"There's not a-vote-for-this-party type of politics" in progressive rock, says David Weigel, author of The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, "There is a utopianism about it….'Let's create a new world….It was very much a music and lifestyle where you tuned out, where you went to a festival, where you got into an arena. And a time where there were fewer distractions, as well.
Weigel's history of a musical genre that includes bands such as King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Genesis, and more is a rich journey into one of rock's least-appreciated moments. The former Reason staffer (archive here) who now covers national politics for The Washington Post argues that many subsequent forms of music owe significant but often-unacknowledged debts to the organ-centric sounds of prog rock.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie, Weigel weighs in on politics in the Trump era. "There is not a lot of space for libertarianism in politics right now…except on the issues where libertarianism intersects with the donors who have done the most for Donald Trump. I feel like my friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are pretty happy about Trump's positions on climate. [CEI's] Myron Ebell [has] literally joined the administration," he says. "But the criminal justice reform side of libertarianism has kind of retreated to the states, where it's doing okay but has no clout in DC anymore."
Audio production by Ian Keyser.
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Nick Gillespie: Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie, and this is the Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Today we are talking with David Weigel, he's a politics reporter at the Washington Post, a former Reason employee, but the reason that we're talking today is he's the author of the incredible new book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Dave Weigel, thanks for talking to us.
Dave Weigel: Thank you for having me to talk about it. Appreciate it.
Nick Gillespie: All right, well let's get right to it. The rise and fall of Prog Rock, of progressive rock. What is the thesis of The Show That Never Ends?
Dave Weigel: It's that rock history, which I take pretty seriously, which honestly occupied a lot of my mind before I got into covering politics like I do now. That rock history had cut out what I thought was actually really dynamic, important, informative music, the progressive rock movement. And I also, I kind of lean in…right, the book in arguing that the progressive musicians, Keith Emerson, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel. These people invented a lot of stuff that was happily taken by more let's say critically approved bands. You know, the stuff that is credited to electropop or to punk, I mean a lot of that these guys did first, and they did it in a very popular and arena-filling way that was left out once people said, actually that was garbage, we're going to go with punk. And by people I mean like…it's a really clear decision by the record industry and critics. We can get into that.
Nick Gillespie: Well, define…what are the core elements of progressive rock? You know, how do we…and throughout the book you kind of talk about how like Led Zeppelin, which in many ways certainly, probably the biggest selling band of the period from about '68 to '78 or whenever they broke up. But it's true that ELP, Emerson, Like, and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, they could fill stadiums as well, they were gigantic. But you point out that Led Zeppelin is not progressive rock. Even though they've got multi-instrumentation, a lot of experimentation, really long solos. Jimmy Plant using one of the other band members to play the bow on a cello or something like that. So what is progressive rock in its essence?
Dave Weigel: You mentioned Led Zeppelin soloist who I think a lot of people broke them in with progressive because lyrics about fairies and Tolken and stuff, and people think, oh that's what prog is, right? Not really. The way that I was happy defining it because people who played it and critics who wrote about it defined it is just extremely ambitious music that kind of started in western sixties garage rock forms, and expanded to include classical influences, eastern influences, electronic music, discordant music, but basically ambitious and technically proficient music based on rock. And so, it is a loose definition, as the last person who still organizes an iTunes and CDs, and you have those struggles, like is this post-punk, is this punk?
With progressive there are bands that also morphed during their lifetimes. Marillion started as a very progressive revivalist band in the early eighties, and by the nineties were something a lot more akin to alternative rock, although they were branded so they weren't really considered part of it. It's changeable, you can dip in and out of it, but I think it's just basically this music that was ambitious and it's defined in the book by other writers. These guys from the sixties and seventies who lifted this stuff up. Because this London scene, Hanneberry scene, little bit later western Europe. These bands coming out of these all-night parties and these festivals where writing extremely complicated music, where incorporating quotes from Brahms and Bach into it, were not just soloing, but trading off technical solos that were not just like … there are solos in all of rock that are just, watching go up and down these scales. But solos that were moving from form to form, and style to style in a way that … the whole thing is that music had not done that before then. Pop music had not done it before then, and pop music hasn't really done it since.
Nick Gillespie: You talk a lot about how progressive rock is fundamentally a British phenomenon. It seems … and to put it in a time context, in all of this stuff you can go back to … find earlier and earlier antecedents, but it really kind of explodes in the late sixties with bands like Soft Machine, and then especially King Crimson, and Yes, and Genesis. ELP. But talk a bit about the Britishness of it, and also the way that it departed from traditional rock and roll as a kind of rebellion against your father's music. Because this was kind of as you were so saying, there's quotations from Brahms and Yes would enter the stadium to strains from the Firebird Suite and whatnot. ELP actually put out a version of Pictures at an Exhibition. They were rebelling, I guess, against maybe the Animals, or Simon and Garfunkel, maybe, but they were also embracing their great-grandfathers. What's the Britishness element about in all this?
Dave Weigel: The thing that you hear the first when you're listening for it is the influence actually of Anglican church music. And just … and these big sweeping chords you hear in Yes music, in a lot of what ELP does, you hear this classical English hymn is played on a pipe organ, piped through stuff like Hammond's and Mogue's. There's just this very … I don't want to use the word pompous because it's negative, but pomp.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah …
Dave Weigel: Music that contains pomp that these guys listened to.
Nick Gillespie: So this is Elgar on acid, basically.
Dave Weigel: Yeah. That was there. A lot of these guys … I start the book pretty early in the nineteenth century with the classical music that introduced mania and spectacle to popular music.
Nick Gillespie: And this is particularly Franz Liszt who Ken Russell obviously did that. You know and had Roger Daltrey play Liszt and Lisztomania and …
Dave Weigel: They had Rick Wakeman play Thor … I go to the mid-sixties because these guys were just a little bit younger than the Beatles. The same generation, same cohort, so they're all listening to music and … Against the stereotype, they're not all going to private schools. Or as they're confusedly called in Britain, public schools. They're usually pretty working class, coming out of the austerity of the … of World War II, and they have a record player. They have church. They have these limited influences. Yeah, talk about Greg Lake rushing to … well he might have over hyped a little bit because of the drama. The new records that the GIs brought back, things like that. So these same influences, but starting a little bit later. I mean, they go through a journey that's pretty similar to what the Beatles did, and the Beatles, Joseph Campbell's story is pretty … has been parodied a bunch of times now. With the Vans discovering drugs and religion and sitars. But …
Nick Gillespie: But it is fascinating … you know, putting this in a historical context, which for those of us, even people who grew up in the United States, during World War II or the Depression had it easier than the Brits. Because on top of everything else you had actual bombing and wartime destruction of everything. It's kind of fascinating and it di remind me of books about the Beatles and early rockers in England in the fifties of just how hard it was even to get instruments. And that's a constant constraint, it seems for these guys because mellotrons and synthesizers were really expensive. So it's partly the church stuff, right, because the organ seems to be a vary … organs and keyboards seem to be front and center in progressive rock in a way that they are certainly not generally in regular rock bands.
Dave Weigel: Yeah, and they just carry this sort of importance that … it wasn't obviously there in the more derivative music I like a lot, but the more garage rock stuff that some of these bands were part of. Listen to Tomorrow or Sin or these first bands, really early Procul Harem and Moody Blues. They were pretty happy covering Motown sounds and just adding fuzz bucks to them. Like the who were.
And I leave … I deal a little bit with the Who in here because they just … these guys in their early and mid-twenties were having more fun taking their technical knowledge and saying all right, we've kind of mastered how to cover Martha and the Vandellas, and add some fuzz to it. So what if we're covering Rondo, what if we're covering classical musicians, what if we're covering Bolero, in the case of King Crimson. And finding that there's just … one thing that I try to emphasize … there's this idea of music being really gossamer, and impenetrable and too noodly to get into, but no it's always pretty anchored in melody and what the members found compelling.
It's also … I don't deal a lot with drugs, except for later in ELP's career, because I asked them, and they really weren't on them. With the exception of some guys like David Allen and Soft Machine and Gong, they're mostly just pounding beer. I mean, I talk about Mike Oldfield writing Tubular Bells, having filled the champagne magnum with Guinness, and just pounding it. Like they were … the style of creation that you would see when the Ramones were writing two-minute songs. Which I also like a lot, but it was just the way their heads went, where I am bored with the simple forms. I'm going to rebel against the three-minute pop structure and I want to write pop symphonies. Kind of in the way Brian Wilson did, but I think even with a greater ambition, and a little bit, obviously less burnout. Because these guys did it for years.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah, you know speaking of beer as the kind of drink of choice, or the drug of choice, I remember … I got into progressive rock. Mostly my brother, who's older than me, came home from college in the late seventies with Yes songs, the triple album, and we would always laugh because there's a picture of Rick Wakeman, who has like eight hundred keyboards around him, and there are beer bottles everywhere. Like where he can't swing one arm of his cape without knocking over a case of empty Millers. Or something. Or Schmitty tallboys. King Crimson really occupies the place of pride in the book. Explain what is so important about King Crimson.
Dave Weigel: They're a wellspring for a lot of what came in the late sixties, and then what comes important later. I mean decades later when progressive rock is just influencing music that sounds nothing like it. Like electronic music, heavy metal, things like that. It starts with Robert Fripp, the guitarist who kind of putting together a larger band from a smaller band with these two brothers, Michael Giles and Peter Giles, the drummer and the bassist. He adds woodwinds and keyboards in McDonald. He adds a full-time lyricist and lights manager, Peter Sinfield. And adds Greg Lake, who is a kind of barrel-chested, classic rock star signer on bass. And they become just for a very short moment, this enormous, big-next-thing band. One of those bands where the first album really is a statement that can stand on its own. Even though they did everything else …
Nick Gillespie: And that is the In the Court of the Crimson King. With the ultimate rock album Nostril Shot, as I recall this.
Dave Weigel: This first song on the album, 21st century Schizo Man, there are metal elements to it. There are jazz elements that McDonald had kind of goofed around with when eh was playing woodwinds in the army. There are all these things just colliding against each other, and it's a popular album, and the band immediately falls apart. Just for the normal reasons that bands break apart, Greg Lake leaves pretty soon, Emerson, Lincoln Palmer, other members start dropping off. And the band becomes basically whatever Robert Fripp finds interesting at that moment.
And I spent a lot of time on Fripp because he just … he's one of these characters you find sometimes in any kind of history who is extremely loquacious and so arch about his place in the moment. He's almost like a Lewis Carroll character. He's very good at analyzing his own sex appeal, and analyzing why he hates crowls, and whether the music he just produced is interesting and worth promoting or not. Just because reassembling the band so they … through the seventies, just for the short period of five years, changed their sound multiple times. They break up with Red, which is a much more metal sounding album. And for that reason, very influential for bands like Tool and Perfect Circle, people like that.
He leaves and Fripp basically goes into seclusion in a … what I will not call a cult, but it was sort of a religious tendency he picks up. Returns to becoming a much more avant garde performer and through that … and also not somebody who likes the term progressive rock. He really … he hates being classified as prog … he's very happy to see punk come along and obliterate all this. And I have the scene in the book where he sees ELP at kind of the height of their ridiculousness, when they're touring with an orchestra in Madison Square Garden and just has it out with Greg Lake so much. Years after the guy had clearly succeeded beyond what King Crimson could ever do, that he just gets kicked out of his limo.
But he is much happier with looping experiments, with … he produces a folk band, The Roaches, and opens up their sound. He's the guitar player on the song Heroes, which is I think a tone … one of those songs where anything that sounds even a little bit it sounds like a rip off. Like a truly unique song that he plays. And then restarts in the eighties, bring in Adrian Belew who kind of sounded like him when he was playing with Talking Heads for a kind of art rock band. Several times over the decades, King Crimson just keeps inventing a different version of this music, which is never …
And again, people who are not always comfortable calling it progressive rock but which is always taking … okay, I guess the inspiration each time being okay, there's this music. We're pretty bored by that. How can we play with this, how can we structure our guitar solos so that they're interlocking, how can we … stuff like that I cut out of the book because I just got so into writing about it. This whole album of tape loop experiments with David Byrne reciting the names of different philosophies over it. He becomes a very art rock guy.
And then … he today, Robert Fripp is still touring with this band with a three drummer line up. Again, something he never did … and I just, whatever they're in, if they're in politics, which I cover mostly. If they're in film, in they're in music, especially, just people like that who clearly just need to do the next thing and don't want to go back and play the hits. Like King Crimson will play songs they wrote 50 years ago, but they completely rearranged them because Fripp is not about to sit there and just bang out like the rift Satisfaction and have … he sees the music needs to be fresh wherever it's played. And I think that is kind of the attitude that some of the classical composers that I write about in the very beginning. The book had … it is got to be music that you can reinterpret. He can't just be a pop song for quick radio consumption that talks a little bit about how great it is to fall in love and to make love, and you're in and out.
Nick Gillespie: At the same time, and I agree that's an interesting way to put it. You talk about this in the book, The Show that Never Ends, which of course comes from an ELP opening track. But it's a time where rock music and it was obviously aping progressive jazz on a certain level. But it was like, okay we need to move beyond the … it was really more like a two-minute pop song, and then it had merged by the end of the sixties into a three-minute pop song. We need to talk about stuff more than simple love and puppy love, and that type of stuff. Would you agree though that there is also an epic amount of silliness in the form, which is kind of entwined with it's seriousness? And I … Keith Emerson's early band The Nice had an album called The Golden Apples of Emerless Daft Jack, which is anagram …
Dave Weigel: their names, including a member they would soon kick out of the band because he kept getting hi on LSD and passing out during concerts.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah and I mean, there's so much silliness in, you know … you describe ELP in a lot of ways I guess may have been the most successful in that the band toured the biggest possible stadiums, the name of the band was simply the letters of the last … first letters of the last name of the band. Each of them was a virtuoso. I think of a song like Lucky Man, which was I guess their biggest single hit, which starts out as kind of a pirate-y song about channeling … like a Paul Simon lyric about a man with white horses and ladies by the score. And then it ends in this totally inappropriate, to my mind, synthesized … twenty minute, it sounds like synthesizer solo that has nothing to do with pirate ships. Pirates had nothing to do with it. I mean, what … how does the silliness and the kind of you know baroque overexaggeration, how does that fit in with the seriousness of the music for you?
Dave Weigel: Well, they were aware of the silliness. Like that song … I tried to explain in the book, the interplay … how ELP got along. And it was not always well, I mean they were three very talented people. Palmer, the drummer, the most easy to get along with. But Emerson and Lake with gigantic egos, and Emerson had said explicitly several times through his life, Lake was bitter because he was playing with two virtuosos, and he was … his name was in the same lights, but he clearly wasn't as good as they were.
And so this was a … Lucky Man was almost a doggerel that Keith Lake wrote when he was a teenager, and Lake, Emerson threw this experimental Moog solo on it because he thought, I have a Moog, let me tool around with it. It was, not just experimental, but it was not pompous. It was fun, and with Yes. As serious, so John Anderson's lyrics by far are the most … the most high-minded peace about Yes. John Anderson writes lyrics like he's writing the Bhavagad Gita every night, if you open up Tales from Topographic Oceans, for any of them. After listening to a lot of his music, one of the guys I find it hardest to place which lyric is from what song. So he takes it very seriously, but everyone else in the band was just basically a good rock musician who just thought this stuff was fun.
And you saw it when they break off in their solo careers for a couple of years in the 1970s, you know Steve Howell was playing classical guitar because that was … that's what he wanted to get to from all this. So they were basically … it was not we're going to … There's forms of music I find a lot more pretentious. I mean, there's a lot of punk, like Crass and the Adverts that were trying … Or even John Liden who always did this, in I think a really calculated way. They were trying to make their music the focal point of a better way of living. Better philosophy. We're going to take … break down the system. And progressive rock was rebellious, but it was basically fun. And so yeah, they're very aware … like even there are bands like Jade Warrior where their whole gimmick is everything sounds like everything is influenced by Japanese instruments. There's Gryphon, everything sounds like it's at a Renaissance fair, who had opened for Yes sometimes. Gentle Giant, they were all basically normal people who just … this was fun to them. They'd be bored playing something less ambitious.
Nick Gillespie: Talk about … yeah, that dimension of kind of pleasure and of self-challenging, and of also … one of the things that I love about rock music in general, and by that I guess I mean more pop music in general, is that there are clearly rules and there are both aesthetic rules, that certain sounds and certain chords and whatnot work better in unison, but then there are also rules about … it's all a business. And you're not supposed to have whole album-length side cuts, you know there's no air play for that. There's no play for that, and these guys all pushed all sorts of expectations and whatnot. Is there a politics to it, I mean you started out as a … in a way, not quite but early in your career you wrote for reason, you identify as Libertarian leaning, at the very least. You were a self-conscious conservative in college. Is there a politics to progressive rock? And if so, not a partisan politics. And is there … what … how do you map the energy or the kind of impulses in it onto politics?
Dave Weigel: There's not a vote for this party type of politics. There is a utopianism about it. And I didn't say, let's create a new world, but these were generally artists in the 1970s in the time of greater environmental awareness, and that was … when Yes wrote any kind of song, politics, I'm laughing because you've probably also heard, Don't Kill the Whale, their classic environmental funk-based ballad. When they got into politics at all, it was that. The big exception is Rush, who and I cut out this … I talked to Rand Paul about Rush because they had condemned him for using his music and it really pisses him off.
Yet Rush basically when they were in their early twenties, and breaking big in the UK, did an interview with … I keep going back to how good the British music press was. British music press analyzed and sometimes lionized and sometimes tore down these bands, with just tremendous aplomb. Lester Banks doing the same thing in the states. British press had a ton of those people. And they just got Neil Pert rolling about how great Iron Rand was, and how she influenced the lyrics like the trees, and 2112, they got away from that. They got more … these bands all go pretty. So they were like many artists, annoyed with Britain's super high-tech race, but they were not super political. And they did have …
Nick Gillespie: Although they were very individualist. I mean they were Byron-esque. They were breaking artistic form, breaking audience expectations and trying to create something bold and new. Not necessarily … like you were saying, not to change the world. They didn't want a five-hour work week or something, but they did want to blow people's minds.
Dave Weigel: They did, and so they … I kind of looked because I was interested in that. If there was any sort of big movement they got involved with, or benefit concert. You had Peter Gabriel a bit later get involved in some of that after he leaves Genesis. And Genesis themselves, Peter Gabriel himself becoming involved with Live Aid, but those are big classic celebrities…
Nick Gillespie: Well and also I always think of Gabriel as well with Steven Biko and calling attention to apartheid in South Africa and whatnot. I think a generation of Americans, certainly people my age in their fifties or older. The reason we knew who Steven Biko was was because Peter Gabriel had written a song about him.
Dave Weigel: Yeah, they took on these causes and … at the same time a lot of other musicians were. But progressive music itself was just not … a lot of it existed in this … some of the European bands that I get into came from much more troubled politically countries in the seventies than the UK, from Italy, from Greece. They got a little bit more really about it. But the music was … this was kind of before a lot of pop music felt comfortable getting directly involved in politics. It was kind of heartening. The period I'm writing this book in, and researching it is 2013 to 2016, which is even more tumultuous, than a lot of people thought the election could be. And there is a sense that a lot of this music was being created, we all now know is a period of Western decline. Right? There were the 25 good economic years after World War II, and then people are kind of starting to pick over the scraps, the pound sinks, the oil crash happens, etc., etc. so that's, I think … those are among the factors why some of this music
Nick Gillespie: So it's kind of … it's almost hedonism. I mean it participates in a seventies hedonism, but it's not … it's really interesting that it's not about fucking. You know, per se. I mean the Rolling Stones become hedonists. You know, Bob Dylan disparages hedonists at the end of the seventies. And these guys are just trying to create kind of interesting new worlds that they can escape to.
Dave Weigel: Yeah, I think that's a good way of putting it. But always … music was half happening on Earth, it was just not … it was happening during a period of political tumult and economic decline and the music was pretty disconnected from that. Even Robert Fripp who was writing some of the most, I think musically dark and disturbing of it was … it was pretty inward looking and pretty personal, pretty … both personal sometimes and more often abstract. Like I said, I don't even think … song like Starless or Fallen Angel is coming at a period … America's going through Watergate has very little to do with that.
And so I think that's another reason why some of this music has not factored very large into music history, because there are bands and musicians who got involved in ways that you tell their story when you're telling the story of the seventies. It's one point I make in the book, I mean you tell the story of this period and if you're doing it in a movie or TV show you throw in disco or you throw on singer songwriters, maybe you throw on protest music. And they just didn't do protest music. It was very much a music a lifestyle where you tuned out, where you went to a festival, where you got into an arena. And a time where there were fewer distractions, as well.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah. What … Talk about how part of what the book is addressing really is that … and you've mentioned it, that the critical contempt for a lot of progressive rock … and you know they had their champions in the day and they still do, but in general you're right that people tend to write about rock music like a loose term for a lot of pop music. But as a means of social expression and dissatisfaction with the status quo and so you know Elvis disrupts the bland gray Eisenhower era. The Beatles bring something new and exciting to a post-Kennedy assassination America. And then blah, blah, blah. And Punk obviously, Johnny Rotten never misses an opportunity to talk about how he would doctor Pink Floyd tshirts and write I hate above them and walk down Carnebie Street and get attacked by people, and he …
Dave Weigel: As soon as he can, he's playing like experimental bass music with Bill Laswell and stuff.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah well this is … part of what's interesting … yeah I agree completely, or the band The Germs. The LA post-punk band or late punk band opens their song No god with a snippet from Yes's Roundabout. You know there's clearly many more connections and according to if you read journalists like Nick Kent, the Sex Pistols in their early days, all they were doing basically were covers of The Who and of a couple of other bands that they publicly denounced. But … the argument of the book is really that progressive rock … it persists in a lot of ways that it's not recognized. And you talked about some of them there. And then it was that the critics really wanted to trash it after a certain point. And is it … why these albums, certainly groups like Jethro Tull, Genesis, Yes, were selling millions of records. Was it simply that critics didn't like popular music, if something was really popular it couldn't be good? Or was it that they were turned off by this was a different type of rock and roll than they were comfortable celebrating.
Dave Weigel: Well I think some of it was that the music was getting less interesting. The Yes of I think Going for the One is kind of the last gasp of super interesting Yes music. By late 1977, 1978 it so happens that what is being offered to the market by some of these bands. If it sounds like the early 70s it is played out. They have run out of ideas, they're older, they're doing less. That's why the bands that make it into the 80s both commercially if you're talking about John Wedden performing in Asia or artistically if you're talking about King Crimson, they don't sound like they did at the end of the 70s. So part of it's the quality. Although as we all know, that's not necessarily determinative of whether something's popular or not. Part of it really is … the artists I talked to, and the radio folks I talked to really do say this was a conscious decision of labels who just … They had a different younger group of AR people. They found this music boring and they found punk exciting, so they elevated it…
Nick Gillespie: Punk in the US never sold many records. And I mean there were one-offs and things like that, but it's interesting …
Dave Weigel: I'm thinking more the British … the British side of this was much more direct. Where you had Harvest Records, which is producing all this, and Island, the guys who had been selling huge
Nick Gillespie: And in fact you mentioned Mike Oldfield, and obviously people know Richard Branson, but I don't think … it's hard to appreciate the full measure of how Richard Branson has enhanced the 20th and 21st centuries. He both brought Mike Oldfield to a mass audience and in many ways progressive rock and then eh was the person who put out the Sex Pistols only a few years later. So it's kind of interesting to see even within that label the quick turnaround.
Dave Weigel: Yeah, they've been doing the quick turnaround … at the same time, this music is more possible than punk in a lot of ways. I always go back to I read I think every issue of Sounds and Express, these British magazines. And end of the year polls in 1977, people still say their favorite keyboard player is Rick Wakeman, their favorite guitarist is Steve Howe. The concerts were bigger, the other side of everyone saying, well that one Sex Pistol Show, everyone who went to it started a band. Well the Yes show down the street had people at it. Those people didn't stay invested in music. They grew up and did something else.
It was I think the music was a little bit less good, some of the bands tuned out, and there was a decision by critics and labels to focus on other music. And it was really hard, going back for the research for the book, I have rarely seen a heel turn like this, where critics really were ready to praise the music and then six months later, say this was the problem with everything. That's why … I think I could quote pretty liberally from Rolling Stone, and from magazines that eventually as part of their creation methos for rock had to condemn this stuff. They were like, oh Emerson, Lake and Palmer's as interesting as anything you're going to hear to they …
Rolling Stone has a giant feature on Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1977 when they're kicking off they're world tour as a big important band with a following that needs to be understand. And by the end of that tour, their supposed to be a laughingstock. So … some people know that different than others. As I said, Robert Fripp was really happy that all that stuff imploded. Greg Lake never really got over it. Greg Lake, who passed away last year always resented what he found to be interesting music was shoved aside for more basic rock music and punk and that. He thought it was just a really cynical and stupid and as you were saying, it didn't even sell that well so why'd they do it so
Nick Gillespie: I just wish Greg Lake had buttoned up on the cover of Love Beach. That image still haunts me of his kind of human veal physique. Nonetheless felt totally free to inflict on the record-buying public.
Dave Weigel: That's one of these albums, I looked at that and said I bet there is a story of drug use and decay and failure behind this, and indeed there was. That is like one of the more Spinal Tap-y albums in the book
Nick Gillespie: What … I'm also thinking … you interview a lot of people in the moment, which is great and this is great rock history because of the research that you've done but also the reporting that you've done. You talk a lot to Roger Dean, who is important. He's not a musician, but he's the guy who did the Yes covers in particular. And I just want to get this in because it cracks me up. And it may not to anybody else but you now Roger Dean's landscapes are constantly of planets that are being overrun by water and melting icebergs and things dripping and yet he's a global warming skeptic, right?
Dave Weigel: He is. I forget how we got into that, but I did some
Nick Gillespie: I'm sure he brought it up.
Dave Weigel: I think it was in the news, but I did some reporting that was in person where I went on the cruise, which I talk about at the beginning of the book. Which I actually … the thing that I think David Foster Wallace gets wrong … having written one book and criticize a legend. If you go onto a cruise with a theme actually it's very different from just bumping around with people who want to eat all day and pass out in front of the pool. The
Nick Gillespie: So tell the story. This the Yes cruise, right?
Dave Weigel: This is the cruise to the edge. Which was put on by the guys who did Monsters of Rock, and discovered that … and a cruise based around the Moody Blues, and then they discovered that they should just around progressive music. There was a similar fan base to the rock one. They're pretty explicit. I talked to them at the beginning about how easy it is to commodify this. But I went to that for a week in the Caribbean. I went to a much smaller scale but really fascinating series of concerts called Near Fest in the Allentown area. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And that's where I think I talked … I talked to Roger Dean at both. We actually had decent conversation at both of these. But this is the one in Pennsylvania where something stuck in his craw and he really wanted to talk about it.
Nick Gillespie: Oh yeah, it's coal country. Right, look what Al Gore hath wrought.
Dave Weigel: And I followed up the first article about that guy, so there are people who might be interested in what you have to say about global warming. I think he realized it's beyond being off-brand. Everyone who has a Roger Dean painting in their portrait room disagrees with him about this.
Nick Gillespie: I thought he would be in favor of global warming. Because you look at the cover of Fragile, it's water water everywhere. What's …
Dave Weigel: Are you going to fly to …
Nick Gillespie: Who was the most interesting person beyond Robert Fripp? And it is … I go back and forth when I think about … He's on one end of the spectrum of kind of performers who … on the other I remember years ago seeing an interview with Neil Diamond where … it was on CBS Sunday Morning or 60 minutes or something, and the interviewer said, do you ever get tired of playing your hits? And Neil Diamond looked totally befuddled. And I think it was genuine. And he said, why would I be tired of playing my hits? That's what the audience comes for. And of course Neil Diamond and I think a lot of rock performers have come over to his side of the equation, where instead of saying, I'm not playing that song anymore. Or I'm going to make it unrecognizable. They really in a way 20, 30 years ago rock stars didn't give a shit about their audiences. They would show up late, they would show up drunk, they would show up out of tune. They wouldn't have rehearsed. And now they're more like they want to give a great experience. Every night, each night, each concert. And then there's Robert Fripp. Beyond Robert Fripp, who was the progressive rock god that surprised you the most as you toured through this material?
Dave Weigel: Well I had never spent that much time talking to and then reading interviews with Keith Emerson who was just fascinating to me because he really was innovative and virtuosic performer who was seen like that for years and then dropped out of relevance pretty hard for decades. I remember even talking to somebody who was grimly noting a couple years ago how depressing it was to watch him scoring video game music. And he was right in this nether zone where he was very aware that he was famous for something that happened a very long time ago. Kind of quote him going around Moog Fest, which where he was sort of god, but it's weird that he's being worshiped for something where all the new interesting music is written by other people.
And so I thought he was … without being terribly … he was very English and not super interested in being introspective. He wrote in his autobiography. But he was who clearly wanted this … if he didn't want the jet set lifestyle forever, wanted this music to keep evolving and it didn't. I think it was stuck in a between space for the last couple of decades of his life. Was pretty unhappy when ELP would have to reunite and go on tour. It was always done with just a label pressuring them to do it. Right, it was the label saying you'll make a lot more album if this is an ELP album versus a Keith Emerson album. They said fine. But watching someone with that much talent go along with these commercial instincts just because he had to was … I wasn't entirely surprised but sad as I reported on it and wrote about it.
And then I think David Allen was kind of the other end of the spectrum. This guy who was Australian musician who literally hitchhikes on a boat across the oceans, gets to the UK. He friends much younger musicians, gets kicked out of the band because … this is Soft Machine. He gets kicked out of Soft Machine because he has a drug record and won't … can't reenter the UK. And then just starts a different French band which becomes … Gong is a … once I listen to more fusion and more kind of Herbie Hancock and stuff. I saw everything is ripping from there but this guy was making that kind of music and being completely blissed out about it right up until he died. A couple days before he dies of cancer. And so he was another one I didn't know what to expect. Two different extremes I'd say where one guy was deeply unhappy about what had happened to this movement he was part of. And the other guy said oh movement's gone, that's fine. I'm still singing about potheaded pixies and doing weird glissando noises on my guitar, so this is great. As long as there's ten people listening to this in a pub, I'm happy.
Nick Gillespie: Is progressive rock and this might have something to do with it's kind of fall from grace. But it is fundamentally a male thing? You know there aren't a lot of ladies in the book. There's a few who show up. But they're mostly … to be honest they're the ones singing an alto soprano or a soprano talking about sea carpets. Or sun carpets of the sea and things like that. What was the role of women in progressive rock?
Dave Weigel: There wasn't as much of it. I've mentioned Annie Haslam from Renaissance, Sonja Christina from Curved Air, again if you read these magazines in the seventies, you're seeing them all being put on the same pedestal. Like check out the new music that's coming out of Curved Air. Check out this three-page spread about Sonja Christina. There wasn't a lot of it, and I think it was basically a function of who formed the bands. The bands that came together out of the London scene, there simply weren't that many women in it. Except for Hawkwind having a six-foot model covered in paint walking around during their shows.
Nick Gillespie: And Hawkwind of course is one of those great odd junctures or notes of history because out of Hawkwind also comes Motorhead of all things, and then they made a bid for popdom in the eighties with songs like Sigh Power and whatnot. You know traditional pop songs.
Dave Weigel: As did Jethro Tull,, I spent a little time on the Bid for Pop stuff, but I didn't want to make the book a mockery at all. When something is generally funny I was writing about it, sure. But when life gives you Spinal Tap, they smell the glove.
Nick Gillespie: Or when Yes gives you Tormado or yeah.
Dave Weigel: But I generally tended to back away and look at what the newer revival stuff like Marilion and Porcupine Tree. But no, not a ton of women in this. And I don't know how that affected the way they were viewed in history because they were … select women you could point to but also not a ton.
Nick Gillespie: Rock in general is very much … the audience is different. And certainly the Beatles had as many women or more women fans than they had male fans, but they were Liverpool lads, not lasses. It's a strange creative … medium of creative expression.
Dave Weigel: Although you've got this character who ends up being like a creation figure and, because PP Arnold is the soul singer who brings together Nice as her backing band. And then they break off and do their own thing. So various points there are female artists who are important to this, but it is basically a story of men and their organs. To put it one way.
Nick Gillespie: Now that male organs have been exposed, let's talk a little bit about politics. You're the … you cover national politics for the Washington Post. You got into political reporting partly at Reason and then you had gigs at Slate and a number of other places. What happened … you came into this at the height of the Ron Paul experience. Where is Ron Paul and Rand Paul now? I mean Rand Paul is so unpopular that he can't … with Rush that they won't even let him play the Trees for God's sake. Which, for people who don't know is essentially a story about a bunch of maple trees form a union to block the oak tree from growing taller than it.
Dave Weigel: Yeah, it's basically sake Rand's animal farm.
Nick Gillespie: But set in trees and I'm assuming. I always read the maples being bullies because that's Canda, and Canada is somehow anti-individualistic. And Rush are the oaks that want to grow taller than the rest of the forest.
Dave Weigel: There is not a lot of space for libertarianism in politics right now except for I think, being honest about it, the issues where libertarianism intersects with the donors who have done the most for Donald Trump. I feel like my friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are pretty happy about Trump's positions on climate. Myron Ebell, especially is … literally joined the administration. But the criminal justice reform side of libertarianism is kind of retreated to the states. Where it's doing okay but has no clout in DC anymore. The drug reform side of it … I interviewed Rand right before Jeff Sessions was officially, right after and asked him a couple questions about why he disagrees so vehemently with Sessions on drug policy, to vote for him.
And his answer was honestly the Democrats forced his hand by being so cruel and by portraying him as a racist so … doesn't have a lot. That was kind of a key answer because what we're finding a lot of politics right now is that you can't get the conservative voter base active not really around an issue but around being angry at the left. And libertarian policies by the balls is so idea based and you're angry in an elite that's failing the country, but you are not angry at how gross Hilary is or anything simple to mobilize against. And depressingly that's … found that politics moves fewer bodies than getting people to laugh at Leonardo DiCaprio for using a plane or to be annoyed with Black Live Matter for blocking an intersection.
There's just a much lower quality sort of politics that replaced libertarian stuff. And the fatal thing is, I asked Rand this too, he said he was wrong. He thought that in order to win again, the Republican party ended to attract young voters and non-white voters who were giving up on hardcore nationalism and Trump proved that he can eke together a majority if he had just enough nationalists. And why would you go back? I think the only thing that would change … give libertarians another moment is Trump being defeated, or Republicans being defeated in a massive way. It's not happening right now. I keep … I make fun of how Trump unlike most presidents, has press corp ready to go to voters that voted for him, and say, "you're still with him right?" There are these stories, even he does his decisions that 70% of people oppose, stories about how he's doing it for his base. He's delivering. And so as long as you kind of prioritize the easily angered, easily activated nationalist base, then yeah libertarians don't have much of a place in politics.
Nick Gillespie: How do you … as somebody who is in the main stream media. You're at the Washington Post that fears that democracy dies in darkness. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon who owns the post is also a contributor to Reason at times, you know has been singled out by Donald Trump. The Washington Post, you're the fake news and all of that. How is that affecting you and your colleague's coverage? Because … do you feel … is the mainstream media giving Donald Trump a fair shake? Or are they, like a lot of people in America, so overwhelmed with their contempt or disgust for how he appears, the way he phrases things. Some of his policies but not all of them. Is it difficult to cover him fairly do you thinK?
Dave Weigel: I think factually you have to be tough on him because he will make a speech and make stuff up. He always has. When he was saying … I think factually if you were writing aobut him when he was selling you on the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and … factually you have to say that was a failure. He was lying about his finances. And he knows that now and so I think there's this trap I'm kind of worried about where there's … I worry about it all the time when I see one of these studies where it's 90% of coverage of Trump has been negative. If you burrow into it, a lot of that is coverage of Republicans criticizing him. Not so much Democrats. It's not news when Nancy Pelosi doesn't like him. It's news when
Nick Gillespie: John McCain or Jeff Lake or something.
Dave Weigel: So that or it's him misstating something, or being embroiled in a scandal. And they're really not Democrats scoring any points on him. So it's not like we're slanting it to one party. But it's difficult … I would argue that especially in the early years of Obama, and I worry that I was part of this. That there was coverage of the first black president a little bit too gauzy. And looking for ways in which he was inspiring people and looking past mistakes that were being made. And there's … that's gone, but I feel like it's two factors colliding. One is that Obama had unusually good coverage, and the absence of Obama you're getting back to what you would have with Bush or with Clinton. With the first Clinton, the one who won. And that's colliding with objectively Trump just lies more than most presidents. It's been part of his strategy for years, and won him an election. And. But I do fret about people who are told by him not to trust the media and see us say, hey this is false what he just said. And say I don't believe you any more. I don't know how we unwind that.
Nick Gillespie: Well and there are times when the press does seem to be … they kind of shoot first, or they pass the sentence first and then come up with facts later. And there are times when the press has had to walk back various claims against Trump. Or overstated. Do you see, as somebody in the national media, do you worry aobut the level of discourse that is coming out? Because obviously it's true to say that America's very polarized. Or at least that's the way we're talking about stuff. Is there a way to find, not a fake moderate tone and discourse, but is there a way where the media can help America to kind of start talking among itself again rather than kind of yelling at each other or talking past each other.
Dave Weigel: Not just because I work for the Post, I'd say this the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and I think big papers are pretty good at this. I think to an extent smaller papers are good at this. That I've seen in LA or feel kind of weird calling LA a small space. But you know what I mean. And I feel that it's actually local TV news, which has been bad for a long time. But makes it looks like the only things happening are people yelling about politics or scandals, and the only things happening in the community are crimes.
And so the great paradox of our age is you have theoretically people able to talk to each other free of all these limits and free of even paying for anything. They just go on the internet and talk to each other, one might think that would help people understand one another. And instead they don't. And I think there's a lot of work being done to make sure people continue hating each other and fearing each other. And I don't think that's newspapers doing it. I think we're seeking out a story that's trying to portray a moment in America or a development in a city we don't cover or a sector of the economy. We generally try to find all these voices. So I think that the problem is people packaging the most combative, least insightful stuff and throwing it across Facebook, or throwing it on local TV.
Nick Gillespie: If there is, we will wrap up with this. If there is one progressive rock album or song that could heal America, what would it be?
Dave Weigel: I think Starlets by King Crimson because it's really good, and it's long, and it's spacey … not in a Jon Anderson way, but you can write the lyrics down and interpret them however you want way. But if you want to get really direct. Really save the planet, obviously Don't Kill the Whale.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah.
Dave Weigel: Yes's Don't Kill the Whale. You're really going to want to stop killing whales when you hear that.
Nick Gillespie: I have to admit that I flipped when I heard that song. And I was like finally … I see it as an airtight case to go out and … I wanted to join a whaling crew after hearing that.
Dave Weigel: You just want to move to Japan, start throwing spears …
Nick Gillespie: And want to screw the rainbow warrior in Greenpeace, for Christ's sake. Well, we have been talking to Dave Weigel, he's a national politics reporter at the Washington Post. A former Reason employee and also the author most immediately of a fantastic history of progressive rock called The Show that Never Ends: the Rise and Fall of Progressive Rock, or of Prog Rock, excuse me. Dave thanks so much for talking to us, and thanks for writing the book.
Dave Weigel: Oh man, thanks, I'm glad you liked it.
Nick Gillespie: This has been the Reason podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes. Rate and review us while you're there. I'm Nick Gillepsie, thanks for listening.