Gateways Don’t Lead Everywhere

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve never been comfortable with people thinking of me as “The Prog Guy.”

It’s not that I don’t enjoy progressive rock. I do. I’ve said that before, too. But when I listen to friends and others talk about bands within the genre, I realize that I often barely know the first thing about the groups they’re discussing.

Some friends had a group chat going about a new release from Magma. As the chat continued, a thought occurred to me: I have NEVER consciously heard a single note Magma has ever played. Not ONE.

This is not an isolated occurrence.

They talk about Gong, or Hawkwind, or Van der Graaf Generator. I stare at them blankly. I know NOTHING about these groups outside of being familiar with their names. that’s pretty mucnh it.

I have a couple of Gentle Giant albums, along with a couple from Camel and one from Marillion. But I can’t tell you anything specific about them. They’re just in there on my media shelves, taking up space. Not that I mind … they’re good records, but they just don’t resonate with me the way they resonate with their fans.

But I’m into progressive rock. At least, I like to think so.

So, how could this have happened? How can I be personified with a music genre I don’t feel I know nearly enough about? I finally decided to give this a little thought. Almost instantly, I reached two conclusions.

First, most of the music my friends are going gaga over comes from bands who dominated prog’s Golden Era of 1969-74. Which makes me between three and eight years old when these bands were at the peak of their prowess. And let’s face it: prog was NOT a default musical position in my childhood home. Motown, Stax, and Philly International ruled the day at Casa Hendrix.

Secondly, it’s King Crimson’s fault.

Specifically, it’s the 80’s era of Crimson. They were my first exposure to the band, and remain my all-time favorite. I’ve made no bones about that.

Crimson was not literally my first foray into prog. I already dug bands like Moving Pictures-era Rush and Genesis from Seconds Out to Abacab. But I never thought of these bands as prog, because I didn’t really know what that was. I was hearing them on St. Louis’s “classic rock” station. Rush and Genesis were just a couple more rock bands to me.

But in the summer of ’85, that all changed. The full story is told in my book, but that’s when King Crimson entered my world. That’s when I was informed that I was a progressive rock fan. Okay … fine by me.

I was obsessed with this band, and heartbroken to learn that not only had they broken up the year before I learned about them, but they only recorded three albums. I needed more from these guys. And that’s where my prog rock “family tree” took root.

Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford had madee music with other bands and as solo artists. It became my job to hunt those records down.

The oldest connection came from Bill Bruford, who was in Yes. I gobbled up and loved The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. He also had a fusion band called Bruford (what else?), which introduced me to Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Berlin, and Dave Stewart. So I needed to have the records they made. (Yeah, I thought it was the Eurythmics guy for the longest. I was wrong on that one. So it took a little longer to get to National Health. But I got there.) Both Tony Levin and Robert Fripp played with Peter Gabriel (who also fronted Genesis in the early days). Those albums were quickly added to the collection.

Both Fripp and Adrian Belew played with David Bowie, whom I was already musically enamored with. Those were no-brainers. I would also learn that Adrian played with Frank Zappa. But that was for the following summer. And so on, and so on( and so on.

I was hip-deep in progressive rock. Or so it seemed. So why not visit the ’69-’74 material then? Well, I had other musical fish to fry.

The only place I had a chance to hear the music I had just learned about was on college radio stations. Even there, they weren’t played that often. Instead, I learned about bands like U2, The B-52’s, R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Hüsker Dü, and The Smiths. This is also when my dad and I came together on jazz. So there was Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Monk, the Marsalis brothers, and on and on and on. I was positively flooded with music. Who had time for Hawkwind or Tangerine Dream? They never came near my radar. It wasn’t a slight or something malicious. I just didn’t know about them.

The 90’s brought in Grunge and the “Alternative” movement. Then there was electronica, “drum ‘n’ bass”, progressive metal, hip-hop, and everything that has followed since. It never occurred to me to spend time plundering what happened during prog’s Golden Age. My plate was full!

As I type these words, there is a pile of CDs on my ottoman, consisting of mostly newer jazz, waiting for my ears to review them. A friend turned me on to Juana Molina today. I instantly fell in love with the first song I heard, and now I’m headed down that rabbit hole. I was introduced to no less than 60 bands during my two trips to Progtoberfest in Chicago. A couple of the acts, like Soft Machine, had established themselves during the Golden Age. But I was more interested in the modern bands like Schooltree, District 97, Sons of Ra, and Progger. My unwritten policy has been to look forward for new music. What’s back there stays there, for the most part.

That’s not to say I won’t spend time with VDGG or Hatfield and the North sometime down the road. But now isn’t the time. I’ve got too much going on as is.

So you’ll have to excuse me if you mention a classic prog band and I only respond with a blank look. It’s not willful ignorance. I just haven’t gotten to them yet. And you can blame King Crimson for that. They planted the seed that grew the tree that is my current music fandom. But that gateway doesn’t lead everywhere.

This might cost me a little prog cred from the hardcore fans. But I have no regrets. I consider myself better off for it.


You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell

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  1. It seems our musical tastes are forged in our teens. I grew up in the classic prog rock era and those bands are in my veins. You came a little later and were immersed in quite different styles. And yet our tastes overlap more than anyone has a right to expect. So we must be on to something (I hope).

    And, yes, let’s look forward more than back, but let’s also acknowledge the debt the latest bands owe to their forebears.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this interesting post! As stonefish says, most of our musical tastes are established early on. As a teenager, in the late 70s-early 80s, my “holy trinity” was King Crimson-Van der Graaf Generator-Gentle Giant. ‘Firth of Fifth” blew me away when I first heard it at 11. ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, The Incredible String band, Henry Cow… all these were immensely important in my formative years. Hatfield and the North are simply marvelous, and easy to get into, as they only made two records. ‘The Rotters’ Club’ is one of my all-time favorite albums. VdGG has long since become part of my unconscious. I know every bloody note they and Peter Hammill have officially recorded. At the moment I am writing a book about one of their founding members. So, as Fripp wrote some time ago, regarding your book: different notes; same music.


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