Is Prog Rock Really Progressive?

[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, Mike Portnoy playing with Avenged SevenfoldHalestorm, 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 Oak False Memory Archive album coverand 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.

24 thoughts on “Is Prog Rock Really Progressive?

  1. Jeff

    I’m an elementary ESE teacher and Christmas break is right around the corner… I too shall ramble if it’s OK.
    In terms of yesterday’s popularity vs. today’s audience, I feel some of this can be attributed to the many fair-weather fans that listened to prog because/when it was popular. I’m 61 and from that original period of newly-indoctrinated prog lovers. Many of my friends listened to the big names then too but as the bands and the genre became less popular and stale, their listening interest waned. When I talk to them now, you’d think rock in general stopped recording after Hotel California. When I try to get them to listen to Sanguine Hum, Oak, Airbag, BBT, Sound of Contact, Southern Empire, Kerzner, Wilson, or Moon Safari, they can’t be bothered. So maybe, I attribute, music is a lessened factor in their lives, it happens but I can’t imagine it. My prog gateway was The Yes Album, along with the subsequent tour, and it is still a favorite of mine. Did I stop there? Of course not, prog being what it is, I keep exploring and will continue to, to my wife’s dismay.
    I do think that the prog brand has become watered down by too many attempts to call new music/artists “prog” because some may not want to be seen listening to and liking something other than progressive music. I see the labels pop-prog, folk-prog, pastoral-prog and post-rock prog and I can’t help but think that the prog community is trying too hard to stay relevant. Lo Moon, Talitha Rise, Midas Fall (IMVHO) are not prog bands. I like their music and they each do some interesting things but is it really prog? I absolutely love VLMV but have a hard time calling them prog, and I don’t need that label to enjoy them any more than I do now.
    So, we’re seeing lots of new bands being reviewed online and in print to fill editorial space, are they prog? You must make that call. Me, I’m past the rebel stage, I listen to what I like.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Personally,I think You are pretty damn close to not necessarily “defining” Prog-rock………but defining the “then” and “now” of it!!! Not so much with an “explanation” of it,but simply by wording it out in your own personal way,which to ME…………..speaks volumes!!! I’d rather read THAT,than have some college-boy try to explain to this almost 50-year old,what Progressive rock SHOULD sound like!!! LOL.

    Prog,is ALL those things You described………..(hence my reason for saying You came VERY CLOSE in defining the similarities of 70’s prog. compared to 2018’s prog.),yet ironically……….when you clearly look at it from a logical standpoint………..Prog. really hasn’t “changed” much,since the 1970’s!!! Know what I mean? In other words,Prog. STILL have those awesome rapid time-signatures,a stomped-foot down on EVERYTHING Authoritative,and morally and physically absconding the rules of decent society,and doing your BEST to show that society,just how WRONG IT IS,with their Rules!!! Prog. simply puts on a new costume,from one generation to the next,but without it’s costume on………….it’s STILL what it ALWAYS WAS!!! And for that………….I’m still Thankful for it!!! 🙂

    Happy-Holidays Bryan!!! ~Peace~

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Morey

      I would never want to say what prog should be – that would go against the spirit of the genre. Everything you’ve said is spot on. Prog is so great because it resists cookie cutter conformity so rampant in the music industry. I guess I’m just trying to wrap my head around what this genre (is it really a genre at all?) really is? At the end of the day, I know what I like…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well,I think the way You put it My Friend……….was just PERFECT in the eyes of MANY!!! (including me!!!) And yes…………..I think Prog. Rock,has an exceptionally difficult time,fitting into ANY kind of “genre” if You will!!! Prog. IS…………what it IS,and what it’s ALWAYS been,and will Forever,CONTINUE to Be!!! No need to define it,just sit back and be in awe of it!!! 🙂


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  3. Tom Silvestri

    No, you’re not off base completely, there’s just a lot that you either weren’t there for or haven’t fully investigated. Like that the roots of what we’d call post-Beatles progressive rock go back to from 1965 to 1967, when people like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Byrds, Donovan, Stones, Moody Blues, Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Doors, Love, Procol Harum, Hendrix, Cream, Traffic, Moby Grape, and many others first started radically redefining “rock ‘n’ roll” by way of all kinds of new ideas about songwriting, singing, playing, producing, and arranging with, to list just some of the most influential 45s (as opposed to the even MORE influential albums), “I Feel Fine,” “Like a Rolling Stone”/”Gates of Eden,” “Play with Fire” (a B-side that was vastly more visionary than its A-side, “The Last Time”), “Ticket to Ride”/”Yes It Is,” “Positively Fourth Street,” “Yesterday”/”Act Naturally,” “Eight Miles High”/”Why,” “Paperback Writer”/”Rain,” “5D (Fifth Dimension),” “Just Like a Woman,” “7 and 7 is,” “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine,” “Mr. Spaceman”/”What’s Happening?!?!,” “Sunshine Superman”/”The Trip,” “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,” “Epistle to Dippy,” “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever,” “For What It’s Worth”/”Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It?,” “Somebody to Love,” “Spoonful,” “Break on Through”/”End of the Night,” “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”/”Everybody’s Been Burned,” “Hey Joe”/”Stone Free,” “Mr. Soul”/”Bluebird,” “White Rabbit,” “Light My FIre”/”The Crystal Ship,” “Purple Haze”/”The Wind Cries Mary,” “I Feel Free,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Omaha,” “Paper Sun,” “All You Need Is Love”/”Baby You’re a Rich Man,” “Someday”…and that barely gets us into the summer of ’67.

    Which is to say that from albums like RUBBER SOUL and FIFTH DIMENSION through DISRAELI GEARS and WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY and ELECTRIC LADYLAND through A SALTY DOG and BENEFIT and JOHN BARLEYCORN MUST DIE (and THAT only takes us into the summer of ’70), the most popular (as in biggest-selling) “rock ‘n’ roll” music was constantly pushing in a more progressive direction. This was also true to some extent in other musical forms such as Blues and R&B, as the crossover between many different kinds of artists (who often met, in this case, at the Atlantic/Atco/Stax-Volt intersection) became quite fast and furious, cf., Sly and the Family Stone, post-“Respect” Aretha, late ’60s Stax and Motown, B.B. King starting with “The Thrill is Gone,” Stevie Wonder starting with MUSIC OF MY MIND, etc. Even some giants of jazz felt the sway of this new rock ‘n’ roll, with geniuses ranging from Miles Davis to Sun Ra moving into areas that they’d never previously considered after being impressed with, specifically in Davis’ case, Hendrix and Cream.

    And so in this sense, most of what was considered mainstream rock between 1965 and about 1980 can be said to be either pre-progressive, progressive-influenced, or full-on progressive. Every Beatles album from RUBBER SOUL on, for instance, and every album by Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, Traffic,Tull, ELP, Yes, Crimson, etc., can rightly be called progressive. Indeed, at the dawn of this era, there was so little going on that WASN’T progressive (Chris Montez, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Bobby Sherman, the Carpenters — no, I take that last back, “Close to You” was actually a very daring Bacharach-David composition and was very imaginatively played and arranged) that it was easy to fail to recognize that Progressive Ruled.

    Now, more specifically in terms of what people mean when they talk about ’70s progressive — Tull, Procol Harum, Traffic, ELP, Pink Floyd, Crimson, Yes, Renaissance, Genesis, just to name the most obvious artists — not all of these bands sold all that many records or played to that many ticket-buyers. However, many did. Tull’s selling of back-to-back Number 1’s with THICK AS A BRICK and A PASSION PLAY, two of the most unconventional “rock” albums of all time, remains a dizzying commercial accomplishment. And it’s interesting that Procol, for instance, had, I believe, an even bigger hit in ’72 in the U.S. with the live “Conquistador” 45 than with “Whiter…,” and I think their biggest-selling album ever in the U.S. was ’73’s GRANDE HOTEL. (It got the whole band a hosting gig on “The Midnight Special”!) Interesting too that when Sinfield left Crimson to write lyrics for ELP, that band sold its most records ever. But the unmistakable dominance of progressive in the rock marketplace from about ’72 to ’77 or so had arguably as much to do with live performances as it did with record sales. Despite the Beatles’ brief appearances at venues like Shea Stadium in the ’60s, it was the progressive bands of the ’70s who established playing in huge arenas as a routine occurrence for rock groups. Don Henley is on record as saying that the Eagles moved away from a mostly country-rock sound after Bernie Leadon left the band in ’75 in favor of a harder rock approach because they wanted to play before huge crowds “like Yes and Jethro Tull.”

    Finally, many people who split off from the progressive movement per se became more popular commercially, and possibly even more influential, in the ’80s than they ever were before. Genesis-minus-Peter Gabriel and Gabriel himself are the most obvious examples of this. But David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Queen couldn’t have become nearly as popular as they did in the later ’70s without the trails that progressive rock blazed before their heydays. Perhaps most strikingly, the international phenomenon that was Frank Zappa through the ’70s and ’80s has its foundation in astoundingly daring songs like “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” all the way back in the first grooves of the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut album FREAK OUT! And then of course, there’s George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, which effortlessly seemed to touch on just about everything that had ever happened in rock music up until 1968…if not also most of what happened after…

    So, no, contrary to the heinous prejudice of the Rolling Stone magazine crowd that likes to pretend that progressive was some kind of brief and abominable aberration, progressive rock is one of the main and majestic pillars upon which all rock ‘n’ roll after it has been built.

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  4. L'Ornitho

    On peut se poser la question, mais cette musique doit rester en mouvement et cesser de se regarder dans un miroir (la musique est de l’autre côté, qu’on se nomme Alice ou non! 🙂 ) et avancer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Vous n’êtes pas incorrect, mais tout la musique sont dépendant en la musique qui a été autrefois. Pardon s’il mon français est mal – cela fait quelques annes puisque j’ai étudie cette langue sérieusement.

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  5. Tom Silvestri said much of what I wanted to say.I’ll just try to simply and amplify one of the things inherent in his longer comment. There was a common belief from the mid 60s into the early 70s that rock music in general was going to evolve and progress. The model and symptom of the Beatles can chart this expectation–they’re both a cause and were effected by it. But a great many other groups both wanted to expand their musical vocabulary too and felt they were expected to. When a radio station said they played “progressive rock” in 1970, this is what they meant by that. It wasn’t specific to what by the mid 70s on we’d mostly agree to call “prog”, it was much more general.

    It’s not usual for a revolution (or evolution) to be reduced to a style like this. It doesn’t just happen in music. Certain things that we now call Prog attracted an audience, and that audience wanted more of something like that. Yes, there is also a Platonic Prog audience, who wants something different, wants to be surprised or even displeased by musical choices–but I suspect it’s smaller, in the same way that the group of folks who want to hear different ways to improvise is smaller than the audiences who want to hear “Jazz” or “a slightly different take on the Grateful Dead.” I’m not slamming those audiences. We all like what we like, and we all have comfort food.

    One other side point: looking at only #1 albums during this period is a limited metric. Number 1 albums then were often by bands whose audience was ready to rush down the record store the week the new LP was released (aided at times by promotional considerations from the record company to assure this is amplified.) As you note, some of these are Prog associated acts, but it doesn’t capture a phenomenon like Dark Side of the Moon now does it? And a market in which many Prog acts consistently make the top 20, 50 or 100 most popular sellers (or today, streamers) is a completely different market to one when very few do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, Frank. I totally agree that looking at only #1 albums is really limiting. I realized that going through a decade of top 100 albums was really daunting for a simple blog post. I probably shouldn’t have brought it up at all. I suppose I wanted to bring in a little perspective that showed that prog wasn’t necessarily the most popular music at the time, but in doing so I think I undersold it. I wasn’t alive at the time, so it’s hard for me to get a grasp of how prevalent it truly was in American culture. Not much has been written about that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Please don’t take my comments as any kind of slam at you for your post, or for the (yes, we both know it’s limited) idea of looking at the #1 albums of that period for Prog content. I enjoyed reading it, and the question the post title asks is an interesting one. Without looking (as you did!) I would have guessed there would have been more records we’d call Prog that hit the top spot in that era. Hmmm. Makes one think.

        And by the way, when any older people pull the “I Was There” card, know that there’s the “I have the advantage of perspective” card to be played by those that look at something later from a different vantage point.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Tom Silvestri

    Very nice remarks, Frank, and very true in my opinion. There’s a must-read book about Ahmet Ertegun, Morris Levy, and Atlantic Records (I can’t remember the title, I lent it to someone who never returned it) that relates that when Ahmet saw the kind of crowds that ELP was drawing in America, he told them, “Put whatever you want on the records, people will come to see you anyway.” And I’d like to add — though this type of P.S. could set me up for another marathon post — that other major rock ‘n’ roll bands founded in the ’60s that obviously ushered in many musical innovations that led to ’70s progressive rock include the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Who, the Small Faces, the Yardbirds, the Move, the Nice, Spirit, The Fugs, It’s a Beautiful Day, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Jeff Beck Group, the Velvet Underground, Santana, Fleetwood Mac, and many more. And finally, yes, Frank, when I was a kid, the suspense to be endured between, say, REVOLVER and even “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields…,” much less to SGT. PEPPER’S… seemed unbearable — because every band of ANY consequence was expected to “advance” with practically every record release. After the Byrds had done FIFTH DIMENSION in ’66 and YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY in ’67, I’ll never forget my friend’s assessment of THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS on about January 4th, 1968, one day after its release and a few hours before I’d listened to the record: “Pretty ADVANCED!” Indeed, I remember walking around the Korvette’s record store in Douglaston, Queens in New York City, where I grew up, in about July of ’67 with a friend and talking eagerly about what the Stones might do next — because after BETWEEN THE BUTTONS in around January, FLOWERS, a semi-collection of hits in about May ’67, seemed like a somewhat pointless holding action. Sure enough, SATANIC MAJESTIES… in the fall took the Stones in another direction — one generally criticized, but it still had some good and very visionary songs. And then they went back in the other direction with the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” 45 in May ’68. But of course by then, Hendrix and Cream had turned the world upside down with AXIS:BOLD AS LOVE and DISRAELI GEARS, probably the first two albums to lay the groundwork at once for modern blues-rock, progressive rock, funk, and heavy metal. (Hendrix’s “Little Miss Lover” and Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” arguably fit embronically into all four of those categories.) And Spirit’s first album in early ’68 similarly had just about every kind of music that came before it within its grooves, including rock ‘n’ roll, folk, blues, folk-rock, country-rock, hard rock, pop-rock, modern jazz, traditional jazz, you name it!

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  7. Tom Silvestri

    Some of the reasons that not much has been written about progressive rock, Bryan, at least in some quarters, has to do at the deepest level with, in my opinion, the intrapsychic makeup and psychodynamical tendencies of many in the American rock establishment that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Rolling Stone magazine/Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame crowd, folks like Christgau, Hilburn, Marcus and their ilk, were for the most part English majors, faux-historians, and aspiring (if inadequate) amateur sociologists — or at least, they wrote as if they were. What they weren’t was musicians, which is how Christgau could, for example, refer to the Byrds’ brilliant YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY as embarrassing and mischaracterize Chris Hillman’s four songs on the album as “four country-rockers, three too many.” In fact only two are “country-rockers” and they feature no less than the debut on Byrds records of Clarence White, one of the most amazing guitarists, electric and acoustic, to ever pick up the instrument. Christgau tends not to hear things like that. Neil Young or Jimmy Page playing sloppily (they can also play brilliantly, of course) is about as far as his musical curiosity extends.

    Christgau is also infamous for calling Jimi Hendrix “a psychedelic Uncle Tom” upon his explosion onto the American music scene in 1967, which tells you just how much he knew at the time about rock ‘n’ roll, blues, R&B, soul music, guitar playing, American history, black people in America, racism, the civil rights movement, the chitlin circuit, rock musicians, rock musicianship, and more. I saw Jimi Hendrix live for the first time only a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and he put on a fabulous show as if he didn’t have a care in the world. What I didn’t know at the time was that on the night of the day on which the assassination occurred, Hendrix played lethargically for an hour or so at a live show, then apologized and left the stage, saying that he couldn’t continue. I would love to have heard what gentle, soft-spoken, but no-nonsense Jimi would’ve said to Christgau had the latter come backstage after that show and upbraided him for his alleged Uncle Tom-ism.

    On top of all this (or maybe psychiatrically it’s more accurate to say beneath all this), the rock establishment of that time had some kind of neurotic thing about proving to their elders, to their professors, and to the nation’s leading politicians (that last group which might qualify as the least artistically aware people on Earth) that rock ‘n’ roll was “as American” as any other art form. This was a fool’s errand if ever there was one, of course, and no rock musician of any consequence in the ’60s or early ’70s ever woke up and said, “I’d better make a record that proves I’m not just some treasonous hippie!” Well, maybe there were a few people who made records like that, but those records have dated terribly for the most part. Whereas stunning progressive albums of the 1970s that the American rock establishment invariably couldn’t begin to understand because they weren’t “American enough” — which often simply meant too British or too universally insightful — records like Procol Harum’s HOME, Crimson’s LIZARD, Genesis’ SELLING ENGLAND…, Renaissance’s ASHES ARE BURNING, and Tull’s MINSTREL IN THE GALLERY just went straight over their little heads and beyond their limited artistic and emotional awareness in a way that, say, Bad Company and T-Rex didn’t. I like some songs by those latter two bands, but their stuff is for the most part like nursery rhymes when compared to the nursery cryme-masterpieces of progressive rock.

    So. those are some of the reasons that the glory days of progressive rock in the ’70s never got as much ink as they should’ve in much of the rock press. Happily, younger musicians decades later, largely informed by wonderful new magazines written by actual guitar players, singers, keyboard players, drummers, and so on discovered progressive on their own and have been bringing it into the 21st century marvelously by way of their own updating of the genre for many years now. So he who laughs most artfully laughs last.

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    1. You know the old joke:

      Q: How do you make an electric guitarist turn down (his volume)?
      A: Put sheet music in front of him.

      My variation on this theme:

      Q: How do you make a rock critic shut up?
      A: Put an instrumental record (or passage) before him.

      I say this as a once English major and composer/musician. I see the gaps in both sides and try to straddle them. And as to Hendrix, I can get long-winded on the subject of him or art in general, as in this post where I too point to the Christgau Hendrix quote.

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  8. Tom Silvestri

    Absolutely fabulous article on Hendrix and allsorts, as they used to say in Olde England, Frank. I’ll have to read it several times before saying any more, it’s so dense and insightful.. For now all I’ll say is that Ed Cassidy, whom I knew for the last 10 or 12 years of his life, told me that Hendrix not only got Spirit some of their first gigs, but that he sent his limousine over to pick up the band for some of them. And that he really did want to take Randy to England with him but Ed and his wife Bernice Pearl had to tell him and Chas Chandler that with Randy being only15 in 1966, he wouldn’t be able to get a work permit. P.S. I’m sure you’ve heard Chrissie Hynde’s wonderful quote, from about 1980 or so, to the effect that only people who play rock music should write about it. I wouldn’t go that far but I understand her point. And then of course there’s the famous Zappa quote on rock criticism…

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  9. Tom Silvestri

    Yes, Frank, I agree — like with the 7 Kinds of Intelligence that they started teaching about years ago (by now it’s probably 17 kinds), there are all sorts of perspectives on things and everyone of every age can make a valuable contribution. I often say that while some people get older and wiser, others merely get older and stay stupid. The particular problem with progressive rock history, though, to which Bryan also alludes, is that (a) a whole lot of nonsense has been written about it over the years, and (b) much of the rock establishment has chosen to try, Soviet-style, to erase progressive rock from the official history of music. So that’s not a terribly enlightened, nor honest, thing to do…

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  10. Tom Silvestri

    Well, keep up the good fight, Bryan! You’ll certainly never run out of great music to listen to in tracing the history of progressive rock, and that goes all the way back to real deep influences like Louis Jordan and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (the latter of whom Zappa loved). We wouldn’t have all of these exciting new progressive bands from all over the world over the last twenty years or so — what we might call the post-Marillion generation — without so many younger listeners, writers, and musicians who are much more adventurous than the rock establishment really wants them to be.

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  11. Brian, have a look at the number one albums from the same period in the U.K. Music week was the official publication of the BBC top 40. Simply put….. in the 70,s all music was either Rock or Pop. Progressive rock was just a way of expressing that you liked your music a little more complicated or less straight foreword. All this music should progress nonsense is overthinking it in my opinion. The use of the word has been taken out of all proportion, given certain music a bad name over the years and made it have to fight its corner.

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  12. Tom Silvestri

    With all due respect to Frank’s remark about perspective, Dave, this looks like a pretty clear case of “You had to be there.” If you dig up a copy of HIT PARADER from around April ’66 — yes, HIT PARADER, which was one step above, like, TIGER BEAT — you can read an interview with the Byrds in which McGuinn and Crosby talk about listening to Ravi Shankar (Crosby had already told Harrison about him in ’65) and John Coltrane and trying to get those sounds into their music, as well as Hillman talking about playing Coltrane solos on his mandolin in his spare time. (No accident at all that Yes covered the Byrds’ “I See You” on their first album.) If you wanna accuse me of “overthinking it,” fine. But you’ll have a hard time getting any traction if you’re gonna accuse Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, and so on of doing the same in laying the groundwork for ’70s progressive rock, very much obliterating labels like “rock” and “pop” in the process. To cite just some anecdotal stuff that will show you what I mean:

    – Lennon’s remarks about trying to make his voice sound like he was singing from the top of a mountain on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a song inspired by, famously, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. (Brings to mind the distortion of vocals on, for instance, so many Crimson, ELP, Genesis, and Gabriel songs.)

    – The simultaneous piano, electric piano, and organ on Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” just one of many adventurous musical ideas on a record by a guy who too often gets credit only for his lyrical innovations.

    – The notes inside the Cream box set that describe how producer Felix Pappalardi played Bruce, Clapton, and Baker a lot of music in the Spring of ’67 that influenced what they recorded for DISRAELI GEARS. For instance, the raga-rock approach to guitar that McGuinn employed on “Eight Miles High” and “Why” clearly found its way into Cream’s “Dance the Night Away” on …GEARS. Which, of course, for guitar players also brings to mind the three-way discovery of the wah-wah pedal between Zappa, Hendrix, and Clapton in Summer ’67. Hendrix claimed that Zappa gave him his first pedal, but he also credited Clapton for playing it first on “Tales of Brave Ulysses” — while playing it himself for the first time on “Up From the Skies.” These guys weren’t thinking about rock or pop during such explorations, they were thinking about entirely new ways to play the guitar.

    – Of course, just about anything Hendrix ever did can be seen as an experiment towards more complex music, as evidenced by his criticism/praise of the Beatles for doing “little bang-bang, shoot-shoot songs” on THE WHITE ALBUM even as he said at that time that “in a way, they’re better than they ever were” — while also calling them “the Establishment.” And yeah, go ahead and tell me that there had ever been anything in rock music like “Third Stone from the Sun” and “1983” before Hendrix did “songs” like that. That’s not the work of someone who’s “overthinking it,” it’s someone who has more ideas than he can keep track of. Which brings to mind…

    – …Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, who went from FREAK OUT! to HOT RATS in a little over three years, with Zappa incredibly needing, or thinking he did, even more gifted players than he’d had before he went solo.

    – You might also take, just in general, the number of incredible movements toward ’70s progressive rock music that occurred in 1968 alone. We’re not just talking about ELECTRIC LADYLAND, WHEELS OF FIRE, and so on here. 1968 was also the year that the Small Faces spent the whole second side of OGDEN’S NUT GONE FLAKE on a continuing suite of songs, as did Procol Harum on SHINE ON BRIGHTLY. The year that Ray Davies of the Kinks, who’d already started writing little movies-on-vinyl on vastly underrated albums like FACE TO FACE and SOMETHING ELSE, went totally in that direction with VILLAGE GREEN… 1968 was the year of THIS WAS, the first Jethro Tull album, and barely a few months after its release, Ian Anderson was doing B-sides like “Christmas Song” in tandem with David Palmer, who arranged the strings on that and every other Tull song for many years. Anderson once told me that he considered “Christmas Song” his “baptism by fire” on the path to making more complex music. Overthinking it or massive musical ambition?

    – Finally, “Simply put…in the ’70s all music was either rock or pop” is, well, putting it a lot too simply. What does that say about the progressive country-rock of, say, the second-unit Byrds, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Loggins & Messina? L&M’s MOTHER LODE from 1974 has everything on it from rock to pop to country to show music to what sound like soundtracks to movies. What does it say about Mike Oldfield, who sold a heck of a lot of records with TUBULAR BELLS? About Slade, who weren’t “rock” in the way that the Who had become but who sure as hell weren’t “pop” either? And what about the Dead, one of the first bands to basically become their own concept? Were they “rock” or “pop”?

    – Besides, “the ’70s” is way too broad a generalization about rock music to begin with, given what started in earnest in about ’75. Which is to say that the Ramones, the Pistols, Television, the Clash, Blondie, and others were rock music, of course, but they surely didn’t fit into either the Foreigner/Journey brand of rock or the Bread/America brand of pop. Hell, Elvis Costello, who was at one time very interested in American solo artists like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, had very little in common with such artists once he got his own career going. Which reminds me, how do you fit former folkie Joni Mitchell’s mind-blowingly adventurous FOR THE ROSES into either rock or pop? There are barely two songs on the record that are anything like each other! Which bring to mind Laura Nyro, and her acolyte Todd Rundgren, neither of whom fit neatly into either rock or pop. And we haven’t even talked about whether, say, Traffic’s THE LOW SPARK OF HIGH-HEELED BOYS, the Canterbury bands, or even ethereal Fleetwood Mac songs ranging from “Woman of a Thousand Years” to “Sara” are rock or pop. Clearly, they’re all much more than can be fit into those two categories. Or Earth, Wind & Fire, another restlessly progressive band of enormous popularity worldwide in the ’70s.

    So, put things simply all you like, but there are music freaks out here who think that often takes all the fun out of it. And fun, as has rarely been noted by the anti-progressive crowd, is one of the main things that progressive rock has always been about. The fun of trying something that no one has ever done…and pulling it off brilliantly.

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  13. Tom Silvestri

    And by the way, Dave, the stodgy old BBC isn’t the greatest reference point for a discussion of progressive rock music. As you probably know, pirate radio in England started as a revolt against the Beeb. That was in the late ’60s, but I also recall an interview with Ian Anderson in Goldmine magazine in about 1987 in which he said that the radio in America “is one of the best things you’ve got going for you.” After citing the many different kinds of music that were heard at that time on the American AM and FM dials, he quipped that in England “it’s all George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys.”

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  14. Tom Silvestri

    Here are some more artifacts from the Prehistoric Days of Progressive Rock: If you read Chapter 14 of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, you’ll see that Lennon somewhat adapted that chapter’s theme and reworked some key lines from it for the lyrics to “All You Need Is Love.” Lennon also took the line “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” on his solo song “God” almost verbatim from a lecture given, taped, and circulated in the 1960s by the legendary East-Meets-West British philosopher Alan Watts. (Watts said, “…by which we measure our suffering.”) And the lyrics to Harrison’s “The Inner Light” are an almost word-for-word reworking of Chapter 47 of the Tao…

    There has been great songwriting going back thousands of years, prog fans, but there simply had never been these kinds of obscure (by Western standards) Eastern influences in what was considered by the clueless Mr. Joneses of whom Dylan spoke on “Ballad of a Thin Man” to be mere “pop music” before songs like these were written and sung by the Beatles and such. This kind of global cultural exploration was every bit as vibrant as that demonstrated on Yusef Lateef’s groundbreaking 1962 jazz album EASTERN SOUNDS, a huge fan of which upon its original release was Pete Townshend. The Kinks’ “Fancy” on FACE TO FACE in 1966 similarly showed Ray Davies’ familiarity with Eastern music only months after, and rather more fundamentally than, Harrison’s playing of a sitar on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” on December 1965’s RUBBER SOUL. (Again, the Byrds’ David Crosby had told Harrison earlier in 1965 about Ravi Shankar and inspired him to take up the instrument.) In fact, the Kinks’ “See My Friends” and the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” reflected such Eastern influences even earlier, during the first half of 1965.

    Call such innovation whatever you want, but it’s very hard to argue that this kind of “progress” didn’t build a basic platform for the wildly imaginative music and lyrics that came to be obvious progressive rock trademarks in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. (Ian Anderson told me, in a Jethro Tull retrospective interview that I did with him for Trouser Press in 1982, that he “missed Bob Dylan the first time around” and that all of the Tull albums starting with AQUALUNG reflected his later appreciation for his work. You can find that interview on the Trouser Press website, last time that I looked.) P.S. A great movie that very much captures the spirit of adventurousness that prevailed among many of the key pre-progressive bands of the late ’60s is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s 1970 (actually finished in ’68 but held back from release for two years by Warner Brothers) PERFORMANCE, starring the notoriously adventurous Mick Jagger himself.

    And just to show that the influences on Lennon and the like were varied, to say the least, he lifted the lines “I don’t expect you to understand/Not after you’ve caused so much pain” verbatim from Barrett Strong’s song “I Apologize,” which if memory serves was the B-side of his huge R&B hit single “Money,” which of course the Beatles covered very early on in their career.

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  15. It’s ironic that much of ‘progressive’ music follows set norms 😂

    I’m always puzzled that a band like Radiohead doesn’t feature in lists of ‘progressive’ bands. If breaking out of definitions and pushing music forward even if it sounds weird at times is a characteristic of progressive music, then they should be right up there.

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    1. Bryan Morey

      I haven’t listened to much Radiohead, but I definitely would lump them under the prog umbrella. I know there are people here at Progarchy that are into them.

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