The Revealing Science of Prog: David Weigel

Dave Weigel’s recently published The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock (Norton) is as unusual a marriage of writer and subject as you are likely to come across this year. Weigel is best known as a writer on politics (these days, for the Washington Post), specifically a wise and informed observer of the conservative and libertarian movements—though with an admirable astringency that prevents him from being reverential of anyone, left, right, or center. However, Weigel has also written at length about music, and clearly has come to his impending survey of all things “prog” as a result of a voluminous appetite for the subgenre. And he has done so despite the fact that the vast majority of rock critics dislike prog and/or think it inexplicable and pretentious. As a person who listened fervently to the progressive rock form during its heyday in the mid-seventies, I have a keenly sensitive bullshit detector for millennial apologists who didn’t put in the requisite time being reviled by their punk rock friends (circa 1977), and who therefore don’t fully inhabit the lonesome space that is prog appreciation. And yet: Weigel is a smart guy who thinks about the movement in the way that Nietzsche thought about opera: in large and considered philosophical terms. He also has command of the minutiae necessary for a survey. Just try to trip him up! Though there is not enough about Gentle Giant in The Show That Never Ends, and too much about Kansas, Weigel passes the test for this listener, so I was eager to press a few questions on him, the answers to which you will find below. The interview was conducted by email in May 2017 while the “Russian problem” (Weigel’s own term) was really heating up at the Washington Post. He was, and is, as the Russian problem grinds along, a very busy guy. Incredible that he has found time not only to go on a prog cruise (see the preface to The Show That Never Ends), but to answer my questions as well.

David Weigel, The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock (Norton, 2017)

Rick Moody (Rail): What’s the mood in the Washington Post newsroom right now?

Dave Weigel: I’m in the Capitol, where there are just four to six Washington Post reporters, depending on the hour. The banter is fantastic—you could boil it down and write one hell of a sitcom. And the running joke is that, come 6 p.m. every day, we will be writing something that overwhelms what we wrote over the past 12 hours. I would be a liar if I said it was a drag.

Rail: What was the route of transmission for you with prog? Older sibling? What was your first encounter?

Weigel: Like all great things, it came from the Internet. In 1996 or so, when I was 15, I went from total ignorance about pop music to total fandom. My family would take long trips, and I’d play through albums—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica—on my Walkman. I wanted more recommendations, so in those days of HISS-WHEEE-HISS modem sign-ons, I discovered, an independent record review website with a very funny, Dada writing style. It gave me metal recommendations, and it made the hard sell on bands like Yes and King Crimson. At some outlet mall in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, I found a cheap tape of The Yes Album and I was hooked. The melodies weren’t just solid—the songs zigged from place to place. I’d never heard anything experimental, so when I got Close to the Edge and heard 50 seconds of nature sounds, I wondered if I had a bad tape. BAM—there was the band, crashing in with this incredible sound.

Rail: Did you play an instrument in your youth? And was an appreciation of the idiom related, in any way, to competence, or the dream of competence on a particular instrument?

Weigel: My uncle, also named Dave, gave a hand-me-down guitar around this time. I was pretty useless until 1998, when my family moved to England and, as the son of parents who recognized that they had one jock on their hands—my brother—and one “competence TBD” child, got me some lessons. I never got good, but I learned to read music and to play songs with simple chords and power chords if I listened and experimented. That absolutely influenced my appreciation for progressive rock, which I kept collecting in England via train-borne trips to Virgin Records and HMV and Tower.
But I’ve since discovered that I was sort of an outlier, and my friends were outliers, in that we loved this music deeply but didn’t develop the talent to form our own bands. I thank Music Babble in the book; that was a chat board where other Mark Prindle readers gathered to share tapes and pick apart what we loved about the songs. Since then, when I’ve met progressive super-fans, they often have bands and sound-proofed garages. That was definitely the case on the Cruise to the Edge, which, as I hope the book demonstrates, was more enlightening than a cruise has any right to be.

Rail: Were there other aspect of a prog youth to which you also fell prey, i.e., Dungeons and Dragons, science fiction?

Weigel: Well, I was fairly nerdy before I got into it. To this day I’ve played Advanced D&D just once, but I loved Tolkien so much that I wrote a fan-fiction sequel to The Lord of the Rings for a class project. This was before the movies, when the books definitely signified nerd-dom. (I remember a teacher referring to the books being set in “Tolkein-land” or whatever, when most people now know “Middle Earth.”) And I was a huge science fiction fan. Started with Asimov, fell into Bester and Delaney and Ellison, and—this is probably key—had a distinct lack of friends who wanted to talk about this stuff with me.

The twist: I spent years not really listening to lyrics. I always listened more to the music, and when I spent money, it would be on superior headphones that let me pick out each instrument. (I loved stereo recordings, and would listen to a song in one ear then the other.) But if I really loved a song, like “The Gates of Delirium,” I’d pull up the lyrics and then reverse-engineer how they were written. And that definitely deepened my love of this music. Love songs hit me as bland; if you wrote lyrics about Tolstoy, or even if you were a band like Ween writing about swords and voodoo, I was there for it.

Rail: If prog really represents a triumph of a European rock idiom over Black music as it influenced American rock and roll, were you immune in your youth to the charms of what was happening with American music? For example, in the period in which I was listening to prog stuff, I had to deal with the slavish devotion to the Grateful Dead among siblings and peers.

Weigel: I liked weird music, though often “weird” was packaged by the big labels—Beck, for example, was the first big arena musician I saw. (The first concert was by Super Furry Animals.) Growing up in England really tweaked my sensibilities. The book quotes liberally from Sounds and NME, which I discovered by living in the UK. Some of my best and worst album purchases were inspired not just by the British music press but by the aplomb with which they sold it—this funny, unapologetic homer-ism or hate, which I just wasn’t familiar with in American music writing. I left the US when The Smashing Pumpkins were huge, and plunged into the UK when boybands were coming back. That probably explains why, by 1999 or so, I was buying up old Brian Eno and Robert Fripp albums and jamming headphones in when the Tesco speakers started blasting Boyzone.

Rail: In your opinion, was there any good American prog? Or is it a genre that is just not as native to American bands?

Weigel: Progressive metal, yes—I think we’re world-beaters on that. And while digging deeper into the music, I found a lot of late ‘60s and early ‘70s American music that was good but derivative. I’m a sucker for a long, spacey Mellotron or keyboard hook, but didn’t hear much that threw me. I think we got much more interesting when the generation that grew up on progressive rock, people born in the ‘60s, started forming bands like Dream Theater. Of all the ‘90s bands that splashed across MTV, the one I found myself revisiting was Tool.

Rail: One thing I’m really interested in, with the prog renaissance of the millennial period, is whether there is nostalgia or irony inevitably built into it. What do you think? You are getting at this a little bit with the prog cruise in the introductory chapter—there’s something inherently ironic about prog being confined to a cruise. But at the same time for me loving these albums now will always be to remember the time that I first heard them (Aqualung and Nursery Crime in my dorm room in Concord, NH, in 1975, e.g.), such that the music inevitably recalls that time. Is it possible to hear it, now, simply as musically interesting?

Weigel: Oh, definitely—but as it goes to the nostalgia a competitive nostalgia. One point I try to make is that this music conquered swathes of the planet for a few crucial years, and yet the pop memory of those years either cuts it out or marks it as a joke. There’s a lot of power, I think, in how a film or a book remembers a period, and progressive got cut out with a couple of exceptions. I can rattle them off—the Yes songs in Buffalo ‘66 Jason Segal’s Rush fandom in Freaks and Geeks.

The impression I got at festivals and on the cruise was that fans leaned in to the lack of popular nostalgia—they/we really appreciated how lost and looked down upon the music was. To hook other people else on this, you had to be ready for their built-in bias. The music itself would surprise them. It’s just so much more musically interesting than most of the pop they’ll hear.

Rail: I want to respond to your idea about American prog being toward the metal end of things. Is there no way that a jam band could have prog elements? I note, e.g., that Trey Anastasio from Phish inducted Genesis at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I believe played on “Watcher of the Skies,” or some such. And then there are the ways that the Dead mimicked prog occasionally. Terrapin Station was sort of the first Dead album that I could tolerate because of the tricky time signatures and string overdubs.

Weigel: Ha, now I’m kicking myself in the shin for not realizing I could and should have talked to Phish about this as I researched the book. Definitely, jam bands quote and learn from progressive rock. The point I was making was that the genres (and subcultures) diverged, like a tribe of hunter-gatherers that splits up when the glacier they were using to cross the Bering Sea becomes...well, becomes a sea. You don’t have the worship of synthesizers in jam bands, and you don’t have the days-long gigs in prog culture. But just like you find snatches of the same language in different peoples, you have crossover. I think Phish could have written “Jeremy Bender,” though people with University of Vermont educations would surely have made it less homophobic.


Rail: Have you ever felt ashamed of prog, or that prog is a guilty pleasure to which one can only profess love in a profane way, or is that a sensation that can only adhere for those of us who had to throw out our prog albums in the late seventies?

Weigel: Years ago, yes, sure. I would blast OutKast in my room and turn the dial down to listen to Jethro Tull. It took me a while to figure out that OutKast’s sometime producer Mr. DJ sometimes sampled prog. And even in 2012 I remember struggling to sell people on the theme. I used to take a big beach vacation to the Outer Banks with around 15 friends, and I used one of those vacations to start writing the Slate series. I remember carefully selecting a few songs I knew they’d like—“Heart of the Sunrise,” “21st Century Schizoid Man”—and losing people once the hook stopped and the noodling began.
But while writing it (and, if we’re being honest, turning it in later than I expected to), I started to feel like more people were coming out of the closet to endorse prog. Rush makes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, Yes makes it in 2017. Classic Rock is publishing it specialist prog magazine. Frankly, Yes is the Answer builds on this. King Crimson comes back in 2014 and gets deservedly respectful reviews. I don’t think the fanbase is refreshing at a one-to-one ratio, but I get the sense it’s shrinking less than the overall rock fanbase. I’m 35, which I think makes me part of the first generation for which hip-hop and R&B stars were always bigger than rock stars.

Rail: There are a few truly obscure threads you follow here, like Hatfield and the North, or Egg, or Voivod, that only people who are truly well informed would consider a reasonable side trip in this survey of the form. Do they represent actual points of interest for you, curatorially? That is, are you a guy who has The Rotters’ Club? Or did you just want to be a completist in the matter of your historical undertaking?

Weigel: I was definitely thrilled when any prog connection came about in my usual reading/listening. There were probably three people who said “holy shit!” when they heard Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy” and realized that he’d sampled “In High Places”—Jon Anderson, Mike Oldfield, and me. (Maybe Richard Branson too.) I read The Rotters’ Club because I realized where the name had come from. But, yeah, in writing the book, I also looked for any possible tendrils prog had gotten into the culture, and there’s some cut-out stuff about hip-hop samples that I had intense fun researching.

Rail: And did you see the footage of “Roundabout” from the Yes induction ceremony? What do you think? What does it mean for where prog sits in the history of rock and roll now?

Weigel: It wasn’t just good, it was good enough that the friends who were over when I put it on stopped and asked “hey, what’s this?” It did feel valedictory. My friend Jeremy Larson, who was also on the prog cruise and gave his article the best imaginable title (“Karn Evil Cruise”), asked Steve Howe if Yes could continue after most of the members were gone, like a jazz band, and I don’t think Howe could answer definitively. The answer was basically, sure. Chris Squire was the beating heart of the band and they replaced him. At the Hall of Fame show they did so with Geddy Lee, which worked, but that’s a line-up you’re never going to see again.
Like I said above, I think the Hall of Fame stuff, as fraught as it is, signals that this music is surviving better than a lot of the stuff that briefly supplanted it. "Close to the Edge" simply rewards re-listens more than the average punk record. More than "Never Mind the Bollocks," if we want to get real about it.

Rail: Did you note John Kasich’s avowed desire to reunite David Gilmour and Roger Waters as announced during his presidential candidacy?

Weigel: I did, though the biggest legit prog fan in politics is Jon Huntsman. This was a reason why I voted for him in the 2012 primary, after he’d quit the race.

Rail: Okay, that’s a good transition to talk a little bit about the politics of prog. Though, maybe this is a question about the politics of rock and roll generally. So I started listening to prog in an obsessive way when I was at boarding school, which is noteworthy in two ways—first, because the prevailing listening modality of the other mostly very affluent students at my school was basically Grateful Dead, Traffic, Little Feat (with maybe a little Stones and Beatles for flavor), and second because almost all of my classmates supported Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential contest. Still, it never occurred to me that there could be politics to music, or that prog, though passionately elitist musically, might also be a little bit class-inflected in terms of its politics. In a way, it never really occurred to me until I started putting together Rick Wakeman’s very pro-monarchy remarks and his dislike of the Pistols, or Kerry Minnear’s church organist position now. Or Frank Zappa’s anti-draft-dodging recording. In a way, prog is not experimental music, it seems to me now (which is probably where prog took me as a listener—toward free jazz and minimalism and experimental music), but actually just traditional music that worships at a different tradition, namely art song, classical music, and so on. As such, it’s not at all contradictory with a politics of tradition, for lack of a better way of putting it. This is a long way around to saying: I’m interested in how Dave Weigel, political writer, squares up with Dave Weigel, guy who listens to prog, and if there’s a politics of prog for you, and whether it is therefore consistent with how you think about politics. I know that’s a big question!

Weigel: It’s a huge question, but it’s pretty fair to ask anyone who bundles a few decades and hundreds of diverse artists into a book and says “here’s their story, done.” At the start, around 1968 and ‘69, English progressive musicians were just as anti-establishment as the hippies. The punks had “Holiday in Cambodia”—progressive rock had The Nice covering “America” from West Side Story and playing it as a song of anti-war resistance. Prog was never trying to protect the “establishment.” When it was at its absolute most popular, most-arena-ready it was still more radical than the singer-songwriter or pub rock that was also being pushed by the labels.

Rail: Another way of putting this would be: is prog inherently classist somehow? Noting that Soft Machine and Genesis, for example, are very much middle class bands, and that some of punk’s upheaval definitely had a veneer of class struggle about it: “Fuck art, let’s dance,” etc.
Weigel: The “middle class hero” aspect of prog is somewhat overrated, probably because Genesis and figures like Wakeman loom so large. It’s also mostly about how this music played in the US and UK, not Europe, where experimental and progressive music (Magma, Can, PFM) stayed dynamic and punk was pretty derivative. Most of the first-wave progressive musicians came from the same sort of background that the punks would come from—that’s before you consider that they grew up in post-war austerity and, like, Poly Styrene and Joe Strummer didn’t. Progressive rock dealt with England’s decline before the punks did. I did want to expand that chapter in music’s generally accepted story.

Rail: Or: did you notice John Lydon’s recent comment about Trump—proving, in case you needed evidence, that he is willing to contradict himself on any subject, and to change the moving target of punk and its politics at a moment’s notice.

Weigel: I did notice that. Lydon’s really an example of something I wanted to convey—that the punks who “saved us” from progressive rock were not pure creative types breaking apart the System. They were against what was dominant and popular, sure, and that can be a misbegotten instinct as much as a creative instinct. The Sex Pistols were basically a prefab group that made very catchy rock music and cursed on TV. They were anti-monarchist; they were also anti-abortion. So it’s not like they were overthrowing Franco or something when they made fun of Pink Floyd.

Rail: I was very moved by your ending the book with Keith Emerson’s suicide, as I found that story very intensely sad. You might know that I wrote about Emerson, Lake & Palmer in Yes Is The Answer. I’m wondering for you if there’s allegorical freight to Emerson’s suicide. That is, does it tell us something about prog now? About the renaissance and how the form means what it means in this historical moment, as opposed, say, to what it meant from 1970–1975?

Weigel: The book took longer to finish than I’d planned—I’d, er, been counting on a less interesting election, and more time off. It just so happened that a number of the book’s great figures passed away while I was tying it all up. Daevid Allen, Chris Squire, John Wetton, Greg Lake. Emerson leapt out because, in my own interview with him and from the contemporary interviews I’d seen him give, he was eloquent about the ways the music industry had boxed him out and about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of throwing ELP back together. Emerson arriving like a god at Moogfest, but not getting opportunities to write and play what he found interesting—it captured the frozen cultural space that this music is allowed to exist in. When he died, obits really did give Emerson his due in progressive rock history, and in the history of rock stagecraft, but to my mind didn’t credit him enough as an electronic musician.

Rail: Can you give us a top five prog albums for you?

Weigel: It changes all the time, but right now (not in order): Van Der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts; Magma, Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh. King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King. Yes, Close to the Edge. Soft Machine, Third.

Rail: Excellent list. I will append one, if only because the responsibility should be widely shared: Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Uncle Meat; Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom; Mahavishnu Orchestra, Birds of Fire; Jethro Tull, Minstrel in the Gallery; Fripp/Eno, (No Pussyfooting). Thanks for your time.


Rick Moody

RICK MOODY is a novelist and short story writer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.