Prog Rock = Progressive Rock = a musical aberration from the 1970’s that is either loved or despised. What was it? Prog rock is simply a musical style that is what it is when you point at it and call it prog. It’s that sort of thing. You can’t define it, but you know it when you hear it. There a few defining characteristics. First, you usually can’t dance to it. Second, there might be a symphony, but if there isn’t, there is still a sense of symphonic pomposity. Third, there usually aren’t hit songs, but there might be. Fourth, be prepared for gnarly, prolonged guitar or keyboard solos, and failing that, there will at least be jaw-dropping displays of musical virtuosity. Fifth, grandiose literary (or quasi-literary) lyrics are a lot more common than love ballads. Sixth, it is more likely to be a studio-based album (often with lots of production and special effects) than live concert material, although many prog bands were also awesome in concert. And seventh, it’s usually not rock’n’roll, but instead it’s rock’n’something-else, often a rock-classical hydrid or rock-jazz hydrid, but always rock plus something else.
Prog grew out of late 60’s rock. The studio-based experimentations of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” are often cited. I personally think Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” is a prototype. Frank Zappa gets mentioned. There is a heavy dose of mostly-British psychedelia in its origins. Somebody said it all started with Chuck Berry singing “Roll Over Beethoven,” but that’s stupid. That song was all about how rock’n’roll was banishing classical music. Rather, prog was all about how rock was inviting classical music to join back in the game.
Conventional wisdom is that prog died with the advent of punk rock in the late 1970’s. Fact is, it never really went away. But its greatest flowering was from about 1969-1975. The critics never really completely embraced it. It took a lot of lumps for being bloated, pretentious, and nerdy. But a lot of that is what makes it so wonderful to revisit today.
A few hit songs are still in everybody’s repertoire of downloads that are reminiscent of the prog era. Some late prog entries from Styx and the band Kansas. Some Electric Light Orchestra. A little Pink Floyd. And of course, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is totally prog. But prog was at its greatest in entire albums (especially concept albums), not just individual songs.
Here are 7 important albums from the Dalenberg Library collection which exemplify progressive rock at its peak in 1972.
Yes. Close to the Edge.
Guitar, bass, drum, and keyboard pyrotechnics from Bruford, Howe, Squire, and Wakeman, with Jon Anderson’s signature rock soprano occasionally warbling over the top of it all. Word of warning: Whatever you do, don’t read the lyrics. There is an occasional clever nugget like “A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,” but mostly bad junior high poetry is to be had here, with meanings mostly undiscoverable. The awesome music elevates the words and creates the illusion that they are profound. There is a moment when the whole affair expands into a pipe organ interlude and then morphs back into a rock beat. Such moments transport you. Rick Wakeman’s pipe organ is from the Church of Prog. Mind-blowing.
Gentle Giant. Octopus.
Almost forgotten today, this is the band that (for me) most plumbs the soul of the prog movement. Gentle Giant made every effort to fuse rock’n’roll with a kind of quasi-medieval minstrelsy. Some of their experiments are top-heavy with oh-so-seriousness, but they are endlessly fascinating nonetheless. Octopus is arguably their masterpiece. At 34 minutes, it does not wear out its welcome. Gentle Giant draws effortlessly on classical and jazz fusion. While the tracks may not exactly be constructed on the principles of counterpoint and polyphony, they give that illusion. And when the Giant drops all the classical pretenses and does a straight-ahead rocker like “A Cry for Everyone,” lo and behold!, it’s based on concepts from Albert Camus.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Trilogy.
The closest thing to a “pop” prog band on this list, ELP is a strange mix of really great music and musicality with really embarrassing awfulness. Trilogy is kind of like a rock’n’roll pops concert, replete with a reworking of Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo” and Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” When ELP turns off the prog bombast, you get by far the best track on this album, a song called “Living Sin” that was not a hit and which nobody remembers, but which has a wonderfully infectious groove. That one track demonstrates what a great band ELP could have been if they hadn’t gotten stuck on trying to be progressive. Most of this album is nauseatingly overblown, from the ooh-so-profound title “The Endless Enigma” to titling a track “Fugue” when it isn’t even a fugue. (I guess they just wanted you to know that they knew the word “fugue.”) ELP eventually collapsed under the weight of their exaggerated self-importance when they started putting out double albums that took up entire sides with mediocre piano concertos and whatnot.
Peter Gabriel was the best thing about Genesis in 1972 (Phil Collins was still behind the drum kit). But we had to wait almost another decade before Gabriel was in full flower as an elder statesman of the New Wave, fulfilling a similar role as David Bowie, both veterans of the 1970’s leading the charge as art rockers of the 1980’s. I keep on trying to mine the Peter Gabriel years with Genesis for some undiscovered gem that prefigures the great genius he was to become, but it just isn’t there. Foxtrot is an absolute mess. The highlight is a garbled, undecipherable 23-minute epic called “Supper’s Ready” that takes up most of Side 2. This is the sort of thing Ian Anderson was parodying in Thick as a Brick. But Anderson did it so well, his parody became the template.
Shot through with a thread of Romantic era piano and Annie Haslam’s Joan-Baez-on-Steroids vocals, grand without being grandiose, full of pomp without being pompous, Renaissance is at the symphonic rock end of the prog spectrum. Prologue is, quite simply, beautiful music. It’s too short. Put it on repeat.
Jethro Tull. Thick as a Brick.
Ostensibly intended as a parody of concept albums, Ian Anderson’s album-length rock cantata is now remembered as one of the greatest of all concept albums. It so epitomizes the form that it is difficult to understand these days how it ever could have been conceived as a parody. Unlike some other albums on this list, you can actually follow the story, the lyrics make sense (and are even good), and the sense of the sublime in this music is genuine, rather than just offering up the bells and whistles with no underlying substance that you get from the Yes and Genesis efforts. “Thick as a Brick” is the rock’n’roll equivalent of “Death of a Salesman” on the stage, a story about a rise and fall, about disappointment in the middle years, about the arc of life.
Can. Ege Bamyasi.
Most prog rock was symphonic prog or jazz fusion prog. But Can was progressive in an entirely different way. In much the same way that Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage were pushing classical music to the extremes of experimentalism, Can set out to do the same thing with a rock band. The way they did it was to do a kind of group improvisation that was somewhat akin to free jazz, although you might call it “free rock,” and then distill the recording into a finished track in the editing room. While the music is decidedly weird, it is more accessible than you might think (at times.) Interestingly, while Can at first inspection would seem to represent the ultimate devolution of rock music into experimentation, Can was also incubating a lot that came after, such as ambient music, electronica, and world music.
From a vantage point of 44 years later, distilling my above reviews into a conclusion about the prog rock scene of 1972, there are three albums worth wearing out on the turntable: the Tull, the Gentle Giant, and the Renaissance. A nod to Yes, because the music is like “WOW!” (but don’t read the lyrics.) ELP has not aged well. The Genesis is forgettable. And the Can is for historical interest only.