Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….

… including the following:

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It’s condescending. And clichéd. Those of us who have followed prog for more than 20 minutes, unlike Mr. Kyle Smith, author of “Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment” (NRO, June 15, 2017), are all too familiar with the chortling and snorting that progressive rock is silly, outlandish, over-the-top, nerdy, self-indulgent, and—yes, you guessed it—pretentious. Kudos (I guess) to Smith for recycling all the usual jabs and wrapping them up in a few sentences; it must have taken some talent to do so:

Progressive rock is the nonpolitical description that stuck to the pretentious, arty, classical-and-jazz-influenced bands, most of them English, who created the music fad of the early 1970s. With their mystical themes, their surreal and sci-fi album covers, their outlandish costumes (capes, fox heads), their obsession with faeries and aliens and loopy 20-minute synthesizer solos, bands such as Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led rock down a bizarre sonic detour first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Prog rock was the exclusive domain of a certain kind of nervous, experimentally minded, cautiously intellectual young white guy. It was nerd rock. College rock. Dungeons & Dragons rock. Pimply-virgin rock.

This reminds me of how I was told, growing up in a Fundamentalist home, that all rock music was “of the devil,” that it was all about sex and drugs, that most albums featured nefarious, masked lyrics, and that it involved little talent (but plenty of hedonism and self-destructive behavior). In fact, there is a small element of truth to some of this, just as Smith’s smirking descriptive contains some shards of truth, while missing so much it becomes nothing more than a weird form of cultural virtue-signaling. Neither approach—the sophisticated sneering or the fundamentalist frothing—provides much in the way of context or content. Which is unfortunate, since the context and content of prog—then and now—are quite fascinating.

It’s pretentious. If this one word were removed from existence, most critics of prog would be reduced to stammering tears (yes, I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine). Some prog fans try to dismiss it; others shrug it off. My take is this: pop and rock music—whether rockabilly, folk, disco, metal, R&B, or punk—is almost always pretentious in some way or another. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “pretentious” as “expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.” Pop and rock music is pretentious, in general, because its fans invest so much in it—emotionally, culturally, monetarily—and because its performers do the same. Is it often out of proportion, fanatical, and irrational? Yes. Without doubt. Sinatra and Elvis were pretentious, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were pretentious, Madonna and Lady GaGa are pretentious, and just about every musician who has dressed up, acted up, acted out, and acted like a nut on stage was filled by a bit of pretention: that is, they want to be taken for and embraced for something they most likely aren’t or cannot really be (prophets, rebels, gurus, etc). Hey, I like the music of U2, but let’s be honest: that band is wildly pretentious. And, last I looked, they were about as “prog” as Adele.

But, then, I’d suggest that Smith is also pretentious: he wants readers to take him seriously as a critic, but in this case his posturing and snarking cannot hide his failures as said critic. For example…

• It’s stuck in 1977. Smith, who is apparently reviewing (or vaguely referencing, take your pick) the new book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel, continually refers to prog as a sort of strange artifact from a bygone era. “Prog rock was, largely, terrible,” he writes, “But it was also kind of glorious. Its story deserves to be told fondly, albeit with a waspish tone of disbelief…” (emphasis added). “Progressive rock,” Smith sniffs, “was a rocket that crashed a few yards above the launch pad.” Unlike, say, disco. Or punk. Or New Wave. Or big hair metal bands. Or industrial. Or goth. Or ska. Or … you get the idea. Yes, prog’s initial and greatest run of success lasted less than ten years. But, then, most 99% of pop artists don’t last five. (Quick, name the “American Idol” winner from, say, 2013.) Tastes are fickle, fads are fleeting, and teenagers eventually grow up (or at least many of them do). The vast majority of popular music does not last, at least not in the sense of transcending the confines of its place and time.

The point here, however, is that prog didn’t die, even if it departed from the charts. While I’ve not read Weigel’s book, I note that the descriptive contains the following: “Ultimately, Weigel defends prog from the enormous derision it has received for a generation, and he reveals the new critical respect and popularity it has achieved in its contemporary resurgence.” For some reason, that positive note never finds its way into Smith’s unbalanced and truncated narrative. A far better and more balanced (not to mention learned and thoughtful) review of Weigel’s book, oddly enough, is found in The New Yorker, penned by Kelefa Sanneh, who writes:

In the past twenty years, though, a number of critics and historians have argued that prog rock was more interesting and more thoughtful than the caricature would suggest. The latest is David Weigel, a savvy political reporter for the Washington Post who also happens to be an unabashed fan—or, more accurately, a semi-abashed fan. His new history of prog rock is called “The Show That Never Ends,” and it begins with its author embarking on a cruise for fans, starring some of the great prog-rock bands of yore, or what remains of them. “We are the most uncool people in Miami,” Weigel writes, “and we can hardly control our bliss.”

It’s often stupid and is oddly spiteful. Smith writes: “Still, prog rock failed. It was a noble experiment, a beautiful folly, as naïvely questing as youth. We should salute its ambition if nothing else.” Give me a break. That’s pure nonsense. I like the “sweet four-minute bon-bons, crafted and structured instead of bloated and aimless” as much as anyone (well, within limits), but why does Smith insist that pop and rock music must be straitjacketed to a commercially-oriented, cookie-cutter approach? The fact is, there are countless crappy four-minutes “songs” out there, but I don’t judge all pop songs by the garbage. To do so would be lazy and unfair. This reminds me of how, back in 2008, the L’Osservatore Romano—the Vatican’s newspaper—published a lengthy and laudatory retrospective on the Beatles, and lamented how the “modern pop music industry is too willing to sacrifice originality and fantasy in order to satisfy the consumer models it has adopted and promoted…” As I noted, this was both unfair and even a bit moronic:

First, it is misleading in its comparison of the best music from one generation with the best-selling music of another generation. It’s not just apples and oranges, it’s apples and horse manure. If you are going to compare the Beatles, who produced some of the best pop/rock of their time (and, yes, of the past forty years), with Britney Spears, Hannah Montana, David Archulata, Pink, and any given “flavor of the month” boy band, then you must be fair, turn the tables, and compare, say, U2, Radiohead, Prince, Coldplay, and The Police—just to name a few—to such stellar 1960s artists as Bobby Goldsboro, Lulu, Boxtops, and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, all of whom had big-selling albums between 1965-1969.

And, I added,

 there is a lot of good, excellent, and even exceptional pop/rock music being produced today. And, to build upon the last point, much of it is being created outside of or on the fringes of the mainstream pop music industry. Yes, there is also a lot of dreck. A lot. But there always is. But for every Britney Spears there is a Brandi Carlile, Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Tina Dico, or Cowboy Junkies; for every David Archulata there is a Van Morrison, Seal, Sting, Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Sigor Rós, Sufjan Stevens, or Martin Sexton; for every Pink there is a Björk, Lamb, Portishead, or Sarah McLachlan. For every boy band there is a Soundgarden, Radiohead, Muse, or Porcupine Tree.

As we at Progarchy know, there is a lot of good, excellent, and even exceptional progressive rock being produced today. And that is good news for those who enjoy music that is surprising, different, strange, adventuresome, experimental, occasionally zany, sometimes obtuse, but almost never dull, safe, or close-minded.

19 thoughts on “Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….

  1. Nicely done, Carl. I think the sorts of critiques of prog rock that don’t get it are deafened by odd allegiance to categories. This reminds me of how fashionable it was when I was a teenager to hate country music. As if American vernacular music was something you could wrap your head around in one word and then decide to hate all of it. A parochial view, to say the least. “Pop” music is the most troubling, in some ways, as, strictly speaking, it should be self-defining based on sales numbers. In which case, much of that 70s prog was actually pop music. Plus it would be interesting to push Smith on the the wider role of progressive rock as test kitchen for innovation: it’s difficult to explain away the raw talent of its musicians and its mavericks (thinking here of Eno and Fripp as major examples but there are so many others), and the music, even if (and in some ways particularly if) it results in artistic failure. What we think of as prog rock has a legacy of embracing risk. And such is art, no?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Michał

    Whatever Mr. Kayle Smith’s opinion is, not only did prog rock not die (in 1977 or whatever), but it thrives, including commercially. Riverside and Anathema are among the bestselling bands here in Poland. Roger Waters’ latest? Last time I looked it topped the album charts. Opeth? Steven Wilson? King Crimson and Marillion are also doing great.

    And I am including only those artists that most people would classify as prog rock. If I extended the list to all music that is actually ‘progressive’ and ‘rock’ or rooted in rock (Radiohead, Deafheaven, Ulver, Sigur Rós, Meshuggah, even Lana Del Rey), well, you get my drift.

    Bottomline is: I cannot care less about labels, but objectively speaking, hardly any genre has been as enduring as prog rock. Full stop.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. carleolson

      Michal: You touch on an important point that I didn’t even get to in my little rant: the incredible and diverse influence that prog, even when narrowly defined, has had on popular music over the decades. There are abundant examples of the enduring power of progressive rock, but one I keep coming back to is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” one of the most beloved and best-selling singles of all time. But, hey, it’s not cool to like Queen, right? Heh.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Michał

        I am glad you mention Queen. I love the band (so uncool!) and if “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t prog then what is?:)

        And is “BR” pretentious? Can you be pretentious when you are so obviously having fun? The other day I watched an old live video by ELP, the ultimate ‘pretentious’ band, they were obviously enjoying themselves more than most ‘unpretentious’ artists do. ‘The whole concept of pretentiousness is useless,’ I thought then and I stick to it.

        “Queen II” is one of my favourite records of all time and look, even then the implicit definition of ‘progressive rock’ was narrow – the album was not considered prog in 1974 (as far as I know). Not a huge success then, now one of the 2 most highly regarded albums by the band. Why? Because the appreciation for true ‘progressive’ music now is probably greater than ever.

        A great article, by the way (yours, not Mr Smith’s!). You nailed it, the whole prog critique issue and what makes music worthwile.

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  3. Thanks for rebutting this kind of recycled know-nothingism. I wouldn’t have had the patience! In his book “Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture” (recommended if you haven’t read it, writer Edward Macan thinks that at the bottom of this age-old derision of this genre is people worried about losing some sort of presumptive “street cred” if they like something not derived from blues traditions.

    It’s all kinda silly, we live in a very multi-faceted world culture and should feel free to explore it. I have and still find prog to be one of the more enduring and valuable forms of rock (I love punk too, so there you go).

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  4. The astonishing hypocrisy of the “credible” cultural commentators on this subject is difficult to fathom. Those who poo-poo classical music because of elitism, similarly criticize anything that doesn’t fit into their very small box called “rocknroll.” At root, most of these critiques are political and philosophical and even theological in nature. Rock/Pop should be for the masses (as they define it) with the proper disposition (as they define it) with the proper amount of attitude (as they definite it) and with a particular self-reliance (as they define it). Ironically, as much as they believe themselves to be the oracles of all things culturally valuable, their definitions change based on the political and cultural flavor of the day. It’s really an ever-fluid religion for them, and anything which lacks the correct historical/political/philosophical perspective is an anathema. What could be more elitist than that? It’s really just cultural gnosticism.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “At root, most of these critiques are political and philosophical and even theological in nature.”

    There’s a great deal of truth to this assertion. And it gets to the irony that Kyle Smith chooses to generate clickbait not by challenging a received establishment narrative (as he did with Sgt Pepper the week before), but by reinforcing one instead.

    And that establishment….tethered to the masts of Rolling Stone and Village Voice by the dawning of the 70’s, felt a never-ending need to invest their tastes with political and philosophical importance. So their favored artists needed to be ones who were willing to make social/political (and politically correct) critiques with their music. They needed to be gritty (glam rock could be excepted because of its social messaging, no matter that Bowie could be as flamboyant and bizarre on stage as Peter Gabriel or Rick Wakeman on a bad day); they needed to be authentic; they needed to be intimate with their audiences. Whereas not only did most pop music fail these tests, so too did the best selling hard rock of the day (sorry about all those 2 star reviews for Led Zeppelin), fusion, and, yes, progressive rock.

    I like to think of progressive rock as a high risk, high reward genre. Its reach was great, and inherently that meant it would sometimes exceed its authors’ grasp, sometimes ponderously. But when it succeeded, it could could achieve profound art. Those too intimidated to look past the former could settle for Foreigner or Bad Company, which could provide a nice median of safe mediocrity. Unless you wanted respect, in which case it was best to stick closely to whatever Christgau was saying that month.

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  6. Tom Silvestri

    My name is Tom Silvestri, I’m originally from New York, I live in Los Angeles, and I was lucky enough to start listening to rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’50s whenever my older brothers wanted me out of the way and thus would let me listen to their 45s. So I was also lucky enough to experience the progressive rock era from someone who can remember when there was no FM radio and AM radio wasn’t much more than “Johnny Angel” and the occasional R&B crossover hit. Below is what I wrote to the woefully uninformed Kyle Smith:

    Nice try on progressive rock in NRO, Mr. Smith, but your article reads like someone who was neither there for it nor who really understands how it came about and what it was. For one thing, PET SOUNDS had NOTHING to do with it — progressive rock came out of the people on both sides of the Atlantic who broke barriers by PLAYING music in extremely visionary ways (no one in the Beach Boys could play for shit), starting with things like the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” in April ’66 and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” on REVOLVER that summer — not for nothing did Yes, on their first album, cover the Byrds’ “I See You” from FIFTH DIMENSION from July ’66. You might also try listening to, say, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED and BLONDE ON BLONDE and then the first few Procol Harum albums.

    Speaking of the Brits, bands like Jethro Tull and King Crimson sprung forth more from Hendrix and Cream than from even the Beatles, along with new British bands like Procol and Traffic that were already experimenting with different kinds of rock songs around the same time that Hendrix and Cream put out their first records, and along with folks like the post-Clapton Yardbirds who anticipated some of what was to come. That would include the Nice, who presaged much of what ELP did — Hendrix, who toured with the Nice, famously wanted Emerson to play the harpsichord on “Bold As Love.” (It’s Eddie Kramer.) Hendrix’s “1983…”, on which Traffic’s Chris Wood plays flute, on ELECTRIC LADYLAND, from Fall 1968, had as much to do with the dawn of progressive rock as any track ever. You could say the same of “Everydays,” “Hung Upside Down,” and “Broken Arrow” on BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN from December ’67 and, of course, the entire NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS album from January ’68, as well as other stuff by lesser-known folks like the Small Faces’ ODGEN’S NUTGONE FLAKE later that year, the first few albums by Spirit (whose Randy California almost ended up in England with Hendrix in ’66), and many tracks from the first two Moby Grape albums.

    Your failure to mention some of these people and their enormous artistic ambition and in some cases commercial success shows that you’re really writing about progressive rock (nobody called it “prog” until about 30 years later) based on what you’ve read and what you’ve been told, not on what you actually saw. Well, this email comes to you from someone who saw some of the first shows in America by people like Hendrix, Cream, Traffic, and Procol Harum and who saw THE VERY FIRST show in the U.S. by Jethro Tull (at the Fillmore East). The excitement was at once incredible and inevitable, as anyone who grew up in the ’60s could see the music getting more and more complex by the week. When Tull sold out five nights at the Forum in L.A. in ’73 for the PASSION PLAY tour, the L.A. Times mused that they might’ve been the biggest band in the world. That’s how it was for a couple of years but some of the bands that you mention like Yes got a little too far away from the “rock” part of progressive, while Genesis and Renaissance started to peak too late, i.e., just as the Fleetwood Mac/Eagles/Steve Miller/ELO/Boz Scaggs era began.

    The first live rock ‘n’ roll shows I ever saw were people like the Byrds, Young Rascals, Hendrix, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Doors, and so on, just before albums like STAND UP, BENEFIT, AQUALUNG, A SALTY DOG, HOME, IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON, LIZARD, JOHN BARLEYCORN MUST DIE, THE LOW SPARK OF HIGH HEELED BOYS, TARKUS, PROLOGUE, ASHES ARE BURNING, and many others began the proper progressive rock era. Email me back and I’ll tell you more of what it was REALLY like.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tom Silvestri

    P.S. Please change that one line to the following: “…from the perspective of someone who can remember when there was no FM radio….”etc. Thanks!

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  8. Tom Silvestri

    P.P.S. You might also correct that spelling on OGDEN’S NUTGONE FLAKE, and add “Expecting to Fly” before “Broken Arrow” in the listing of Buffalo Springfield songs. As well as put SHINE ON BRIGHTLY in between AQUALUNG and A SALTY DOG in that last paragraph. Thanks again!

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  9. Tom Silvestri

    To kcmccormick: Everyone’s comments here strike me as wonderful in many ways, but I take time to praise yours particularly because they have insight into something that you usually have to “have been there” to know: Mainly (as they used to say in MAD magazine), that the anti-progressive faux-elite from Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame were mostly English majors bent on proving to their professors (and their parents) that rock ‘n’ roll was as “American” as any other art form. This became an obsession of theirs to the point at which they couldn’t really hear any other kind of music and for them, rock ‘n’ roll pretty much ends with THE LAST WALTZ. Needless to say, these people weren’t usually musicians either (neither, apparently, is Kyle Smith), so just the joy of sounds and imagery didn’t have enough Ph.D. thesis-cred for them. Yes, later on they could hear the punk and New Wave stuff but mostly because it brought back their adolescent memories of pre-PEPPER’S pop-rock, not because they had any particular feel for that music either. Besides, having not hung out at places like the Coventry in Long Island City in the early ’70s, they didn’t know that the guy who came to be known as Joey Ramone was a huge Tull freak, that Debbie and Chris in Blondie loved Crimson (that’s why Fripp plays on “Fade Away and Radiate”), etc., etc. As George Harrison once said, unconsciousness rules — especially among “rock critics” who fit the Zappa description for same. And by the way, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s influence on progressive rock is immeasurable but I didn’t mention him because Zappa, to paraphrase what my musician pal Bob Goldstein once said about Bela Fleck’s “drummer” Futureman, “is his own concept.” Rock on progressively, regressively, and otherwise!

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  10. Tom Silvestri

    Richard Malcolm, I was just telling Brad how impressed I am with the quality of the writers and their insights on this site and your post above is a great example. Your analysis of the rock critical establishment that never “got” progressive — or at least, not past STAND UP, IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, and maybe A SALTY DOG — is spot-on, as they say across the pond. Despite being a few years younger than guys like Christgau (who in 1979 wrote a letter to me saying that he “could never stomach Genesis”), I very quickly felt MUCH younger than them as they got more and more stuck in their ways. And that continued when they locked into a kind of repetition compulsion with regard to rock music if it strayed too much from THEIR definition of rock ‘n’ roll, i.e., XTC is cool up to DRUMS AND WIRES and maybe BLACK SEA but not worthy of attention starting with, say, MUMMER.

    Oh well, As it says in the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 76):

    Men are born soft and supple;
    Dead, they are stiff and hard.
    Plants are born tender and pliant;
    Dead, they are brittle and dry.

    Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
    Is a disciple of death.
    Whoever is soft and yielding
    Is a disciple of life.

    The hard and stiff will be broken
    The soft and supple will prevail.

    (That should give you a good idea of what it was like listening to WOR-FM in New York City late at night in Spring and Summer of ’67 — though it definitely sounds like you were around for that, Richard.)

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  11. Tom Silvestri

    This site is the kind of thing in which I could easily lose myself entirely overnight. So I’ll try to keep up with all the terrific writing that I see going on here as best I can and if you don’t hear from me that often, maybe the following will interest you all. If you go on the TROUSER PRESS website, you can read the career retrospective on Jethro Tull that I wrote for the magazine in 1982, the result of 6 and ½ hours of me interviewing Ian Anderson alone in a windowless room at the Chrysalis office on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Ian’s remark from that interview about why he lost interest in the blues is quoted in a full-length book on THICK AS A BRICK and A PASSION PLAY (I forget the author, but I think the book is from Indiana University Press). I’m also quoted a few times on a site that features a song-by-song (almost line-by-line) analysis of AQUALUNG. I look forward to reading more from you all!

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  12. Tom Silvestri

    NOTE: Out of my immense respect for Ian Anderson and for all blues musicians, please allow me to clarify that as Ian’s loss of interest in strictly playing blues in any kind of overly derivative way, as opposed to incorporating that music’s influence upon him and finding his own way. Read the quote in the interview to hear his actual words — he was WAY ahead of his time with respect to concerns about what today we call “cultural appropriation.” (Okay, now I’ll fade away and radiate and hear what the rest of you have to say.)

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  13. Tom Silvestri

    One more thing: I didn’t mean to be nasty to the Beach Boys, they’re part of my rock ‘n’ roll childhood too, having heard all the car and surfing songs as I did when they first came out. Indeed, without those guys and their fabulous arrangements and harmonies, I don’t even know if I’d be in SoCal now. But my email to Smith was very off-the-cuff — one draft and that’s it or I get totally consumed by this stuff, as you can see — and the fact is progressive rock was built and defined primarily by people who were fairly astounding on their instruments, if not always at first then pretty soon afterward. So it was just a little bit of a stretch to see Smith praising PET SOUNDS for what he’s obviously been told about it rather than for what it actually was. I saw the Beach Boys live not long after some of those late ’60s LPs came out and, well, let’s just rather charitably say that the playing at those shows wasn’t quite up to the level of most of the other bands that I’ve mentioned. That said, congratulations to them for surviving and prospering for so long, especially Brian!

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  14. Saying that prog had its day is about as informed as saying no-one listens to Beethoven or Elgar or any one of a myriad of classical composers. And classical music is still being composed to this day. As for the quote ““We are the most uncool people in Miami,” Weigel writes, “and we can hardly control our bliss.” Ditto for me here in Lincoln, UK. Even my family thing I have got some serious mental issue with some of the music I listen to, but I really don’t care! Give me a 20 minute prog extravaganza over a 3 minute pop song any day!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Tom Silvestri

    cendoubleu, I look forward to folks like you keeping me up on present-day progressive rock, which I wish I had as much time to follow as I did the late ’60s and ’70s edition when I was a teenager. But re your remark about your family and the question of mental issues, you might ask them to listen to, say, “Indoor Games,” “Many a Mile to Freedom,” “Fires (Which Burnt Brightly),” “Firth of Fifth,” “Ashes Are Burning,” and what we used to call the entire “second side” of MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY. I’ll be more than a little surprised if their mental states aren’t suffused with pure joy and endless wonder afterward.

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  16. Well written piece to counter the same old dry arguments that are anti-prog. I’ll admit I don’t listen to Yes, Tull and some of the others as much as I used to, but this grouping of musicians put out some good, intelligent music in their heydays. One has to wonder if Smith is a bi fan of Madonna and others of her ilk. Nice piece. Thanks for sharing.

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