Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces

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Shamelessly utilized other artists’ work, didn’t bother to acknowledge the source material most of the time, became famous, influential and wealthy, is celebrated years later as a creative force without peer, is, in fact, synonymous with an entire genre. Undeniably a mercenary, a self-promoter, possibly in league with the devil.

I’m talking, of course, about William Shakespeare.

But seriously. I can also talk about the ink—and crocodile tears—spilled cataloging the sins of the generation-spanning iconoclast who allegedly has taken all kinds of freedom with hymns, poems, blues songs, all while scoffing at the mere intimation of plagiarism.

But enough about Bob Dylan.

You get the picture, I hope.

Talking about Led Zeppelin is never uncomplicated. But in 2014, with lawsuits (however unpersuasive) in the news, and the Internet making it easier than ever to understand—and hear—the instances where Zep was less than scrupulous about crediting some of their predecessors, whose songs they purloined or improved upon (depending on one’s perspective), it’s at once an ideal and odd time to reassess this great band’s first three albums.

They are here, in remastered form (yawn), but for the first time since the two-part box sets in the early ‘90s, sporting previously unheard material (woah!). As is the case with so many classic acts who are in the semi-regular routine of recycling their back catalogs under the guise of ever-improved sound, this latest round is available via modest—and reasonably priced—reissues and deluxe multi-disc productions.

Let the verdict be succinct and unambiguous: the sound quality is astonishing. If you are still rocking the now-ancient first edition CD releases (which would make you, like this writer, ancient), the first two albums in particular have desperately needed a sonic overhaul that these issues deliver: you can almost taste the lemon juice running down Robert Plant’s legs. Say this about Jimmy Page: in addition to his incontestable guitar skills, he was also a first-rate producer; if new technology enables increased fidelity, who are we to argue? Each “deluxe edition” features two discs; one with a remastered original and a bonus disc with the aforementioned “new” material. These are as no-brainer as it gets for casual fans and especially fanatics.

About the previously unavailable stuff. Who, exactly, needs bonus tracks with isolated vocals on songs like “Ramble On”? Everyone and anyone, obviously. If you are hardcore or have a cursory interest in the history of rock and/or the genesis of riffs repeated and ripped off so many times they seem artificial themselves, this is all very necessary. The question will arise: is there even more material in the vaults? Undoubtedly. But for now, this is fresh Zeppelin. Any Zeppelin is good Zeppelin; previously unavailable Zeppelin, regardless of quality or novelty, is priceless in its way.

Your mileage, obviously, will vary. You can, for instance, experience “Friends” as an instrumental track, or “Since I’ve Been Loving You” a first draft of the eventual tour de force; you can also hear “Whole Lotta Love” with isolated vocals and guitar(s!) which is not unlike being inside the studio to marvel at how these Gospels got written and recorded. It’s probably worth the time and money to hear “La La”, which features the band jamming not quite aimlessly, but in a way that will make aficionados appreciate the ways some of these snippets and formulations resurfaced on later tracks.

The first album’s bonus disc is a live set recorded in Paris during their ’69 tour. Like the bonus tracks on the other two discs, some of the material has been bootlegged or available online, but now it’s finally, properly presented in official form. Again, as a curiosity, this is all worthwhile; for anyone who has spent decades worshipping at the altar of the Golden Gods; this is like India Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant.

On Led Zeppelin II the bonus tracks are variations on works-in-progress or “rough mixes with vocal”; on Led Zeppelin III there’s more of the same, only more so. The rough mix, for instance, of “That’s The Way” reveals what a technician Page was: the multi-tracked acoustic guitars and mandolin are clear and lively and we can appreciate the augmented—and wistful—feelings the subsequent slide guitar brought to the proceedings. Like many of Zeppelin’s more subdued tracks, it is deceptively simple; even on these restrained outings, Page was a gentle, astute stickler for detail.

A few words, of course, are necessary to put this material—particularly the first album—in better perspective, four and a half decades after its release. For starters, Led Zeppelin is not a debut album; it’s not even merely a revelation. It’s a reckoning, a realignment: things were simply never the same and audiences owe a perpetual debt for all that came after—including the ugly and unlistenable imitators.

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, cynical, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums—especially the first one—the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim—made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair—has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable, and indefensible, out of the way right up front. On the debut album more than half the songs are borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from old blues legends; they used Joan Baez’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as a launching pad for their soon-to-be-patented (and, ironically, imitated) soft/heavy sensibility. “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” were initially claimed to be original compositions, but the band at least had the sense to not even attempt denying Willie Dixon full credit for both “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

While the band can—and must—be castigated for being too rapacious to do the right thing regarding royalties (until legally compelled to do so), there is a significant disparity between being brazen and being uninspired. To be certain, all of this original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on. Put another way, Zep’s remakes have an originality and élan that the songs British Invasion bands covered largely lack.

True, those earlier bands gave credit where credit was due, but their motives, ironically, were arguably less benign. Give me a band with deep roots in terms of appreciation and understanding a breadth of music spanning multiple genres as opposed to opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name two, were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating sources like Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell into their arsenal, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put yet another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles, unlike the saccharine covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Put still another way, if I want to hear classic blues reimagined, give me Mr. Plant over Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Jagger.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of proper attribution, it could be—and probably never convincingly has been—argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work by anyone not named Eric Clapton to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the early ‘70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they loved this music, they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies.

So, after the shame and all the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influence and they have been repaid, indelibly and perhaps karmically, by being copied by thousands of eager, inferior mediocrities. When it comes to art that matters, there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, those that came before them. These touchstones can—and should—become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin to (insert every ‘70s and ‘80s band here) to The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

In the final analysis, what really matters? The music that endures seldom needs anyone to describe or defend it. With the exception of The Beatles, no other band has loomed quite as large, to the extent that we’ll never have enough accolades. There are a limited number of bands that provide a blueprint for how to do it, even if everyone acknowledges there is no conceivable way it could ever be duplicated, much less surpassed. The first three Led Zeppelin albums are as sui generis as any documents in modern rock, and the dust will never settle because their impact can’t be exhausted and we’ll never cease to wonder how they happened in the first place.

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On Getting (or not getting) a PhD in Political Science and Bob Dylan, Remixed

The genius of the Inernet, again.

Here’s two very different, very brilliant things I stumbled upon today (h/t Andrew Sullivan and PopMatters):

So You Want To Get a PhD in Political Science:

(More on this another time, perhaps, but suffice it to say, much of this applies to any sort of PhD work: the people who get them, the people who adminster them, and the push-and-pull of fear and longing that drives the entire enterprise.)

Bob Dylan: “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Remix)”

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