The Rise and Fall of Prog, part 1

Keith Emerson's Moog synthesizer

From Slate:

The death of real rock ‘n’ roll began one morning in 1964, at the Organ Center in the southern England city of Portsmouth. Keith Emerson, 19, had 200 pounds to spend on a keyboard. He had options. But he got distracted by something bigger, more beautiful, and beyond his means.

“There it was,” he remembers in his autobiography, “resplendent in beautiful shining mahogany—the Hammond L 100 electric organ. I played it.” He heard the warm tones, engineered to sound like they came from pipes, but with distinctive warm hums. “That was the sound.”

Emerson had noodled around with the Hammond before. The L 100, rolled out in 1961, imitated the sound of a church organ by placing 96 metal tonewheels in front of 96 electromagnetic pick-ups. The tonewheels rotated, charging the pick-ups, generating the sound. Two keyboards shared space with nine “drawbars”—move the bars, change the sound of your notes. Jazz musicians used this, as did (somewhat less inspirationally) the nice old ladies who played during the dull sections of ballgames.

Some people could afford to put the cost of a small car into an organ. Emerson couldn’t. He had all the training, years of piano and music lessons. The Royal Academy of Music had offered him a place, which he’d turned down, working instead for a bank, gigging with jazz and rock groups. Emerson contemplated what the Hammond could do for him. Could he quit the bank, gig full-time? His father, who’d joined him on the shopping trip, broke in—“You’ve got to have it”—and paid the price difference.

By 1967, Emerson was touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Pink Floyd, and composing the first long classical-rock symphony. By 1970, he was one-third of a super-group that could sell out Madison Square Garden and summon 350,000 people to the Ontario (California) Speedway, possibly the biggest single concert of the 1970s.

And by 1977, Keith Emerson was, to critics and a new generation of fans, the wince-inducing icon of progressive rock. Prog. And prog, thanks to the heroic efforts of the culture-gatekeepers, was deader than Elvis locked in King Tut’s sarcophagus and spit out of an airlock.

You can’t completely kill an art form. Even if a musical genre becomes despised, it endures—on master tapes, on cut-out LPs, on Spotify or MP3-trade fora. Simon Reynolds describes how the “massive, super-available archive” gifted to us by the Internet allows anyone to rediscover anything, and pop music to gnaw its own tail. Hip-hop artists, our cultural magpies, comb through prog’s greatest hits to sample its stranger riffs and lost organ bleats. Modern, prog-influenced acts like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree can sell out midsized venues.

But if ever a form of popular music dropped dead suddenly, it was prog. Progressive rock essentially disappeared, and has remained in obscurity for 35 years, ridiculed by rock snobs, ignored by fans, its most famous artists—Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull—catchphrases for pretentious excess.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Slate