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From Prog to Metal to Songs of the Lumberjacks

May. 22, 2017
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The Periodic Table of Heavy Rock (Ebury Press/Penguine Random House UK), by Ian Gittins

Arranging a rock music genre history according to the Periodic Table is an arbitrary undertaking, but British critic Ian Gittins obviously had fun with the concept. His brief is “heavy rock,” whose definition is as slippery as water but whose components are even less stable.

Fortunately, Gittins is a lively writer, opinionated but knowledgeable. Under “Reactive Metals,” he lines up Nirvana and Soundgarden (grunge “appeared to be founded on chemical and psychological instability” he explains). Certainly, The Stooges and MC5 rate as “Combustible Metals.” But why Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Oyster Cult are lumped together under “Elemental Metals” is a puzzle.

Gittins can be devastating in his put-downs. “Now in his early seventies, [John] Kay still occasionally throws together a band, calls them Steppenwolf and chugs around the US nostalgia circuit doing ‘Born to be Wild,’” he writes. “It must be a poignant sight.”

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era (University of Wisconsin Press), by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary

The “songcatchers” of early 20th century America who collected the remnants of vanishing oral traditions are usually associated with Appalachian ballads, western cowboy songs and Mississippi Delta blues. Pinery Boys explores other territory by revisiting the work of songcatcher Frank Rickaby (1889-1925), who roamed the Upper Midwest (including Wisconsin) in search of lumberjack ballads. Drawing material from Rickaby’s seminal Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy (1925)—along with some of his unpublished notes plus biographical material by his granddaughter, Gretchen Dykstra—Pinery Boys paints a romantic portrait of a scholar setting forth on foot with a fiddle slung over his shoulder and a willingness to become one with the people whose music he studied.

The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock (W.W. Norton), by David Weigel

“Their follies were grander than anyone else’s follies,” David Weigel concludes in his enjoyable, informative world tour of progressive rock. But “when the progressives were on, they wrote gooseflesh-raising music.” Progressive rock was the natural outgrowth of the expansive spirit of the ‘60s, especially the determination that rock could rate as art. And so prog was—but of course, art can be bad as well as good.

The Show That Never Ends includes funs stories about Yes, ELP, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and the rest as Weigel chronicles the music’s descent from creativity into—at its worst—misguided bombast and commercial compromise. The “Fall” of the subtitle is a bit misleading. Weigel doesn’t end in the ‘70s when punk thrashed prog but follows the line through the post-‘80s neo-prog of Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater and a host of bands that took progressive rock into account.


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