As a fan of so-called ‘progressive’ rock, this idea of music belonging to a certain time, place and circumstance – and concomitant suspicion of anything with the whiff of postmodernism – is particularly pertinent. Can you borrow a 40-years-old blueprint for a style of popular music and call it progressive?
‘Postmodern’ has long been considered nearly as passe as ‘Modern’, which is positively old-fashioned, though the irritating prefix, ‘post’ lingers on in unlikely places. Post-rock and rock seem to co-exist perfectly well, thankyou very much; the former having no more banished the latter than punk kicking prog to the kerb. And if you want to know why boardrooms are still 95% male and 1/3 of females can still expect to experience sexual violence it’s probably not wise to ask a post-feminist. Rubbish prefix, post. Likwise ‘nu’, particularly when prefacing ‘Metal’. In fact, the problem with genre tags is two-fold; not only are they oxymoronic or nonsensical as above, they are doubly meaningless out of context. Prog, Punk, New Romantic, Rave: all these words immediately summon up images of certain times, attitudes, politics. Recycling the nomenclature of the past, appending and prefixing here and there is a great shortcut to describing a sound. But there is more to these musical ‘movements’ (as much as one must concede that they only appear to be movements in retrospect) than sound alone.
What qualities did the old-school proggers share? ‘Borrowing’ from other musical styles – mostly but not exclusively Jazz and Classical. Utilising new musical – and on occasion, non-musical – technology. Transcending the conventional 7″ single format. Classical-style Symphonic ‘suites’, Jazz-style improv, ‘storytelling’ in a folk tradition. These seemed like novel ideas in a pop context back in the ’60s: now everyone’s at it.
The industry of Western pop has shamelessly and superficially plundered it’s own historical riches in a manner which has long been considered cringeworthy where the musics of other cultures are concerned. ‘World Music’, anyone?
Artists of integrity who wish their work to be perceived and sold honestly and free of pretension eschew such tags, anyway. That’s why the likes of Zappa, Tim Smith (Cardiacs) and Radiohead vehemently opposed the ‘progressive’ tag, though their music is manifestly just that. Lesser purveyors ramble on about being their own person, free of affiliations to this or that scene before describing their songs as post-X, A meets B, Y taking a stroll into Z’s boudoir with a sassy twist of A … yadayada.
Conclusion – ‘prog’ today is a tag to look out for if you want music that avoids innovation like the plague. Long-in-the-tooth West country prog rockers Pendragon have upped the ante further by using the form as a vehicle to the kind of right-wing sloganeering and drippy nostalgia beloved of The Daily Mail:
Reactionary rock anyone?