Let's begin at the beginning. If you talk about progressive music, or the progress of music per se, the first thing to consider of course was the influence of black music on rock, which I won't go into here. The second thing, and perhaps even more important in regard to the beginning of a real change in rock music, was the introduction of the electric amplifier, and the solid body guitar into the marketplace by Leo Fender in 1950. When the musicians plugged in and turned up during the sixties, the simplistic form of rock music developed into something else entirely. Experimentation with the electric guitar, and electrification of instruments, be it organs, guitars, or whatever, really was the start of a revolutionary step forward that took rock music to another level. The psychedelic experimentation of the sixties marked the real beginnings of progressive rock.
On the other side of the pond in England, you had a school system that left a lot of people out. In particular, a lot of people dropped out of art school, or once they completed school, dropped out of straight society and decided to be in a band and make music. The Beatles started as a skiffle band playing blues and rockabilly, playing the black music of America. The Rolling Stones did the same thing. A bunch of dead-end kids and art schoolers, they all decided to pick up electric guitars and play rock, ultimately going down the path of rock experimentation.
In the late sixties you had drugs, more sophisticated electric equipment, and just a basic change in civilization in general. It was also a period of time in the world when economic security existed, especially for white kids. They didn't have to worry about working because they were going to college, or dropping out of college and living in Haight-Ashbury or places in the UK like London's hippie conclave, Ladbroke Grove. This unique economic situation coupled with the developments in technology led to all kinds of new things.
When people started doing their own thing - musically in Haight- Ashbury, London, Paris, Berlin, etc., ultimately capitalism found a way to make money out of it. In the Spring of 1965, the Jefferson Airplane was the first American band signed by a major label for $25,000, that changed everything. It was no longer music for the sake of music and for fun; everyone realized they could make money playing music. Commercialization, from then on became a fact of life.
By this time however, the British invasion and the psychedelic sound had totally revolutionized the face of music - it would never be the same again. Jimi Hendrix playing feedback was the first electronic music - listen to those albums. Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze, the pioneers of space music, had backgrounds in classical music, they got into Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Airplane. They heard all this feedback stuff and decided to take the feedback out of the rock and make music that in fact resembled the feedback. The first Schulze, T.Dream and early Floyd albums pushed sonic exploration to new levels. They explored the limits of their instruments, and by injecting a mega-dose of electricity into the equation, were able to create electronic space music long before synthesizers were readily available.
Although it's been dubbed 'Progressive Rock,' I think a much more appropriate way to describe the new hybrid of rock music that developed at that time is 'Art Rock.' People who had some educational background and exposure to the classics in music and literature, all came together spiritually in the context of the hippie scene or the college scene in America, and began to make some kind of artistic based music. It was music conceptualized as an artform - art rock. Some of the early pioneers like Genesis, Yes, The Nice, King Crimson, Van der Graf, a.o., combined music, literature and fantasy to create a stylistic revolution in rock music. Musically, they went places that no one had ever even imagined going before. That was primarily due to the fact that the technology allowed them to do it, but also secondarily their minds had been opened, chemically and otherwise, to doing new things. People felt free and decided to do what they wanted to do, whatever they could do. That was the nature of the times.
The sixties happened all around the world, whether it was Paris in '68, Berlin, or Tokyo, there was a vibration in the air and it was universal. Musically, Europeans basically filtered what was happening in America through their own particular cultural lens and created their own style of music. In France it was very arty and romantic, Ange was the classic example of this, picking up on the groundwork laid by Genesis and creating a more lush, poetic style. In Germany, young people awoke to the defeat of World War II. Their country was devastated. They picked up on this electric, psychedelic vibration, coming out of their psychic bomb shelters figuratively speaking, and the music they created reflected their environment. Faust was the definitive example of this apocalyptic musical art concept. Amon Duul and Can were pioneers of this new synthesis of modern German rock music. Tangerine Dream was the perfect example of the psychedelic drug experience - beyond Jimi Hendrix. The music of Tangerine Dream was pure psychedelia. Similarly, the music of Guru Guru - at least the first couple albums - was the ultimate electric rock vibration filtered through the acid/hash experience, as I was once told by a member of group.
At this point, whereas the psychedelic movement and the music of America had been a dominating force in the initial stages of development, the British and the Europeans far transcended what would ever happen in America. They had the cultural background, they had the experience of war, the psychological stimulation, be it positive or negative, to push them far beyond what would ever happen in America. America, at that point in time also moved into a new phase musically and otherwise. Events like the Airplane contract, the sixties decade, the psychedelic experience, Kent State, the anti-war movement, were like a gigantic orgasm in this country, and at a certain point, the wad was shot here so to speak. The whole development of economics overtook the importance of culture, in a sense economics became culture and everything became economics.
What we were left with, in the wake of the British musical invasion (the initial one and the second one,) and this cultural upheaval, was a bunch of people who had gotten older and wiser living through the sixties experience, or people who had simply come along for the ride, influenced not by the experience itself, but by the effects of the experience. From out of this new cultural situation came the American progressive rock scene of the mid-seventies. It never really even came close to representing the cultural mind experience of the sixties or the first wave of musical creativity that arose from that. These people looked at the experience in their youth - absorbed the influences and then created a whole different thing, because they hadn't been part of the original revolution, so to speak..
Also, the business had firmly taken over at this time, and not only did people want to make music, they wanted to make music that would sell. The impulse was not just to do it, but to do it to make money. It makes all the difference in the world if you're doing something for creative reasons and for fun, or if you're doing it in the name of commerce. It's a fact of life that as you get older, you become more concerned with commerce, responsibility and paying the bills. Some people don't become taken over by commerce, they simply realize the jungle they were forced to operate in, and do all they can do in terms of struggling to hold on to those original ideals, while dealing with economic realities. Many never realized the true nature of what they were going through to begin with, it was more of a happening for them, so they just went with it As they got older and developed more responsibilities, they fell into the rut of business as usual. That social dynamic is reflected across the board, certainly in music.
All musicians, be they folk, rock, electronic, etc., at some point in time, personally and creatively confront the decision as to what's important to them in regard to their life and career. In music, you must conform to a certain style (whatever genre you may work in), if you want to keep making it, you want some company to keep putting it out, and you want it to keep selling. At some point the idea of "progressing" musically gets lost in the mix.
People who are involved in the business of music often see things from many different perspectives. Perhaps some have never really believed in the cultural aspect of things, or have lost the ability to look at things from a progressive perspective. Everyone has the right to their own opinions. It seems clear however that there is absolutely a correlation, a cause and effect relationship between culture, music and politics. In the sixties, of course, things were more blatantly political, directly political. Back then you lived your politics, and your music reflected your life. Today, politics is not a cultural thing, not something you can easily live, because everybody on the block doesn't do it - you may be the only person you know that has a certain belief (or likes a certain kind of music). Nowadays, among mainstream musicians you can still find people who believe in music and politics as a cultural fusion. I think that's possibly less the case among progressive musicians?
In 1994, everything has become a question of economics. What was Bill Clinton's campaign slogan in the war room ? "It's the economy, stupid." Obviously it is. Unfortunately, whether it's the music business per se or the world in general, the multi-national corporations control the economy and the world. That leaves the fans of progressive, electronic, experimental music, or any of the minor markets of music, out on the fringes. Artists from these genres bleed into the mainstream at times, but the attention span and ravenous appetite of material culture calls for a new fad every 15 minutes (Andy Warhol was certainly a visionary in this regard). In addition, I think in most cases today, a great many of the musicians that are doing this kind of music, be it electronic or neo- progressive, quite frankly don't have the creative vision necessary to be of interest to a major label and the mainstream market. They basically aren't considered marketable by the mega-corporations.
I don't approach music from the artist's perspective as I'm not a musician, I act more like a filter that musicians can channel their music through and access it to other people. Whether it was through the large import distribution companies I worked for in the 70's, or Eurock, when it was on the magazine stands and in record stores in the 80's, or now, when it basically operates as a specialized 'recommended music service.' What I do is listen to things and think of music asking: have I heard it before, are they doing anything different, and do I like it? Everybody does that in their own way, I try to apply that to what I do business-wise. I don't sell everything, I try to sell those things that I feel the customers I've cultivated over the years want to hear. I don't want to sell anything I wouldn't spend my fifteen or twenty dollars on. I haven't money to waste and I don't think other people do either.
So, where are we today in terms of progressive rock? There are a couple things going on right now. We've got, the third generation bands of today, newer bands that are popping up all the time. In 1969 or 1972, the musicians in them may not have been born yet in many cases. They now have a long, rich heritage of music that extends back to the Nice/ELP, the Zombies, the Beatles, King Crimson, Genesis, Van Der Graaf, Yes, a.o.. They listen to this music, and interpret it through their own particular point of view. Every person, their outlook and opinions directly relate to the experiences in their life, be it cultural, musical, or personal. There's only a small chance that somebody who's twenty years old will have the same perspective, likes, or dislikes, as somebody who is forty or fifty years old.
That doesn't mean they can't enjoy the same music, because one thing that rock has done is become a universal language between people. You can get my son, who is five years old - he loves the Doors. Myself, forty years older than him - I loved the Doors then, and can still shake my head in wonder as I listen to the Doors now. Their music is transcendent; it's passed the test of time, and it's still so progressive and so far ahead of what's being done now, it's unbelievable.
In addition, you now are seeing the re-issue of music from the past. Once again we are able to hear past classics in a new improved form via the technology of the CD. That's great. The down side however is that every piece of junk from this time is also being dug up... In addition, many of the original artists/bands from the golden era are still playing. Listen to the ELP Black Moon album, or the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe album, (along with either of their recent LIVE albums). Undeniably, Keith Emerson kicks the ass of any keyboard player, in any neo-prog group today, and Yes can still make unique and incomparable music. There are masters, there are creators, and there are imitators. However, if we only wanted to listen to the great old stuff, new music by the masters, or the best of the new artists/bands, what would become of the music business? It's funny, but it all comes back to commerce. It's all business.
Quantity has completely eliminated the concept of quality from business and life in general. Go to any store, they have five hundred brands of everything and there are thousands of CDs filling the bins. In music and all other areas of life, we have definitely reached the point of diminishing returns. There's too much music and too much of it isn't any good. In fact, you can't even find what is good, because it's lost in a mass of mediocrity. There are certain questions that are open ended, what is good art, what is creativity. Taste in music is a very personal and subjective thing, that's the way it should be. On the other hand, mass marketing and hype, only sometimes by accident stumble into involvement with music. They are the tools of capitalism and shouldn't be confused with art or creativity.
When it comes right down to it, the way major labels sell their music is by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, and once in a while they have a huge hit that makes money. Most of the time they lose money and simply write it off on their taxes. Independents can't do that. Most of the small indie labels are lucky to sell a couple thousand. Yes and Genesis in their progressive heyday sold respectably. But I remember talking to them, along with ELO, Procol Harum, a.o.. They were all saying how the companies were disappointed with the sales of their albums. They may have sold a hundred thousand, but that was considered virtually nothing.
Today, the progressive/electronic scene is undergoing a revival of sorts. There are certainly more CDs available, more fanzines, import companies and small distributors. The total sales of all indie music however continues to drop yearly to less than 5% of all the music sold in the US marketplace as of last year. The CD has injected new life into what was a shrinking industry by enabling companies to recycle old music in a new format. This doesn't necessarily mean that all the music being sold is worth hearing, or selling. It certainly doesn't mean that all the music out there is creative, artistically valid, or even good listening, whatever the genre. The nature of the business and society has changed so much, it's unlikely we are about to enter into another golden era of any kind musically. The world is a very different place today. One relevant lesson from the 60's is that willing something to happen doesn't necessarily make it come to pass.
On the other hand, one universal truth stands. Music at its best is the lifeblood of the emotions and the intellect. As Shakespeare once said. "If music be the food of love, then play on."
Note: "Culture, Creativity & Commerce..." was the cover story of Expos?/a> #5.