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Book review: Marc Weingarten & Tyson Cornell (eds.) - Yes is the Answer and other prog rock tales (2013)

Yes i the Answer cover.jpg

Yes is the Answer and other prog rock tales (2013)

I came into progressive rock fairly early on, long before peak-prog or the rise of punk and I've spent the intervening years filling in gaps in my knowledge and in my collection of both recorded pieces and the written word. For whatever reason, it seems as though prog has been rediscovered after years in the wilderness and has become acceptable to mention in polite circles once more. In fact, prog didn’t really go away and the current wave has lasted since the mid 1990s, boosted first by a spate of analytical texts (e.g. Edward Macan’s Rocking the Classics, 1997) and then ever more comprehensive books listing bands and albums (e.g. The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock by Charles Snider, 2007.) Hot on their heels came more specialist compendia of recollections (e.g. Nick Awde’s Mellotron. The Machine and the Musicians that Revolutionised Rock, 2008) and the vinyl LP resurgence that somehow seemed to confirm the resurrection of prog – progressive rock of the 70s was, more than any other genre, associated with gatefold album sleeves.

Weingarten and Cornell’s 2013 book Yes is the Answer looks like it fits the part: The dust cover on the hardback edition features an appropriate design by Nathan Popp of a Roger Dean-like tree in watercolours; there’s a supportive quotation from Adrian Belew on the cover; the paper has a nice quality and the Goudy Old Style typeface fits a prog text really well. The book has a good weight and sits comfortably in the hand, then to cap it off, there’s an apt quotation on the overblown nature of the genre before the first essay:

Disclaimer: Some of the essays in this book are prolix and self-indulgent.

These are essays about Prog Rock. This is as it should be.

Then the collection falls apart.

It soon becomes clear that the views of many of the contributors have been forged under the influence of mostly soft but occasionally hard drugs and that their introduction to the genre was either at the tail-end of the golden period or later. Reading the short biographies after each essay reveals a few musicians and a plethora of journalists/latterly novelists who mostly write for anything but specialist music magazines. They're predominantly American and apart from a couple of names (Jim DeRogatis, British-born Wesley Stace for example), they’re largely anonymous in the UK.

Though a small number of 70s bands did well in the US, progressive rock was a largely English thing and it wasn't until the resurgence of prog in the mid-90s that there was any significant American input. Even then, this latest phase had its roots in metal and was sort of retro-fitted to the original. This means that a book written almost exclusively by American journalists, primarily concerning the Dionysian associations of rock music, makes perfect sense to an American audience but it leaves Europeans like myself, who saw an idealistic bunch of musicians attempting to bridge the gap between high and popular culture at the end of the 60s, somewhat bemused. Progressive rock blended virtuosity, emerging technologies and inspiration from music from around the world with a sense of changing the world, embracing the nascent ecology movement and ignoring artificial cultural barriers. There may have been some drug use but the early prog exponents were more likely to shun stimulants and concentrate on the music.
If you like short, personal stories about coming-of-age with the attendant sex and drugs and rock and roll, you may like this book. However, don’t think there’s anything analytical or even enlightening about progressive rock within the pages. The whole presentation is a celebration of the orgiastic, in contrast to the more Apollonian evolution of progressive rock; it's not actually about the music but about the individual contributors who at some stage in their development have liked prog. The exception and therefore the best essay is by Nick Coleman, an English author who writes about art-rockers Be Bop Deluxe – a band, Coleman writes, he got into to replace prog. The piece supports Jonathan Coe’s view of progressive rock and its adherents circa 1975 but it’s well written and for a Brit of a certain age, quite relatable. The essay inspired me to read his autobiographical memoir The Train in the Night: A story of music and loss, shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize. Unlike Yes is the Answer, The Train in the Night gets my recommendation and not just because of the pages about prog. However, I wouldn’t have discovered Nick Coleman if I’d not got Yes is the Answer – so perhaps it was worth reading after all.