In Praise of “Minor” Epics

If there’s one characteristic of progressive rock that stands out above the others it’s song length. From the get go, bands weren’t afraid to push the envelope well beyond your typical three-minute rock/pop song. “Epic” became a kind of watchword for prog (even though it’s clearly not required), to the extent that side-long epics (or even beyond!) became common place.

I love me some epics, but I’ve found over the years that the real sweet spot for prog seems to be in what I’d call the “mini-epic” range – songs that took up most of an album side, but not the entire thing. Some of my favorite songs fall into this range, so I thought I’d highlight and praise some of these mini-epics.

First, a note on precisely what we’re talking about. For the “classic” era (mostly the 1970s), we’re talking about songs, as I said, that didn’t take up an entire side of an album. For the “modern” era (everything else), I’m talking about songs of about the same stature, so between 10 and 15 minutes. Long enough to do lots of things, but short enough for the end-of-the-side palate cleanser to come after.

With that said, here’s ten of my favorites, five “classics” and six  more “modern” ones (‘cause I couldn’t decide which one to sacrifice).

“The Grand Wazoo” by Frank Zappa, from The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Zappa wasn’t know for epics (he tended to string together shorter songs that all segued together on a side), but his two “big band” albums had a few. The title track from The Grand Wazoo is my favorite of the lot (aside from the first 90 seconds or so of “Big Swifty”). Love the horns, love the slinky synth solo.

“And You and I” by Yes, from Close to the Edge (1972)

This barely passes the 10-minute mark (the live version is a bit quicker and doesn’t), but it still fits the bill, packing in so much, from Howe’s harmonics in the opening through Wakeman’s Minimoog solos, Anderson’s lilting vocal, and the supreme tightness of the Squire/Bruford rhythm section. Yes often went bigger, but rarely better.

 “Cinema Show” by Genesis, from Selling England by the Pound (1973)

Quite possibly my favorite hunk of Genesis ever, particularly the long instrumental second half. The vocal first part, with typically obscure mythological lyrics, is great, too, but the lengthy keyboard solo in the second half really sells it. Notably, the instrumental section is just the three piece – Banks, Collins, and Rutherford. A sign of things to come.

That said, the live version from Seconds Out is heads and shoulder better than the studio version.

“Starless” by King Crimson, from Red (1974)

King Crimson has covered so much stylistic ground that it’s hard to pick one favorite track, but if I was forced to pick one favorite Crim track, this would be it. Somewhat like “Cinema Show” it’s got a vocal intro followed by a lengthy instrumental coda, one that builds layers slowly until it finally explodes in aural widescreen. Love the Mellotron all over it, too.

“Squarer for Maud” by National Health, from Of Queues and Cures (1978)

National Health are my favorite of the bands that emerged from the “Canterbury scene,” mixing a loose, jazzy style of prog with lyrics that were often absurd or completely baffling. The only words here are a spoken-word musing on the word “luminous,” which leads into the lengthy instrumental coda. Are you noticing a theme here?

“Go the Way You Go” by Spock’s Beard, from The Light (1995)

A milestone for me, as it was the first bit of music I listened to over the Internet and the first album I bought over the Web. The listening was of a 30-second clip that (the guitar breakdown about halfway through) took gods know how long to download over dialup and the actual purchase only came after a phone call with guitarist Al Morse (he sang a chorus of “Country Roads” when he found out I was in WV), but that’s what the early days were like, kids!

“Russia On Ice” by Porcupine Tree, from Lightbulb Sun (2000)

Steven Wilson has always been great at playing with dynamics and mood. He uses both to maximum effect here, with the sluggish, barely there verses giving way to the lush, explosive choruses. Not my favorite of his work, but a great tune nonetheless.

“The Seventh House” by IQ, from The Seventh House (2000)

Even clunker albums have gems. The title track to The Seventh House stands heads and shoulders above the rest of what is a pretty weak IQ effort. The story of two WWI survivors coming to grips with their memories, it’s cinematic and emotional. I wish I understood what the whole “houses one through six” thing was about.

 “The Invisible Man” by Marillion, from Marbles (2004)

Just brilliant from start to finish. Atmospheric, brooding, and creepy song that manages to actually tell a tale worth telling. I think they’ve done this track every time I’ve seen them live since Marbles came out and I never get tired of it.

“The Island” by The Decemberists, from The Crane Wife (2006)

You don’t have to be hard-core proggers to dabble in the epic. On this album and the next The Decemberists really leaned into their prog influences, though – this even has a keyboard solo that’s very Keith Emmersony! Still, it works best because Colin Melloy works such great narratives in his songs and here, with a little more room to roam, makes full use of it.

“Microdeath Softstar” by Phideaux, from Doomsday Afternoon (2007)

I really wish an album about environmental disaster and mankind’s inability to do anything about it wasn’t becoming more and more relevant with each passing year. At least the music’s good, full of Phideaux’s trademark churn (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) and lots of tasty playing. At least the end times will have a good soundtrack.

Let’s Talk Spoilers

It’s been a long time since I wrote something specifically about spoilers. After coming across this article at Tor by Sarah Kozloff about “spoilerphobia” I got to thinking about them some more. I still maintain that any story that can really be “spoiled” by knowing what happens probably isn’t that great, anyway.

A good point that Kozloff makes is that spoilers are more than just what happens in a particular story. They can be signifiers of social standing:

Knowing about the hot new book or movie can embody a certain cultural “one-upmanship” and indicate class privilege. Those with the money, time, freedom, and motivation to stay on top of current releases or buy new hardcovers may obtain an experience denied to those who have to wait for library copies or cheaper venues. So, the power to “spoil” lies disproportionately in the hands of those with elite access—like the critic—while anxiety about being deprived of an “untainted” experience affects people with less access.

I think my attitude toward spoilers is what it is because I first experienced them in the context of sports.

That said, I tend to agree with Kozloff’s ultimate conclusion:

I understand that revelations and endings do matter. I just don’t think they matter as much as people think they do or for every story. What I object to most about admonitions never to reveal plot is the implicit evaluation that surprise is everything, vastly more important than every other element of the work.

I think it’s important to think of spoilers as being linked to good manners. There’s a comment to the Tor piece about someone reading an Agatha Christie book on a plane:

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie novel on a plane and the guy next to you saying ‘That’s an awesome novel – I never would have guessed that she faked her death and burned her maid in her stead.’ (example made up, of course!). I don’t know how you would feel but I would be livid.

I’d be livid, too! Now, from a technical standpoint, whatever book that person’s reading has been out for decades and, really, they can’t expect it to be unspoiled. On the other, more relevant, hand, however, this person is obviously reading it, probably for the first time (people reread books, of course, but one has to think that of all the “book reading” going on in the world right now an overwhelmingly high percentage is people reading something for the first time) and there’s no reason to spoil it for them right now! That’s just assholery.

But the opposite situation is a different kind of assholery. Over the Xmas break my wife and I watched a couple of older movies – not ancient, but old enough to drive. As I often do, I went over to MovieChat to see what people were saying about it. On one of the forums, someone was complaining about the discussion spoiling the movie – a movie that had been out for 15 or so years. This person had come to a place where people talk about movies they’ve seen and bitched about spoilers. That’s assholery, too.

Thus, I think worrying about spoilers should be more about policing your own behavior rather than demanding what others do. I recently wrote a post inspired by watching Wonder Woman 1984 that, uncharacteristically, I put a spoiler warning on. Not because I think spoilers should be off limits, but because I knew the movie had just come out and people were still flocking to see it in the first rush. Six months later I might not have done the same thing, but who knows?

“Don’t be a jerk” is solid life advice. It applies to spoilers just as well.

What Does It Mean to “Sell Out”?

“Sell out!” Is there any worse insult to hurl at a creative person?

After all, writing or making music or whatever is supposed to come from the soul, right, and nothing good can come of creating art just to profit off of it. But what does it really mean to sell out and are most examples of “selling out” just really people getting lucky while doing something different?

I started thinking about this a while back when I stumbled across a list of “7 rock bands that were open about being sellouts.” The article doesn’t fulfill its promise – none of the artists listed are shown to have been “open” about selling out and, in at least one example with which I’m very familiar, there was no selling out, unless “selling out” is defined as only becoming hugely successful after years of not being so.

That example is Genesis.

Formed in the late 1960s at the English “public” school Charterhouse, Genesis was one of the leading lights of the progressive rock scene in the 1970s. Even after vocalist Peter Gabriel departed, they made two great prog albums. After guitarist Steve Hackett left in 1977, the band soldiered on as a trio and their sound started to change to something more streamlined and modern. It was that lineup that became absolutely huge in the 1980s, to the point where they were damned near everywhere.

This, naturally, led to some fans of the band’s 70s style walking away huffing about selling out. As the original article put it, after Gabriel left:

Phil Collins took over the vocal duties and over the course of a couple of subsequent Genesis albums changed the style of the band to a much more commercially viable one. He didn’t hide the fact that monetary gains influenced the decision to stray away from long progressive compositions and into simpler pop-rock arrangements.

There’s no link or reference for the “monetary gains influenced to decision to stray away from long progressive compositions” and most interviews I’ve seen suggest otherwise. For one thing, this narrative that Collins drove the stylistic change overlooks the contributions of keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford. Most of the band’s big 80s hits were co-written by all three of them and there’s no evidence to suggest Banks and Rutherford were pulled in that direction by Collins against their will. Their solo projects show serious pop leanings and, arguably, the band’s first attempts at something more mainstream were written by Rutherford (“Your Own Special Way” from Wind and Wuthering) or all three of them (“Follow You, Follow Me”). Point is – the entire band was in on it.

And was this really selling out? “Selling out” implies some calculation on the part of the artist, of doing something for commercial gain that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Is that what happened with Genesis? It doesn’t look that way. By all indications, the band’s direction shifted because they wanted to do something different. They’d done all they wanted in the prog world, so why not explore some different areas? Banks in one interview explained that they’d “always did long and short songs, we just got better at the short ones” (he also denies that Collins’ solo success had an impact on the band’s music direction). At any rate, there doesn’t appear to be good evidence that the band stuck their collective fingers in the wind and said, “right, let’s go make some cash.” They did what they wanted to and it worked.

Yes is also on the list of “sellouts,” which makes even less sense, in context. Indeed, 90125 and the big single off of it, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” sound radically different than Yes during its prog heyday, but there’s no indication that was done for coldly calculated economic reasons. The song wasn’t even a Yes song to start, as it was written by Trevor Rabin on his own, then brought into a band that wasn’t intended to be Yes. Hell, according this write up, Rabin was told it was “too weird to be a hit in America” – a hell of a way to sell out!

It appears to me that “sell out” is more an insult than an accurate description. It’s the kind of thing “real” fans scream when their favorite band changes course in a way they don’t like, a means of coping, I guess.

Which, you know, is okay. I can find great stuff throughout the Genesis catalog, but if you made me pick three of their albums to listen to for the rest of my life none of the trio stuff would make the cut. Others would choose differently, including my former boss (and Patrick Bateman), which is why music and art is so much fun. But there’s a difference between changing directions and making art that turns out to be popular and selling “to those who want buy.”

I’m not saying people don’t sell out, but I suspect it happens mostly in a losing effort. Big Generator looks much more like an attempt to cash in on the success of 90125 and “Owner,” but it wasn’t as huge so it kind of gets overlooked. Or it happens because of label pressures more than an artist’s desires (see Marillion’s Holidays In Eden). Mostly I think it’s a lazy epithet. The writer of that piece on “Owner,” even recognizing it was “too weird” to be a hit, still labels it selling out (even though he praises the song itself).

Besides, what’s wrong with shipping some units? Pop stars have kids (and ex wives) that need fed, too.