Perhaps no musical genre has been as maligned as progressive rock. But in The Show That Never Ends, his brisk and extremely entertaining overview of prog, Washington Post political reporter David Weigel makes the case that it was enormously innovative and influential—a link between the rebellion and creativity of the mid-1960s and punk, which eventually overthrew it. Though prog could be pretentious and overstuffed, the conventional wisdom about the genre dramatically understates how popular it was in the 1970s—and how interesting and ambitious it still is.
I spoke to Weigel about what it was like to work on the book while covering the presidential election and why now is the time to reappraise progressive rock. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You wrote The Show That Never Ends while covering the 2016 election. What was that like?
It’s by far the least painful thing that happened to anyone during the election. I think it saved my sanity, quite honestly. I had been interested in progressive rock forever. I was into it before I was into politics. But once I got all the way, neck-deep into politics, I realized I needed this refuge.
There is, as you note at the start of your book, no genre of music that is quite as uncool. Why did you decide to write this and not, say, a campaign book?
I’ve always thought you should write about something you’re directly experiencing, or something where the people and sources you’re writing about are either newly discovered or going to die. And in this case—and I’m not trying to be light about it, it’s actually very sad—I talked to a lot of people before they died, not knowing that they were that close to [death]. Except for Daevid Allen [of Gong], who had cancer when I interviewed him.
But that was my thought. I realize the music is esoteric, I realize that people are wondering why I didn’t just write a travelogue of the campaign. And the bet that I made, I think correctly, is that I just didn’t think people would want to live that campaign over again and that they might want to relive interesting music from the 1970s that they forgot about.
The thing I ended up liking the most about The Show That Never Ends is how earnest it is. You don’t treat progressive rock as a goof, even if you don’t let it off the hook when it’s goofy.
When Robert Fripp [of King Crimson] was flashing out and left music, he went into complete solitude in a spiritual retreat for years. He was experimenting with tape loops—not having ragers and throwing bottles against the wall. Where there were Spinal Tap stories I definitely wanted to tell them—and I did.
But a band like Rush, one of the biggest bands in the world, they’re very open about the fact that nothing interesting has ever happened to them. Since Neil Peart joined the band they’ve been the same three guys for 40 years. Aside from some personal tragedies, they’ve never had, like, a cocaine blowout or anything. The kitsch came in the 1980s when they sold out. That was when the Rolex fights happened.
What I liked about books like Please Kill Me and Our Band Could Be Your Life—there are these really human stories in those books. One of the through lines of Please Kill Me is Johnny Thunders fucking up his life over and over again. There’s nothing awesome about that. Being a musician is hard and unglamorous.
Many prog rockers just didn’t have flashy downfalls. Fripp very purposefully kept changing what he was doing—same with Peter Gabriel. Some bands became corporate rock, and admitted it. Then there are guys like Bill Bruford [of Yes] who got into jazz. There just aren’t that many explosive stories. They were rock musicians who veered into progressive music—that was, on its own, interesting.
That’s especially interesting given prog rock’s reputation for bombast and excess.
I think a lot of the corporate rock stuff overshadowed the creative part. It’s like in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carrell’s character has an Asia poster on the wall and it’s treated as a laugh. I laughed at it! But I wonder if that’s what people are missing—they think that this music is just dragons and nonsense. They don’t think that the people who made it took it seriously—but they took it very seriously.
One of the implicit arguments of the book is that progressive rock is the connection between the explosion of garage and psychedelic music in the 1960s and punk and hardcore music in the late 1970s.
Hardcore musicians get a lot of credit for the scene they created. There were very tight-knit scenes where people would give people places to stay, allowing these bands to tour around the country. These were super local scenes that were super passionate about music. I realized during my reporting that this was something that grew out of the 1960s. The scenes that eventually superseded it—new wave and punk rock—get a lot of attention. But the prog scene was always left out.
Look at the 60s beat scene. The Who’s evolution was mirrored by some of these bands, but they took it much further. The Who wrote Tommy, the first rock opera, but it was still discrete songs that formed more of a musical. Whereas progressive musicians were creating longer and longer pieces, pieces without words, with quotes from classical music—and more electronics.
The fact that these bands were hugely innovative on a technological level really comes through in this book.
Progressive musicians were acquiring and experimenting with the first musical synthesizers, but they don’t get credit for it. Stevie Wonder, of course, deserves a lot of credit for popularizing the Moog, but so do these guys. A giant synthesizer on stage was like in WWE when John Cena walks on—the crowd was so excited to hear synthesizer bleeps, not just because of the technique but because of the newness of it. As someone who goes to live music a lot but got really bored with four guys in t-shirts playing songs with hooks, I thought that was really exciting. In the late 60s and 70s, as these guys were touring, if you were in college, you could hear Van der Graaf Generator, this extremely ornate pop music, coming out of the common room.
The definition of progressive rock is contested, but you focus mostly on the British groups. Why?
I dealt with the non-European progressive rock through covering Rush, for example—that also includes Kansas and some of the American progressive rock bands. But there wasn’t as much creativity, frankly. To me, the new directions were being taken by the people who were there at the creation: Fripp especially. Bruford, Jon Anderson, Carl Palmer, the people who ended up in Asia. The people that I found the most interesting were the ones writing stuff first, whereas I felt the American bands were very much an echo.
American progressive rock is interesting. American progressive heavy metal is super interesting. We ended up becoming innovators in that, and I quote Steve Wilson from Porcupine Tree saying the last interesting thing in music, the last new thing, is metal. But it turns out the wellspring of this beat was extremely English. Other Europeans like Vangelis, and the Italian groups like PFM and Banco, have a sound that is a little more continental and classically influenced.
The British groups are the most interesting though. They did it first. They come to America. New York has a cameo in the book because Daevid Allen—and this is one of the favorite albums I found while writing—came out of nowhere and released New York Gone, a No Wave album, because he was living in the city and said, “Alright, this is new too!”
This book is a revisionist history, hitting back at the narrative that progressive rock music was bloated and pretentious. But I was surprised by the self-awareness of these bands and musicians. Ambitious, but not necessarily pretentious.
Even at the time some critics were eye-rolling pretty hard about what they were trying to pull off. But I really wanted to convey that this was music by ambitious young people who would just pound beers and then go to the studio and create a 20-minute song with nature sounds. It wasn’t even really drug-influenced. The tension I liked was when people like Rick Wakeman would show up in a group and, for all the capes and the pomp, you could tell he was very aware that this was kind of goofy—but he still leaned in. Even when he puts people on ice performing King Arthur, for example, he knows the crowd is up for something ridiculous. Still, there was a reach and an ambition that pop just doesn’t have anymore.