Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why "Progressive Rock"?

Why "Progressive Rock"? Because progressive rock musics have in common the element of compositional complexity that seems to fascinate my mind--though the progressive rock music that I seem more drawn to also has a very strong sense of melody and supporting harmonic structures. I think it comes from my childhood: My parents had very eclectic music interests. My Dad, a natural jazz drummer who was never far from his bongos, loved New Orleans jazz (especially Pete Fountain and Al Hirt), and then the Brazilian rhythm brought to light by "The Girl from Ipanema," Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes, and Burt Bacharach. My mom loved 60s folk (Peter, Paul & Mary) and The Beatles but also loved to play the classical radio station for me (especially Karl Haas' Adventures in Good Music--which, coincidentally, was recorded and broadcast  just few miles away atop the Fisher Building by WJR-Detroit). But it was my brother, Brian, who really opened my ears to the wonders of the "new" music hitting the FM stations (WABX, and, later, WRIF, WWWW) when he came back from a semester at a Northern Michigan boarding school with a whole stack of new albums: Brian Auger, Mott the Hoople, Robin Trower, Mountain, Alvin Lee, The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, Jeff Beck, and the amazing album, Demons and Wizards by Uriah Heep. I myself found my interests gravitating to Motown soul. 1970 to 1974 was dominated by CKLW' s Top 30. I became a radio junkie, spending hours in my room at home speed dialing through my clock radio dial, AM and FM, over and over, charting the number of times I heard the week's Top 30. CKLW was actually a Canadian broadcasting station and thus had a rule that a certain percentage of the artists it played had to be Canadian. Thus, thought the call phrase was "CKLW. The Motor City," I was introduced to a little different spectrum of music than the typical U.S. station was probably playing at the time. Along with Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Temptations, The Stylistics, Al Green, Joe Tex, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The O'Jays, Curtis Mayfield, and many other soul/R&B acts, I was hearing The Guess Who, The Raspberries, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Anka, Byron MacGregor, Gordon Lightfoot, Blood, Sweat, And Tears, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rush, Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, Chicago, The Carpenters, Elton John, The Doobie Brothers, etc., etc. But it was brother Brian's albums that changed my life--that and Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." While Brian kept bringing home the albums, I was hearing a few songs that really wowed me, including the unbelievably fresh rhythm track of Steve Wonder's "Superstition," the shocking spaciousness of Roberta Flack's first hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," the amazing guitar interplay and vocal harmonies of America's "Horse with No Name," Brighter Side of Darkness' "Love Jones"with the greatest intro to any song ever, the crystal clear voice of Karen Carpenter, the electrified "big band" jam sound of Chicago's "Beginnings" and "25 or 6 to 4," the amazing guitar of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's first (minor) hit, "Blue Collar," but none so much as Elton John's quirky "Bennie."

I will never forget the first time hearing this song. My response was unlike any I've ever had before or since: it made me want to cry, it was so amazing. I was in a social situation and I found myself tuning everybody and everything else out, going deep within, to try to comprehend what I was hearing: piano rhythms unlike any I'd ever heard, lyrics so crazy and weird and ill-pronounced I had no idea what he was singing about, crescendoes of cheering crowd noises, and synthesizers--David Hentschell's (who later produced Genesis's Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering albums and is currently working with the revival of local Detroit prog rockers, Art in America) amazing synthesizers, and all topped off by that crazy chorus, "B-b-b-Bennie and the Jetssssssss." "Bennie! Bennie! Bennie and the Jetssssssss."
Life changing! After that, I wanted to hear more synthesizers, more songs that pushed the envelope of standard pop sounds and formats. I started looking at CKLW's weekly list of top albums which invariably had Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, along with albums like Joe Walsh's The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, a Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Jethro Tull album in it. Which lead me to ask, Why were the top albums not producing hits on the Top 30 radio lists?

Thus I discovered FM radio. WABX. Long songs. Versions of songs I had heard on AM radio that were far different--were unedited and not talked over. I heard the real "Stairway to Heaven," and the real "Closer to Home," and the real "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and the full version of Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and songs by Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull and Argent and even The Beatles that I'd never heard before.

Meanwhile, as I practiced my basketball skills relentlessly on the driveway, my brother would tip his head out of his bedroom window above and ask, "What do you want to hear?" or announce, "Listen to this one!" Demons and Wizards was the one I wanted to hear over and over. The album seemed to have a seemlessness, to have a theme running through all of its songs, something mystical and magical, which drew me in.

Pretty soon I was buying albums at the record store instead of 45s. I joined the Columbia Record Club from which I received an album each month and could order more from the twice monthly catalogues and special offers that were mailed to me. (I'm not sure where I got the money as this was before I ever had a job and my weekly allowance was small and never really seen.) Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram,  Wings' Band On the Run, Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, Yes's Fragile, are a few I recall.

Then in my new Northern Michigan home town a couple of young hippy-types opened up a basement record store. In it I discovered Nektar's Remember the Future, Focus's Moving Waves, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, Genesis A Trick of the Tail, Pink Floyd's Animals, Yes's Relayer, Supertramp's Crisis? What Crisis? to name but a few. Then I went off to college and through the smoke-filled dormitory haze was introduced to all kinds of classic and progressive rock. Living beside me were Yes-heads, Zep-heads, Fleetwood Mac-heads, REO heads, Supertramp lovers, Doors-freaks, and Genesis lovers--though these were split into two groups: the with Peter Gabriel loyalists, and the rest of us (who, admittedly, didn't know any better).

College students sharing their music, college radio stations, an amazing record (Boogie Records) store across the street from campus, and having the luck of living in a suite with our college radio station's manager--who received a box of "Promotional copies" of net-yet-released albums every week--which we all looked forward to--this led to my continued music education. Boston, Kansas, Little Feat, Foreigner, Pablo Cruz, The Eagles (with new member, Joe Walsh), Bruce Springsteen, and The Alan Parsons Project were all making their meteoric rises during my first year in college. Some of the concerts to come through my town that year included Jethro Tull, ELP (with full orchestra), Styx, Boston, Genesis, Yes, Donovan, Queen, Thin Lizzy, Return to Forever, George Benson, to name but the ones I either attended or remember.

In the confines of my dormroom I was discovering the likes of Renaissance, Gentle Giant, Anthony Phillips, Steve Hackett, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, Gabriel-era Genesis, Supertramp's Crime of the Century, King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, Nektar's A Tab in the Ocean, Focus's Hamburger Concerto, and Yes's Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographical Oceans. Needless to say, I was in heaven. Prog heaven. But, there was a vast world of progressive rock music I was still missing. Unfortunately, it took 30 years to finally have those doors opened to me. In the meantime I began to dive deeper into Jazz Fusion, then Jazz itself. At the same time as my explorations into jazz I was drawn into trying to 'educate' myself in the vast world of classical music. To be brief: I got busy.

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