We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The putative punk party line is that progressive rock demonstrates libido ostentandi. But then modern punk, and especially its P.C. offspring—Maximum Rock and Roll-sanctioned hardcore and pop-punk—is self-denying eunuch rock. Or if sex actually does happen, punk exemplifies premature ejaculation, its phallic thrust equivalent to a teenager humping his bed, all self-contained fury. But the honorable knights of Planet Prog take the time to caress their fair maidens with limber-fingered runs back and forth and up and down their fretboards and keyboards. Prog is about extended foreplay and maximum staying power.
For copyright reasons, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Soft Machine, and Camel are not included on Rhino’s five-disc Supernatural Fairy Tales, but you do get the rest of the usual suspects—Yes, Genesis, the Moody Blues, Emerson, Lake and Palmer—in addition to obscure groups like the Finnish band Wigwam or the still-going-strong Italian group Premiata Forneria Marconi. In prog, there are no territorial boundaries: The French band Magma rocks as hard on the mysterious “Truller Tanz (Ghost Dance)” as the English group Hatfield and the North does on the ravenous “Let’s Eat (Real Soon).” Prog exists to bring countries together. Stateside patriots will be chagrined to find that Frank Zappa is the lone American Tale teller, while the Netherlands is the country best represented on Fairy Tales, from the quirky expanse of Supersister to the cathartic yodeling of Focus. In fact, Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” is the pinnacle of prog. It features operatic singing-in-tongues over a constantly shifting tectonic plate of pure ROCK that makes you want to don a cape, draw your saber, and slay the sad dragon that breathes fire inside our weary souls. And it makes the metronomic side of prog—Can’s “Oh Yeah,” Lard Free’s “Warinobaril,” and Faust’s “It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl”—sound positively boring!
Prog’s resident album-cover artist, Roger Dean, contributes Fairy Tales’ supernatural landscapes by tripping the light Fantasia with his airbrushed renderings of arched rainbow bridges leading to oases of crystal palaces. Stare at the illustrations when Genesis’ Peter Gabriel sings “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” and you are swaying into the night with yon Knight in shining armor. Gaze at Dean’s van-mural-worthy artwork when Seventh Wave sings “Star Palace of the Sombre Warrior” (from its exquisitely titled album Psi-Fi): You’ll be swept away by the symphonic sonorities and transported to the spare, white fortress of the defeated soldier. And you too will feel his loss.
But proggers are better equipped to handle psychic pain than their punk peers. The music and ideals of punk deal with Apollonian regression, purely dictated by castration anxiety; the extended works of prog demonstrate Dionysian display. And because it’s healthy to let go, proggers constantly let fly primal screams (the mighty riff), but then follow that energy release with comforting hugs (psychedelic spin-outs) and laughter therapy (the complex chord changes that dance about, jesterlike). Whereas punk is the simplistic Iron John, prog combines the power of Robert Bly with the sensitive touch of Alan Alda.
But for all the attention paid to prog’s musicianship, its lyrics are poetic paeans to another time, consistently voicing the Freudian desire to return to the womb. Look how many times the word “momma” appears in its songs’ lyrics. And Savage Rose’s “Dear Little Mother,” and Quiet Sun’s “Mummy Was an Asteroid, Daddy Was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil” attest to the importance of the universal “ma” in the psyche of prog.
Prog rock, unlike punk, permits indulgence in the fantasy realm. Grandiose claims to the genre’s musical superiority fly through the mind like rocket ships buzzing above our future planet’s mist-shrouded surface. And in that future, the Statue of Liberty will be replaced by a statue of Keith Emerson standing stately behind a bank of keyboards (in knee-high moccasin boots), while the Nice’s appropriation of Bernstein’s “America” plays endlessly in salute to truth, justice, and the, er, European way.