One of the more prominent subgenres of rock music to emerge from the 1960s was undoubtedly progressive (or ‘prog’) rock. While rock itself was becoming an increasingly sexual fusion of electric blues and 50s rock and roll, the more adventurous groups began to add classical and jazz elements to the mix.
By its peak, the genre had become an album-focused ‘members-only’ club, incorporating complex song structures, uncommon time signatures and exotic instruments into lengthy, conceptual suites with deep lyrics and artistic album sleeves.
Yet the strange, difficult music reached worldwide audiences in the form of giants Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP and Genesis, whose successes were matched only by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. These bands were both praised and criticised by the music press for their infamously theatrical stage shows, virtuosic showmanship and generally excessive way of doing things. They would be labelled pretentious, all the while selling millions of copies of their philosophical concept albums. But how did it all begin?
The late sixties saw the Beatles start to experiment with unconventional recording techniques; their seminal Sgt Pepper album saw a manoeuvre from unrelated pop songs to more cohesive, structured music that embraced the use of unconventional instruments and colourful album art.
Alongside them, a flurry of psychedelic groups emerged that would expand upon these ideals. Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly and others started to produce less mainstream music, characterised by long improvised jams and trippy studio effects.
In 1968, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention released what some call the first ‘true’ concept album in the form of Freak Out, a satirical social commentary that featured various musical styles (some used in a rather sarcastic way). Procol Harum delivered “In Held Twas In I”, the first of many side-long epics, while groups such as the Nice were beginning to arrange classical pieces in a rock setting, with a significant focus on Keith Emerson’s keyboards.
This period of innovation culminated in what could be seen as the first album to wholly qualify the ideals of the new progressive rock genre, King Crimson’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. Their dark, poetic music was heavily celebrated, clarifying long songs as the new norm and emphasising the symphonic qualities that other bands were only beginning to touch upon (thanks to the band’s use of the instrument of prog rock, the mellotron).
By the time the 70s arrived, the genre was growing fast. Jethro Tull fused blues and folk with progressive rock, and Yes and Genesis developed their ultra-classical styles. With each album that was made, song structures became more and more complex, and elements of straight rock became less and less recognisable.
New super-group Emerson, Lake and Palmer continued where the Nice left off, bombarding listeners with virtuosic displays and increasingly costly stage antics. All the while, jazz-rock grew in popularity thanks to Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and some very eclectic music was being made by lesser-known bands such as Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator.
Even the underground psychedelic music had morphed into a brand of prog rock known as the ‘Canterbury Scene’, where jazzy noodling complimented light-hearted, whimsical lyrics, prevalent in the music of Caravan and the Soft Machine. It seemed that no stone was left unturned in this musical exploitation.
Expressive or Excessive?
Progressive rock reached its peak around 1973. The album charts were dominated by the likes of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes; gargantuan works of art focused on deep concepts and challenging musical soundscapes.
Prog rock was everywhere, and the bands involved were constantly experimenting with new ways to be progressive, fuelling artistic analysis from their most dedicated fans, university students. Italy had a substantial prog scene at this point, and several bands from North America competed with the (mostly British) circle of prog rock bands, including Rush and Kansas, who were successful in their own right.
The particularly experimental French group Magma invented their own subgenre of crazy, operatic jazz-rock, known to fans as ‘Zeuhl’. But the media began to grow tired of the weighty, often inaccessible music, and were soon criticising progressive rock, attaching labels such as ‘excessive’ and ‘pretentious’ to the genre. This wouldn’t have an effect on the prog groups’ success for another few years, but their days were now numbered.
The mid-seventies saw many new waves of bands; heavy metal and AOR emerged as prominent genres, each taking their share of rock fans. Progressive elements were still to be found in the music of Supertramp and Queen, but often to a lesser degree, and in compromise with a fresher, more commercial sound. Meanwhile, the older prog bands continued to make aurally demanding music, and their level of popularity decreased proportionally. However, the biggest blow to the genre was undoubtedly the rise of punk rock in the UK.
Downfall and the Rise of Punk
With bands such as the Sex Pistols focusing on simple three-chord songs, the progressive rock movement was suddenly seen as out-dated, its most significant groups now labeled as ‘dinosaurs’. Punk captured the youth’s imagination with its highly ‘anti-establishment’ agenda, and progressive rock was now part of that establishment. Johnny Rotten’s t-shirt said it all: “I hate Pink Floyd”.
In addition to punk, disco and dance music began to dominate the charts, and prog rock fell duly into obscurity for a substantial period of time. A number of bands continued to record, some even having success with pop hits in the 80s, but the complexity of prog’s heyday was largely forgotten.
Between 1982 and 1984 however, a small collection of bands revived the ideals of original progressive rock in their own music, which has since been termed ‘neo-prog’. Twelfth Night, IQ, Pallas, Pendragon and especially Marillion all released albums that were compositionally similar to those of Genesis and Camel in the previous decade, marked by a cleaner, more up-to-date sound. Following a peak in the mid-eighties, these bands also faded away, though they were never particularly mainstream in the first place.
The 1990s saw progressive elements being incorporated into metal music, a genre that already relied somewhat on technicality. While Dream Theatre and Opeth popularised this combination, other prog bands entered the scene such as Porcupine Tree and the Flower Kings, who gained cult followings among prog fans for having a similar approach to the original groups, yet with an original sound that some people believe neo-prog lacked. Of this new wave of creativity, Radiohead in particular reached a level of success that once again sold prog rock to the masses, albeit in a less recognisable form. Emphasis was no longer on exotic instruments and virtuosity (the synthesizers that revolutionised the 1970s were now as standard as electric guitars) and there was generally a more lyrical, conceptual focus in the music of this era. Since the millennium, progressive rock artists have further increased in popularity, while remaining firmly outside of mainstream music. Muse are possible the one exception to this.
Progressive Rock Today
The internet has allowed many groups to distribute their music, which is often not commercial enough for record companies to fund. The Mars Volta, Pain of Salvation, the Mystery Jets and others have achieved success with their own variations of what is known as ‘new-prog’. More recently, MGMT and Arcade Fire have enjoyed a compromise between progressive and radio-friendly music. The genre thrives particularly well today, with older bands reforming and releasing new albums, some of which have been as critically acclaimed as those from prog rock’s heyday. In the midst of its fourth major revival, it seems that the progressive rock genre is here to stay.