Did Tales From Topographic Oceans kill progressive rock?

Dave Weigel at Slate has done nerds all over a wonderful service in writing a five-part series about Prog Rock. Weigel recalls the birth of what we know as progressive rock with Keith Emerson and his band The Nice. Weigel doesn’t really offer a strict definition of the genre because, well…who has one? Rock with classical influence? Rock songs that are longer than 7 minutes in length? Mythical themes? Unusual and dynamic time signatures? All or some of these? Or none? Weigel is right to waffle here, but he knows of what he speaks:

[H]ubris is…compelling. We praise enormous, magisterial novels informed by the classic literary canon. We love huge movies that attempt never-before-accomplished technical feats. In music, though, many fans prize “authenticity”—the gritty allure of the untrained, instinctual rock star—more than they prize virtuosity or ambition. Say what you want about Icarus, but he was making an innovative use of wax and feathers. We’re too hard on the artists who try big things, show off their prowess, and occasionally screw it all up.

That’s right: prog rock is to music as Infinite Jest is to novels. I’d never thought of it that way, but it’s hard to disagree.

In the fourth part of the series, Weigel focuses on Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans as the “ur-text of prog rock excess,” responsible for the demise of prog rock as a genre. Here, he cites Rick Wakeman (Yes’s keyboardist at the time) who left the group after the foundering tour supporting the album.

[A]s the tour went on, Yes dropped the third section of the album from the show, then the second. Soon, Wakeman vented to reporters about the band’s screw-up. “Tales From Topographic Oceans is like a woman’s padded bra,” he told one interviewer. “The cover looks good but when you peel off the padding there’s not a lot there.” Yes had gotten too damn silly. The music had collapsed in on itself.

Look, Tales is, prima facie, insanely ridiculous and pretentious and…well, a snow job. The liner notes contain a passage about the origin of the album from Jon Anderson. In it, he describes an epiphany while on tour in Japan that involves a footnote on page 83 of Paramhansa Yoganda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and how he right then and there had to make an album about four shastric scriptures inspired by his reading of that footnote. Yikes! What is an American devotee of rock music supposed to do with that?

One must keep in mind that Yes had already been adherents of Eastern mysticism, so Anderson’s musings are in no way a spontaneous outburst. In fact, Yes’s previous album, Close To The Edge, as beloved an album as any Yes has ever made, was partially based on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition, the members of Yes were vegetarian, no doubt also an influence of their Eastern religious influence. All except Wakeman, who would be annoyed enough by the vegetarianism to cite this as a factor in leaving the band.

More importantly, most Yes fans I know all have given up on finding meaning and inspiration in Yes’s music. Yes is not made for singing along and discussing; rather, Yes is made for rocking out in a quiet room with the lights out. The length and complexity of the passages makes for a deeply satisfying experience in and of itself. Anderson’s vocals are an instrument in harmony with the other incredibly played elements, in contrast to a deliverer of some deep message. I don’t know if Yes understood this at the time; if so, I’m not even sure it would have influenced anything they did in the early 70’s.

In this way, Tales is no longer a concept album, but an imperfect album with two great pieces that belong in their pantheon: The Revealing Science of God (Side 1), and Ritual (Side 4). Yes eventually saw this as well through their audience and only played these tracks at their shows eventually. To this day, they are as beloved as anything in their oeuvre. The other tracks do not resonate as well and are more or less forgotten.

Seen in this way, it is hard to see how Tales “killed” prog rock. People continued to make, and consume, grand concept albums (Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Springsteen’s Nebraska, and Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime come to mind) and insanely long songs (Genesis and Yes continued to put out 10-minute-plus epics, and need I mention Rush’s 2112, Metallica’s And Justice For All…, Rainbow’s Stargazer, …?).

Jethro Tull deserves special mention here. Having heard their monster hit Aqualung being described as a concept album (and with its plethora of anti-religious tracks, one could be forgiven for making such an assumption), they decided to make a spoof of a progressive rock concept album. In doing so, Thick As A Brick became one of the greatest works in the genre. Apparently, they tried to make a serious work in a similar vein, A Passion Play, and failed spectacularly.

The lesson here is an old one: people who find spontaneous success doing one thing find it hard to reproduce that success when it is not clear on what that success was based. And music seems to me to be like that, despite recent technological advances (e.g, Apple’s Genius feature).

So, Weigel’s impressive writing aside, I do not see Tales as being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yes had issues far transcending poseurism in their music. Prog rock as a genre never really went away – rather, it influenced other realms of music, thrash metal being a good example. Nerds love grandness in their art, and like Infinite Jest, prog rock will always sell.


Confirmation Bias and Voting in OH

I knew that the liberal/conservative divide in this country was bad, but never this bad.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but a recent episode involving the reporting by a certain right-leaning reporter of a mundane, although likely political, lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign and certain local Democratic groups against the OH Secretary of State opened my eyes pretty wide.

You can read the text of the lawsuit here. Really, it’s not very difficult. The story goes like this. OH has instituted early voting; people can vote up to a month early. There is a restriction, however: only members of the military can vote the last three days of the early voting period. While this restriction has basis in law, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit contend that not allowing non-military folks to vote on these three days has “no rational basis in law.” The lawsuit seekd to open the three days to all voters, military and non.

This is a statement of fact, obvious to anyone that has read the lawsuit, or any of the news articles reporting the lawsuit. If you are not comfortable looking for those articles, or reading the text linked here, I will supply a relevant passage from the lawsuit (Page 4, Paragraph 7, emphasis added):

For these reasons and those specifically alleged herein, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants from implementing or enforcing the HB 224 and SB 295 changes to Ohio Rev. Code § 3509.03, thereby restoring in-person absentee voting on the three days immediately preceding Election Day for all Ohio voters.

Now, I am not about to defend this lawsuit. It is likely a political gambit: recent polling results have pointed to a tendency of poor, single mothers who use these three days to vote. Such voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, so it would seem on the face of it that this lawsuit is an effort to get those voters to the booths. But it is an enabling lawsuit.

I found out, however, how easy it is for facts to be distorted, twisted, and in some cases, thrown away completely. I found out about an article for Big Government on breitbart.com, written by one Mike Flynn, when two of my Republican friends posted the article on Facebook. The headline says it all:

Obama Campaign Sues to Restrict Military Voting

Whatever the lawsuit aimed to do, it was not looking to touch military voting. In fact, how would such an alleged gambit by the Obama campaign make any sense? Even if you buy that the military is overwhelmingly anti-Obama (which may have merit), Obama still gets no points for such petty behavior toward our fighting men and women. Not knowing anything about the lawsuit when my friends posted the article on Facebook, I decided to investigate.

It took me about 30 seconds on Google to find local articles – many of them – that say nothing about restricting anyone’s vote, and only mention expanding the vote to everyone. To the first person who posted, I put these observations into the comments. It took about 24 rounds of postings to get an acknowledgement of the facts in the case.  And I got word that my foils read the facts and understood them, then I knew that a sane discussion could take place.  Which it did.

It wasn’t long, however, before a second Republican friend posted this article with more snide comments.  It was occurring to me that a plausible lie (that is, plausible to someone already biased) was going to make its way into the discussion.  It was then that I decided to look into that discussion, in the comments for the article.

And, lo and behold, I saw not merely confirmation bias, but a complete disregard for the facts that was so total.  How to describe?  It was a totalitarian mindset in the comments, where the few misguided souls that pointed out the error in the article were roundly abused, threatened, insulted, and otherwise harassed.  I did, however, see some similar patterns where in some cases, a few posters were convinced to actually read the case and were driven to admit their error.

But how did Big Government react?   With irrelevant distraction (“It would not be the first time Democrats…have tried to stop the military’s votes from counting.”), useless non-facts (“Since Flynn’s story broke, the Romney campaign weighed in to support those facing down the Obama campaign’s army of lawyers. ‘I stand with the fifteen military groups that are defending the rights of military voters, and if I’m entrusted to be the commander-in-chief, I’ll work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them,’ Mitt Romney said. “), and doubling down of the lie (“Regardless of the remedy they seek, Flynn points out, they are suing to end an exemption for military voters.”).  And of course, the right-wing sheep bought it.

This is the saddest fact of all.  I know that there are also left-wing sheep that believe anything out of Huffington Post or the like.  But in my experience, liberals tend to be more willing to admit when they are wrong, and their sheep will move along.  This is a much more worrisome phenomenon: a “news” site that plants lies and misinformation that is readily accepted by willing sheep, and refuses to budge in the fact of even the most crystal-clear evidence of its lies.  Thinking conservative supporters of breitbart.com should be very vocal about demanding the truth so that the rabid masses below do not make good on their threats.