Is Terrapin Station Progressive Rock?

Is The Grateful Dead’s album Terrapin Station (1977) progressive rock? This has been suggested to me by an American friend and professor of religion. I have now listened carefully to it. It was an interesting experience and a positive surprise for one who has struggled hard with the Dead’s defining, purely hippie, early work.

Still, I must state the reasons why I think it is not quite on the level of classic progressive rock, which is really what interests me, since, as explained not least in earlier posts in this blog, I hold that rock becomes good to the extent that it transcends ”ordinary” rock and becomes progressive rock of the kind that can be understood as something that could develop into a new, independent musical genre beyond rock – which is not to say that there is no ”ordinary” rock that is good in its own way, but it is rare (so rare that I hate the word rock). I will take the opportunity to also restate this general position.

When one makes the distinction between ordinary rock and progressive rock (not just the first but also the second being, needless to say, a very broad category), ”rock’n’roll” should also be mentioned. Some make a distinction between it and rock, the former being the thing – early Elvis etc. – that developed in the 1950s, the latter being something more serious that emerged in the course of the 1960s and was in place as a distinct genre in the second half of that decade. There are subgenres and also influences from other genres. Similar distinctions, on a scale from lightweightness to seriousness, could be made in the case of jazz (I hate the word jazz too; like the word rock, it almost effects, in itself, a kind of a priori invalidation of any attempt at serious critical discussion).  Anyway, progressive rock is a further development of the rock that emerged in the second half of the 1960s, and in particular after The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper album.

Again, this doesn’t mean there is no good non-progressive rock. Music cannot be rejected as bad simply because it belongs to this genre. As I have explained, I reject the concept of ”classical” music, except in the senses of 1) ”classicist” music and 2) ”classic” music of any kind, including rock etc. (in European languages other than English there is no distinction between ”classical” and ”classic”). Music in the broad, problematic category of ”classical” is both good and bad, and, as in the case of rock, distinctions can be made on the scale from the lightweitght to the serious. And in ”classical” music as well as in rock, the lightweight too can be good. All music is music, and there are no determinations of quality that are intrinsic to specific genres. In this respect there is no sharp line of demarcation between the music called ”classical” (we are not forced to use this term, others are available) and the music I am now discussing.

When I say there are no determinations of quality that are intrinsic to specific genres, I of course do not mean there are no genres that, as such, are not more valuable, important, elevated etc. than others. It is not an expression of today’s massive ideological pressure to have every form of art or non-art accepted as being of equal worth, to end discrimination and real criticism as such as inherently anti-democratic, elitist, etc. (Roger Kimball speaks about the postmodern ”evaporation of seriousness”). Although it must be said that precisely in rock there are indeed sub-genres that do at least come close to determining the music subsumed under them as per definition bad, what I mean is that the mere fact that a piece of music belongs to a specific genre does not in itself imply that it is by this fact alone good or bad, as a consequence of the intrinsic nature of the genre.

The fact that a piece of music is progressive rock does not necessarily make it good just because the genre of progressive rock must as such be regarded as more valuable and important than other forms of rock. And, conversely, the fact that a piece of music belongs to other forms of rock does not mean it is by that very fact necessarily bad since these genres themselves are less valuable and important than progressive rock. The differences between and the specific characters of the genres account for the difficulty of comparing music in different ones, or rather, of ranking music in different ones on the same scale of quality and with the same criteria.

But while there are other forms of rock, or of ordinary rock, of which examples can be found which could be considered to be better than bad progressive rock, I do find it natural and defensible to regard both bad progressive rock as better than bad ordinary rock, and good progressive rock as better than good ordinary rock. The most important reason for this is that while the members of the progressive rock bands of the age of classic progressive rock were, like other rock musicians, more or less hippies and shared the limitations of hippiedom, and while they too were part of the (popular) music industry and – beyond its commerciality – its deliberate, systematic work of cultural and moral subversion, the quality and sophistication of progressive rock’s musical and lyrical development away from rock counterbalanced these factors to an extent that was impossible in ordinary rock.

Now, so-called “rock purists” insist that the only real and authentic thing is the early, simple, sweaty, working-class, garage thing, as “black” as possible, which largely coincides with what I called rock & roll in contradistinction to rock, and whose spirit was restored only with the deliberately anti-prog punk movement in the second half of the ‘seventies. Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996) is a highly problematic work which has yet to be properly dealt with in Yes studies, but he nonetheless makes many important and valid observations, one of them being that the purists are wrong in downplaying the importance of progressive rock as a distinct genre. I argue that there is no need to defend the legitimacy of progressive rock in the face of the purists’ propaganda, one reason for this being simply that their rock (& roll) is not quite what it seems or what they say it is.

I.e., the commercial and the manipulative, subversive, music industry element in the launching as well as the continued ”purist” defence of the early thing – it was of course to a not negligible extent there in the launching of jazz too – discredits it. But even if the thing really was what they say it is, there would still be no need to defend progressive rock in the face of it. In fact, the purists even tend unhistorically to identify the punk phenomenon with rock, or rock & roll, as such, thus ignoring the fact that 1950s and early 1960s rock & roll was actually not at all as working-class and garage as they would wish, but was quite as commercial. As for the relation between white rock musicians and the ideals of blackness, it is enough to refer to Robert Pattison’s analysis in The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism (1987), the best book on rock music (which doesn’t mean it isn’t incomplete and in need of supplementation and correction in some respects).

Rock, as developed thoughout the 1960s and distinct from rock & roll, was in fact often closer to the black blues roots. Pattison correctly argues that the irony and humour of the black blues heroes is missing in their white rock imitators, and that this is because the latter are thorougly shaped by Western Romanticism with its pantheism etc., which of course did not end in the mid-19th century, but, through high modernism and postmodernism, continues to define Western culture to this day; one of the things that makes Pattison’s book the best on rock is that it builds directly on Irving Babbitt’s partly “classicist” analysis of Romanticism.

The Grateful Dead, Pattison writes, ”acknowledged their debt to black America…by recording songs like ’U.S. Blues’ that retain the name if not the nature of their putative black sources”. Their ’Eyes of the World’ expresses ”Berkeley’s esse est percipi refined through the optimistic strain of American Romanticism and presented in the vulgar mode of rock”. ”Vulgarity” is not used by Pattison as a term of abuse. His book, as the title indicates, focuses in particular on this phenomenon, as emerging in Romanticism with its pantheism, democratism, its particular emotional states, etc.; but while understanding these things exclusively in terms of the analyses of conservative critics like Babbitt, he briefly and half-heartedly makes the case for their inevitability and acceptance; cf. his brilliant and similarly paradoxical book on Newman, The Great Dissent. But it must be said that it was precisely this Romanticism, properly understood, that, in various ways, turned rock into a genre of its own, distinct from blues, rock & roll, and pop, and, in time, made possible the emergence of progressive rock, which, in a few cases, rises from the lower kind of Romanticism to what must, at least in some cases, be seen as a higher kind.

But the ”punk” trend was launched as a reaction against this development of rock into ever more advanced forms, away from the purist ideologists’ project. Of course, both the fully developed and highly variegated rock and the progressive rock of the first half of the 1970s were still almost entirely part of this romantico-pantheistic-revolutionary project more broadly conceived. But the aesthetic development made it more indirect, more independent, more difficult to control; it tended to include too many ambiguous and potentially counter-productive musical, lyrical and other elements and references, and, in the case of progressive rock, it also simply became too difficult to be useful as a tool for indoctrination and debasement. Therefore, punk, marketed as the ”real”, ”true”, ”original” rock, had to be created. But when the potentially dangerous mature rock and progressive rock had been killed or sufficiently marginalized, punk was no longer needed, and the insipid 1980s followed.

Again, the boundaries between all the mentioned genres of music are of course often fluid and porous, and, like much ”classical” music, progressive rock uses elements from popular music (popular music, folk music, being, needless to say, something that has always existed and not only what is produced by the music industry that emerged in the last century). Progressive rock borrows more from other genres than from pop (in the broad, music industry sense). Folk, jazz, and various so-called ”classical” influences are  prominent, sometimes depending on the sub-genre of this genre (of which so-called ”symphonic prog” is the most important and fully developed).

The Dead were originally blues-rock oriented, although they developed this genre in a distinct way, to a more elaborate, romantic hippie rock of their own. They did include other genres in their repertoire. But the problem, from my perspective, is that – with the exception, to some extent, of the “psychedelic” one – these are not normally the ones included, and transformed, by progressive rock. But Terrapin Station seems exceptional in incorporating, in the words of Dr Wiki, “a more symphonic sound bordering on progressive rock styles that were expressed earlier by progressive art rock groups like Yes and Genesis”.

The fact that and the way in which they do this – not just incorporating and transforming the relevant kind of non-rock influences but incorporating the specific development of rock into progressive rock of the kind that Yes and Genesis had achieved – are certainly interesting. But this seems to be true only of the title track. What in the vinyl age used to be side one is what for my present limited purposes can be characterized by the broad designation ordinary rock. Again, all such rock is not necessarily or intrinsically bad (I will refrain from making a judgement about these particular songs here); only it is not on the level of classic progressive rock.

My general objection to the album, from this perspective, is that a real progressive rock band would not have released a song like the title track together with songs like these, on the same album; or rather, they would never have recorded such songs at all. ‘Sunrise’ is certainly at least different – another characteristic kind of American romanticism. It, and to some extent the (long) first part of the title track, make the contrast between these songs and the title track less sharp.

Now, the first of the four problems I have with the title track itself, which is for me the only really interesting thing here, is related to the general problem with the album as a whole. The song is called ‘Terrapin Station Part 1’, but there is no ‘Part 2’. No ‘Part 2’ was, as far as I understand, ever recorded, although the lyrics for it exist. A real progressive band would have uncompromisingly devoted a whole album to ‘Terrapin Station’, Part 1 on side one and Part 2 on side two, without any admixture of the kind of stuff now found on side one. The Dead not having done this betrays a lack of seriousness. Now seriousness, even in the major progressive bands, is of course a relative thing, or rather a thing often disturbed or ruined by the constitutive limitations of the music industry and ‘entertainment’ context in which they have to work. Because of another admixture of the misplaced lightweight (I am not saying the lightweight material cannot be admixed, but it must be of the right kind an in the right place), even Emerson, Lake & Palmer are seriously flawed. Seriousness as such is not an unambiguous or unproblematic aesthetic category. But with due awareness of its limitations – even, in fact, as applied to, say, Gregorian chant – its use is for some purposes admissible. For instance, the criticism of postmodernism that I mentioned, for having brought about ‘the evaporation of seriousness’, is legitimate and important.

The second problem has to do with the relation between the music and the lyrics. According to David Gans’s note, Robert Hunter says they “dovetailed perfectly”. I doubt that this is so. Accompanied by the majestic orchestral string arrangements, the solemn choir sings the name of this – turtle. The effect is strange. Again, I have to study the lyrics closer to see if this can in any way be considered warranted, but for now, I doubt it. The music does not match the earth symbolism.

The third objection is that the lyrics are not included in my CD version, which is of a kind that suggests they were not printed in the original album either. This is surprising, given Hunter’s poetic aspirations, and, again, uncharacteristic of real “progressive” rock.

The fourth problem is that some, indeed much of what makes this an at least semi-progressive song seems not to have been written by the band itself. Gans writes: ‘Olsen [the producer] flew to England to record orchestral and vocal overdubs arranged by Paul Buckmaster. The band were taken aback when they first heard the additions, but as Weir explained in an August 1977 interview, “We were pretty much into letting Keith [Olsen] have his way; that’s what we were paying him to do.” Still, there was some grumbling at the addition of strings…and the massive vocal ensemble’. This of course cannot but detract somewhat from the achievement.

These criticisms are serious ones. But they are, as it were, serious only from the distinct perspective from which I make them. They indicate why Terrapin Station is not on the level of classic progressive rock. That having now been done, let me say also that the title track is an interesting, exceptional song with at least the right aspiration to transcend the rock genre, to progress beyond it. For this reason, it is certainly relevant to the general theoretical and critical discussion of progressive rock.

2 Responses to “Is Terrapin Station Progressive Rock?”

  1. 1 Jan Olof Bengtsson June 21, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    “All music is music, and there are no determinations of quality that are intrinsic to specific genres.” I now see that this is a poor, obscure, and misleading formulation. I will have to change it, and rewrite the whole of the following paragraph.

  2. 2 J Peterson March 5, 2016 at 6:22 am

    You’ve gotta be kidding me. The title track is one of the masterpieces of the subgenre. Easily. lol.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi