Jerry Ewing’s greatest achievements in Wonderous Stories are to show conclusively that progressive rock never died and continues to thrive; and that it’s a vital and vibrant cultural expression, worthy of all due scholarly and cultural attention…
Wonderous Stories: A Journey Through the Landscape of Progressive Rock by Jerry Ewing (167 pages, Flood Gallery Publishing, 2018)
Though the first rock n’ roll song came out of the United States—courtesy of Bill Haley and the Comets—in 1955, the British have since dominated much of the rock scene. Certainly, most folks who still listen to rock think of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin before they think of American ones. Yet, for better or worse, the genre began in America as a white middle-class effort to express rhythms and lyrical themes generally associated more with black American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. To this day, a strong strain of the blues (again, a Black-American contribution to American culture writ large) remains in almost all rock, whether that written by Bruce Springsteen or Iron Maiden.
When rock and pop reached the British in the late 1950s and 1960s, the English and the Irish brought a much more European sense to the form, often incorporating more classical and symphonic elements, tones, and choral arrangements. Out of these various fusions emerged a subgenre of rock known as “progressive rock” or, more broadly, “art rock.” Some credit the beginning of progressive rock—or “prog” rock—with 1966 album by the Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, and others with the 1967 album by the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A small element of cultural pride hangs on the answer, to be sure.
Regardless, for an all-too-brief moment in Western civilization—from about 1970 to 1975—just as FM radio was coming into its own in the U.S., progressive rock ruled the American airwaves, and bands such as Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull attracted thousands upon thousands of young concertgoers and, in the process, made untold millions of dollars. By the late 1970s, though, the intricacies of progressive rock—from the complexity of the music (often, every bit as complicated, musically, as anything done in the classical or jazz world), the science-fiction album covers, and the elaborate Tolkien-esque lyrics—became unfashionable, at least to the broader Anglo-American culture. On pop radio, disco reigned supreme, and, elsewhere, an angry and repetitive hard rock and punk replaced the far more complicated and cerebral progressive rock. By 1979 or so, it looked to most observers as though prog was now a thing of the past—bloated, corporate, and terribly archaic.
Far from dying, though, progressive rock spread mightily after its supposed death. But, not in the way most would have expected or easily identified as properly “prog.” What it had created in the early 1970s began to appear—under different names and guises and with little to no credit—in movie soundtracks as well as in jazz, in pop, and, even, in classical and operatic music.
Then, again, around 1992 and 1993, just as grunge of the Pacific Northwest was exhausting itself and the rap springing out of urbanized and urbanizing America was making inroads against pop, a blatant progressive rock re-emerged, led by some British bands (Marillion), some European bands (the Flower Kings), and some American bands (Glass Hammer and Spock’s Beard). One might accurately describe the musicians of this period (almost all of whom are still recording, writing, and performing) as the children of the original proggers. They appreciated almost every aspect of the 1970-1975 period, but they also recognized the changes in cultural attitudes, the much more sophisticated production techniques that came with personal computers, and they often had full-time jobs apart from their lives as prog musicians. If punk was a simplified do-it-yourself reaction to rock, the prog of the 1990s was an even more sophisticated do-it-yourself reaction to the corporate and corporatized rock and pop of the 1980s.
Taking the serious factor up by several notches as well, a well-respected professor of music and musicology in the United States, Ed Macan, originally of Detroit, published a critical book on the history of prog from Oxford University Press, Rocking the Classics (1997), demonstrating rather conclusively that anyone serious about Western culture and Western music could not afford—whatever his biases—to ignore the genre. For Mr. Macan, though, prog was a thing of the past—an argument that would become common in so many books that followed his—with the bands of the 1990s doing nothing more than imitating, often poorly, the greats of 1970-1975.
Additionally—as something that imaginative conservatives should never ignore—many of the best writers and thinkers in North America over the past three decades are huge admirers and fans of prog: Steven Hayward, Bruce Frohnen, Tom Woods, Steve Horwitz, Sarah Skwire, Kelley Vlahos, S.T. Karnick, Aeon Skoble, Kevin J. Anderson, Gianna Englert, John J. Miller, Chris Morressey, Carl Olson, and Jason Sorens, to name just a few. Others, who have corresponded with me privately, are equally sympathetic to the ideas of The Imaginative Conservative but have lives so invested in the music community that they would rather not be “outted.”
Since Mr. Macan’s book first arrived more than twenty years ago, a number of important books about progressive rock—such as those by Dave Weigel, Stephen Lambe, and Roie Avin—have retold the story of prog’s rise in a variety of ways. Of these, only Mr. Weigel’s seems to suggest that the genre is dead.
Most recently, enter Jerry Ewing’s gloriously researched, written, and laid-out tome (it’s heavy and huge!), Wonderous Stories: A Journey Through the Landscape of Progressive Rock. An Australian by birth and a music journalist by training, Mr. Ewing is nothing if not a wild, creative, and imaginative eccentric living in an age of tapioca uniformity. The man is, without question, his own man. He is also, rather undisputably, the leader of the prog movement over the previous two decades. Just as T.S. Eliot was known as “The Pope of Russell Square,”—who as editor and publisher who could make or break a writer’s career during the middle four decades of the twentieth-century, so Mr. Ewing can do in the prog rock world today.
In addition to being the author of a number of excellently-written books, Mr. Ewing in 2009 founded, by sheer grit and charisma, PROG magazine as an outgrowth of Classic Rock magazine. It’s worth remembering that music labels—especially those relying on physical album sales via CD—have been declining rapidly over the last ten years. Equally important, 2008 had just seen a huge economic collapse. Mr. Ewing, however, proved tenacious. Despite moving through a few different publishers over the course of the magazine’s life, Mr. Ewing’s faith and entrepreneurial commitment have never once waivered. This May will see the release of the eighty-seventh issue. Given the physical heft of each issue, its glorious layout and design, and its very sharp writing, this is no small feat. Indeed, the writing quality of PROG would put almost any and every American magazine to utter shame. No, I do not exaggerate. Not surprisingly, given the history of the prog genre, its die-hard advocates are not exactly slow in their professional lives or dim in their intellectual curiosity and interests. Mr. Ewing is the sharpest among us.
Like the magazine Mr. Ewing founded, his latest book, Wonderous Stories, is a thing of pure beauty, lovingly and meticulously crafted.
There are some points Mr. Ewing makes that might be somewhat controversial among proggers, but no one would be foolish enough to dismiss his views as unimportant. What would (and will) trouble most readers is what Mr. Ewing chooses to include and what he chooses to ignore. In fairness, though, what author is not forced to do exactly this with every word, sentence, and paragraph? There is only so much time and only so much space. Selection is, always and everywhere, a critical faculty for the writer.
Mr. Ewing’s greatest achievements—aside from the OCD perfectionism of the book itself (a common trait among proggers)—are (1) to show conclusively that prog never died and continues to thrive; and (2), that it’s a vital and vibrant cultural expression, worthy of all due scholarly and cultural attention.
Mr. Ewing divides Wonderous Stories into thirty-four parts. Some parts look at definitions, others at time periods, others at sub-genres of prog, and some about bands so powerful that they defined everything around them.
If you’re a long-time progger, you’ll love Wonderous Stories. If you’re new to the genre and simply curious, you’ll not be ashamed to have such a beautifully-crafted book on your bookshelf. If you want to start with the music, you could always pull out (or purchase) old Yes, old Genesis, and old Jethro Tull from the first half of the 1970s. If your tastes are toward the harder, pick up some Rush. If more ethereal and existentialist, grab some Pink Floyd.
Regardless, Mr. Ewing remains the fountainhead and touchstone of the prog world, and he has uplifted it profoundly with Wonderous Stories.
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