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Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture

Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture

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by Edward Macan

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Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw


Few styles of popular music have generated as much controversy as progressive rock, a musical genre best remembered today for its gargantuan stage shows, its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature, and above all for its attempts to combine classical music's sense of space and monumental scope with rock's raw power and energy. Its dazzling virtuosity and spectacular live concerts made it hugely popular with fans during the 1970s, who saw bands such as King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull bring a new level of depth and sophistication to rock. On the other hand, critics branded the elaborate concerts of these bands as self- indulgent and materialistic. They viewed progressive rock's classical/rock fusion attempts as elitist, a betrayal of rock's populist origins. In Rocking the Classics, the first comprehensive study of progressive rock history, Edward Macan draws together cultural theory, musicology, and music criticism, illuminating how progressive rock served as a vital expression of the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with a description of the cultural conditions which gave birth to the progressive rock style, he examines how the hippies' fondness for hallucinogens, their contempt for Establishment-approved pop music, and their fascination with the music, art, and literature of high culture contributed to this exciting new genre. Covering a decade of music, Macan traces progressive rock's development from the mid- to late-sixties, when psychedelic bands such as the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, the Nice, and Pink Floyd laid the foundation of the progressive rock style, and proceeds to the emergence of the mature progressive rock style marked by the 1969 release of King Crimson's album In the Court of the Crimson King. This "golden age" reached its artistic and commercial zenith between 1970 and 1975 in the music of bands such as Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, and Curved Air. In turn, Macan explores the conventions that govern progressive rock, including the visual dimensions of album cover art and concerts, lyrics and conceptual themes, and the importance of combining music, visual motif, and verbal expression to convey a coherent artistic vision. He examines the cultural history of progressive rock, considering its roots in a bohemian English subculture and its meteoric rise in popularity among a legion of fans in North America and continental Europe. Finally, he addresses issues of critical reception, arguing that the critics' largely negative reaction to progressive rock says far more about their own ambivalence to the legacy of the counterculture than it does about the music itself. An exciting tour through an era of extravagant, mind-bending, and culturally explosive music, Rocking the Classics sheds new light on the largely misunderstood genre of progressive rock.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The enormous success in 1967 of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band inspired other bands to expand and refine this blending of rock, folk, and classical into a style that came to be known as progressive rock. Throughout the 1970s the form developed into a core element around which colossal light shows, elaborate props, and outlandish costumes were added as bands like Genesis and Yes moved the music into arenas and stadiums. Though hugely popular, many critics considered the music emotionally cold and pompous. By the end of the decade a backlash against progressive rock and disco led to do-it-yourself movements like Punk and New Wave. The music's continued success, however, indicates that this is an important if controversial subgenre of rock music. This extremely detailed and scholarly book offers a unique overview. Its style limits its recommendation to libraries with serious music collections that focus on contemporary forms.Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, Pa.

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Oxford University Press
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4 MB

Meet the Author

Edward Macan is a music educator, mallet percussionist, and pianist. He teaches at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.

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Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's not too often one runs across a book devoted entirely to the subject of prog rock. But Edward Macan's Rocking the Classics is that one book. Basically the book tells you the cultural climate that gave the rise and then the fall of progressive rock. The book also focuses on several of the most important prog rock pieces like 'Tarkus', 'Firth of Fifth', 'Close to the Edge', etc. It's also describes of the technological development that made prog possible. The book isn't pefect. Some of the information is a bit inaccurate (wrong release dates to certain albums). Macan made one think the minute you hit the 1980s, all analog keyboards were replaced by digital, when in fact keyboards like the Prophet 5, Oberheim OBX, Roland Jupiter-8, etc., keyboards that represented the sound of the early 1980s, were in fact analog, and it wasn't until the arrival of the Yamaha DX-7, the first commercially practical digital synth, in 1983 that the digital keyboard revolution began (although digital synths were under development since the mid to late 1970s with the likes of the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI). Also Macan focuses almost entirely on England, as if that was the only country who gave us prog. Of course the country was home to some of the most important and revolutionary prog bands, but he really didn't put much emphasis on other country's prog, simply because I own a ton of great prog albums from mainly Continental Europe, and so do many other diehard prog fans out there. Sure there's the occasional mention of German, Italian, Swedish, American, and even Latin American prog bands, but little focus was brought in to those bands. The book also focused on why the mainstream rock critics never took too well to this kind of music ('too far from rock's R&B roots' was the one criticim critics leveled at this kind of music). Don't buy this book expecting a lengthy, extended overview of every prog band that ever existed, it's not that type of book. It's a book that tells you what progressive rock is all about and a focus on some of the more important bands. Regardless, despite some of the shortcomings of this book, if you're a prog rock fan and you want to know what brought the rise and fall of progressive rock, be sure to get this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edward Macan's book reads like a thesis on progressive rock, its place in modern music history, and relationship with the counterculture it grew out of. He uses his musicology background and a good sense of cultural theory to very thoroughly investigate and explain the many facets that shaped progressive rock, including in depth chapters on the music, the visuals, and the lyrics in progressive rock. To illustrate things further one chapter looks at four specific pieces of music: ELP's 'Tarkus', Yes's 'Close to the Edge', Genesis's 'Firth of Fifth', and Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here'. Macan's focus is the English prog rock scene, although he does make mention of both North American and Continental European bands in his discussions of styles and social relevancy. 'Rocking the Classics' also touches on practically all of the related styles of music and bands, from jazz-rock fusion, English folk-rock and heavy metal, to minimalism and avant-garde electronic music. In a sense, I discovered much about what makes me enjoy many of the bands I listen to. The book also delves into prog rock's standing in critical circles and touches a little on more recent progressive rock output, even though the majority of the book concentrates on the 70's. Macan compliments things with an appendix containing a very nice discography and personnel listings for most of the bands he has written about. As a non-musician I often felt challenged to follow many of Macan's music analyses, however I surmise musicians will appreciate such depth. I also found Macan's style quite dry at times, but preferred that this was not a book written by a typical rock critic. Some may argue that Macan elevates progressive rock to a level akin to the pomposity that befell the music in the late 70's, but I think that would be an unfair assessment. Macan's arguments may be somewhat pedantic at times, but I found them sound and well presented. I think that anyone interested in discovering more about progressive rock will find this an excellent guide, and would recommend the book others.