It’s time for prog fans to forgive Rolling Stone magazine

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Once upon a time when progressive rock was starting to bloom, Rolling Stone magazine looked favorably upon the genre, and particularly the one prog band that epitomized it: Yes. Early Yes albums generally received favorable reviews, and all was right in the Yes, er, world. Then came the monolith that crushed all of the Rolling Stone good will that had come before it: Tales From Topographic Oceans, the most divisive Yes album up to that time.

When it was released, this was the album that separated the true believer from the casual listener. The latter might have had The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge in their collection alongside releases by, say, the Eagles, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Joni Mitchell but, for them, Tales From Topographic Oceans was the end of the line. And, in a sense, RS followed suit. After positive reviews for the Yes albums that preceded it, the largely negative review for TFTO — memorably titled “Psychedelic Doodles” — signaled the end of the magazine’s focusing on progressive rock in general.

Cameron Crowe’s interaction with Yes might be seen as an indicator of what happened to this song we once knew so well. Crowe’s first big article in Rolling Stone was about Yes’ tour right after Alan White replaced Bill Bruford. (Crowe has his articles archived on his own site, and this first about Yes can be found here.) Crowe’s experiences with Yes were later used in Almost Famous, his fictional account of his first flights into rock journalism. His inclusion of Yes songs in that movie was his way of paying tribute to the band that helped launch his own career.

Crowe wrote about Yes again for RS in 1975, but the band wasn’t the main focus of that article. Instead, it was about Rick Wakeman, who had also decided that Tales from Topographic Oceans was too much for him, and was embarking on what appeared to be a promising solo career. In the article Crowe documents a hostile interaction between a Circus magazine reporter and members of Yes. While that journalist found the TFTO concert boring and lacking in cohesion, one can read between the lines that Crowe felt that way too. (It can also be argued that Crowe preferred to attach himself to rising star Wakeman and leave a fading Yes in the dust; whether that is true or not the article about Wakeman can be found here.)

After TFTO any reviews of Yes’ albums were farmed out to unsympathetic RS staff members who didn’t have an ear for progressive rock, instead being more reflective of the magazine’s overall editorial direction — where the focus was on punk and New Wave. And if there was any major news about Yes, it was relegated to a short blurb in Random Notes — even RS couldn’t ignore the news when Jon Anderson and Rick were out and the Buggles were in, but it wasn’t big enough news that it warranted an actual article. And it appears someone wasn’t looking when the first edition of Rolling Stone album reviews was published, as it gave high marks to many of Yes’ albums. Subsequent editions scrapped that and relegated Yes’ best output as merely mediocre, and the rest just plain garbage.

So after an RS about-face with regard to Yes specifically — and prog, in general — it’s understandable that Yes fans are still unforgiving when it comes to how what is arguably the biggest rock journal ignored what is also arguably the most influential prog rock band in the history of rock and roll — along with their brethren including Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and King Crimson), and full disclosure is that I was among those who thought little of Rolling Stone because of what appeared to be a deliberate snub.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. A few years after launching its web site (ironically with Yes magazine’s Doug Gottlieb on the original web management staff), something must have changed at RS. While having to be selective about what appears in a printed journal, a web edition doesn’t have the same constraints. Web traffic is important, and obviously the aforementioned selectivity probably worked against their web efforts — where the more visits to a site, the better.
(Note that while one is tempted to credit Doug Gottlieb here, he had left Rolling Stone long before the apparent change in attitude towards Yes and prog. While he possibly may have made attempts to influence key staffers, it was more to his professional advantage to not be a fanboy with an ultimatum.)

In the last couple of years, classic prog artists have received prominent space on Rolling Stone‘s web site. For Yes, this included the rift between Jon Anderson and the band; Benoit’s departure; the Cruise to the Edge; Squire on Yes taking a residency on Broadway; a flashback to the Union tour; polls, including the top ten prog albums of all time; and the Yestival. Other prog artists have also been prominently featured, including a recent glowing article by senior staff writer David Fricke on how the currently touring Mark VIII version of King Crimson, whom he dubbed the “best new band in prog.” While these articles indicate a definite shift in the web journal’s attitude towards Yes, I believe it was a bigger event that involved a different band that demonstrated how the times have changed: the induction of Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Before examining the impact of the Canadian trio, let’s review the history (or lack of thereof) of prog in the Hall of Fame. A few years back, the HOF web side listed two bands that were perceived as progressive — the Who and Pink Floyd. Labeling the former as progressive might have appeared to be a bit of a stretch, but in a way the Who helped pave the way for that genre — particularly with Tommy. That album used many concepts that were usually associated with classical music, including an overture that introduced themes that would appear throughout the album, and the restating of those themes in various compositions. They continued to break tradition with compositions like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” they went beyond the compact, then-dominant singles-ready format by bringing expansiveness to their repertoire. Nevertheless, while the Who may have been progressive in certain aspects they never went as far as those acts that are identified with the prog moniker.

There might be some debate as to whether Pink Floyd could be considered prog, but if nothing else they should be from a conceptual standpoint, at the least. In some ways, Floyd initially had more in common with the Grateful Dead than they did with the Who: not in terms of composition, but from an experimental/improvisational standpoint.

Early on, Pink Floyd would delve into space-y forays, later dropping that in favor of more song-based structures that sometimes stood alone but occasionally introduced themes into a larger concept. (The Wall is a good example of this approach.) But the HOF seemed to recognize progressive rock only if the act in question hit it big and/or had a number of hits. Starting with Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s albums raced to the top of the charts, and would stay there In fact, Moon stayed on the charts from 1973 to 1988, according to Billboard, selling a whopping 50 million, and still counting.

While prog fans may have been happy by Genesis’ induction into the Hall, it was easy to be cynical that the reason Genesis made the cut was more because of the likes of “Invisible Touch” than it was of “Supper’s Ready.” Kudos to Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio for speaking for prog fans in general (“this is our moment”), for not downplaying Genesis’ prog roots in his introduction speech, and for later performing “Watcher of the Skies” with Phish (in its entirety!) to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Meryl Streep.

I’ll leave it to those on forums like Facebook to argue if Rush is really prog or not, but it cannot be denied that they were influenced by prog early on — and that has colored their creative output ever since. The following video interview with Rush from 1980 illustrates the point at the 3-minute, 37-second mark…

Unlike Yes in recent years, Rush has continued to regularly release new studio albums and even sell out large venues, even if they aren’t the stadiums that are expected for the likes of, say, Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen.

OK, Rush didn’t play Safeco Field in Seattle, but their show last year at Key Arena sold out, while Yes tries to fill wineries or casinos. It’s ironic that while over a decade ago a board member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sneered that Rush would never (repeat, never) get in, their perseverance in staying true to their musical principles, pleasing their fan base while maintaining their musical integrity and, of course, their enormous talent finally couldn’t be denied — particularly when the newest crop of rock stars (e.g., Dave Grohl) went on record saying how much Rush influenced them, and that they thought Rush was always cool.

After Rush’s induction for 2013 it almost seemed like Yes was destined to follow suit, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. While a nomination was a step forward, Yes didn’t make it to the finish line, and it didn’t help that there was some stiff competition from the other nominees — regardless of what the feverish Yes fan (and prog aficionados in general) may think of those other artists. But prog continues to gain support for induction.

One of the bands that beat Yes into the Hall of Fame this year was Kiss, and it was startling yet gratifying to read that guitarist Paul Stanley was quoted as saying that, even though he isn’t a prog fan, it is ridiculous that Yes wasn’t in the Hall.

If Rush is any indication, an induction would mean even more content of Yes on Rolling Stone‘s web site, as before and after Rush’s induction there were numerous articles and video clips prominently featured on the RS site focusing on both their current plans, and past history.

However, while one can surmise that progressive acts getting more exposure on the site is probably a good thing, I’ve noticed that anytime I post an RS article about the band on the Notes From the Edge Facebook page, inevitably there will be responses from folks who have not forgiven Rolling Stone for their past transgressions. For them, whatever RS does is too little, too late.

This attitude may have been understandable, if ignoring prog continued to be their editorial stance but it hasn’t. It’s time to let bygones be bygones and recognize the fact that prog is getting regular, objective coverage at Rolling Stone. That site is the most prominent one on the internet, when it comes to news about all genres of rock — reaching a large number of individuals who might have been those same casual listeners mentioned at the start of this editorial, the folks who remember buying Fragile and may become newly interested in the fact that Yes is still active, releasing new albums and still touring. As I indicated with Rush, if Yes is inducted, there will more than likely be more items appearing on RS that one could have ever imagined.

So should prog fans forgive Rolling Stone? I almost added a question mark to the title of this editorial. But I decided against it as I don’t see it as a question, but as a statement of fact. Who needs bad vibes?

Let it go.

This is an updated version of an editorial written for Notes From the Edge in October 2013.

©2014 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mike Tiano
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