Whispering the word “Punk” in a Prog crowd may not be quite the same thing as shouting fire in a crowded theater, but it is certainly close. Perhaps a better analogy would be letting a really big fart in a really small elevator. For the most part while Proggers are quick to debate the relative merits of Yes and Genesis, Fish and Hogarth, RIO and Symphonic or whether there really is such a thing as “Neo” – most often with a ratio of more than ten opinions for every nine people in the room – a shout for volunteers to defend the honor of Punk tends to be met with absolute silence.
It is not difficult to figure out why. The mythology – one that is often shared by denizens of both camps – has it that Punk and Prog are mortal enemies locked in some sort of death struggle out of either a deliciously cheesy Japanese monster movie or the closing scene of some five part epic sword and sorcery style fantasy series (each volume of which is at least 400 pages long). The Punkers say their brand of rock rose as a reaction to the excesses of Prog. The Proggers say that Punk nearly murdered Prog because Punkers’ attention spans and IQs were too short and small to comprehend the exquisite complexities of Prog.
Some say the source for this antipathy was the fact that Johnny Rotten rucked up for his Sex Pistols audition wearing a “Pink Floyd Sucks” t-shirt (he has since apologized to David Gilmour and admitted to being a fan of the band). A more likely source is the undeniable fact that the aesthetics of Prog and Punk are nearly diametrically opposed. Prog songs are long. Punk songs are short. Prog revels in complexity whereas Punk prides itself on simplicity and directness. Prog songs tend to be about hobbits and elves and UFOs whereas Punk songs tend toward the intensely political. Of course none of that is completely accurate. There are Prog songs that are political, simple and short. And there has got to be at least one Punk song somewhere that mentions at least one hobbit, elf or UFO.
But the real reason for Proggers’ antipathy really comes down to the perception (and resentment) that Punk rose as a reaction to Prog and quite successfully pushed Prog off center stage. While there is no doubt that various Punk artists and their fans lost no opportunity to publically “dis” Prog the notion that Punk grew as some sort of reaction to Prog is really quite ridiculous.
The fact is that Punk did not start with the Sex Pistols no matter what Malcolm McLaren might want you to believe. In fact, arguably the Sex Pistols were not even the first punk band that McLaren managed – that honor would go to The New York Dolls. The Dolls themselves followed in the footsteps of the Velvet Underground and were in turn followed by Television in creating a style that would come to be known as Punk many years before the Sex Pistols and, indeed, right in parallel with the First Wave of Prog.
Had history taken a left turn, the Velvet Underground – a band managed by none other than Andy Warhol – might well have come to be known as an Art Rock band. Instead, history may well record them as the progenitors of Punk. They may have only sold 50 albums, but at times it seems that every single person who bought one went out and formed a Punk band. In the Velvets’ nihilistic lyrics and attitude, on the one hand, and musical minimalism, on the other hand, the core principles of much of the Punk movement were established.
And yet how easily it might have been otherwise. John Cale moved from Wales to the United States to study modern classical music with John Cage and LaMonte Young. And it was a shared experimentalism that formed the basis of his relationship with Lou Reed. Indeed, the fusing of rock, on the one hand, and avant garde, on the other, was in their view the very essence of the Velvet Underground. Had rock history focused on this aspect of the band the way that the band’s leading figures saw it themselves art rock and Prog might be different today. Instead, it is the band’s legacy as one of the key progenitors of Punk for which it is remembered.
By the end of 1970, both Cale and Reed had left the band, and within a year the Velvet Underground was essentially no more. By the time that Yes recorded “Fragile” and Genesis recorded “Nursery Cryme,” the core of what was to be Punk was already firmly in place. So, if Punk was born as a reaction to Prog it seems clear that there would have had to have been a time machine involved.
Indeed, if Prog was pushed to the side in the mid-70s it was probably more by Disco than by Punk. By the time that The Ramones and Television were playing regular gigs at the CBGB club on Bleacher Street in New York and and Dr. Feelgood was leading the Pub Rock scene in the UK, it was not “Roundabout” or “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” that was on the radio, but “Rock the Boat” and the Bee Gees. But while New York may have been Punk’s spiritual home it would be across the pond that it became impossible to ignore.
When Malcolm McLaren brought John Lydon into a young band he was managing called “The Strand” and re-dubbed him “Johnny Rotten” and them the “Sex Pistols,” the Punk movement was poised for a signature moment. The band released its first song, “God Save the Queen” to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebration and McLaren arranged for the band to perform on a barge floating down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament. When the barge was raided by the police and the band member’s arrested the world took notice…and when the band released their first album several months later the world was watching.
Unquestionably among the most important, threatening and seemingly dangerous albums ever, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” almost singlehandedly and instantly created the first generation gap in rock. Yet the debate about the band and the album – were they a true voice of their generation or were they a publicity stunt run amok – rages to this day. As this author has previously written in these pages, in 1977 “Punk was in its first flower, placed on the recording industry’s alter by a media that was starving for the Next Big Thing, one that saw in punk’s antidisestablishmentarianism something that seemed vaguely connected to the Last Big Thing: the hippy counterculture of the Sixties….But in that time of massive change the half life of a phenomenon was an ever-shrinking thing.” And indeed Punk’s time at the top of the pops was, if anything, even shorter than Prog’s. It might actually be difficult to get past ten in making a list of the top forty big Punk hits.
But Punk’s first flowering was, in its own way, prologue. Just as it burst into the public consciousness in a manner grossly out of proportion to its album sales, its influence has continued to grow. With the possible exception of hip hop (but see the Beastie Boys) it is difficult to think of a major rock sub-genre in the last thirty years that has not been influenced profoundly by punk: new wave, alternative, grunge, industrial, post-punk, nearly all of them.
And that might be some of the reason for Proggers’ residual antipathy to Punk: jealousy. It is not that “they” won back in the 70s; it is that we fear that they’ve won in the decades since. While “prog” has been treated as a four letter word – not to be uttered in polite company, and surely never by a critic – Punk has retained an air of authenticity. The stamp of punk attitude and the imprint of those two elements brought in by the Velvets – nihilism and minimalism – when applied to nearly any other musical influence still has the power to make mainstream rock critics swoon. And it pisses us off. Because Punk, we keep assuring ourselves, sucks.
Of course the dirty little secret is that it happens here too; and it always has. There have been bands that stood with one foot in the Prog world and the other in Punk from the late 70s down to the present day. One of the longest running of these Pronk acts is the Cardiacs. Fusing the excitement, attack and raw energy of punk with the technical prowess, rich sound and cryptic lyrics of Prog, the Cardiacs are particularly known for a quirky performance art quality. The band has toured with bands as diverse as Marillion and Napalm Death. Despite the Cardiacs’ variety of source material – and the profound influence it has had on genres as disparate as Nu-Metal and Math Rock – they have a sound that many Proggers would find attractive.
While the Cardiacs’ status as a band with feet in both the Prog and Punk camps is disputable only by members of the band, a bit more controversial is the Neo-Prog movement. A strong case can be made that Neo-Prog was the integration of aspects of Punk into Prog. There are, no doubt, many who vociferously protest any such suggestion – some of them members of the bands in question. It is in Twelfth Night that the connection between Neo-Prog and Punk is most clear. Geoff Mann’s aggressive, in-your-face vocal style, and the anarchistic and overtly social/political lyrics were dominant features of Twelfth Night’s early sound. While bearing the clear stamp of Genesis, the songs were all stripped down and the harmonic structure was far simpler than First Wave prog. Each of these characteristics were present to varying degrees in the music of the other leading Neo-Prog bands of the early 80s (though it is certainly much less evident now). From Euan Lowson’s “The Ripper” on Pallas’ Arrive Alive to Fish’s “Forgotten Sons” on Script for a Jester’s Tear, Neo-Prog in its earliest incarnations was oriented around charismatic front men with aggressive personas and voices that were as likely to be used for their effect as pure vocal qualities. The songs were equally up front, with socio-political lyrics not remotely uncommon and stripped-down music that was distinctly not oriented around the virtuoso playing of the instrumentalists. But it was in the early Twelfth Night (and, to a slightly lesser extent, IQ) that the punk sensibility came through most clearly.
But evidence of cross-pollination of Prog and Punk is not limited to the past. While he grew up loving prog, Andy Tillison of The Tangent and Parallel or 90 Degrees spent years toiling in the salt mines of the Northern English anarcho-punk movement. After engineering the work of others, he formed and led his own anarcho-punk band, Gold, Frankincense + Disk-Drive, gradually injecting bits of prog into the punk matrix. How many images come to mind of punk bands with keyboards? When Tillison felt he had reached the limits on the amount of prog that would be tolerated in punk he flipped the formula and created Parallel or 90 Degrees, featuring bits of punk in a prog matrix, an experiment that continues to this day.
Further evidence of this cross-pollination may be found in the new EP by Eddie Jobson’s UKZ. While the name of the band clearly harkens back to the great UK as well as to Jobson’s 80s project Zinc, and while the band’s music clearly reflects an updating of the sound of Red era King Crimson, it is the mechanism by which that “updating” is achieved that is the key to the band. It is all readily on display in the song “Radiation.” The aggressive textures, processed sounds as well as Aaron Lippert’s vocals feel as much like Nine Inch Nails as King Crimson. While Trent Reznor’s brand of rock may not be punk in its strictest terms, it is clearly the spawn of punk. And its incorporation back into the matrix of UK and King Crimson saves UKZ from being yet another aging prog act playing tribute to itself.
While England’s Muse may not have been as successful in the United States as it has been in Europe – at least before the brilliant and wildly popular Black Holes and Revelations — it is now a massive act worldwide. One part Rush, one part Rage Against the Machine (with whom they have shared bills), Muse’s sound features lush analog arpegiatted keyboards and very aggressive, loud guitars in an imposing wall of sound. Muse is clearly comfortable working either side of the street and does so to great effect on every one of their tours, most of which receive cinematic treatment befitting any of the big 70s prog acts. The sneer and the nihilism are never far from the surface with Muse. You just have to peer beneath the symphonic textures and the soaring ambitions.
And than there is The Mars Volta. Quite likely today’s largest selling band willing to admit Prog tendencies, The Mars Volta can hardly avoid admitting its punk roots. The band’s two main men, Cedric Bixler-Xavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez were also the key figures in At the Drive-In, a seminal emo/hardcore punk act of the 90s. That did not stop Rolling Stone magazine – not exactly a friend of the Prog world – from naming The Mars Volta as rock music’s “Best Prog-Rock Band” in 2008. Quite to the contrary, it may have motivated the magazine. Mars Volta marries the frenetic aggressiveness and nihilism of punk with the instrumental virtuosity and dense, rich textures, musical exploration, curiosity and ambition of prog. The band’s concerts – not to mention its album sales – demonstrate the capacity of this approach to bring progressive music to whole worlds of fans that are not prepared to pick up a Flower Kings album. To these new fans, the seeming cognitive dissonance of prog and punk existing in the same mental space simply does not exist.
In the end, Prog and Punk may not be the great death-matched foes that so many in both worlds seem to want to believe. In fact, it may well be that these two genres – both of them long past the heady good old days of the 70s – will find in each other just what they need to build a future.
– Michael A. Gardiner