Saturday, July 22, 2017

Complicated Romances: Great Progressive Rock Love Songs

Yes, yes, yes -- we all know the long-held rap against progressive rock in the 1970s: that the songs dealt with demons, wizards and dragons, usually in crazy 7/4 or 9/8 time signatures; albums with elaborate cover art featuring ornate compositions of faux-symphonic, epically instrumentalized, mellotronic noodling spanning 10 to 20 minutes in length; a genre that beckoned to middle-class college-educated nerdy guys who were more likely to complete a quest in Dungeons and Dragons or visit a comic-con in full Klingon regalia than actually go on a date with an actual girl.

But then again, we all know that false stereotype, foisted on the musical world by the same agendized rock journalists who soiled themselves in primal delight over the vacant four-chord strums, bed-head and unintelligible grumbles of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, or at the other end of the rock spectrum, pronounced Bruce Springsteen as the Second Coming, were as full of shit as their stained underwear bulging defecatingly under their baggy pants.

Yet the New York critics' heady prognostications of a revival of "real foundational rock" faltered nearly as soon as it was pronounced: punk rock-proper lasted for a few meteoric years before succumbing to music industry meddling, devolving into MTV marketable "new wave" pablum wherein "the look" trumped the music, and Springsteen's Dylanesque epics spawned a cottage industry of heartland crooners signing Midwestern ballads about the backseats of Thunderbirds and little pink houses. Save for a brief renaissance in the 90s with the grunge of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, rock never recovered; as a matter of fact, I read somewhere recently that hip-hop has overtaken rock as the most popular genre of music in the United States. I would argue the alleged musicality of auto-tune, mumbled doggerel verse, three notes plinking on a piano and drum machines, but I'll save that debate for another day.

Before my blood pressure rises to an unhealthy level, let us return to prog rock, and more precisely, songs that break the presuppositions and stereotypes. Let's shed the demonic, mysticism, sci-fi, Tolkienesque quests and Gollumization that is actually more a feature of 70s hard rock (Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Sabbath, Rainbow, etc.) than it ever was in prog. Let's talk about love songs, those plaintive tunes which have kept popular music...ummm..."popular" for centuries.

Certainly, the songs I will offer are from bands known for their progressivity, virtuosity and lengthy compositions, but, in the end, they were indeed superb composers who could craft love songs par excellence. Many of the songs themselves aren't necessarily "prog" in the strictest sense, but the bands I've selected couldn't really be pigeon-holed into narrow musical corners. I will also dispense with the stale debate over whether a band is considered "proto-prog" or "prog" based on the artificial belief that prog started officially with King Crimson's debut album in 1969. To say The Moody Blues, The Nice or Procol Harum weren't producing progressive rock in the 60s because the term hadn't been invented yet is superfluous and silly, given the compositions found below.

I will stick to albums running from the late 1960s up to the late 1970s, so as not to make the whole thing too cumbersome. I'll probably add a second part with later decades sometime soon. So, here's 25 songs of love, loss and romance from a progressive point of view. Enjoy, with a close, intimate friend. And for god's sake, take off those Spock ears!

From the Beginning - Emerson, Lake and Palmer
A big hit from ELP's Trilogy album. As I recall, the girls used to swoon over this song, so don't tell me prog ain't hip with the ladies. The song, mainly a Greg Lake vehicle, has that off-kilter Keith Emerson synthesizer section grafted on at the end.

C'est La Vie - Emerson, Lake and Palmer
From the Greg Lake side of ELP's album Works, Volume 1, featuring lyrics by King Crimson bandmate Peter Sinfield and a very French provincial instrumental feel. I could have easily added "Lend Your Love to Me Tonight" from this album, and "Still You Turn Me On" from Brain Salad Surgery, but I limited songs from each band to two. That's all you get.

And You and I - Yes
One of the most rapturous rock compositions ever made. Not much more can be said. So I won't.

Turn of the Century - Yes
Nice counterpoint between Steve Howe's acoustic guitar at the beginning and the electric at the end. One of Yes's lesser known classic tunes.

Wond'ring Aloud, Again - Jethro Tull
This song was actually released in two sections: the first half, "Wond'ring Aloud" appeared on Aqualung, and the second section "Wond'ring Again" (with its prophetic and somewhat bitter preamble) later offered on Living in the Past.  But here is the original version all nicely stitched together as it was first intended.

Reasons for Waiting - Jethro Tull
Featuring strings conducted by David (Dee) Palmer who later joined the band full-time as a keyboardist, this is one of the most lush and lovely songs Ian Anderson ever wrote.

Can't Get It Out of My Head - Electric Light Orchestra
This is ELO when Jeff Lynne hadn't yet become too pop to be prog any longer. I have always loved this song from the very first time I heard it.

Threshold of a Dream Suite (Featuring "Are You Sitting Comfortably", "The Dream", "Have You Heard", "The Voyage" and "Have You Heard (Reprise)" - The Moody Blues
A magnificent pastoral idyll with a mellotron interlude from the Moodies. As I mentioned in the preamble, if you don't consider this progressive rock, I am not sure I can take you seriously. The poem "The Dream" has been used during at least two weddings I have been to.

Nights In White Satin - The Moody Blues
One of the top ten love songs ever written in my opinion. On the superb album Days of Future Passed, the band and the London Festival take turns on separate passages, but on "Nights In White Satin" they finally join as one at the end for a tremendous finale.

En Pleine Face - Harmonium
My poor French translation is "In the Face" for the title of this song, but the line "C'est moi qui est tombé en pleine," is more like "It was me who fell on my face." Anyway, it doesn't matter. The great French Canadian prog band Harmonium could be singing about flies on shit and I wouldn't care.

White Queen (As It Began) - Queen
Again, not wishing to split hairs, but I consider Queen's first four albums (up to A Night at the Opera) as progressive rock. Symphonic, operatic choruses, wild time changes. Yep, all there. Here is an absolutely beautiful song from Queen II.

Love of My Life - Queen
A progressive recording writ small and precious in 3:39. The song was written for Freddie Mercury's girlfriend at the time Mary Austin. That's Brian May on the orchestral harp, by the way, which he learned for this song.

A Reunion - Gentle Giant
A song about a chance meeting after many years, hence the title.

Cadence and Cascade - King Crimson
A song featuring Greg Lake about a menage a trois. I think. It features a man named Jade where back at the hotel "Cadence oiled in love, licked his velvet gloved hand and Cascade kissed his name." I leave you to the inferences.

The Book of Saturday - King Crimson
A breezy song about the mind games two lovers often play, this one with bassist John Wetton singing.

Too Much Between Us - Procol Harum
As is much Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, the song has somewhat of a nautical theme, with the space between two people being "so much sea between us" when they're really sitting across from each other in a bedroom.

Ocean Gypsy - Renaissance
A melancholy plaint for love and freedom lost. I've always loved Annie Haslam's voice.

Pillow of Winds - Pink Floyd
One of my favorites from the album Meddle. Dreamy, mellifluous and certainly a song to listen to as you drift off to sleep with the one you love.

Stay - Pink Floyd
A Richard Wright piece from Obscured By Clouds. RIP Rick.

Hang On to a Dream - The Nice
From The Nice's third album Nice, or as it was titled for American release Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It.

Afterglow - Genesis
One of my favorite Phil Collins-era Genesis love songs, on this, the last Genesis album I really give a damn about, Wind and Wuthering. I didn't care for the direction the band took after Steve Hackett left. Few prog snobs did.

The Cinema Show - Genesis
Peter Gabriel narrates the first date of a modern Romeo and Juliet fresh from a London basement flat. Naturally, the love song devolves into an exercise in Greek mythology, but this is the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis, after all.

Lady Fantasy - Camel
Perhaps Camel and Andrew Latimer's best-loved song. Camel's Mirage also plays into the whole prog wizardry thingy with a suite entitled "Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider", my precious-s-s-s.

McDonald and Giles - Is She Waiting?
Ian McDonald and Michael Giles, which is not to be confused with Giles, Giles and Fripp, all of whom formed King Crimson. But then McDonald and Giles left.

Refugees - Van der Graaf Generator
If you can take Peter Hammill's operatic vocal concatenations, you will certainly love this well-crafted tune about the love affair of his ex-flatmates Mike McLean and Susan Penhaligon, herein referred to as "Mike and Susie".

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