My overall feeling about Mike Barnes’ massive book on soi-disant ‘progressive music’ from the (very) late 60s and the first few years of the 70s is that, while its contents are exhaustively well-researched and informative, it spends far too much time documenting the lives/deaths and discographies of some of the most successful bands (King Crimson, Pink Floyd, The Nice/ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator, Mike Oldfield, Henry Cow, The Moody Blues, Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, Caravan, Egg, Soft Machine, Camel, Gentle Giant, Curved Air, Gong). Even just writing out this list makes me feel tired, and, at times, I skipped chunks of the text, something I don’t usually like doing, especially with books about music.
These subjective longeurs, could perhaps have been better balanced by more discursive discussion chapters, which were the meat of the book, in my opinion - there are relatively brief sections on socio-cultural aspects of the era, such as drugs, fashion and the ‘youthquake’, rock journalism, festivals, politics and suchlike. I would have like to have seen more of this sort of material, which might have led to an even better sense of the time, rather than over-extended descriptions of the bands itemised above. Inevitably, opinions will vary about which individuals and groups have been left out and which are dwelt on for too long in the book - for example, I think that Curved Air and Egg get too much air time. Overall, for me, there was also in general too much ‘album review’ space given over (although certain albums obviously deserve extended coverage, In the Court of the Crimson King being one indisputable example, both for its contents and influence).
A few more thoughts follow, in no particular order of importance:
* Yes may well be the quintessential progressive band? Their infamous Tales of the Topographic Ocean remains a non-pareil, from its size (the then highly unusual triple album format) to it’s Roger Dean cover picture. However divisive reactions to this work may be, it somehow signifies the sheer ambition and heft of the genre, whatever listeners feel about its product quality.
* The NME headline concerning the 1971 ELP album Tarkus brought a smile to my lips - “Tarkus - Tripe or Greatness” (quoted on page 125), which seems emblematic of this whole “new kind of rock music” (page 162), and reminded me of another great NME headline from a few years later, this time regarding Freddie Mercury”, i.e. “Is this man a prat?” Cruel, but fair?
* I would like to have heard about gender issues within the genre’s musicians and within its audience. In particular, the reactions of women towards a music which is often blatantly sexist, with women often stereotyped as either goddesses or groupies. Robert Fripp’s well-documented fascination at the time (like another egghead ‘great’, Frank Zappa) with the latter stereotype, is summarised in King Crimson’s ‘Ladies of the Road’ (from 1971′s Islands, although the lyrics were actually penned by Pete Sinfield). This is surely one of the most ludicrous ‘rock’ tracks of all time, only equalled by some of Zappa’s equally offensive numbers. ‘A different era’, as some will inevitably reply.
* To conclude, I was taken by a quote from Steve Howe, one of the most articulate and thoughtful musicians (along with Bill Bruford), regarding the origins of this music: “In the seventies, everything had to do with Psychedelia. It may have quit as a fashion in 1968, but I was still a psychedelic guitarist in my mind. I would not play blues cliches for love nor money” (page 167). Howe’s short-lived (1967-8) band Tomorrow, with their one single album, mostly forgotten since its release in 1968 (with psychedelia already mutating, as Howe suggests) remains, for me, one of the great transitional acts of the early years of progressive rock music.