Prog was born in an era of possibilities, at a time of cultural and social freedom brought about by some amazing technological breakthroughs. The notions of colonialism and repression were rejected and replaced by hope, a growing environmental movement and an awareness of the fragility of our global ecology. For a short period, the protagonists seemed to actually believe that they could change the world.
By definition, progressive rock was outward-looking, absorbing influences from a variety of disparate sources; in effect it was philosophical. This holds equally true for complex albums (Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans, two albums filled with 'green language') and the more (superficially) down-to-earth tracks such as Bedside Manners are Extra. Grand themes were important, from the unifying concept of the pressures of everyday life in Dark Side of the Moon, to musical interpretations of literature or historic or mythical figures (Music Inspired by the Snow Goose; The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Eruption from Moving Waves), or the creation of future myths (Olias of Sunhillow; The Story of I). Grand themes did not lend themselves so well to the requirements of the hit single, though Wonderous Stories is a notable exception as it reached number 7 in the UK charts despite the onslaught from Punk at that time.
As much as I’d like to blame Margaret Thatcher for the demise of prog, I believe it was actually the madcap transatlantic economic theories that influenced her and the subsequent creed that selfishness was a virtue that were the portents of prog’s downfall. In a nutshell, I propose that the golden era of progressive rock died with the rise of free market dogma, the predominant economic model at the time which was contrary to the counter-cultural beliefs that inspired progressive music. The global financial crash of 2008 exposed free market neoliberalism as a defunct ideology, though the 1% still cling to its coat-tails as they award themselves massive bonuses for their failure, use imaginative schemes to avoid paying fair tax and deny that their pursuit of greed is destroying our planet as they lobby governments for more bites of the cherry. I won’t apologise for once more raising the fact that anyone who aligned with the philosophy of selfishness espoused by Ayn Rand is incapable of understanding the original prog values.
In reality, moving away from prog was less a conscious decision taken by the artists and more of a drift towards conformity under pressure from a music business that was changing from an ethos of artistic freedom (that somehow still managed to sell millions of albums) to one of commodity. Record company interference might be exemplified by the imposition of external producers or simply the insistence that a band have a hit single. There was a burgeoning group of acts in the pop world who were aided in their quest for market domination by the rise of MTV and a realisation that the pseudo-science of Advertising coupled with an increasingly cut-throat PR business could help them manipulate a public that had just lived through a global energy crisis and a subsequent economic downturn. They were fighting for the cash in the punter’s pocket and would use whatever means necessary. Punk may have highlighted the bleakness of ordinary lives but in effect, this simply readied the world for a bit of glamour, albeit a shallow and self-centred glamour: Fashion and music, the rise of style over substance.
It’s unfair to classify Asia as construction, a supergroup designed to maintain the lifestyle of the members but that’s what the majority of critics thought. An easy target, they were yesterday’s musicians with nothing new to give. Fortunately for the band, there are millions more ordinary members of the record-buying public than there are professional music critics and somehow Asia managed to ride the zeitgeist for a few years. At the time, I was happy to buy their eponymous debut album when it was released in 1982 without having heard a single bar of music, based on the stellar line-up. The end product was undoubtedly slick but it wasn’t prog. It wasn’t even adventurous. In hindsight, it was fairly obvious that a fair amount of the material on UK’s Danger Money was a step in the direction of mainstream rock and that Wetton’s solo output in the intervening years between UK and Asia (Jack-Knife, Caught in the Crossfire) were far removed from any of his contributions up to and including the first UK album. My criticism of the album is not strictly aimed at the music; the musicianship still manages to shine through despite the lack of anything challenging. I’m more concerned with the lyrical content which I believe conforms to the prevailing political climate of the time. The subject matter is predominantly about relationships, love, and sung in the first person. If this was a solo effort there might be an excuse that singing about personal circumstances was somehow ‘honest’. The material is inward-looking, what the world is doing to the singer, putting the individual at the centre. World values had changed and the concept was not progressive. Of the tracks that didn’t concern relationships, Sole Survivor is an individual fighting the odds, a paean to ‘self’, and Wildest Dreams may be an anti-war anthem but it also has a strong anti-totalitarian slant that hints of the dangers of a communist victory.
The following year, 1983, Yes fell into the same trap with the release of 90125. A qualitative move away from ‘head’ music, this was also MTV and radio-friendly. The shift towards more accessible music affected Yes more than it did Asia. Asia was a new band with no previously defined sound of its own; Yes had considerable history and, despite sometimes seismic personnel changes (Anderson and Wakeman leaving after attempts to produce an album to follow the unsatisfactory Tormato) they had always maintained a particular world-view. 90125 changed all that, with a combination of guitar-heavy material from Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn’s production. Only the late addition of Jon Anderson allowed it to be classed as a Yes album because without his vocal contribution this could have been any competent rock ‘n’ roll band that didn’t require too much thought or input from the listener. This explains why it became the best–selling Yes album and divided existing Yes fans. We weren’t used to having everything spelled out to us and to dumb down the content with an overtly commercial sound was a strain on our loyalty. I accept that the music had to continue to move forward or evolve to retain its progressive tag but in the instance of 90125, the sonic palette was compressed and it felt like a retrograde step towards generic 80s rock. And yes, I still went to see them play live.
What I find remarkable is that while Asia, Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd were all embarked on an excursion away from classic prog, neo-prog acts were attempting to recreate the music of the golden era of prog, albeit infused with something of a punk attitude, but more importantly still, a reformed King Crimson had shown that it was possible to create a new form of progressive music without compromising their artistic values.