From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, before there were personal computers, nerdy white guys looking to obsess over something as likely as not turned to progressive rock, or, as it is referred to throughout David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, “prog.” The book’s title is from an Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) song, and Weigel focuses on the members of three bands in particular: ELP, Yes, and King Crimson — especially its mastermind Robert Fripp. These musicians moved away from blues-based rock, embracing classical music and jazz and then-new technologies like the Moog synthesizer. Their ambitions usually outstripped their accomplishments, but that was only because those ambitions were so grand.
Weigel claims that “defining or categorizing this music is basically impossible,” but among the other groups discussed in the book who will be familiar to fans of popular music are The Moody Blues (psychedelic prog), Jethro Tull (theatrical prog), Pink Floyd (conceptual prog), Kansas (album-oriented prog) and Rush (neo-prog). Prog thrives on an in-crowd ethos, and much of The Show That Never Ends details who joined which band when and why he left (it’s always a he) and where he went afterward. After a couple hundred pages, all the personnel shuffling can get a bit overwhelming, although Weigel does his best to spice things up with bits of gossip and precise descriptions of the various magnum opuses.
Weigel argues that in the late 1970s, the DIY spirit of punk all but killed prog rock, so — other than a profile of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson — he doesn’t spend much time on prog’s contemporary influence, which is perhaps best seen in the way some nerdy white guys have melded artsy experimentalism with hip-hop. Artists such as Beck and Boards of Canada and Panda Bear — and really all beat-driven Svengalis of any race or gender who work outside pop norms — owe something to the mostly British musicians who dared, in the words of prog’s defining song, “To summon back the fire witch / To the court of the crimson king.”