Dave Weigel defends prog rock against all comers with 'The Show That Never Ends'

Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer in 1999.

Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer in 1999. Associated Press

Prog rock has never been sexy.

Nor, it seems, has it ever been respected. Pick up the 1983 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide and you'll discover that Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, the 1974 Emerson Lake & Palmer double-LP whose title Dave Weigel poaches for his new history of prog, is one of two ELP albums rated one star, a number eclipsed by their number of unstarred, "worthless" records. Yes received five one star dismissals while only one of Gentle Giant's 11 featured records rose to the level of three stars.

Prog's reputation among the rock cognoscenti hasn't improved much since '83, but as a closely knit cult prog thrives in the 21st century. Dave Weigel, a political reporter at the Washington Post, proudly belongs to this secret society. Only an insider could've written a history as nuanced and insightful as The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, and only a reporter could've writen a book as clear-eyed, dispensing of the inherent excesses of art-rock to focus on the music and the men that made it.

And it was mainly men, pursuing the same dreams that drove garage rockers: good times, girls and noise. Prog rockers defined noise a little differently than proto-punks, though, choosing to explore all of the possibilities suggested by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That 1967 LP dominates the opening section of The Show That Never Ends, a de facto Big Bang that created self-sustaining sonic solar systems on both sides of the Atlantic.

Weigel's skills as reporter are an asset as he traces these ever-expanding circles. Supplementing first-person interviews with thorough research, he keeps his focus on the facts, whether it's interpersonal squabbles or shifting time signatures within compositions, while keeping an eye on how the how this defiantly arty music was received in its day. Contrary to myth, the U.K. press embraced at lot of it at the time, even if the U.S. press was reluctant -- a divide that makes sense, since early prog was a thoroughly British phenomenon.

Prog would later claim ground in North America (through the work of Rush, who gets a chapter here, while Kansas is spotlighted and Styx is forgotten) but its sensibility was European, maybe because classical music was taught on the continent, maybe because America has its roots in folk music. Either way, The Show That Never Ends always circles back to Kevin Ayers, Robert Fripp, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes and Genesis, the acts that provide a throughline from prog's beginning to its unexpected present. Ayers is the tragic romantic figure, Fripp the visionary, ELP the trail-blazing arena rockers, Yes the survivors, and Genesis the baseline, the band that neo-prog outfits such as Marillion and Porcupine Tree (the modern acts Weigel wisely devotes his final pages to) attempt to replicate.

Weigel's prose is crisp and dry, so he doesn't oversell clear connections between artists and eras, but they're evident all the same. Weigel's plainspoken tone demystifies the fanciful elements of his subject, and he's always happy to return the celestial to earth: Witness Rick Wakeman's performance of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice, a move that seems unbearably pretentious until the revelation that this staging was a matter of practicality because Wembley Arena couldn't be de-iced in time for the show.

The Show That Never Ends is filled with such sly revelations. Mike Oldfield guzzled liquor during the recording of "Tubular Bells" and King Crimson leader Robert Fripp may be persnickety but he can't disguise his carnality: "The Zoom Club was amazing — all those little bums and tits all tightly concealed within denims and blouses, eager to break free their confining clasp." Vulgar as this anecdote is (and it's not alone), Fripp's quote nevertheless illustrates how prog rockers were as horny as their heavy metal and glam rock peers. The stereotype of the maladjusted, inarticulate prog-worshipping teen didn't gel until the late '80s, by which point Marillion was about to pass the torch along to Porcupine Tree.

Maybe you recognize those names. Odds are you don't. Marillion got play on AOR in the '80s and '90s, while Steve Wilson, the leader of Porcupine Tree, recently remixed classic albums from Genesis and Chicago, adding footnotes to storied careers. These acts not only expand the narrative but deepen it, illustrating that the elastic experimentation of the '70s didn't expire as the decade drew to a close. And that's one of the best things about The Show That Never Ends: Weigel presents prog as a continuum, not a phenomenon that expired as the '70s drew to a close, thereby proving that prog rock is indeed a show that's yet to draw to a conclusion.