Prog rock epiphany
Over at Slate, Dave Weigel has a series on progressive rock for which he admits a fondness, while quoting a description of it as the “single most deplored genre of postwar pop music.”. Thanks to the playing of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at the Olympics opening ceremony, there’s even talk of a revival. As it happens, this album played a significant role in my life – in fact, it was something of an epiphany, which changed my views on all kinds of things, though not in the same way as for Weigel.
I was a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s when everyone I knew took music, and particularly rock music, very seriously indeed. I can still remember listening to a friend’s newly purchased copy of TB and thinking “this is the most pretentious crap I’ve ever heard”. After that, I no longer assumed that, just because all the critics praise something, it must actually be good.
I gradually worked out that the problem was not just with the idea that rock music could and should be Art but with the whole idea of Art. It’s a bit hard to recall now, but at that time the idea of Art as a unique and privileged kind of activity and the Artist as an inspired individual was in full flower. I
Not long after this, I came across three very different books that put these thoughts better than I could, and that I still re-read from time to time. They were
* Nik Cohn’s history of pop, Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom
* Roger Taylor’s Art, an Enemy of the People
and, a bit later
* Raymond Williams Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
Cohn and Taylor made the point (obvious in retrospect but novel at the time) that sticking an Art label on to popular music forms like rock and jazz was a recipe for disaster. Williams (and Taylor in a different way) showed how the ideas of Art and Culture (as opposed to their lower-case forms, applicable to all kinds of activity) were 19th century inventions.
That’s a long way from Oldfield playing 57 different instruments, each introduced by name. But, for me, that was the first step.