As a young boy in Atlanta, Kevin McMahon would lie in his bed and stare longingly at the mobile of World War II—era propeller planes — the Wichita, the C-47 Skytrain — that his father hung from his ceiling as a birthday present. He dreamt not only of soaring through the clouds, far above the cacophonous clatter of suburban school life, but of besting physics and expectations and rising farther, much farther, into outer space, where he imagined great adventure awaited. This is how he latched on to what would become an obsession, a mission: the explorative soundscapes of progressive rock from the '60s and '70s. It's within the grand symphonies of Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson that he finally found a brotherhood of restlessness and the quest for lofty perfection that kept him awake.
With his new confidence and prog companionship, and with a respectable job at an airline company, McMahon moved to Orlando and began a radio show that would be the vessel for his lifelong crusade.
"No," says McMahon.
"`Aviation` is a job that I go to every day, which I enjoy, but it's a career. `Prog rock` is not necessarily an escape, but a way to find new things. It's more inspirational. I don't think there's a connection between the two."
OK, so that opener was a total fabrication. McMahon did grow up in Atlanta, he does work for an airline company and he loves prog rock, but he views his interests with a refreshing lack of pretense or grandiosity. When he moved into town, he contacted several independent radio stations and sent them a demo he made himself of an hourlong radio show devoted to classic and obscure prog rock. After a long wait, he heard from WUCF-FM 89.9, which was looking to branch out from a news and jazz format in light of their switch to hi-def transmission. They tapped McMahon for a Friday night slot at 7 p.m., a show he calls Progressadelic.
McMahon has exceptionally niche musical taste; loaded with a CD collection numbering around 400 — tastefully organized on matching IKEA shelves — he says, "Around 375 of them are prog from the classic era." His shows, though limited in genre and time period, feature wildly eclectic acts from all over the world — Brazil's psych rockers Os Mutantes, New York's experimental fusion group Return to Forever (fronted by Chick Corea) and Brit space-rockers Hawkwind. But McMahon doesn't have the crazy-eyed fanaticism of so many other music geeks. In fact, he's not a music geek at all … more of a music dork.
From his Asian-influenced apartment, where a large jigsaw puzzle that forms a smiling picture of him and his girlfriend stares up from a freshly Windexed coffee table, McMahon talks simply and directly about his beloved genre, like a professional demystifier. He doesn't believe that prog fans have in common a particular lifestyle, or even a style for that matter, the way punk or hip-hop fans tend to.
"Prog definitely has its audience. It attracts a lot of sci-fi fans because of its space themes," says McMahon, "and probably a lot of hippies since it was born out of psychedelia, but beyond that, anyone can be a fan."
He doesn't subscribe to the idea that one has to be acutely aware of the specific chord progressions or scale noodling that often defines the sound in order to fully understand it. McMahon can't play a lick of music himself, so he admits most of the technical aspects are lost on him. But that's no impediment to his appreciation.
"Prog isn't exactly like jazz, where so much of it is improvised," he says. "It's very rehearsed, there are a lot of melody changes and the lyrics have a specific purpose of conveying a concept. So all you really have to do is listen closely."
He pops in a CD by German prog act Grobschnitt that mixes James Brown—esque vocal tics with Black Sabbath heaviness and the art rock of Jethro Tull. He says if he had the power to make one obscure prog band famous, it would be Grobschnitt.
"The problem is, if I added just one album to a classic rock station, it would get played over and over again and nothing would change."
Of course. No time for silly daydreaming. Instead, the practical-minded McMahon hopes to bring his show to other markets across the country. "Someday I'd like to own a business for myself and do something entrepreneurial."
McMahon nods. It's his way of indicating he has nothing more to say on the matter, and he does it a lot. If he really ever was a wistful boy with planes decorating his room and prog seeing him through loneliness, he doesn't let on. He likes this music, he owns it, he wants to play it for other people, and anything else he has to add to that conversation will have to be fulfilled by Grobschnitt now, as the keyboardist gears up for another round of high-intensity fingerwork with a slow progression of major notes. It could be said the band is flying skyward towards the clouds.