[Warning: I ramble a lot in this. My third (out of 4) semester of grad school just ended, and I needed to write something about prog.]
What does it really mean for rock music to be progressive? This question has risen in my mind over the last few days as I have been at my job at my university’s archives working on processing some records from the 1970s related to the university’s radio station. There is a lot of talk in the records about the station and many others in Chicago playing progressive rock. I’ve come across lists of the most popular music to play in radio stations across the country, and I was a little surprised to see names like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer present.
Other documents from the time loosely defined progressive rock as a genre of music that was forward looking. It also appears that there were whole radio stations in Chicago, on both AM and FM bands, dedicated to playing “progressive” rock. Today there are none. Earlier this year, Chicago lost one of it’s two remaining “classic rock” stations, which were known to occasionally play prog such as Rush, Pink Floyd, and even Yes. The “oldies” station (WLS FM) is playing more music from the 70s these days too.
The fact that there were multiple stations whose explicit purpose was playing “progressive” music suggests that the genre was popular. But just how popular was it? If we go by best-selling albums between the years 1969-1979, then we would have to assume that it wasn’t very popular at all. [This analysis would be a lot more fair if I delved deeper into the charts and looked at top 40 from that time span too, but stick with me anyways.] In that time frame, over 140 different albums topped the charts. Of that number, only 9.5% of them could be called “progressive” rock. That’s only 14 albums, which I shall list in chronological order:
- Led Zeppelin – II
- Led Zeppelin – III
- Jesus Christ Superstar
- Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick
- The Moody Blues – Seventh Sojourn
- Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
- Jethro Tull – A Passion Play
- Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
- Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
- Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
- Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
- Led Zeppelin – Presence
- Supertramp – Breakfast in America
- Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door
Take out Led Zeppelin and the percentage of progressive rock albums topping the charts drops to 5.4% of total chart-topping albums during that decade. That is still significantly higher than the number of chart-topping progressive rock albums over the last decade. In the last decade, the only bands even remotely progressive to come close have been Avenged Sevenfold (Nightmare – Mike Portnoy on drums; Hail to the King – Portnoyless), Disturbed (prog? nah), Muse (Drones), and David Bowie (Blackstar). Muse’s Drones is really the only prog album on this list. One album over a decade.
Okay, we all know that prog isn’t popular and hasn’t been since the 70s… but then again it looks like it wasn’t chart-toppingly popular even then. It still appealed to many people, but why? There clearly must have been a large number of people who wanted more complex music than they were getting from the top-selling artists. After all, isn’t that really what separates progressive rock from regular rock – the complexity of the music and lyrics?
People have long said “rock is dead,” but that’s simply not true. Rock and metal has been going strong for decades, and it has seen its popularity remain steady since the early 2000s. Bands like Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold, Five Finger Death Punch, Halestorm, Chevelle, Three Days Grace, Lamb of God, and many others have seen or are continuing to see success touring worldwide. Multiple-day festivals for rock and metal are all the rage. Slayer is selling out large venues on their farewell tour. Rock is still popular, just not with a majority of people. It is a minority, but a strong minority. I had plenty of friends in high school and some in college (including my roommate) who were big fans of the aforementioned bands, and I myself have enjoyed some of these bands for many years – even longer than I’ve been into most prog (Rush will always be my first love).
If rock is still popular, then why isn’t prog? Well, you could say that it is in its own little way. Prog has multiple English-language magazines and even more magazines in other languages that proudly support it. Websites abound (indeed, one could argue that the internet resurrected prog). However, go to a prog concert and look at the crowd. Unless you’re seeing Haken, Leprous, and maybe Dream Theater, you’re going to see a lot of gray hair. Even seeing Dream Theater, you’ll see a lot of middle-aged folks. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that. Older people tend to have larger disposable incomes, but it is the youth that carry music with them for decades. Many 70s-era prog bands are making boatloads of money now selling anniversary editions of their albums and playing massive tours around the globe – mainly to older crowds craving the music of their youth. For a young whippersnapper like me, this is wonderful because I get to see the greats while they’re still around.
Will the young prog bands be able to go on the same kinds of tours when they’re in their 60s and 70s? Dream Theater probably will. Mike Portnoy certainly will if he’s able – that’s just who he is. I don’t know if many others will be able to. There aren’t even that many young prog bands out there. Most of the young bands are prog metal, and a lot of the prog bands are made up of guys who were teenagers when prog had its heyday. They were fans back then, but they were too young to participate in the scene. They went off and got jobs doing something else before they were comfortable enough monetarily to dabble in prog part- or full-time. There are exceptions, but not many. A lot of the younger prog musicians have to work full-time jobs apart from their bands to make ends meet. This was true even for Haken within the last few years (I’m not sure if it still is).
I’m rambling away from my stated purpose in this article. If being forward-looking and musically complex made prog rock “progressive” in the 70s when it was arguably at its most popular, what makes it “progressive” today. A lot of it sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1970s. That doesn’t sound very forward-looking to me. Apart from a select few bands, such as Oak, Big Big Train, Dream Theater, and Haken, most prog sounds pretty nostalgic. The aforementioned bands have clearly defined their own sounds, and they are creating (or have created) something new. Oak and Haken, in particular, are strong examples of young bands making forward-looking music that is complex. They are progressive rock bands in the truest sense of the word.
Maybe “prog” has come to be its own genre distinct from progressive rock. Perhaps prog now refers to any kind of music that sounds vaguely like Genesis, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kansas, Styx, etc. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I enjoy that music (duh, or I wouldn’t be writing for this site). I’m easily bored with simple music. I love the complexity in prog, and if contemporary prog like The Tangent, Transatlantic, Mystery, Glass Hammer, and Marillion sounds like it could have been big in the 70s, so what? The music sounds good, and that’s enough for me to enjoy it.
Or… what if we defined “progressive” rock as music that is technically complicated, with odd time signatures, that deviates from popular music norms. In that sense, contemporary prog rock, even if it sounds similar to prog from the 70s, is very much progressive. It takes much more talent and skill to play prog and write prog lyrics than to play or write anything Kendrick Lamar has ever produced. The prog of today progresses beyond the inane drivel that is currently popular. The only difference, then, between now and the 1970s is the level of popularity. Perhaps back then many young people were aching for something new and different. The 70s was a time of drastic change and rebellion against authority. Perhaps prog’s success could be partially attributed to that. People resisted conformity, and prog rock is about as anti-conformist as you can get. Perhaps it became such a unique sound that many people later decided to make music in the same style and call it the same thing.
So what do you think? Am I off base completely? Did I go wrong trying to connect prog’s popularity then vs. now in trying to understand what exactly progressive rock is? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.