Progressive Rock's Politics of Experience

Kevin Holm-Hudson, University of Kentucky

The advertising campaign for Supertramp's 1974 album Crime of the Century asked: "If everyone is mad, who should be committed?" Few Americans likely realized that this question summarized the work of British psychologist and activist R. D. Laing (1927-89), who called schizophrenia "a social fact and the social fact a political event" in his 1967 bestseller The Politics of Experience. According to Laing, "schizophrenic" experience and behavior was "a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation." Because of his empathic approach to mental illness and interest in psychedelic experience (arguing for example that inner and outer realms of experience were equally "real" and valid, though both little understood), Laing was a countercultural sensation. Nevertheless, Laing's influence on the portrayal of "madness" and society in progressive rock has remained largely unexamined.

Progressive rock's structural dialectic of timbre -- already noted by Edward Macan (1997) -- is but one manifestation of the dialectic between 'inner' and 'outer' experience, or -- in social terms -- between 'sanity' and 'insanity.' This dialectic is also manifested in motivic symmetries, dialectics of harmonic structure (tertian vs. non-tertian, tonal vs. atonal, etc.), and studio production, including sound processing. In this presentation, I examine King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" (1969) and Van der Graaf Generator's "Man-Erg" (1971) in light of Laing's writings.