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.