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What is Prog Rock?

Updated: Jan 11


Myths and Legends painting by Roger Dean



Article by Glenn Harris

29th. December 2023


Faux-symphonic structures? Tracks that occupy entire album sides? Interminably long solos? Fantastical lyrics? Serried ranks of keyboards? Time signatures you’d need a spreadsheet to keep track of? Fantasy art decorating a triple-gatefold album cover? A swirling gold cape or two? And is that – the haunting sound of a Mellotron?

Chances are you’re in the presence of the eclectic musical phenomenon known as Progressive Rock.

As loved by its fans as it was loathed by its critics, Prog took rock music to an exalted and rarefied new level, emphasising experimentation, new sounds, extended song structures, elements borrowed from folk, jazz and classical music, and virtuosic technical ability.

As an art form, Prog can be po-faced, or whimsical. Sensitive or epic. Intellectual or emotional. Irresistibly engaging, or maddeningly self-indulgent. Typical elements include:

·      Extensive use of keyboards, especially Hammond organ, synthesizers, and the Mellotron – an early mechanical keyboard that used tape loops to generate sound

·      Highly complex chord changes and odd-time signatures, such as 5/4, 7/8 and 9/8, often accompanied by sophisticated, polyrhythmic drumming

·      Songs comprised of many different sections, or movements, including extended instrumental segments

·      Ideas influenced by classical music, especially the Baroque and Romantic periods (though only ELP incorporated actual classical pieces into their work)

·      Lyrics that went beyond the usual rock staples of love and relationships to explore wider-ranging themes such as fantasy, mythology, science-fiction, philosophy, surrealism, and mysticism

If looking for a snappy definition, you could label it ‘highbrow meets hard rock’. Another good heuristic is: if you can dance to it, it’s almost certainly not Prog.

This is music that was meant to be taken seriously; like classical music, it was to be listened to, not moved to.

Prog has often been criticised for its pretentiousness, pomposity and general over-the-top grandeur. Yet to its fans, it has produced some of the most powerful and exhilarating music ever written – while also inspiring some of the most imaginative and iconic album cover art.

 

In the Beginning

The 1960s was a decade that saw a unique and arguably unparalleled level of innovation in popular music. Musicians embraced new instruments and approaches to create a host of fresh sounds and styles. Everything was possible, it seemed at the time; and many performers exulted in pushing the boundaries of popular music far beyond anything that could have been imagined in the preceding years.

One of the first mentions of the term ‘Progressive Rock’ can be found in the sleeve notes of Caravan’s 1968 debut album, but the seeds of Prog had been sown some years before. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sergeant Pepper (1967) featured unusual song structures, intriguing lyrics and nascent studio technology to make a new, original and compelling kind of music. These albums, with their ground-breaking innovations and fantastical themes inspired many of the musicians who would go on to become Prog legends in the 1970s (there is a definite nod to Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! in the ‘Willow Farm’ section of Genesis’ Supper’s Ready, for example).

Similar kudos must be given to other adventurous 1960s artists such as The Beach Boys (particularly Pet Sounds), The Zombies, The Doors, The Byrds (who influenced Yes’ multi-layered vocal harmonies, while their song Eight Miles High was covered by Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer), Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd.

Bill Bruford, a veteran of several Prog bands including Yes and King Crimson, said that Sergeant Pepper transformed musicians’ ideas of what was possible, and audiences’ ideas of what was acceptable. In his view, ‘’Without The Beatles, or someone else who had done what The Beatles did, it is fair to assume that there would have been no Progressive Rock’’.[i] 

Apart from these influences, Prog also began to emerge from Acid Rock and the British Psychedelic scene around 1967. Bands such as Procol Harum, The Nice, and the Moody Blues began incorporating classical and symphonic musical structures into their work. (The idea of the ‘concept’ album, a record based around a unifying theme or story, and the direct collaboration with classical musicians both had an early outing with Days of Future Passed, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra.) The Nice in particular were in the vanguard in terms of the move away from traditional songs in favour of purely instrumental rock.

The birth of Prog was contemporaneous with, and many would say coloured by, the growing use of cannabis, LSD and other drugs and the rise of a counter-culture among the young, which included a rejection of Establishment values in favour of what might be termed progressive politics. Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were two of the most prominent bands of this era, regularly performing at clubs such as UFO and Middle Earth.

[Lift out:

What is Prog Rock? An attempt to combine the power and energy of rock, the improvisational freedom of jazz, the technical mastery and long-form structure of classical, and the emotional sensitivity and acoustic textures of folk.

 

It was termed ‘Progressive’ rock because the music aimed to ‘progress’ beyond the standard tropes of rock and pop music, which were often based on rock n’ roll or the blues, looking instead to jazz and classical for inspiration.

Prog songs started to depart from the usual verse/verse/chorus format, becoming more like mini-symphonies or, at least, a small suite of different but interconnected parts. Bands such as Caravan, Jethro Tull and Focus experimented with complex chords, odd-time signatures, and jazz-like extended improvisations and solos. Drums started to become more of an instrument in their own right, as drummers increasingly abandoned the strict confines of the 4/4 backbeat to explore more complicated patterns and a wider palette of sounds. Drummers began to add new instruments to their set-up, including gongs, tympani, bells, chimes, and wood blocks as well as a greatly expanded range of tom-toms and cymbals.

 

Prog’s Golden Age

Prog reached its highpoint, musically and commercially, during the early to mid-1970s. The most successful Prog acts – Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Focus – came to typify the genre, in both its strengths and weaknesses. They, along with other notable acts such as Van Der Graaf Generator, Barclay James Harvest, Soft Machine, Renaissance and Gentle Giant represent the classic era of Prog; the bands that followed in their footsteps rarely achieved similar commercial success, although Rush, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard and Marillion all have a strong global fanbase.

Many of the albums that came to define the era were all released during a short period of astonishing inspiration and productivity: between 1971-74, Yes  produced The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer. Genesis made Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. ELP released Pictures at an Exhibition, Tarkus, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and King Crimson’s Islands, Lark’s Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black also appeared at this time, as did Focus’ Moving Waves, Focus III and Hamburger Concerto.

There are of course many other albums worthy of inclusion in this list: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, for example; A Night at the Opera (1975) by Queen; Pink Floyd’s phenomenally successful Dark Side of the Moon.

Yet none of these represent true Prog in all its finery. Tubular Bells, an almost purely instrumental album without extended solos, drums or lyrics[1], was more like an early precursor to New Age and Ambient music than full-on Prog. Queen wrote several lengthy songs with Tolkien-esque lyrics, but their music, though displaying some Prog tendencies in their early years, was never truly Prog. (A strong case could be made for Bohemian Rhapsody, however, had it not been written predominantly in 4/4).

 

In terms of structure, most of their songs followed a conventional pop format, rather than a series of distinct, and often unrelated, ‘movements’. Tightly structured guitar solos were used instead of extended, multi-instrumental sections. They drew inspiration from opera, rather than classical music. And Queen had no dedicated keyboard player, Freddie Mercury’s piano-playing aside. They even boasted on their early albums that no synthesizers had been used, which is almost enough to disqualify them from Prog status on its own. Overall, their highly commercial sound, with its emphasis on powerful melodies and swaggering, anthemic choruses, is better described as Pop Rock, Stadium Rock or even Pomp Rock.

As for Pink Floyd, opinion is divided as to whether they truly qualify as a prog band. Their music is certainly epic, and often has a sweeping grandeur and majesty. Their lyrics also deal with ‘serious’ themes, such as alienation, depression and insanity. But they rarely used odd-time signatures (Money being a notable exception); in contrast to most Prog bands, their songs feature very simple (but effective) drumming; and whilst David Gilmour is one of the most acclaimed guitarists in rock, the band did not have a keyboardist given to long, ‘showpiece’ solos in the dazzling style of a Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson.

David Gilmour himself once said, ‘’I wasn’t a big fan of most of what you’d call progressive rock. I’m like Groucho Marx; I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member’’.[ii]

As with many art forms, what constitutes Prog can be hard to define. Elements such as technical ability and extended compositions may make Prog different from other forms of rock, but they are not exclusive to Prog. Prog has many similarities to jazz-fusion and jazz-rock (Mahavishnu Orchestra were a major inspiration to Yes during their Relayer period, but were they Prog?); it blurs into symphonic rock, hard rock, folk rock and a host of others. Many people see it as synonymous with art rock, though other critics maintain the two genres are markedly different, with art rock focusing less on classical influences and more on experimental music, Modernism and the avant-garde.

 


The Wildflowers

Photo Roger Dean

The Canterbury Scene

This refers to a genre often seen as a sub-set of Prog, based around the city of Canterbury in Kent during the 1960s and early 1970s. While the term is best loosely applied, these bands had their roots in psychedelia, often favoured wind instruments and tended to be heavily influenced by jazz, with its emphasis on free-form, flowing improvisations. They often combined this with whimsical lyrics and musical playfulness.

One of the most important – and influential – acts of the Canterbury Scene was the band that could be said to have started it all; the Wilde Flowers. Their early blend of British psychedelia, R n’ B, pop, and jazz was the very foundation of what became known as the Canterbury Scene. Despite releasing no recorded material during their brief existence, they inspired a whole collection of artists and acted as the launching pad for the careers of many well-known musicians and songwriters.



The Wildflowers

Photo Roger Dean

The original members of the Wilde Flowers – Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Brian and Hugh Hopper, and Richard Sinclair – went on to form the two most famous Canterbury Scene bands, Soft Machine and Caravan, and they and other members such as David Sinclair and Richard Coughlan were involved with associated acts such as Matching Mole and Hatfield & the North. Though these and other bands like Gong, Egg and National Health certainly had many fans, none achieved the commercial success of groups like Yes or Genesis. By the early 70s, frequent personnel changes and the formation of a host of new groups saw the Canterbury Scene fragment and dissipate, though not before it had helped to kickstart the careers of some of rock’s finest guitarists. Andy Summers (The Police) played in Soft Machine; Steve Hillage worked with Gong; and Allan Holdsworth (New Tony Williams Lifetime, Bruford, UK) was a member of both.

 

End of an Era

Prog continued to flourish throughout the 1970s, surviving the emergence of New Wave and Punk, though partly due to these it became increasingly unfashionable and even mocked for its alleged pomposity.

In the 1980s, many of the biggest prog bands either went on hiatus, disbanded, or modified their approach, switching to a stripped-down, more commercial sound. Genesis enjoyed their greatest success with this formula, and Yes had their only No.1 US single – Owner of a Lonely Heart – at this time. (King Crimson went off in a totally different direction, making highly technical, ‘un-musical’ music that had little in common with their previous, more accessible work.)

Yet there was a growing sense that the genre was getting tired, and failing to resonate with new audiences. UK, a highly promising band made up of Prog luminaries whose CVs included Yes, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep and Family split after just one album; a reformed version similarly produced only one studio LP. Asia, another ‘supergroup’ formed of ex-members of major Prog bands, did enjoy huge sales with their first album, a radio-friendly effort which many have dubbed ‘progressive pop’, but subsequent albums could not match their initial success. Spin-off projects such as GTR (featuring the guitarists from Genesis and Yes), and 3 (with ex-members of ELP) virtually sank without trace.

 

A Class Act

Many critics disliked Prog because it was dissociated from what they saw as the true wellspring of rock – youthful rebellion. Prog had a reputation for being the music of the white middle classes, adored primarily by university students or people with art or music degrees. Some Prog musicians had attended prestigious music colleges, and the original members of Genesis met at Charterhouse public school. But many others came from perfectly ordinary backgrounds. It was however true that Prog drew its influences from classical music, rather than more obviously working class musical forms such as rock n’ roll or the blues. Prog lyrics were more likely to contain references to Greek mythology or T.S. Eliot than the words ‘hey’, ‘yeah’ or ‘baby’.

More broadly, at a time of growing unrest and unemployment, Prog seemed out of touch and elitist, far removed from the harsh realities of Brtish life for many people in the late 1970s. Punk, by contrast, channelled the anger, cynicism and disaffection of youth, and for many critics its unfiltered rawness, authenticity and energy made Prog seem old-fashioned and irrelevant.

 

 

The Next Generation

While bands like Rush, Yes and Genesis continued to tour and make albums, many new acts were keen to build on the foundations they had laid. Major ‘arena rock’ acts such as Journey, Foreigner, Styx and Kansas achieved great success by incorporating some of the elements of prog with hard rock to create a more commercial sound.

Starting with the Neo-Prog group Marillion in the 1980s, and their contemporaries Pendragon, IQ and Pallas, there have been hundreds of bands worldwide who have been inspired by Prog’s Golden Age. The genre has spawned multiple sub-groups over the years, including Hippie Prog, Post-Prog, Prog Metal, Nu-Prog, Progressive Prog, Progressive Pop, Symphonic Rock, Neo-classical Metal, Math Rock, Progressive Country, Progressive Soul, and a host of others.

Bands that have emerged during the 21st century often play in a similar style to the 1970s acts but utilise new sounds and textures. Some of the most successful include Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard, Lifesigns, Riverside, Barock Project and the Flower Kings. Porcupine Tree in particular have infused their Prog approach with ambient and experimental sounds, reflecting the increasing sophistication of digital music and recording techniques.

[Lift-out quote:

‘’Prog Rock [...] has connotations of grandeur and pomposity [...] I think looking back on it that most of it was a pretty good experience for musicians and listeners alike. Some of it was a little bit overblown, but in the case of much of the music, it was absolutely spot on.’’             Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull[iii]

 

Prog and Art

Hand in hand with Prog’s desire to push the limits of popular music – making music without restrictions or boundaries – so too the album covers reflected the spirit of invention and visual freedom. Just as Prog musicians were making a claim for rock as a serious musical form deserving of critical respect, many artists took the concept of a rock album cover and elevated it into an important art form, often inspired by fantasy and surrealism.

Some of the most iconic Prog album art includes King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme, and ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery (cover by H R Giger, who created the designs for the Alien film series).

Perhaps the most famous marriage of art and Prog Rock however is the covers created for Yes by Roger Dean. Starting with Fragile in 1971, his ‘imaginative realism’ style has graced the covers of Close to the Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Yessongs, Relayer, Drama, Union and many others. His imaginary landscapes, with their flowing organic forms, floating islands and perpetual waterfalls are based on close study of existing natural forms placed in a new and fantastical context, the perfect visual counterpart to the imaginative, epic music of Yes.


 

Conclusion

When it comes to defining the spirit of Prog, perhaps the (almost) final word should go to one of its finest exponents: Peter Gabriel. ‘’Despite Prog probably being the most derided musical genre of all time there were—as today—a lot of extraordinary musicians trying to break down the barriers to reject the rules of music. It was genuinely pioneering at the time. We didn't always get it right, but when it did work we could move people and get some magic happening.’’[iv]

With many current bands such as System of a Down and Mars Volta making inventive and complex music that has some of the characteristics of Prog, it’s clear that Prog’s appeal continues to endure. As well as the success of today’s Prog acts, classic Prog can still strike a chord with new audiences. Focus’ Hocus Pocus was used in a Nike ad some years ago, and King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man was sampled by rapper Kanye West (and later used to promote Paco Rabanne fragrances.)

One thing is for sure – as long as people appreciate brilliant musicianship, lofty themes, poetical lyrics, soaring solos, epic arrangements, and album covers that deserve to be hung in a gallery, the spirit of Prog Rock will live on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Both these do make a short appearance – sort of – in the ‘Caveman’ section.


[i] Bill Bruford (2012), ‘‘Reflections on Progressive Rock’’, The Rock History Reader, Routledge.

[ii] ‘’Echoes to be Floyd’s final cut?’’ Classic Rock, January 2002.

[iii] ‘’Ian Anderson admits Prog was ‘A little bit overblown’’’, Ultimate Classic Rock, July 2014.

[iv] ‘’Peter Gabriel honoured at Prog music awards’’, BBC News, September 2014.

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