Gavin Esler: Why I love prog rock
The writer and BBC journalist talks about his love for rock’s most varied – and derided – genre, and how it’s about much more than silly capes and 10-minute drum solos
Let me say it up front: I don’t like bad hair or capes. I’m not into witches, warlocks or elves. I would never try to claim prog rock is cool. But I love it. And I know I’m not the only one.
It’s perhaps easier to say what prog rock isn’t than what it is: it’s not three-minute pop songs, it’s not straightforward rock, metal, blues or jazz, but can have elements of all them and more. It’s a form that is on the boundaries of many different forms, that is open to all sorts of influences. It’s really the name for music that is very difficult to categorise. Too often we put music into boxes; you can’t do that with prog.
I grew up in Edinburgh, with a lot of music around me. There was a strong folk music scene in Scotland – there still is – and most of my friends played guitar, as I did. When I was 13 or 14, I decided that if I couldn’t play like Bert Jansch by the time I was 16, I would give it up. Needless to say, I never got close.
One day I came home with two LPs, Jethro Tull’s This Was and Led Zeppelin II. I had spent all my pocket money on them, and was immensely proud that I was listening to something that wasn’t my parents’ music. I didn’t buy them because it was prog rock; I bought them because I thought it was astonishing music. Then a friend asked if I’d heard an album by this new band Pink Floyd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I thought it was truly extraordinary – the production values, the care that had been taken, all these remarkable sounds, from weird electronic blips to the roar of raw guitar. It blew my head off. I couldn’t believe people could actually do this. I started listening to more and more things. And it opened all sorts of doors to me: to Keith Jarrett, to jazz, to Bach.
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is now a good friend, and the thing that strikes you about him is that he’s all about details. You’d see him as young man, standing on one leg on stage with his hair all over the place, hopping around wildly and playing the flute, but every single thing that he does has absolute precision. It’s one of the reasons so many of these artists have had such long careers. They’re the real thing.
There’s no doubt that prog rock has an image problem: many musicians hate the label, and too many people associate it with 10-minute drum solos and the weirder bits of JRR Tolkien. I know of at least two BBC DJs who publicly deride it, and yet in private admit they love the music. That’s a real shame. There’s so much to be proud of, not least because you could argue that it’s a British form. Sure, you can get embarrassed by the concept albums and the rest of it, but frankly we should be embarrassed by the Birdie Song, too.
But it seems to be on the way back. Prog magazine is one of the few music magazines I can think of whose circulation is healthy; the Progressive Music awards, which I’ve hosted for the last three years, gets bigger and bigger. Young bands are hugely influenced by this music, desperate to escape the straightjackets imposed on them by the industry and try something more experimental.
I remember one year people were having a drink after the awards ceremony and I joined a conversation halfway through. It turned out that Fish – formerly of Marillion – and two members of Genesis were having an impassioned debate about the influence of the Battle of the Somme on morale among French, British and German troops. Be as rude as you like about prog rock, but you don’t get that at a Beyoncé concert.
Prog in precis
Way in: Locomotive Breath by Jethro Tull It’s punchy, upbeat, it’s got rock and jazz and a load of other things. It sends you home happy.
Key work: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink FloydInventive, unforgettable – and you can sing along to the tunes.
In three words: Capes not necessary.