The names -- King Crimson; Renaissance; Van Der Graaf Generator; Magma; Nektar; Barclay James Harvest -- seem like echoes out of a distant geological age. Some, like King Crimson and Pink Floyd, have redefined and reinvented themselves with new memberships and sounds. A few, like Yes, Jethro Tull, and the Moody Blues, still tour to sell-out audiences. But for a time, the biggest of them completely ruled the FM airwaves, dominating the radio spectrum as well as filling pages and covers across the rock press. They routinely sold millions of albums, and for a time, from 1971 until 1976, they rivaled the success of the pop music's biggest stars.
The music is "progressive rock," also sometimes known as "art rock," or "classical rock" -- bands playing suites, not songs; borrowing riffs from Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner instead of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley; and using language closer to William Blake or T.S. Eliot than to Carl Perkins or Willie Dixon. It filled the early and mid-1970's with a phantasmagoric array of sounds and personalities, and carried rock music to levels of sophistication that would've astonished rock 'n roll's early pioneers. Today, however, progressive rock is the most reviled of all rock genres of the 1960's or 1970's; critics and ordinary listeners still openly snicker at the sight of an ELP or Moody Blues CD. How did a genre once so successful achieve such ignominy in scarcely more than a few years?
Progressive rock actually had respectable roots, as a cousin to -- and offshoot of -- psychedelia. Up until the mid-1960s, rock 'n roll was considered music for teenagers seeking a good time, usually aimed more at the body than the brain. It was Bob Dylan who made rock 'n roll grow up, merging folk music's seriousness of purpose with electric instruments into something louder and more cerebral than any music ever before aimed at "kids." There were others who followed in Dylan's wake, most notably the Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel. None of this was lost on the Beatles, who were also expanding their own perceptions of the world; by the time they were working on their second movie, Help, John Lennon was already writing more serious, reflective songs like the Dylan-esque "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." The Beatles also played a key role by introducing to their sound the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument originally marketed as a competitor to the Hammond organ, using tape loops to create the sounds of various combinations of instruments and voices. Other groups had used it, but the Beatles made it the instrument of choice.
It was inevitable that progressive rock would evolve out of this environment. Opening rock 'n roll to seriousness on any level, and succeeding with it, was like letting a genie out of a bottle; the increasing use of hallucinogenic drugs only heightened the adventurous nature of both bands and their audiences, further increasing the demands placed upon newer bands to look farther and wider for sounds that they could call their own. Classical music was just another source of inspiration, like jazz and blues, when prog-rock began in earnest in June of 1967: rock impressario and ex-Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham was getting ready to send his new star, R&B singer P.P. (Pat) Arnold, out on tour and assembled a backing group for her. Christened the Nice, they featured keyboard wizard Keith Emerson, a jazz and classical music aficionado who'd studied music as a boy -- something none of the Beatles had done. The Nice soon overwhelmed Arnold, mixing classical music and jazz with Dylan songs ("She Belongs to Me"), Beatles songs ("A Day in the Life"), and even a touch of Italian movie soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. Soon, P.P. Arnold was largely forgotten, and the Nice's first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, was released.
While the Nice was still making its name at various festivals, Pink Floyd was making a similar noise, if not the same sound, around the club scene in London, mixing nursery-rhyme style lyrics, high amplification, and extended instrumental jams. Eventually, with the departure of lead singer/guitarist Syd Barrett, the songs became less important than the long jams, and Pink Floyd made the jump from psychedelia to progressive rock. Procol Harum, formed out of the remnants of an R&B-based band called the Paramounts, rode the charts for months on the single "A Whiter Shade of Pale," adapted from a Bach chorale. The record, a studio creation by the songwriting team of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, was not fully representative of the sound they finally developed, and the accompanying album had a somewhat different sound, but the single seemed to prime the airwaves for more of the same.
Ironically, they were all beaten to the punch by a group from whom nobody would've expected anything significant, much less a genre-defining record. In 1967, the English Decca label decided to produce an album promoting their advanced stereo system, and needed a band to pair with an orchestra in a rock version of Dvorak's New World Symphony. The Moody Blues, a struggling onetime R&B group, were chosen, and in short order, the band and producer Tony Clarke abandoned Dvorak and came up with a lushly orchestrated piece of rock/pop mysticism called Days of Future Passed. The LP appeared in the fall of 1967, just in time to attract teens who'd worn out their copies of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and wanted another album in the same vein, and the Moody Blues soon developed the cosmic consciousness needed to sustain their new sound, making more prominent use of the Mellotron to replace the orchestra. They also served as something of a model for a trio called Giles, Giles & Fripp, who recorded for Decca before re-emerging in 1969 as King Crimson under the leadership of guitarist Robert Fripp; Crimson sounded vaguely like the Moody Blues, but could play circles around them, using the Mellotron almost as a weapon (albeit very skillfully) rather than a backing instrument.
Apart from the Moody Blues, none of these acts were major international successes, however. The Nice got lots of press, but never managed to go over commercially. The group had a couple of built-in problems -- their label, Immediate, suffered from major financial difficulties, which precluded any tour support when they played America; also, they were basically an instrumental outfit, lacking a solid lead singer in their line-up. King Crimson also got a lot of press, but the group was already in the process of breaking up by late 1969. Pink Floyd was a cult band, still redefining its sound in the wake of Syd Barrett's departure. Jethro Tull, which had started out doing blues, was still working out whether it was a jazz, folk, or classically-oriented group; Yes, which had been formed in 1968, was still a folk-pop group; and Barclay James Harvest never had a hit during their formative years .
Keith Emerson solved his problem -- and progressive rock's larger problem -- by breaking up the Nice. He hooked up with King Crimson's Greg Lake and Carl Palmer from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. If the Nice was progressive rock's first band, ELP was its first supergroup. Their self-titled 1970 debut album, complete with material appropriated from composers Janacek and Bartok, was a hit, and the single "Lucky Man" performed respectably on AM radio. The more ambitious FM outlets were even better served by "Take a Pebble," which regularly took nearly a quarter hour out of many an FM deejay's night-time schedule, while "The Three Fates" and "The Barbarian" showed off organ and synthesizer playing on a level of intensity and volume that few rock listeners had ever heard.
There were a lot of efforts in this vein happening around that time. Folk-rockers the Strawbs added a keyboard wizard of their own named Rick Wakeman to the line-up, who, in turn, added extended piano and organ solos to their concerts. Pink Floyd moved back into long form composition with Atom Heart Mother, an album with a total of three tracks, one of which ran 25 minutes. Even Deep Purple, not yet the heavy-metal phenomenon of the 1970's but a band adrift in search of a sound, cut its Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Yes was already moving in a progressive direction, and ELP's sales made it easier for them to take the plunge with The Yes Album (1971), which was dominated by extended multi-part songs. It was during the early stages of recording their next album, Fragile, that Rick Wakeman made the leap from the Strawbs, and the classic Yes line-up was in place.
The big success among folk-based bands, however, was Jethro Tull, who, with a sound that combined English folk tunes, scatology, and adolescent sexuality, became heroes to millions of high school boys with their albums Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. Those albums relied on extended strings of lyrics, in much the same manner that ELP and King Crimson relied on extended instrumentals. Genesis, who came into music as a Moody Blues soundalike, had begun experimenting with longer songs on outre subjects, and their music blossomed in 1971 with the release of Nursery Chryme; their two subsequent albums, Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound, would carry them into realms of lyrical sophistication that would find them compared to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and make ELP sound juvenile by comparison. By 1971, with the release of ELP's second album, Tarkus, Yes's The Yes Album, Procol Harum's Broken Barricades and Pink Floyd's Meddle, the message was clear: audiences couldn't get enough.
A few American outfits tried to compete in the progressive arena, but mostly prog-rock remained a European phenomenon, and the permutations were fascinating. Germany and France yielded a few competitors in the field, including Kraftwerk, Magma and Nektar (a quartet of Englishmen based in Germany), while Italy's Premiata Forneria Marconi (better known as PFM) was an answer to ELP and King Crimson, with a lighter, less gothic sound than their English counterparts. Some of these groups were genuinely more daring and experimental, and almost deliberately less commercial. A few jazz-based bands, including Soft Machine and Gong, made a strong case for themselves, although their music took some effort and discipline to absorb. Van Der Graaf Generator and their leader Peter Hammill mixed heavy metal intensity with long-form progressive rock and came up with huge sound paintings, sonic murals of considerable beauty. Caravan, by contrast, was almost a folk group, its music quieter but no less compelling, at least for those who got to hear it.
In 1973, Pink Floyd, who'd always sort of been threatening to find a major audience but never had, suddenly did just that. Their album The Dark Side of the Moon turned into a sales monster, lingering in the No. 1 spot and the top selling reaches of the U.S. charts for what seemed like forever and remaining on the charts for more than a decade. The problem, finally, was that no one could follow up their work reliably: the Dark Side follow-up, Wish You Were Here, took three years to be released, while at some point, ELP, King Crimson and Procol Harum, among others, seemed simply to be repeating themselves -- albeit in louder, longer, and more ornate form -from album to album. Yes was fortunate in having three writing members and five virtuoso-level players to rely on, and their music advanced significantly from The Yes Album to Fragile to Close To The Edge. Yes' songs also got longer, until their new album for 1974, Tales From Topographic Oceans, was a double-LP consisting of four long tracks -- they were beautiful songs, but so demanding that even keyboard player Rick Wakeman bailed out after the accompanying tour.
The rot started to set in during 1976, the year ELP released their live album Welcome Back My Friends. Suffering from poor sound and uninspired playing, this triple album seemed a shadow of the triple-disc Yes live album Yessongs, which had obviously inspired ELP's release. The release of the ELP double-album Works, essentially halves of three solo albums with a group effort for the last side, stretched the devotion of fans and critics even thinner. And by this time, even the Moody Blues, the most commercially successful of all of these bands, had split up. The end came quickly: by 1977, the new generation of listeners was even more interested in a good time than the audiences of the early 1960's, and they had no patience for 30 minute prog-rock suites or concept albums based on Tolkien-esque stories. The British punk bands led the charge, condemning Pink Floyd and other arena acts on the progressive rock scene.
Soon, it became clear that prog-rock bands were dinosaurs headed for the boneyard. The artists themselves seemed to bear this out: it was ten years or more past the psychedelic era that had helped spawn progressive rock in the first place, and the members of most of the oldest groups of the scene had been playing and recording professionally for a decade. ELP was barely functioning as a unit, and not producing music with any energy; Genesis was redefining themselves, in the wake of several line-up changes, as a pop-rock band; and Yes was back to doing songs running four minutes, not 40 minutes, and even releasing singles. By 1980, most of these groups were off the front pages of the rock press and out of the headlines, and their albums sold poorly. Few critics were saying anything kind in the press, and the public no longer really cared. Soon, progressive rock was forgotten; a few echoes lingered -- the metal band Marillion tried to pick up the lyrical density and imagery of Genesis's early work -- and few of the original bands, including Yes and the reformed Moody Blues, also held on. But for all intents and purposes, an era had ended.
Progressive-Psychedelic: Nice #3 --The Nice (Immediate/Charly) Ars Longa Vita Brevis --The Nice (Immediate/Charly) In Search of the Lost Chord --Moody Blues (London) On The Threshold of a Dream --Moody Blues (London) To Our Children's Children's Children--Moody Blues (Threshold) Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & ripp --Giles, Giles & Fripp (Decca) Piper At The Gates of Dawn --Pink Floyd (EMI) A Saucerful of Secrets --Pink Floyd (EMI) Dark Side of the Moon --Pink Floyd (EMI)
Art-Rock: Court of the Crimson King --King Crimson (EG) In The Wake of Poseidon --King Crimson (EG) Nursery Cryme --Genesis (Atlantic) Foxtrot --Genesis (Atlantic) Genesis Live --Genesis (Atlantic) Selling England By The Pound --Genesis (Atlantic) The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway --Genesis (Atlantic) Tubular Bells --Mike Oldfield (Virgin) The Odyssey --David Bedford (Virgin) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner --David Bedford (Virgin) Starless And Bible Black --King Crimson (EG) Still (aka Stillusion) --Peter Sinfield (Voiceprint)
Classical-Rock: Emerson, Lake & Palmer --ELP (Rhino) Works Vol. 1 --ELP (Rhino) Eskeption 5 --Ekseption (Philips) Ashes Are Burning --Renaissance (One Way) Turn of the Cards --Renaissance (Sire) Prologue --Renaissance (One Way) Tabernakel --Jan Akkerman (Atlantic) Photos of Ghosts --PFM (Great Expectations)
Space-Rock: Larks' Tongues In Aspic --King Crimson (EG) Yessongs --Yes (Atlantic) The Yes Album --Yes (Atlantic) Fragile --Yet (Atlantic) Close To the Edge --Yes (Atlantic) Tales From Topographic Oceans --Yes (Atlantic) Brain Salad Surgery --ELP (Rhino) The Two Sides of Peter Banks --Peter Banks (One Way) Starcastle --Starcastle (Epic) Atom Heart Mother --Pink Floyd (EMI) Remember The Future --Nektar (Passport)
Hybrid-Progressive (jazz/classical/folk): Thick As A Brick --Jethro Tull (Chrysalis) Focus III --Focus (Sire/IRS) Lizard --King Crimson (EG) Bursting At The Seams --Strawbs (A&M) Grave New World --Strawbs (A&M) From The Witchwood --Strawbs (A&M) Acquiring The Taste --Gentle Giant (Vertigo) Red Queen To Gryphon Three --Gryphon Fantasia Lindum --Amazing Blondel (Edsel) Seasons --Magna Carta (Dunhill/Vertigo)