November 25, 2020

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth … Again: Prog Rock in the ’80s

Eighties music. To those of a certain generation the words elicit images of carefully tousled big hair, sequined white gloves and virginal young women named after important biblical figures. The blips and bleeps of vintage synthesizers creep into our heads when they are uttered and, before we know it, we find ourselves singing some nonsensical verse under our breath.

The words are powerfully evocative of so many things (try, just try not to think of Martha Quinn when you hear them). Very few people, though, would associate them with progressive rock. With its lofty aspirations and un-ironic use of the term concept album, the genre fashioned by the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Genesis; Pink Floyd; and Yes is so closely tied to the seventies’ brand of indulgence and excess it seems it could never have shared the airwaves with, say, Duran Duran. Yet the bands dismissed as dinosaurs by the end of that decade never really went away.

Yes, the artists who had once set the Shastric scriptures to music, donned flower costumes for stage shows and toured with giant inflatable pigs managed to adapt to the changing times. And not only did they survive in the eighties, an era otherwise defined by cool, detached insolence or goofy irreverence, they thrived there — scoring top ten hits and gold and platinum albums, and occasionally even dominating the concert industry.

Some of the bands achieved this by absorbing young blood and enlisting producers with a distinct pop sensibility (Yes) or morphing into an entirely different group, albeit with the same members (Genesis). Others, by making progressive rock palatable to audiences being raised on AOR and MTV: by (mostly) dispensing with the rhythmic and harmonic complexity, the 20-minute epics and the demanding lyrical themes and highlighting the bombast, the technical prowess and the pseudo-classical lines audiences had loved the first time around (Asia, featuring former members of King Crimson, ELP and Yes; Emerson, Lake & Powell; Anderson Bruford Wakeman  Howe), not to mention the spacey grooves of yore (Pink Floyd).

Thus, the bands cut an alternate path through the eighties pop music landscape: From Alpha to The Other Side of Life, from Abacab to A Momentary Lapse of Reason, they maintained a near-constant presence on the charts, toured incessantly and won over legions of new fans.

The first important touchstone on the path may be the debut record from Asia. Consider: The number one album in the US for nine weeks running. Two top 40 singles, including the smash hit “Heat of the Moment” (which skyrocketed to #4 on the US Hot 100 chart). Sold-out tours. And a deep, lasting imprint on the pop culture psyche, an emotional association that was no less poignant in 2005 when it was revisited in the hit movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Was this really the tattered remnants of three of the premiere progressive rock bands — really, of progressive rock itself? And in 1982?

The alternate path reached its high point four years later, the week of July 19, 1986, when four of the top 20 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart came courtesy of erstwhile prog artists: “Invisible Touch” (Genesis; No. 1), “Sledgehammer” (former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel; No. 2); “Your Wildest Dreams” (the Moody Blues; No. 9), and “When the Heart Rules the Mind” (GTR, a group consisting of Steve Hackett and Steve Howe — ex-guitarists for Genesis and Yes, respectively; No. 14). Lower down, but on the chart nevertheless, Emerson, Lake & Powell’s “Touch and Go” checked in at its peak position of No. 60.

(To underscore the contrasts on the chart that week, the Top 20 also included Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” Billy Ocean’s “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” and Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.”)

This could only have happened in the eighties. Pop and rock music hadn’t yet splintered into myriad sub-genres; “classic rock” was still just a descriptive term, not yet a niche market; and few artists made any claims to, or showed any concern for “authenticity” (think grunge in the early nineties). While progressive rock may not have been the most popular of styles, its architects were nonetheless welcome to the party, whether they showed up wearing the same, threadbare clothes or sporting entirely new duds. So these dinosaurs lumbered happily through the decade, apparently oblivious to the fact that — at least as far as the mainstream was concerned — they were soon to become extinct.

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