This Saturday, WXPN’s Dan Reed is amping up his Highs in the 70s spotlight for its annual Prog Rock Marathon. Along with local prog expert Biff Kennedy, Reed will explore the many avenues of progressive rock, from Crack the Sky to Rush and Emerson Lake and Palmer in an expansive 12-hour special, from 1 p.m. until 1 a.m. Known fantastical art, epic arrangements and long, long songs (Reed notes that the first selection in the playlist is a full 25 minutes), prog is a genre filled with mystique. I swapped e-mails with Kennedy to get the insider’s scoop.
The Key: What draws you to prog rock and keeps you excited about it?
Biff Kennedy: I have been a fan since the late 60′s when i first heard bands like Procol Harum, King Crimson, Genesis, Traffic, Spirit and others who were fusing classical and jazz and trad folk themes and arrangements with rock and roll instrumentation. I like the majesty of the arrangements, the power of the band when everyone is locked in, the desire to take chances and work outside the pop song structure. I guess it reminds me a little of being in church as a kid, and hearing those swirling, swelling keyboards in the balcony.
TK: The running prog joke is about how long the songs are. Why is the length / expansiveness important?
BK: Prog is a players’ format, as is the jamband scene today. The appreciation is for the performance skills of the musicians who get to stretch out and extend a musical theme or melody beyond the boundaries of the three minute pop format. When artists like Terry Riley and Soft Machine released albums and double albums, four sides of vinyl with only one 18-22 minute song on each side, I think it made the statement that “we do this because we can.” Labels like Columbia, Deram, Charisma, Island took chances on artists who had a slightly different set of motivations.
TK: For somebody who is new to the style, what album should they start out on and why?
BK: If you want to explore the somewhat commercial history of progressive rock I would suggest any of these records:
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
Procol Harum – Shine on Brightly
Gentle Giant – Three Friends
Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
TK: How do you approach the prog-a-thon? Seems like working with longer-form songs instead of two-minute pop nuggets would provide an opportunity to crate a bigger rise-and-fall, soundtrack style.
BK: In my opinion the progressive rock genre is a big tent that invites rock, jazz, folk, ambient, blues, metal and classical players to experiment with extended instrumentals, fictional lyric themes, and improvisation and jamming. We try and present the music based on its geographic origins, the history of collaboration between bands and players, and the inclusion of all styles; Fairport Convention, Kansas, Caravan, Zappa, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Kate Bush, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Spirit, Van der Graaf Generator, Andy Pratt, the Moody Blues all seem to fit.
TK: Do you see the prog of the 70s and 80s still being influential in today’s music?
BK: Absolutely. Artists like Animal Collective, The Decemberists, Umphrey’s McGee, Jeff Buckley, Gomez, MGMT, Tori Amos, Grizzly Bear, Phish, Buke & Gass, Moe., Arcade Fire, Dave Matthews, Sufjian Stevens and many others are making music that incorporates the vibe, and occasionally nics the melodies, of the past. Of course, that along with all the artists who are still making music today who came from that philosophy; Peter Gabriel, Richard Thompson, Roger Waters, Ian Anderson, Annie Haslam, Robert Wyatt and many more.
The Prog Rock Marathon can be heard on Saturday, January 5, from 1 p.m. until Sunday, January 6, at 1 a.m. on 88.5 FM in Philadelphia or XPN.org worldwide.