In this Updated Edition of The Progressive Rock Files, originally published in 2000, Canadian-resident broadcaster and music historian Lucky attempts to present a history of this much maligned genre in five parts. First, a history of the form takes the reader from its nascent beginnings as an outgrowth of the mid-60s British underground scene, through to the coffee table acceptance granted high-fidelity totems such as Tubular Bells and Dark Side Of The Moon, the crippling blow dealt it by punk and its 80s resurgence. En route theres a compelling critique of In The Court Of King Crimson by Pete Townshend, of all people, and a section perhaps controversially entitled The Low-Point of Asia. A second chapter grapples with the thorny question of what exactly constitutes progressive rock, taking in some rather superfluous descriptions of other musical genres, including soul, jazz, blues and punk. Lucky arrives at ten bullet points that certainly list elements that are often found within progressive rock (Songs predominately on the longish side, but structured, rarely improvised; The use of a Mellotron or string synth to simulate an orchestra backing) but stops short of nailing a more cohesive overarching definition.
In writing about progressive rock in the 21st century Lucky inevitably adopts a defensive stance. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to examining and rebutting the critical consensus on the genre. He reserves particular venom for a 1974 piece by Allan Jones, then of Melody Maker, now editor of Uncut, in which he asserts Id rather have Iggy Stooge vomit in my lap and stand on my head than go down under the weight of Close To The Edge or To Our Childrens Children (sic) Children, clearly taking particular pleasure in reprinting the dissenting correspondence that subsequently clogged up Melody Makers letters page. That this piece still rankles thirty years after the fact suggests an obsession that borders on the myopic. This suspicion is reinforced when Lucky proceeds to exhume more of Jones opinion from something called Rock Years Vol IV almost a decade later. A chapter on progressive rock today demonstrates that the form is extant despite Jones efforts, as well as tipping the hat to the genres underground support network of fanzines and retailers. The book closes with a close to 200 page A to Z of prog bands (replete with some incongruous and debatable inclusions my girlfriend was distressed to learn of Split Enzs previously undisclosed tendency towards multi-part suites) with, potentially, I suppose, informative stylistic cross-references. (Heres one chosen almost at random we learn that Simon Steenslands music displays elements of Magma, Univers Zero and Samla Mammas Manna.) Luckys descriptions, though, are - infuriatingly - just that. For example, instead of imploring that copies of Invisible Touch should be torched on sight, he suggests with admirable restraint that Genesis work following Abacab became more pop oriented.
What really sinks The Progressive Rock Files in common with such a high proportion of rock books that sometimes I wonder whether Im the last reader on earth who actually cares about such matters is that the manuscript is howling and baying for a proof reader. If I had a shiny British pound for every misplaced apostrophe (and what a prog album title thatd make!) I detected in this book Id be off buying a new CD player rather than sitting here typing this. Discussing Oliver Wakeman & Clive Nolans Jabberwocky album he notes that it featured the voice of Rick Wakemen, presumably the result of some bizarre prog cloning experiment. When he responds to a lengthy comment about Asia snipped from a mouldy old copy of Keyboard magazine with the observation I couldnt have said it better myself the reader is almost certain to concur.
Some priceless anecdotal nuggets abound, though for example, consider this, from the mouth of prog publicist Keith Goodwin in 1983, in the light of the success of bands such as The Australian Pink Floyd and Regenesis: Id like to hear another band take hold of say Tales From Topographic Oceans and perform it as a piece whether by a 60 piece orchestra or as a five piece band. It can be done, it should be done, but unfortunately, its not being done. Maybe itll be another twenty years before all this happens. Unfortunately the laborious prose that Lucky winds around such observations makes The Progressive Rock Files hard going, a brickbat that many critics would waste no time in happily hurling at the music it covers.