“This is also an argument for progressive rock as a grand cultural detour that invented much of the music that’s popular now…’prog’s’ reputation has never quite recovered from a series of crises in 1977 and 1978. Punk won over the critics, disco won over the teens, and major progressive bands deflated like punctured blimps.”
-David Weigel (from The Show That Never Ends)
By the mid-sixties rock and roll had begun to grow stale. The old 12-bar 1-4-5 chord progression in 4/4 time, until then the basis for just about every R’n’R song, and lyrics like “ooh lovin’ you baby” played by people just good enough to cut a record deal and make a few hits had run its course, and audiences, becoming ever more sophisticated, were yearning for something new and challenging. Inspired by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, a new generation of highly-skilled, often classically-trained musicians gave birth to a new musical genre based on jazz or classical rather than blues. Songs were no longer 2 to 3 minute pop ditties about losing love or finding love or missing love with a hook and packaged in bland, indistinguishable black and white sleeves. Now was the era of epically long incomprehensible songs with complex time signatures about dragons, space travel, aliens, psychology or cyborg armadillo battle tanks and lyrics that are used more for how they sound than what the words mean (something I had always suspected and confirmed by Jon Anderson in this book), and concept albums (for those of you who don’t know a “concept album” is an album where all the songs either tell a story or deal with one particular subject matter, usually some sort of philosophy or ideal) with out-of-this-world chemically-inspired covers (often by themselves great works of art); not something designed to be friendly to the masses (and not so surprisingly, also unpopular with women…prog rock is like the Star Trek of the music world, with similar devoted fans it seems) yet these groups were able to sell out the old Forum in successive nights and even fill the Big O on occasion. Labelled “progressive rock” (or prog rock, for short; a moniker that apparently most artists disliked), its heyday is the subject of The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by journalist David Weigel.
The author traces the history of prog rock from the mid-sixties to the tragic death of Keith Emerson, with rapid-fire details that move at such an incessant pace that at times I had to go back and re-read several passages to understand who was playing with which band at what time. A “family tree” sort of chart would have been a welcome inclusion. (I don’t mean this as a criticism, I actually prefer a straight-forward, direct approach to non-fiction, and Weigel is a skilled writer. The fault here is not the author’s but rather mine and the trouble I have always had recalling names.)
What I really admire about The Show That Never Ends is how Weigel, in a get-it-or-get-lost kind of way, does not dumb-down the language or waste time explaining technical or music terms; he trusts us to understand the material (much like prog rock bands used to do) and if not the reader has to look everything up themselves. (I have a musical background of sorts, having studied it as a teenager, so I was fine but some may find the text at times a little too elusive.)
If I have anything negative to say about The Show That Never Ends it is of a more personal nature: Bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd were big in Montreal before anywhere else in North America, and the city is an important hub in the history of prog rock, yet the only thing close to a mention was a few paragraphs about the Quebec band Voivod late in the work.
I was always a fan of prog rock, my favorite bands being Rush, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia, all of whom are represented on Weigel’s effort. From the book cover art featuring a winged tiger pawing a double-neck guitar and everything within, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock is a thorough, significant and felicitous tribute to a gone but not forgotten musical era, and a real treat for fans of the genre.