When Progressive Rock Meets Progressive Politics

As we made our way to the concert hall, not a single one of us under the age of 55, I didn’t really know what to expect from a progressive rock band that I last saw at the Hammersmith Odeon, in 1981.

Progressive rock is rather like progressive politics. It’s complicated, sometimes pretentious, and even the performers are at risk of getting lost in their own complexity. But both give you a sense of getting within touching distance of Plato’s Ideas – a perfect world that may not even exist, but must form a basis for the real world. Progressive rock and politics are real and imaginary at the same time, akin to your reflection in the water of a moonlit lake.

My son makes fun of me, he who listens to pop stars who literally speak their lyrics faster than their lips can move, to a melody that only uses a tenth of the musical notes available to mankind. “Your ancient music,” he tells me, with that cheeky smile on his face.

One day, he asked me, “what’s that?”, pointing  to a picture of a Genesis album I was looking at on the internet. “That’s a Genesis album,” I replied. “No, that,” he retorted, “that thing with a hole.” He was, of course, referring to the picture of a Genesis vinyl LP. I explained that I listened to the Genesis LP’s, courtesy of a Panasonic stereo record-player that was longer than our kitchen table.

I suppose I must mingle with folk my own age, like in June of this year, when I went  to Utrecht to see Camel, live. The lead singer, celebrating nearly 50 years with the band, had just recovered from a hernia, whilst the drummer, who has been drumming away for a mere 18 years, had just recovered from a nasty cold. How time catches up with us. But the music was good. In fact, it wasn’t good, it was sublime. Just like the politics, progressive rock from the 70s is something you know makes sense but fail to understand, due to its sheer complexity. 

I must admit that, as far as progressive rock is concerned, I’m much more a fan of Genesis than Camel – ever since that fateful Saturday, back in 1977, in North-West London. Kilburn isn’t a bad place to live in – if you ignore the fact that Kilburn High Road actually exists. But there was one shop that was to change my life forever. Its name was so ordinary that you could almost be forgiven for forgetting it – W.H. Smith. It was situated on a part of the street where the pavement was widened to form a little square, bordered by…little shops. The Kilburn branch of W.H. Smith was, unlike Doctor Who’s Tardis, bigger on the outside, than on the inside.

You know how some people can remember their first girlfriend or boyfriend? Well I can’t, but I do remember exactly a fateful day, in 1977 – the day I bought what was to be the first of many Genesis albums. I walked into the shop, unsuspectingly, and a rather black looking album caught my attention. It was the beginning of a new awakening. I had seen the light of progressiveness. The encounter not only changed my musical awareness, but probably also changed my political one, too. 

One of their albums, entitled “Selling England By The Pound”, which came out in 1973, even has a definition of Brexit in one of the songs and, you may have guessed, in the album’s title. The song about Brexit is called “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight”.

This is what Steve Hackett has to say about it:

This is probably my favourite Genesis song […] The “Disney” section at the end has an English pastoral hypnotic feel – a thread to the world of Spencer’s Faerie Queene – a small corner of England remaining while the rest is sold off as a job lot plunging headlong into an alienated future. (adapted from www.genesis-news.com)

Well, Mrs May, my feelings exactly. It just proves that although progressive rock was a vast field of experimentation, provokingly impeaching upon the limits of popular music, and in constant orbit around the Earth, it still managed to have vision, and maintain one foot on the ground.

Progressive rock was ousted by Punk – an anti-establisment cocktail of hard-edged melodies and singing styles. This was not for the faint-hearted or poetic type. Its ideology  spread and inspired many a spotty-faced teenager to rebellion and alienation. I ask myself if the same is not happening to progressive politics – swept away by a universal wave of populism.


But what is progressive politics, exactly? And, can I define myself as progressive? If progressiveness is defined as wanting to see society progress, many of us could be defined as progressive, even though we would clearly differ in our approaches to the problem. I suppose that I would define my progressiveness as not so much wanting to find middle ground, but wanting to stop the contunuous bickering between right and left political parties who, once in power, do nothing to change the society that they have so brilliantly analysed and criticised.

In last year’s French presidential election, I voted for Emmanuel Macron. It wasn’t a vote based upon belief that his policies would work, because I know the French too well to believe that they would. It was an anti-Marine Le Pen vote, a vote against the extreme-right. 

My progressiveness is derived from my hatred of polarised politics, where everything is black or white, where everyone is either right or wrong. This polarisation of politics may attract large television audiences but will not make society advance. I do not identify myself in the discourses of the right any more than in those of the left, and am certainly not a liberal.

Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them. – Greg Weiner, NY Times

The above comment puts me in a “no-man’s-land” of the political spectrum, because either I am missing something, or the statement makes no sense. Surely any politician with a zest of morality wants to eradicate economic ills and, in any case, the first step in eradication is amelioration. The political conundrum that I have to solve is further complicated by hearing Hilary Clinton describing herself as, “a progressive who likes to get things done,” as if others didn’t. She maybe just wanted to make sure that she jumped onto the progressive band-wagon and was seen to be doing so. It was a political way of saying, “Oh! I’m cool, really cool.” 

Progressive – a term that is so hard to define and, for me at least, so impossible to understand and, it seems, even harder to implement. If progressive politics is to be believed, it must not contribute to the tri-polarisation of the political debate. It must not constitute an alternative that is just as prone to failure, and will be inevitably followed by a status quo, once the argument is won. Emmanuel Macron is living proof that progressive politics is not as slick as people think. Since his election, nearly 18 months ago, France is still affected by a sluggish economy, political scandals, and high-profile resignations. Macron’s fall in popularity is unprecedented for a newly elected president. What did you expect? He’s a politician.

2016 was particularly marked by a sharp increase in the polarisation of world politics, underscored by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. It seems that people don’t listen to each other anymore, and do not even consider the validity of arguments and counter-arguments. You are right, and I am wrong – end of story.

Polarisation is paralysing the debate. It has become difficult to have a normal discussion. Things are no longer debated, only mud is thrown. Those who oppose welcoming migrants are classified as being Nazi, whilst the others are hopelessly naive or “Muslim-friendly.” – Wander Jager (social scientist, University of Groningen)

The historian Richard Hofstadter, in an article published in Harpers Magazine in 1964, described what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” as, “an old recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

The technique is simple and effective. All you have to do is “predict” that if nothing changes, the whole of society as it now is, will collapse. Political systems will fail and moral values disappear. Nevertheless, the voter has a unique opportunity to avoid certain disaster by casting his vote in the ballot box. The “point of no return” will have been avoided.

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasized conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. – R. Hofstadter, 1964

I view my progressiveness as a state of mind rather than a political conviction. It is certainly based on the hope that the widespread individualism that is so characteristic of our societies, will be severely curtailed, if not completely eradicated. We must remain open to, and respectful of, dialogue with others who may not share our views. This absence of dialogue and respect is no more salient than in the current Brexit negotiations. Both sides are failing to listen to, and learn lessons from, each other. The Brexit vote should have been a lesson for the EU, a sign that profound changes are needed if the EU is to progress and reclaim the trust of its people, that it once had – a warning sign that could have been avoided a long time ago. The UK has been criticising the EU for decades whilst, at the same time, participating in the elaboration of a system that is now being rejected. The EU is also to blame. Its institutions have been living in their own utopic world, thinking that all was good, in the best of all possible worlds. The EU institutions may have been progressing, but their citizens were not. And that, in the end, is all that matters.