“The three presumed arenas of collective human action - the economic, the political, and the social or socio-cultural - are not autonomous arenas of social action. They do not have separate 'logics'. More importantly, the intermeshing of constraints, options, decisions, norms, and 'rationalities' is such that no useful research model can isolate 'factors' according to the categories of economic, political, and social, and treat only one kind of variable, implicitly holding the others constant.” Immanuel Wallerstein 1
Many critiques of music, especially rock music, tend to look superficially towards the local. The more familiarity with a specific "scene" or set of bands at a certain place in time, the better one's ability to summarize an album or place a band on some spectrum. Of course, in the case of bands outside the US and UK, it suffices to simply name the country of origin and then proceed to describe how the band fits (or differs) with the national account. Still, the rule of thumb seems to associate critical authenticity with geographical magnification. It’s kind of like blaming the alcoholic for being Irish.
There’s no denying the remarkable differences between cultures, especially within music. The unexplainable existence of RFTT/Pere Ubu circa 1975, for instance, is a genuine rock koan. Yet a step outward provides a useful lens when approaching any unwieldy subject, especially the vagaries of underground culture. First, it is quite necessary to discuss a major reason for the existence of the so-called underground, or counterculture. What is usually missed, although present in the name itself, is that counterculture exists relationally to mainstream culture. This statement has a double meaning. First, there has to be a popular culture for an underground to emerge. Second, counterculture is not static; rather, it is a process. This may account for the rather tenuous borders of underground music, and also for all the hurt feelings of young rebels whose favorite sound du jour ends up on the Billboard charts.
Let’s explore the first point in greater detail. If mainstream, or “popular” culture is a prerequisite, then underground culture can only arise in industrially developed societies. China, for instance, with its capitalist explosion and rising middle class, has just recently developed a counterculture recognizable to the West (known as Linglei – though it’s still pretty tame). This separates 20th century music forms from various “folk” musics that existed previously, no matter how much current forms doth protest their “authenticity.” I’m not arguing that the basic experience of sitting down with a banjo on a porch is any different, or any other postmodern mumbo jumbo, but that the relationship between society (fully organized in the West among national lines by the 20th century) and culture changed. Tony Conrad has spoken at length on the subject, but the basic point revolves around the existence of the modern welfare state2. Which relates, of course, to war.
By the 1880s, existing forms of entrepreneurship through single enterprise manufacturing had become insufficient for supplying the accoutrements of modern warfare. What was known as the “British system” of organization, so useful during its reign as workshop of the world, was then at loggerheads with a world economy increasing in competitiveness, best illustrated by the depression of 1873. The new solution came from both sides of England’s smoggy borders: Germany and the United States. Germany under Bismarck, in an attempt to catch up with the ossifying Brits, developed a system of horizontal organization, the fusion through merger and association of businesses using similar inputs to make similar outputs. The United States, encountering popular resistance to robber baron-style “trusts,” pursed vertical integration, the fusion of an enterprise’s operations with those of its suppliers and its customers. As detailed by Alfred Chandler, these became reified in theories of industrialism as monopoly capitalism3 versus corporate capitalism. Both, of course, needed large doses of intervention by their home governments, and as the First World War approached, even Britain realized the changes ahead.
What became apparent in these years was that technological development could no longer be left up to the market. Efficiency and management became the bywords of the day, and management of the people was a key part of the process. Hence Prime Minister Lloyd George, in 1909, pushed through a large series of social welfare provisions including a soak-the-rich progressive income tax for working-class England while at the same time setting expenditures on the navy at twice the level of ten years prior. Soon, all governments acknowledged that society had to be engineered as well as business for smooth functioning. This went by many names: The New Deal, 5-year plan, and National Socialism (of course, the goals were different). Like it or not, scientific and bureaucratic management became a juggernaut that pushed through most of the innovations, social protections, and lest we forget, horrors, of the 20th century. In the US during this period, its apex was reached in the Manhattan project, surely the most expensive and secretive operation of its day: at its height 120,000 people worked on it, at a cost of over two billion dollars, all without the slightest surety that atomic theory could be actualized in an explosive until the final trials. As put by historian William McNeill, welfare and warfare had never been more closely linked:
“Advances in knowledge about human dietary requirements made between the wars allowed food rationing to become scientific in the sense that vitamin, calorie, and protein requirements for different categories of the population could be accurately calculated and, within limits of supply, provided. In Great Britain, health actually improved during the war, thanks largely to the rationing of food. Skilled medical teams swiftly suppressed epidemics among civilian populations, which on several occasions briefly threatened to interfere with operational plans, and military medicine made World War II far safer for uniformed personnel outside the battle zone than had ever been the case before4.”
McNeill makes the argument that after the war, this process did not stop. What we remember as the “golden age of capitalism” from 1950-1965 was actually the most managed global economy ever seen in human history (known as the Bretton Woods system), with the social consequences that followed. It is in this period that rock music as a world phenomenon surfaces.
I am not arguing that rock, specifically, is a function of this process. However, as existing in the postwar world, popular culture became a full-fledged consumer good. “Cheap, mass-produced goods required flow-through technology which only large-scale bureaucratically managed corporations could sustain,” McNeil writes, “and a world safe for such behemoths must presumably regulate their interactions bureaucratically as well.” Rock music became, by chance, a vehicle in which this was contested. If one can find a link between the various rebellions that culminated in 1968, it was the repudiation of this historical process of rationalized management and the social and intellectual systems it had produced. The US, USSR (in its satellites), France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, China, Japan, the list goes on, all had major social upheavals. No matter what the prevailing orthodoxy (and it was given many nasty names – capitalism, imperialism, communism, authoritarianism, fascism) it was seen as the product of this never-ending development. And as we all know, rock and roll was the cultural form that was utilized by these movements so effectively (and not always consciously).
However, as became apparent to the less stoned of the bunch, “the price of survival for even the most incandescently revolutionary group was the generation of its own power-wielding internal bureaucracy,” and thus, “found themselves swiftly co-opted into the labyrinthine tasks of state management.” As the fires died down in the Paris commune, people saw that “only by organizing bureaucratically could groups assert themselves effectively in a bureaucratizing world5”. The tension, the relation, between culture and counter-culture, is this one, albeit loosely formulated. Thus while mainstream culture provides either passive escape from, or active positive engagement with, these bureaucratizing processes on a society-wide level (once again, not just a teen listening to Madonna), counterculture posits some critical distance from the juggernaut. This does not necessarily take place on the level of content, but also in the forms of distribution, communication, and identification. However, since this is not a static relationship, all forms of culture today necessarily reside in both sides. In other words, we cannot have AMM without ABBA.
Now, this must be interpreted through the views of different societies in their relationship to the regions producing the majority of popular culture: the core. Thus, Britney Spears may be liberating in Kabul but it’s fucking oppressive here. Furthermore this framework allows us to peer into the progressive rock sub-genre a little deeper – which is where I was going all along, I assure you.
Prog rock, taken as a whole as it is identified today (basically 1967-1977), underwent this transformation from counter-culture to popular culture. As side-length opuses were created, new gatefold artwork ground broken, capes and cowls donned, and time signatures liberated from the bourgeois fetters of 4/4 time, a bureaucracy arose: a prog bureaucracy. Indeed, progressive rock is both the clearest manifestation of, and rebellion against, the twin currents that exploded in 1968: the 19th century’s romantic and humanistic adoration of Western civilization coupled with its scientific, rational, and linear ideas concerning history and society. On the album Défense De, by Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Birgé, Francis Gorgé, and the ominously named Shiroc, this tension is clearly audible. While Gorgé and Birgé went on to form Un Drame Musical Instantané (sort of an avant-symphonic prog band), this new set from Mio Records serves as the basement tapes for the excesses as well as the imagination found within prog. Recorded to tape in 1975 (literally in a basement), the trio experiments with instruments and forms, long takes of cacophonous noise, and Heldon-like drones with their newly acquired ARP 2600 synthesizer. While most French prog is quite structured, from Magma to the underappreciated Moving Gelatine Plates, this album is definitely not in the Zeuhl camp. Défense De ended up on the Nurse with Wound list (a good guide can be found here ) and is amazing at certain points. Brevity, however, is neither their intention nor Mio’s, as the CD comes accompanied with a DVD containing an extra 5 hours of recordings not on the album but from the same era, and a 1974 art-film directed by Birgé (also quite good) entitled La Nuit du Phoque. Combine this with the fact that these gentlemen were around age 22 at the time, and one has an impressive work within which the legacy of 1968 is quite apparent.
Still, the end times of prog were well at hand by 1975, and the genre proceeded quite successfully at “running in place” as other cultural forms reacted to it. If the framework outlined above has any validity, then this was to expected and perhaps even welcomed. For musical legacies are not raptured out of the public consciousness and, as in architecture, one can trace the historical structures that underpin the best music of the last twenty-five years. When they reacted against prog, they borrowed from it as well. The question begs to be asked though: will popular culture, and the cycles and reactions to it, found in the 21st century differ from the 20th? The long movement of Western-led capitalism that came to a head by the early 1970s is not the same economy that exists today. Furthermore, it is questionable whether large governments need the participation of citizens any more to achieve their goals, instead relying on small subsections of elite and base support. War, waged by Western countries rather uniformly on countries in the East and South, requires little unification, authorization, or action by their home populations. This will certainly have an effect on culture quite different than the national projects of the 20th century, and foreseeably negative. If culture is seen as solely to be consumed and not also engaged, then we are destined for something along the lines of “deviation through mediocrity.” Perhaps we are experiencing some form of this through the current “eternal return” of previous musical genres repackaged as radical. To finish on an optimistic note, though, the possible realignments on a global level in the next 25-50 years, both politically and socially, could provide new realms of social engagement previously unimaginable. They probably will not have laser light shows or fog machines, but that, alas, is the price of art.
P.S. This is the third of a trilogy of essays/reviews reassessing prog rock for the post-aquarius generations. The first two can be read, respectively, here and here . The writer wishes to thank the editors of Dusted for the profane amount of time allowed for this process. Hopefully the results are better for it.
Footnotes By Kevan Harris
By Kevan Harris