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Prog Rock Gets Some Respect In 'The Show That Never Ends'

David Weigel is known primarily as a political reporter for The Washington Post and a regular commentator on MSNBC. In 2012, though, he indulged in an entirely different passion for Slate: He wrote a five-part series of essays about progressive rock called Prog Spring, chronicling the rise and fall of prog in the '60s and '70s. Weigel focused on the genre's major players — bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer — while giving an engrossing account of why and how a generation of rock musicians decided to ditch primal simplicity in favor of ornate, brainy compositions that owed more to classical and jazz.

He's since fleshed out Prog Spring into a book, The Show That Never Ends, and it comes at a curious time. Prog luminaries like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fill stadiums year after year, but the music itself is still a cult concern, mostly irrelevant to popular music in 2017. That, however, is Weigel's whole point: While prog experienced its heyday way back in the '70s, it embodies a push and pull between pop and innovation, between commerce and art, that persists today.

[Weigel's] knack for lean, efficient music analysis is refreshing ... and his obvious passion for the music elevates the narrative without spilling over into fatuous flag-waving.

Weigel sets the stage for this conflict by tracing the origins of heavyweights like ELP's virtuoso keyboardist Keith Emerson, who grew up as enamored of big bands in post-World War II England as he did the cruder gyrations of the rock revolution. As the '60s came to a close, the strange, swirling sounds of psychedelia emboldened Emerson, Phil Collins of Genesis, Robert Fripp of King Crimson and many others to expand rock's rudimentary template into something far more elaborate and symphonic in scope.

The Show That Never Ends doesn't skimp on detail. The '70s saw prog become extremely popular, then swiftly drop off after the advent of punk and new wave, and Weigel weaves the stories of platinum-selling bands like Pink Floyd and Rush into a broader portrait of a rapidly shifting musical landscape. His training as a journalist is everywhere, from the crisp reporting to the deeply researched quotes. His knack for lean, efficient music analysis is refreshing — a lot of writing about prog tends to be as baroque as the music itself — and his obvious passion for the music elevates the narrative without spilling over into fatuous flag-waving.

Prog has been knocked by wave after wave of music critics from the '70s on, and it's hard not to hear a slight tone of defensiveness in Weigel's book-length argument. Prog's perceived weaknesses, he argues, are its actual strengths: Its so-called pretentiousness forced rock to evolve in the post-Beatles era, and its ambition gave many talented musicians space to write songs about far more than love or politics. Escapism was part of the appeal, but prog, Weigel argues, is just as rooted in the traditions of literature and the history of Western music as a whole. He makes a convincing case, and he's wise to balance his coverage of prog's big stars with the a careful selection of the genre's more obscure practitioners, from Soft Machine in the late '60s to Marillion in the early '80s.

Marillion marked a small prog revival in the '80s, and the genre has never completely gone away. Today, a thriving underground exists — which Weigel discusses fairly and with just a hint of self-effacing humor, framing his story by recounting his experiences on a prog-themed ocean cruise and a present-day concert by one of prog's most beloved pioneers, Van der Graaf Generator. Weigel is an astute observer, and he knows full well how ridiculous prog can seem to anyone who doesn't regularly listen to ten-minute, orchestral rock songs about extraterrestrial travel. But he authoritatively, engagingly drives home the point that prog has never received a fair shake — and that its restless experimentation makes for both intriguing music and high art.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller