Ambrosia Isn’t Who You Think They Are (with Commentary on Prog Rock)

Ambrosia — current lineup
(L-R: Joe Puerta; Mary Harris; Burleigh Drummond; Christopher North; Doug Jackson; Ken Stacey)

This is Fifty Years After… after 1969. In that year, an unsigned southern California band went to a show at the Whiskey. Onstage, was none other than British prog group, King Crimson. The musical impact that those luminaries of progressive rock, headed by Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, had on those So-Cal boys, now known as Ambrosia, would be immeasurable.

Who They Were (Are)

Despite their finely textured, symphonic beginnings, which were nourished on the lushness and succulence of prog rock, Ambrosia would come to be known for their softer hits, like “How Much I Feel.” This, and other ballads, that still remain staples of mainstream radio, have undoubtedly been their daily bread, but at the cost of stigmatizing them by their pop rock balladry. Even the band members themselves, seem to want to absolve themselves somehow, by offering up various lighthearted puns before playing these pop hits live, which they know are de rigueur.

What I would have said to Joe Puerta, of Ambrosia, last December, when he signed my T-shirt (and what the music world should know)… is that they are so much more. My mission here is to proclaim what other real music people already know, that pigeonholing them by way of their pop ballads would be like branding Thai food by the popular, but unexceptional, Pad Thai, alone.

Late 70’s On

The groups that started prog all seemed to find themselves at the same juncture and impending doom. Prog, with its poetry; its multilayered harmonies; its extended passages; its stylistic experimentation, its vision, and its delight and hunger for cosmic questions, was in a class of its own. In its quest for transcendence and expansion, it took inspiration from other genres, such as classical and jazz.

Prog, with its many moods and texture changes, takes its listeners on a journey, where you’re meandering across sunbaked sand dunes, which seamlessly give way to dew-covered grassy hills. Its keyboard adagios and intricate drumming patterns feel, at times, scarcely contained… as if they were bulging-at-the-seams, yearning for freedom from accompaniment altogether. Well, let’s just say, prog was fighting an uphill battle, in an era suddenly focused on commercial success through catchy, compact, foot-tapping beats.

Enter the quicksand of 80’s pop… what some may call “the sell out.” The streamlining of manifestos into radio-friendly, 3-4 minute, feel good, singalong pop. The trading in of dark-chocolate, richly layered Opera Cake, for a bowl of Sugar Pops.

Chicago did it with “If You Leave Me Now.” Earth Wind and Fire ate well with “After the Love Has Gone.” These songs made it big, but arguably do not reflect the best work of either group (For examples of these bands at their best, listen to Chicago’s “Call on Me,” and EW & F’s “Devotion”). In the bright and bold 80’s cultural climate, all products had a ready-to-wear, disposable quality, and had to provide a quick bang for your buck… even a song. It was an era of big hair; even bigger shoulder pads… to the point of being cartoonish; primary colors, and slick, but formulaic, top 10 tracks.

Enter Punk & Disco

At the same time, British punk and American disco were entering the scene, each making things even more challenging for prog to stay relevant. The three minute message of anger and rage on one side of the pond, and the dance-beat-driven invitation to coke and sex, on the other. Prog was none of those things and was now seen as too serious and self indulgent. 70’s prog was 86’d.

The Industry

How much of this phenomenon was forced by the producers and money makers? How much of the shift in music quality came at the hands of big business wanting to supply only what they supposed the mainstream listeners were demanding… or programmed the listeners to demand? The long and short of it is that Progressive Rock groups either fell apart, reconfigured, or completely changed their style, in order to stay current.

Ambrosia’s Struggle

This was the commercialized atmosphere in which Ambrosia’s rising star began to smoke. They would have wanted, on one hand, to maintain the sonic textures and lushness they were capable of, but they also needed commercial success. To have both at the same time, was mathematically impossible. But, they didn’t fall apart, they didn’t undergo a total reconfiguration, and they didn’t change their style. It has been said that they simply spread themselves too far, but this should not be considered a mark against them, as this constitutes diversity and is generally a quality we appreciate in a group or artist. Led Zeppelin demonstrated this. The Beatles surely demonstrated this. Maybe they were too talented for their own good.

So, then, why is this first-rate band now playing for only a few hundred people? Because they spilled over into multiple genres, the record companies probably didn’t know what to do with them, nor how to categorize them and thus, how to market them properly. One possibility is that, to get away with that kind of diversity, you have to be better established first, like the aforementioned big two… Zeppelin and The Beatles, the latter of which were already colossal, by the time they released the experimental Sgt. Pepper, giving them the foundation necessary to support their growth as a band, without alienating their fans.

Waxing Metaphysical

Or, maybe, it’s not even an answerable question. It’s just an armchair musing… like, what is the meaning of existence? In this case, to take it even further, just for extra fun; Why are there so many talented people that are completely unknown… playing on Promenades around the world, and peddling their self-produced CDs from their guitar cases?

With regard to Ambrosia, Paste magazine once said it bluntly; the critics would never really understand the band and therefore never rallied behind their music. And yet, Ambrosia has demonstrated real staying power. Maybe the number of people you play for doesn’t matter. And it’s not a case of talent, at all. Since the most famous and commercially successful are often complete shiite… just turn on the radio.

Breakdown (So, what was Ambrosia’s best?)

Even the soft, radio friendly hits demonstrate the soulful, R&B soaked vocals and rich harmonies, by both David Pack and now Ken Stacey, as well as bassist, Joe Puerta.

For a taste of Ambrosia’s mastery, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and “And…Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled” both stand as consummate examples. The latter is a lushly woven piece that begins with Drummond on vocals, leading in, over soft percussion, and dream-like chimes. If sounds could twinkle, they would. Layered keys & vocal harmonies glide effortlessly, in heartfelt motion, and in unspoken urgency to soar above it all, as if ready to break through the cloud layer in flight. The multi-layered interplay is propelled by Puerta’s emphatic, but free-spirited, fluttering bass line.

This melody… this masterpiece of a song, makes you feel the tenderness and passionate quality of existence, within seconds of its first note. You feel all of life’s joys and loves, as it continues its ascent. You feel its moments of intensity and unexplainable magic, as well as its fragility. By way of the graceful, but powerful movement and changes in tempo, you feel the emotion of being fully alive in a fleeting world. As the song progresses, you feel yourself lifting off into the afternoon sun… with light beams in your eyes and wind in your hair. And as a vague, but deeply felt, mood of nostalgia rises up, you feel that you could fly, like a bird. As the keyboard sings in joyful rapture, the vocals join in again… ahh ahh…

Put on earphones and listen… really listen… to Joe’s bass on this one. Listen to how it catapults this ecstatic, cosmic flight. It defines the drive and the feel of the song… listen to how it pushes the mood up… and how it leads to a most powerful lift off… Yes, this is Prog… and at the level of their inspirational band, King Crimson… but even better.