Just a couple of weeks ago we lost David Bowie, one of the last iconic rock stars and a tireless musical innovator. Throughout dozens of albums, Bowie melted and bent pop music into sometimes unrecognizable but mostly delightful and always interesting shapes. His was a high-profile death, and he leaves a glowering void in his wake, but we shouldn’t be quick to forget the deaths of many of his fellow rock experimentalists over the past year, many of them from the era of progressive rock.
In 2015 we saw a stupefying number of prog rock icons head on to the great gig in the sky. From the classic rock radio circuit to the outer limits of electronic experimentation, it seemed like no corner of the prog community was safe from loss last year. Many of them passed way too old to have lived fast and died young, but not quite old enough to fit comfortably under the “natural causes” label that signifies a long, healthy life that ended well. As an aesthetic, progressive rock has been dead for a long time; watching its inventors finally join it in body and spirit made for frequent, uncomfortable mourning.
But to look at these deaths as merely a symbolic coda to progressive rock’s irrelevance is to cheapen the music and the men alike. A closer look at their posthumous portrait reveals a bunch of dudes who lived for their music long after that music ceased to “matter,” flipping the bird at a music industry that can sometimes feel all too eager to be bludgeoned by trends.
A quick refresher on the wily genre animal that is progressive rock: prog was a type of rock music that emerged in the late ‘60s from classically trained, musically literate musicians as a kind of resistance to what they perceived to be the overly simplistic rock and pop songs of the time. Prog artists would frequently infuse rock with ideas that were outside-the-box for the genre at the time, such as classical suites, jazz tempo changes and airy, atmospheric guitar parts. Some of the biggest prog acts of the age included Pink Floyd, Queen’s early music, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (which at one point was second only to Led Zeppelin as the world’s most profitable touring act, if you can believe that).
The only problem was that for a genre with “progressive” in its title, prog rock was very much rooted in its own era: the fashion was ridiculous, the song lengths were frequently unwieldy and some of those keyboard parts made the fidelity of the Super Nintendo’s sound chip seem downright sophisticated. Sometime in the late ‘70s people got sick of it — the specifics of when and why aren’t important for our purposes — and prog has been considered music culture’s kitschy drunk uncle ever since then.
The list of prog rockers who died in 2015 is too depressing to type out in full, but the most prominent losses were probably Lemmy Kilmister, iron-fisted warlord of Motorhead and one-time bass player for seminal space rock outfit Hawkwind; Edgar Froese, synth innovator behind Tangerine Dream, godfather of ambient music and soundtracker of basically every movie released during the 1980s; and Chris Squire, bassist and founding member of classic rock radio stalwarts Yes, a musician as forceful as he was technical and the only member of the band to play on every single album (all thirty-fucking-one of them!). For funsies I’m going to throw jazz messiah Ornette Coleman in with these guys as well: even though he wasn’t a prog musician, whole swaths of progressive rock — from King Crimson’s golden age to the sonically political (and criminally overlooked) Rock-in-Opposition movement — would be unthinkable without his contributions to musical culture.
Regardless of one’s personal opinions about the music these guys made, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t typify an extremely strange and often gleefully exploratory era of popular music that feels all too long gone and forgotten. It’s true that we always have Bandcamp to rely on for bright, strange gems of musical weirdness, and sure, a lot of prog’s bombast and texture has seeped into everything from hip-hop to indie rock over the years, with few critics caring to notice (or admit) what was going on.
But it’s hard to find figures like vocalist Demis Roussos (1946-2015) in the modern era. He somehow managed to go from singing in an avant-garde rock band with the guy who composed the music for Blade Runner to finding wild international success as a kind of Mediterranean lounge balladeer without making that seem like a jarring or nonsensical transition. Or take Edgar Froese, who pushed electronic music forward with the sequencer driven sound we’ve all become familiar with today by more or less melting his synthesizer, and then zapped out the perky Risky Business soundtrack to the tune of millions. And just check out how little of a fuck 77 year old Daevid Allen (1938-2015) gave: not only did he cofound two seminal jazz-rock acts in Soft Machine and Gong, but he continued to play guitar on-record for almost every God damn year of his life right up to the one in which he died.
Progressive rock is a genre of passion and workmanship, an ethos fully exemplified by its brightest stars. Lemmy’s final album came out mere weeks before his death. Chris Squire made his first record with Yes in 1969 and his last one in 2014. Demis Roussos had a career that spanned 41 years of singing, and he was closely involved in an authoritative compilation album of his work the year that he died. Almost every single one of the prog luminaries that passed on last year was working right up until his dying breath, making the music they loved. It didn’t matter that the world had long moved on from their niche, and why should it? Something in the spirit of that music was alive in those guys long after it had lost its cultural cachet, and something in the spirit of those guys will be alive in that music long after the last of them finally ends side B of their life’s journey (or side D; this is prog we’re talking about, after all).
When I look at the list of progressive rock musicians who’ve left us in 2015, I don’t see a bunch of old buzzards playing archaic, stuffy rock music for an audience of awkward teens and joyless middle-aged record collectors. I see dudes doing this thing not because they had to do it, but because they wanted to, long after it stopped looking cool. And I think if art has to suffer a little pretension for a lot of sincerity, then so be it. Life’s too short to play anything but the longest song you know.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.