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Prog Fog



To the editor,

The bias of Dave Mandl's review of Progressive Rock Reconsidered ("Classical Gas," February 1) was evident from the get-go. Which is fine--he's entitled to his opinion--but he could have at least read the book a little more carefully.

Mandl constantly allows his opinions to get in the way of the facts. By claiming that "the big-name prog bands tended to prefer the work of 19th-century romantic composers and middlebrow household names like Mussorgsky and Brahms," he typically paints an entire musical genre with too broad a brush. This is like saying that because the Beatles listened to a little Stockhausen, all of the British Invasion bands (from Gerry & the Pacemakers to Herman's Hermits) were influenced by electronic music. (A short survey of prog bands with influences ranging from medieval music to free jazz is found on page 11 of my introduction, which Mandl really should find the time to read.) Even where prog musicians were influenced by jazz, Mandl gets it wrong. When he writes that prog "demonstrates all the complex time signatures the band knows, like a Renaissance painting displaying all the sitter's possessions," I wonder if the same couldn't be said about Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Why isn't Brubeck ever pictured as pretentious or "bourgeois," and why is it so wrong for a rock group to be influenced by someone like Brubeck?

John Sheinbaum's chapter in the book is not a "hand-wringing defense" of prog as "high art" but instead demonstrates that prog doesn't neatly fit into either of the conventional "high" or "low" categories. "High" and "low" elements are regularly played off each other. (Incidentally, the critical theorist Theodor Adorno laid out a particularly scathing--and insightful--analysis of popular music's properties back in the 1940s. Progressive rock is about the only style of popular music that cannot be neatly pigeonholed into Adorno's theory--a point insightfully made by DePaul's own Bill Martin, who describes prog as a "popular avant-garde." Maybe Mandl should read some Adorno.)

Mandl also writes that prog musicians were "not so much members of the cultured elite as middle-class types who had outgrown 'common' blues-based rock, vastly improved their chops, and read a few books." He should read Edward Macan's Rocking the Classics to learn just how upper-class many of these musicians really were. It's also disingenuous to snigger at prog's so-called elitism while describing Kansas as having "unsophisticated accents" and a "proximity to the farm." Similarly, Mandl's contention that "back in the mid-70s, kids used to argue about which drummer was fastest, [and] which keyboardist had studied at the Royal Academy..." is cute but false. This sounds more like the activities of statistics-obsessed baseball fans--and while it may describe the conversations of prog fans in the Chicago area during one of the Cubbies' bad seasons, it certainly doesn't sound like the experience of any fan I know.

Finally, arguing that "the end product, not the process, is what counts in rock" is a post-1976 music-industry party line if there ever was one. All sorts of recent research--from Albin Zak's Poetics of Rock to Walter Everett's two-volume study The Beatles as Musicians, not to mention shows like VH1's Behind the Music--clearly show that the process was the thing in the 1960s and early 1970s. And musical notation was (is!) used more than pseudo-populist critics would care to admit.

In short, the critics never got progressive rock, and never will. Don't expect Mandl's insights to be as fresh as those offered by the writers of Progressive Rock Reconsidered, not all of whom are "musicologists," by the way. Strip away the 25-cent words of his review, and his overarching argument often reads just like Lester Bangs on a codeine bender.

Kevin Holm-Hudson

Lexington, Kentucky

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