Friday, December 15, 2017

A brief history of Progressive Rock (1966-1981)

Progressive Rock (Prog or Prog Rock) drew on many musical influences including elements of Classical, Jazz and Folk music. Many credit the Beatles (and George Martin) for starting the movement by playing with the format and makeup of the three minute pop single. By the mid 60s the underground scene in clubs and live performances saw many pop musicians keen to expand their musical prowess. UK luminaries started with skiffle, enjoyed some success in beat groups before moving onto blues. Tired of the constraints of pop they wanted to extend their repertoire by playing more complex music and experimenting with sound. New technologies and more complex techniques for recording sound witnessed a new dawning post Mersey Beat. Groups were using electronic keyboards, flute, saxophone and viola in their line-ups and producers employed the new synthesizers (moog and Mellotron) to produce electronic effects. Greater latitude meant consummate musicians were less constrained and the development of UK Prog Rock was no different to the US Cool School Jazz movement of the 50s. Young musicians were tired of the old genre and keen to progress to the next. Prog Rock borrowed heavily from jazz improvisation and classical orchestration. Progressive rock ran counter to pop as melodies became modal rather than based on the pentatonic scale. This allowed individual pieces to become longer more involving complex chords and chord progressions. Jimi Henrix had used the wah-wah pedal in his solos demonstrating exaggerated pitch, particularly with high bends and use of legato based around the pentatonic scale. He also broke new ground in using the recording studio as an extension of his musical ideas and was one of the first to experiment with stereophonic and phasing effects for rock recording.

In 1966, The Moody Blues released “Days of Future Passed” recorded in stereo and featured a full orchestra and mellatrone synthesizer. The album included “Nights in White Satin single like the album topped the respective charts.

At the same time in the US The Mothers of Invention were using avant garde, multilayered song structures and the Byrds had been commercially successful in experimenting with jazz folk crossover. All together the new musical experience appealed to hi-fi enthusiasts, classical fans and fantasists who enjoyed the orchestrations and convoluted lyrics.

The full sensual experience of sound suited the psychedelic (Acid) and folk rock movements with bands like Pink Floyd (with Syd Barrett) and Jethro Tull took full advantage. The formation of Cream with Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce saw another peak in jazz rock fusion and by the beginning of the seventies there were three clear sub-genres of UK Prog Rock. The symphonic movement led by groups like Yes and Genesis. Hard Progressive championed by King Crimson, Tangerine Dream and Van Der Graaf generator (VDGG); and Cambridge Progressive with bands Caravan, Soft Machine (Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers) and Gong. Cambridge Progressive which featured a synthesis of jazz improvisation, rock rhythms and intellectual songwriting tied to psychedelia. Lyrical themes incorporated fantasy and social commentary unlike the usual pop motifs.

Artwork, packaging and logos became part a major part of Prog Rock presentation. Albums format supported storytelling and fantasy with a new order of concept album brought to the fore. These were recorded works which contained songs unified by an elaborate, overarching theme or story. The Pretty Things (S F Sorrow) are credited with the first concept album albeit this was overshadowed by the more popular Tommy Opera by The Who.

Rock shows now included elaborate and sometimes flamboyant stage theatrics. Genesis and Hawkwind wore colourful and exotic costumes and elaborate stage sets and effects became norm for bands like Yes. Spectacle was as important as the music for some and novel antics such as releasing rabbits (Jethro Tull) or doves (Rolling Stones) very much part of the progressive scene. Laser shows and film backdrops or animation were common place at live performances too. In the seventies new sub genres formed including art rock led by bands like Supertramp, Roxy Music and 10CC; Electronic (New Age) rock with TANG and the more symphonic inspired instrumental rock of Mike Olfield (Tubular Bells), Vangelis and Michel Jarre.

When bands split-up, members joined other bands and musicians like John Wetton (King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, Asia), Bill Bruford, Steve Howe (Yes, Asia), Carl Palmer (Nice, ELP, Asia) and Steve Hackett among many others played in various prog rock bands. The popularity of Prog Rock dwindled by the end of the decade as Disco and Punk took over. Established progressive bands still had a strong fan base and Rush, Genesis, ELP, Yes, Queen, and Pink Floyd scored Top Ten albums with massive accompanying tours. As a movement Progressive rock served as a key inspiration for many musical genres which would emerge in the decades that followed.

Worth a listen
Jimi Hendrix
Purple Haze (1966)
All along the watchtower (1968)

Moody Blues
Nights in white satin (1966)

The Byrds
Eight miles high (1966)

Sushine of your love (1968)
Crossroads (1969)

Pink Floyd
See Emily play (1967)

Jethro Tull
Living in the past (1969)

Time and a word (1969)

The silent sun (1968)

King Crimson
21st Century Schizoid Man (1969)

Tangerine Dream
Alpha Centauri (1971)

Van Der Graaf Generator
Afterwards (1969)

If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You (1970)

Soft Machine
Joy of a toy (1968)

America (1968)

Radio Gnome Prediction (1971)

Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP)
Lucky Man (1971)
Fanfare of the common man (1977)

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