1979: The Death Of Progressive Rock & the Jazz/Folk/Acoustic Amalgam

1979: Growing up in southern Ontario in the 1970s, FM radio was the soundtrack to your existence. The music came in from Toronto (CHUM FM, Q107) and played a mix of stadium rock (Styx, Journey, Kansas) and AOR (mainly the Westcoast type like Toto, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and so forth). Soft rock and Fleetwood Mac was/were all over the place – there was a fair share of disco, too.

On turntables and cassette recorders we were listening to Kiss, Aerosmith, Rush, Cheap Trick, Nugent, Angel – all the CIRCUS magazine favourites – and Toronto bands Goddo, Max Webster and Triumph. Star Wars and Jaws had been out for a few years, Smokey and the Bandit, Rocky, too. Different Strokes was on the box, Charlie’s Angels, repeats of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island. You get the picture.

The times were analogue.

Hipsters would die for one of these…

One day, in my 9th grade Math class, a musically savy friend (whose name I now forget) saw my Cheap Trick T-Shirt and said something sarcastic, along the lines of “Oh, Rick Nielsen, he’s a great  guitarist, huh?” Now, even back then I knew Rick was NOT a great guitarist by any stretch. Songwriter, yes, but not a ‘guitar hero’ like a Clapton or a Page. “You need to listen to some Yes, buddy.” he continued. “That’s real music. Steve Howe, man. Relayer is in the library, go listen to it.”

Well, I already knew Roundabout, courtesy of the above radio stations, but that was all. So after getting the cassette from the school library, I sat down to listen to track one: The Gates of Delirium.

When you’re young, and dumb, and full of c – ookies, first listening experiences are always surprises. That’s one of the great things about your musical youth. Everything you hear is new. Now if you hear something, only rarely is it a surprise. But I can still remember hearing the opening bars of TGOD (as they call it) and wondering what the hell was going on.

How could a 14 year old with no musical training come to understand this stuff? Well, he couldn’t. I kept listening though, and eventually, two minutes in, there is a song – kind of folky and relatively simple. Ah, something to hang on to. But no sooner had that started than we were off somewhere else; some other musical area – and I was lost again.

I turned off the tape and put on some Kiss:

Did not come with poster, paper gun or KISS Army membership form…

It would take many years of my own musical training to begin to appreciate the skill and craft of what Yes were doing: the collaborative element, involving disparate genres and musical types; the fusion of these styles into a truly identifiable and particular soundworld. And this ‘main sequence’ music (The Yes Album through to Going For The One) would provide me with a lot of joy for the next 20 years or so. But little did we know that 1979 was the year Progressive Rock died…

My feeling is that bands like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull were largely ‘acoustic’ in nature through the early-mid 70s. Even ELP had the acoustic guitar of Greg Lake, which featured in many ELP tunes, while Led Zep became more acoustic on albums III, IV and HOTH. Pink Floyd had their fair share of acoustic numbers, too.

In the case of Yes, it was the way that a lot of the main sequence music was written – Jon Anderson and Steve Howe in a hotel room on acoustic guitars. Wonderous Stories, Clap, Turn of the Century, And You And I, Your Move/I’ve Seen All Good People, The Ancient (last third), We Have Heaven, Mood For A Day – all lead by acoustic guitar. Similarily, acoustic piano in – A Venture, Awaken, the central section of South Side of the Sky

What happened to this song we once knew so well…

And by ‘acoustic’ I also mean wind and string instruments: saxophone (Van Der Graaf Generator/ Supertramp), violin (Caravan/UK), flute (Tull), french horn (ELO) and anything else that has recourse to unamplified ensemble playing. Do these turn up in today’s music? Not so much. Not with any great regularity. Similarly, the profile of the classical guitar, particular on TV with John Williams turning up on Saturday night variety shows, was at an all time high. It too has declined since.

Wow! Acoustic instruments!

You have to remember that during the 60s/70s the more forward thinking record companies, like Atlantic, were run by guys (Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun in Atlantic’s case) who were primarily interested in jazz and R&B music: Coltrane, Jimmy Guiffre, Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet were all on Atlantic. At the end of the 60s they knew something was happening with young white/black audiences, and it was time to take a chance.

In the early 70s the main ‘caucasian’ bands at Atlantic were Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash and Yes. Later they had Genesis, Foreigner and Peter Gabriel on their books.

Ahmet Ertegun w/ Sir Percy…

All well and good.

But as the younger guys came in to take over the management, the model changed. The spirit of ‘I don’t know what it is, but let’s release it anyway’ was about to be shown the exit door.

What happens in the late 70s/early 80s is that the Neo-Prog bands, who did not have a strong interest in the jazz, folk and acoustic amalgam that ‘Main Sequence’ musicians had, are now heading up the record companies ‘next big thing’ lists.

The music press also decided enough was enough with Floyd, Yes, Genesis, et al. I’ve always thought of this as a typically upper-middle class revolt (the music papers were owned and staffed by public/private school boys) against the lower-middle class or working class status of some of the prog musicians and their supposed social ‘climbing’. There is no doubt that Prog contains its share of Grammar school boys and private school types, but Jon Anderson was from ‘up North’, from Accrington, Lancashire: ‘We can’t have a working class lad spouting weird poetry that’s not part of the canon. Knock him down a peg or three’.

The UK has always been intolerant of people moving up the social ladder. And yet always beholding to those above them. That’s why we have a queen. That’s why the country is in the hands of the Tory party. It wants the ruling classes to take care of them. Freddie Mercury once said that fans ‘expected him to turn up in a limo’. Same thing.

Got a feel for my automobile…

So, it’s my reckoning that the acoustic sound of the 60s and 70s gets abandoned by record companies and musicians in favour of the MIDI-based and early digital forms that were emerging. As funds grow tight, the relative ease of use of these technologies speeds up the time spent in the studio. (Can Fleetwood Mac take the blame for this with Tusk?) Make no mistake, studio recording techniques are fueled by the latest technology. More tracks, more automation, more editing freedom. Now, I’m no luddite (well, maybe a bit) but you can see that technology affects the ‘art’ in many different ways. That is to say, ‘the tail is beginning to wag the dog’ on these two levels: the corporate and the artistic. The big decision making was being made by those that held the cash, while, at the micro level, the musicians were listening to the music papers and believing in their own irrelevance. To me, that was the final nail.


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