Prog rock expert David Weigel takes us through his record collection
The politics reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock recalls getting turned on to Yes and getting turned down by Robert Fripp
The first music I remember hearing and associating with aural pleasure was The Phantom Of The Opera soundtrack. The music that my parents listened to was Broadway. I remember mowing the lawn while listening to that on a cassette Walkman. There were some big, splashy melodies that I liked.
When I went to a middle school in Delaware, we had to wait for the school bus pick to pick us up, so we would watch MTV in its heyday. Based on music videos, I remember purchasing, in one go, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Vs and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was a fairly withdrawn kid. If you have friends who are cooler than you are then you try to copy, through osmosis, what makes them interesting. I had some friends who were really into Iron Maiden and Metallica. I was into some heavy metal.
The first time I heard progressive rock was in a beach town in Delaware when I was 14. I was just as excited to go to one of the town’s outlet malls, where you could buy cheaper cassette tapes, as I was to go to the beach. There was website I liked, by a critic named Mark Prindle, who reviewed albums and he liked Yes a lot. It sounded kind of intriguing, so I bought a $5.77 cassette tape of Fragile because Prindle said that was the best Yes album. I recall listening to Fragile and thinking, ‘The way that Metallica begin their two best albums, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, with some harmonics followed by the whole band coming in, ripped off Yes.’ I had been informed that progressive rock is a lot of drudgery. Instead, I found myself captivated by it. The prog record I’d want played at my funeral would be Onward by Yes.
My dad was a manager in a pharmaceutical company and they moved our family to the UK when I was 16. I treated myself, on my way out of America, to a portable CD player. From our new home in Horley, Surrey, I could walk to a station and take a train ride to an HMV or Virgin record store in London.
We arrived in the UK right after the release of Oasis’ Be Here Now – it was the dregs of Britpop. But I kept looking backwards. I have to credit Mojo magazine for putting out an issue listing the 50 best albums of progressive rock. I read about how King Crimson informed Yes’ Heart Of The Sunrise, so I bought In The Court Of The Crimson King and Red. I was aware of Genesis, but then I heard about their progressive rock period, so I bought Selling England By The Pound. Then I bought Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. I also remember this sequence of purchases: I picked up Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and got interested in other albums made in Berlin. So I got David Bowie’s Low and then Brian Eno’s albums. I was a mediocre student, but I wanted to get into a really good college, so I listened to Eno’s Another Green World while studying non‑stop.
By the time I left England to go to college in the US in 2000, I started really appreciating ambient sounds. At the time, Radiohead was moving from its verse-chorus-verse, fist-pumping music to more experimental stuff on Kid A and Amnesiac. So I pursued the roots of that music, which was often more ambient.
One album that no one else around me had heard of was Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s (No Pussyfooting). That sort of water music that Robert Fripp does is very calming. One of my favourite songs in that vein is The Farther Away I Am, the Daryl Hall song on Sacred Songs, his collaboration with Robert Fripp. That album was initially shelved but then released once Hall & Oates became enormous.
The band I obsessively collect is King Crimson. DGM make it easy because they make sure you can get your hands on every single show that was recorded in a quality way – and even some of the shows that were not. I recently went to see King Crimson at the Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey. I brought my girlfriend, who is not as big a fan as I am. I had heard how good the song Sailor’s Tale had become in its new arrangement and that was my show highlight. Their version of Bowie’s Heroes, too – it’s impossible not to like that song. My girlfriend enjoyed listening to the piercing melody of Heroes, instead of me trying to point out, in real time, how good the improvisation was on the other songs.
There are plenty of books about progressive rock – Paul Stump’s book The Music’s All That Matters, for example – but as early as 2001, I’d been thinking, ‘Why is there no popular narrative history that I could introduce to a friend and explain why I liked the music so much?’ So I started writing The Show That Never Ends. During my research, I emailed Robert Fripp to request an interview. I remember signing off with something like: it’s not going to be questions like, ‘What was it like to be in a band?’ Twelve hours later he emails me back and says, ‘Dear David, what was it like being in a band? In a word: dreadful. Good luck on your project.’ I kind of expected that kind of response. I was pleased by how witty it was, even though he’d turned me down.
Steven Wilson was a very informative interview for the last part of the book. The music he’s writing right now is pretty genre‑hopping. I love To the Bone, which has done very well in the UK charts. It’s a hit album. I really liked Permanating, with its piano figure and the statement it made.
One thing I tried to convey in my book is that progressive rock doesn’t have to be ponderous. The music I’m most surprised by now is progressive metal like Protest The Hero. I find their fast-change time signatures exciting. It’s music that is clearly experimenting and not working over the forms that people 30 years ago determined were compelling.
My love of progressive rock rarely intersects with my job as a politics reporter for The Washington Post. But I was at an event with libertarian-leaning Republican senator Rand Paul when he was running for president and Rush had just condemned him for using the song Tom Sawyer on the campaign trail. I asked him about that, almost as an ice-breaker question, and he was furious in a way I’d rarely seen him react to anything. He was saying it was really pathetic that these musicians who were so open to new ideas were suddenly defending Democrats. He felt he could resurrect the libertarian politics that Neil Peart had gotten into trouble about 30 years ago and then moved away from!
Reporting can be a stressful job. But whenever I’m in a bad mood, there’s one song in my collection that can always cheer me up: King Crimson’s Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With.”
The Show That Never Ends is now available from WW Norton books. You can follow David on Twitter: @daveweigel