology, and music criticism, illuminating how progressive rock served as a vital expression of the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with a description of the cultural conditions which gave birth to the progressive rock style, he examines how the hippies' fondness for hallucinogens, their contempt for Establishment-approved pop music, and their fascination with the music, art, and literature of high culture contributed to this exciting new genre. Covering a decade of music, Macan traces progressive rock's development from the mid- to late-sixties, when psychedelic bands such as the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, the Nice, and Pink Floyd laid the foundation of the progressive rock style, and proceeds to the emergence of the mature progressive rock style marked by the 1969 release of King Crimson's album In the Court of the Crimson King. This golden age reached its artistic and commercial zenith between 1970 and 1975 in the music of bands such as Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, and Curved Air. In turn, Macan explores the conventions that govern progressive rock, including the visual dimensions of album cover art and concerts, lyrics and conceptual themes, and the importance of combining music, visual motif, and verbal expression to convey a coherent artistic vision. He examines the cultural history of progressive rock, considering its roots in a bohemian English subculture and its meteoric rise in popularity among a legion of fans in North America and continental Europe. Finally, he addresses issues of critical reception, arguing that the critics' largely negative reaction to progressive rock says far more about their own ambivalence to the legacy of the counterculture than it does about the music itself. An exciting tour through an era of extravagant, mind-bending, and culturally explosive music, Rocking the Classics sheds new light on the largely misunderstood genre of progressive rock.

51 review for Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture

  1. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    This is a really excellent analysis of an unfortunately maligned subgenre of rock music. He really builds his case for the value of this music and its existence as an outgrowth of the college educated, middle class, hippie subculture, which was primarily about mind expansion and only secondarily anti-war. Also, because the movement was primarily British, anti-war statements in the music are more general and philosophical than relating to Vietnam. He waits until near the end to excoriate critics This is a really excellent analysis of an unfortunately maligned subgenre of rock music. He really builds his case for the value of this music and its existence as an outgrowth of the college educated, middle class, hippie subculture, which was primarily about mind expansion and only secondarily anti-war. Also, because the movement was primarily British, anti-war statements in the music are more general and philosophical than relating to Vietnam. He waits until near the end to excoriate critics such as Fred Frith and Lester Bangs for their nonsensical, hypocritical, and often racist standards for denouncing progressive rock (164-5 and all of chapter 9). The hypocrisy comes in when they make acts like the Beatles and Bob Dylan exempt from applicable criticisms and have opposite standards when judging heavy metal (172), as well as assuming that the music's fusion with classical was somehow corporate driven but managed to stay popular for 6-8 years in spite of this. His introduction implies that the next books on the subgenre should be written by people who are too young to have any nostalgia for the movement, and, like me, are mostly discovering it freshly and out out of historical context. I have already read an example of this in Kevin Holm-Hudson's edited book, Progressive Rock Reconsidered , which really helps fill some of the holes in what Macan has done here, such as in the essay on The United States of America. Unlike Macan, I am not a musicologist, although I have some rudimentary training in music theory. He seeks a balance between views described as "anti-culturalist" vs. "culturalist," (173) the later seeing inherent value in the content, the musicians, the biographies, etc, while the former sees the art as simply a conduit for culture. When Macan deals with the anti-prog critics, I am reminded of my graduate film school experience, where an anti-culturalist, sociological view held culturalist views like mine in contempt (hence no postgraduate study and homelessness), although, like Macan, I was not a strict culturalist and favored and favor a more balanced view. The attack on culturalism, Macan argues, is political correctness (265). One critic seems to think disco music has more to offer than progressive simply because it originates from oppressed minorities. The rock critics all assume the perspective that rock music was designed to shake up the establishment, which Mick Jagger fiercely denies in a quoted interview, rendering the criterion nonsensical. There is less call for direct political action in prog, Macan argues, because the counterculture was not primarily political but focused on reaching higher mental states that would change the world less directly but perhaps more profoundly than political action. Apart from a few listens to my Dad's 8-tracks of Jethro Tull's Stormwatch and Songs from the Wood, I discovered progressive rock through a childhood crush on Jennifer Connelly, which led to fandom of Dario Argento, Goblin (an Italian band not mentioned in this book), and Keith Emerson, which led me to discover other progressive rock acts. I was never a fan of the grunge and hip hop that were popular with my peers (Dr. Dre/Snoop Doggy Dog and Pearl Jam were the top two favorite bands voted for my senior class in 1994, with The Beatles at number 8), but I was interested in classical music, and progressive rock matched my tastes much better than anything that was part of early nineties youth culture. I particularly like his attack on the idea that listening intently to music is more "passive" than dancing to it. He argues that in the hippie mindset of mind expansion would regard dancing as much more passive than active listening (165). He also describes how even among those progressive rock arts who did finish their degrees, to them, music is a far more authentic and "honorable" profession that a 9 to 5 job (148). Macan devotes a chapter apiece to the music, the visuals, and the lyrics of the bands, as well as a chapter featuring deep analyses of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Tarkus," Yes's "Close to the Edge," Genesis's "Firth of Fifth," and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here (the entire album) in all of those aspects. As the title implies, the book is focused on British progressive rock, and Focus, a Dutch band, is the first non-English band mentioned. He does deal with american and English corporate rock, including bands such as Journey, Foreigner, Boston, Styx, and REO Speedwagon. He also groups Kansas (one of my favorites) and Rush (which sounds like a knockoff of Van Der Graaf Generator, whcih I heard for the first time while reading this book) in with these bands, but with some trepidation and several sentences on the merits of each. Interestingly, while Daryl Cunningham says that Ayn Rand is poorly known in Britain, he speculates that Emerson, Lake & Palmer may be alluding to her work in Tarkus, which I somehow doubt, as they do not come across as right-wingers. He never mentions Rush's extreme Rand influence, which I find makes their music unbearable. The book could have used some better proofreading. There are at least three instances of "Tony Bank's" when "Tony Banks's" is intended, and this makes some unusual spellings I find in the book questionable (album titles, etc.--he writes of Art "Garfunkle" on page 39), that I have not yet had a chance to look up. At one point, he even uses the non-word "irregardless" (260) without any sense of irony, and not within a quotation. Overall, though, despite its limits, this is a really excellent book that should probably be read in conjunction with Holm-Hudson's for anyone interested in progressive rock, or anyone who feels that progressive rock is a less than legitimate expression of the rock idiom.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kenny

    I give this four stars because I found it fascinating to read of the roots and influences of progressive rock and its genealogy and relation to other rock styles. I was and am a big fan of the major bands featured in this book. Unless you love music of the late 60s to early 80s, you would probably be bored with this book. Nevertheless, it is well-researched and written.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lora Templeton

    Prog rock deserves an erudite, skilled and slightly self-involved history of its roots in English musical traditions and its place in popular music between the experimental psychedelic scene and the back-to-roots Punk rebuttal of '76. On that score, Edward Macan delivers. Curl up with this volume and your favorite ELP on the turntable and enjoy the trip. Prog rock deserves an erudite, skilled and slightly self-involved history of its roots in English musical traditions and its place in popular music between the experimental psychedelic scene and the back-to-roots Punk rebuttal of '76. On that score, Edward Macan delivers. Curl up with this volume and your favorite ELP on the turntable and enjoy the trip.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joe Matson

    Macan provides both a social and a musical history of progressive rock. The work is thorough and clear. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that Macan often presents binaries in terms of masculine/feminine. Sometimes, this frame is effective, but sometimes it is forced. Macan provides both a social and a musical history of progressive rock. The work is thorough and clear. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that Macan often presents binaries in terms of masculine/feminine. Sometimes, this frame is effective, but sometimes it is forced.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    This was a good book but very long winded. It reads like a text book more than a narrative history. It is very in depth and very detailed. The technical aspects were a little bit beyond my school music accompaniments sad to say so I had to skip those. The author did keep stating that he was no sociologist and therefore the historical and cultural background to the music was sketchy. The book was published towards the end of the 1990's and the author has made some assumptions that haven't panned This was a good book but very long winded. It reads like a text book more than a narrative history. It is very in depth and very detailed. The technical aspects were a little bit beyond my school music accompaniments sad to say so I had to skip those. The author did keep stating that he was no sociologist and therefore the historical and cultural background to the music was sketchy. The book was published towards the end of the 1990's and the author has made some assumptions that haven't panned out at all. Never mind, I guess that future proofing a textbook is not really possible. However, his assumptions did make for guessing which in a book as detailed as this was quite jarring. If you are looking for a detailed musicology then this might the book for you. I would have preferred something more colourful and narrative based. Most of the music talked about in this study is music still listened to today by me and I was pleased to see the author so strenuously speaking up for it! It was terribly trendy by some critics back in the day, to brand it as somehow inauthentic!

  6. 5 out of 5

    ParSa

    A brief history of Prog Rock in British isles and what has made it an influential style since 70s. Completely ignores prog in other countries in Europe during that period but it's a good experience for classic rock enthusiasts. A brief history of Prog Rock in British isles and what has made it an influential style since 70s. Completely ignores prog in other countries in Europe during that period but it's a good experience for classic rock enthusiasts.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Alejo

    For a non-fan like me, this a very good book and it presents a great analysis of the genre.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Martin Hernandez

    Este texto fue fundamental para profundizar mi entendimiento de las raíces, las motivaciones y los aspectos culturales del rock progresivo. Excelente análisis.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tom Caufield

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Edwards

  11. 4 out of 5

    Evan Meredith

  12. 4 out of 5

    Stommager

  13. 4 out of 5

    Adam Taylor

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hester Stasse

  15. 4 out of 5

    Joe Maurone

  16. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  17. 5 out of 5

    Marie Petry

  18. 4 out of 5

    Krista

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ben P.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian Żołnowski

  21. 4 out of 5

    Adam Taylor

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mark Harding

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tom Jones

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jakub Basoń

  25. 5 out of 5

    pəri abbaslı

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dustin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Erik Heter

  28. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tagliabue

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Klein

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kim

  31. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  32. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  33. 5 out of 5

    Rik

  34. 4 out of 5

    Greg 0

  35. 5 out of 5

    Cliff

  36. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Wu

  37. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  38. 5 out of 5

    Nichole

  39. 4 out of 5

    Mateus Yuri Passos

  40. 5 out of 5

    Davor

  41. 4 out of 5

    João Pedro

  42. 4 out of 5

    Marc

  43. 5 out of 5

    Ewa

  44. 4 out of 5

    Gareth

  45. 5 out of 5

    Ian

  46. 5 out of 5

    Moris

  47. 5 out of 5

    ehk2

  48. 5 out of 5

    Oscar Fuentes

  49. 5 out of 5

    Ian

  50. 5 out of 5

    Aleksandra

  51. 5 out of 5

    Wikimedia Italia

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