Book review: Wonderous Stories: A Journey Through the Landscape of Progressive Rock by Jerry Ewing
Perhaps it depends on when your ears were first opened up to such creative, thought-provoking music.
By his own admission, Jerry Ewing, editor of the monthly glossy mag Prog, who has undertaken the mammoth task of covering half a century of the genre for this 160-page book, remains frustrated by the reaction of some fans.
He is probably referring to those now ageing diehards, still following their old heroes on ‘pension fund’ tours of venues far smaller than those bands used to fill so easily.
Yet there are still any number of current, younger prog bands around to ensure that, through both live performance and recordings, there is a genuine resurgence with an audience which wants to enjoy what is actually happening rather than merely paying tribute band lip service to what once did.
Arguably, the glory years of progressive rock were from the late 1960s until the arrival of the mid-1970s punk scene, a few years before Australian-born Ewing discovered the genre for himself during its second wave, courtesy of Marillion, which prompted him to start his own prog rock fanzine.
But, as he so easily proves in this fine book, you didn’t have to be there from the very beginning to ‘get’ what the groups were all about, nor does prog always have to sound like it was made between 1970 and 1974. Unless you are too regressive, that is!
The book studies the various and varied influences on the genre, from avant-garde, classical and psychedelia to jazz, folk and metal. There are extensive chapters on the acknowledged ‘Big Six’… Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull and King Crimson.
Albums that have come to define the genre – including Days of Future Passed, In The Land of Grey and Pink, Selling England by The Pound, Tarkus and The Dark Side of The Moon – also go under the stylus spotlight, and the book follows the path of prog rock in the United States and Europe, as well as Germany’s krautrock movement.
According to Ewing, the website progarchives.com lists no less than 23 different sub-genres of progressive rock and he touches on many in the book, such as art rock, jazz fusion and the Canterbury Scene.
So what is progressive music?
In his foreword, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett claims it was Richard Strauss describing Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius as ‘progressive’ that sparked a debate which has now lasted more than 100 years.
In fact there are no strict rules about what progressive music is or isn't. Rick Wakeman, former keyboard wizard with Yes, claims: ‘I always say that it’s about breaking the rules. But the secret of breaking the rules in a way that works is understanding what the rules are in the first place.’
Ian Anderson, taking Jethro Tull on their 50th anniversary UK tour in April, has a simpler explanation: ‘What is progressive rock? Music for people who get bored easily.’ And Ewing himself insists: ‘Prog is not just a sound, it’s a mindset.’
Embellished with countless photographs of talented musicians from over the years, together with more album covers than you could shake a record rack at, and even a double page spread of concert ticket stubs, Wonderous Stories is an in-depth history for the eyes as well as the ears.
(The Flood Gallery, hardback, £30)