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The University of Hartford

Diary: Notes from the Dark Side
by Rob Turner, May 12th 2002

Oh, how times change! I was just rummaging around in the record library and happened on two, old Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums. One was the 1977 album "Works" and the other "In Concert" from 1979. Both contained essentially the same songs, but live versus studio versions. In those days the D.J.'s here would leave comments and recommendations to one another on labels stuck to the sleeves of the L.P.'s. The comments on 1977's "Works" were "A most impressive L.P. Great mixture of tunes." By 1979 the live version of many of the same songs earned rather different reviews: "Technocratic overkill!" "Ditto - sucks!" What could have happened to change attitudes so much in just a 24-month period?
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were the most commercially successful progressive rock band during the genre's heyday in the 70's followed closely by Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. For those of us who enjoyed that sort of thing, times were good. Beautiful, mind bending music that used an array of instruments capable of making unique sounds played with a level of musicianship that many could appreciate, but only a few could duplicate.
EL&P were firmly based in the classics. Yes drew inspiration from "Siddhartha" (Close to the Edge), "Autobiography of a Yogi" (Tales from Topographic Oceans) and "War and Peace" (The Gates of Delirium). King Crimson merged jazz, classical and the poetic imagery of Peter Sinfield into their own unique brand of music while Genesis created soundtracks for a series of fairy tales worthy of Lewis Carroll. It seemed rock had finally been let loose to explore new territory, no longer restrained to AOR's 2 and 3 minute ditties, jam packed with hooks and love stories. No, this was something more serious. Not that we didn't still love the Beatles, Kinks and Stones, but sometimes you just wanted more.
Then came the Sex Pistols and punk. A new vehicle for the anger and angst of youth. Why it became so all consuming and allowed to destroy everything that came before it has mystified me for many years. Music to me is an expression of thought and emotion - why focus only on those that were so angry and destructive? It didn't do Sid and Nancy much good. Was it a reflection of how bad things had become societally? True, things were bad in England economically then, but not so bad here. We were, as we are today, the greatest nation on earth. So why were we so pissed off? I know I wasn't. At least not until it became almost impossible for me to find the kind of music I enjoyed the most.
Age and hindsight have provided me with some clues. The older I get, the more I understand the power of money in this country. We are, after all, a capitalist society. Overall, I think that is a good thing, but we all know that it can lead to some huge inequities and that, as I heard Spiderman say today, "with great power comes great responsibility."
EL&P, Yes and Genesis had all become very expensive to produce, both in the studio and on the stage. Arguments over money, direction and egos resulted in a lapse in creativity and, suddenly, it became hard to pay the bills. This was the death knell for those musicians dependent on the major record labels who are happy only when sales are in the millions and the stadiums are full. All of these bands continued to fill the stadiums, but record sales dropped off. The egos inflated by sudden wealth and the pressure to engage an ever-larger audience remained, no matter what the cost artistically. Then along came punk. No costly production, no caravans of 18-wheelers to carry the stage set-ups. Just attitude and lots of it. The record executives must have been in heaven, but that level of anger was hard to sustain. The 80's saw happier, more musically sophisticated bands gain success. Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, now solo, managed to make the music interesting and commercially viable at the same time, but nowhere was there anyone willing to put up the kind of money required to sustain the progressive genre the way it was in the 70's. I think that's O.K., but there should be room for everything. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and their own tastes. Progressive music isn't bad or evil just because its costly and time consuming. But once the record companies realized their own version of "Money for Nothing," they were among the first to condemn the economic monster they had helped to create.
There are those of us who still enjoy making and listening to this kind of music. The Internet has made it more commercially viable by providing easier access. Musicianship and creativity always have a place, no matter what the scale. That the record sales of some of the label-made are plummeting and leaving the big record executives scratching their heads may be the signal that another change is on the way. The "jam" bands seem to be gaining in popularity - remember Cream and Hendrix? Other news that bodes well for the future is the fact that the NEARfest, which will feature two solid days of progressive music in Trenton, NJ at the end of June, sold out in 45 minutes! Maybe creativity and musicianship are on the rise again. We'll see.

Copyright©WWUH: July/August Program Guide, 2002

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