Saturday, April 7, 2018
Progressive Rock Lives On (Part 2)
Some background on progressive rock
Most agree that progressive rock started in the mid-60's, with the exploration and experimentation of The Beatles (Revolver, Sgt. Peppers) and other bands (The Byrds, Beach Boys, Mothers of Invention etc.), and then grew out of the psychedelic music phase of that time. Bands were searching for new sounds and styles, the more avant-garde and eclectic the better, for "tripping" with or without drugs. Now, just what defines progressive rock has been hotly debated ever since the term was invented, but as I noted previously, I take a much more inclusive attitude toward progressive rock than many (which I think is in the spirit of what progressive rock is all about). So, for me, the basics are that it constitutes a synthesis of rock with at least one or more other musical genres, and that the structure is more complex or experimental than traditional rock, in that it involves experimenting with compositional structure, instrumentation, harmony and rhythm, and/or lyrical content. Some progressive bands formed at that time incorporated classical music and themes (Procol Harum, Moody Blues, The Nice), others incorporated more jazz (Traffic, Frank Zappa), while others explored more of a psychedelic space-rock (Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Gong), and still others transformed the folk revival into various forms of electric folk or progressive folk-rock (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steelyeye Span). By 1968, an explosion of new bands exploring some form of progressive rock emerged (Can, Caravan, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Gong, King Crimson, Rush, van der Graaf Generator, Yes, etc.), with more following in 1969-70 (Atomic Rooster, Eloy, ELO, ELP, Focus, Gentle Giant, Hawkwind, Renaissance, Stackridge, Supertramp, Triumvirat, etc). By the early 1970's, progressive rock had fully arrived, with many of the classic albums of the genre being released, having greater impact on album sales, and becoming ever more popular and more accepted by mainstream rock fans (even resulting in some hit singles!). The bands emerging with the greatest sales, success, and popularity were Pink Floyd (after Dark Side of the Moon), Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes, and The Moody Blues, with Genesis and King Crimson possibly being the most acclaimed, but more cult faves than mass audience successes at that point. This lead to even more bands with a progressive edge as well as bands diversifying and incorporating progressive rock themes into other genres, particularly jazz-rock/fusion (Steely Dan, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jean-Luc Ponty, Return to Forever, Weather Report) and pop-rock (ELO, Kansas, Styx, Boston, Journey, Foreigner) through the mid-to late 70's. This was a very interesting time in rock music history, as many different styles or subgenres were all active and successful at the same time. Think about it, in the mid-70's, in addition to the peak of progressive rock, we had the singer-songwriter wave (Neil Young, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, etc.) going strong, country-rock making waves (Eagles, Poco, Pure Prairie League, SHF Band, etc.), classic rockers (The Who, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Zeppelin) still strong, emerging rockers (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty) just starting out, London's pub-rock scene transitioning into Punk rock (Sex Pistols, The Damned, etc.), and in the dance clubs, Disco was king (?). All these types of music were popular and present on the radio, at the record stores, and in concert, at the same time, and they all had their audience and all were succeeding (and that's not even mentioning power pop and R&B, which were also doing just fine).
But by the end of the 70's, things were changing; In both the record industry and radio, the time of exploration and experimenting was over, emphasis shifted to slick production, commercial sound, and shorter catchy songs. Radio stations became more corporate entities with strict formats and controlled playlists, big record companies were no longer interested in signing bands or releasing albums with long meandering songs that would not get played on the radio. But progressive rock persisted and carried on, albeit in a less prominent role (Those that insist punk rock killed off progressive rock are just wrong, they coexisted just fine, but changes in the music industry affected both types quite drastically). At the beginning of the '80's, there was more fragmentation and diversification of styles, with all those earlier influences melding into a few distinctive trends. In a way, punk sort of merged with pop and progressive rock to yield many of the "new wave" bands (you can't tell me that bands like Talking Heads and XTC are not progressive at their core). Although many of the 'old' progressive bands had or were disbanding, others re-grouped and re-focused their sound and style to better fit in with the changing times. Genesis and Yes, after substantial personnel changes, focused on shorter songs and a more commercial pop sound, and started generating hit records, but still maintained their progressive core. King Crimson also re-formed with a tighter sound and style, but still was very much a progressive rock band, as was Pink Floyd. Although certainly not as dominant a style (or nearly as many bands pursuing it), progressive rock continued throughout the '80's. For some cases, like with Genesis, with former members (such as Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips, etc) now regularly putting out their own solo progressive albums, there were more progressive rock albums being released by old faves. Some new prog rock groups, such as Marillion and Saga, did form around that time, as well as bands such as Asia and GTR, which featured former members from various prog rock bands, and they tended to play a mixture of retro prog rock and more streamlined commercial fair. In the '90's, there was another wave of new progressive rock bands, such as The Flower Kings, Glass Hammer, and Spock's Beard, continuing in the tradition of the '70's bands but with an updated sound, but they were generally relegated to the fringes and only known by their cult following. Other bands with decidedly progressive leanings, such as Radiohead, openly rejected or denied any association with progressive rock. In the 2000's there was another wave of heavier, more aggressive progressive rock bands, such as System of a Down, Coheed and Cambria, and Mars Volta, keeping progressive rock active. Even more recently, bands such as Stick Men (featuring current and former King Crimson bandmates) and Knifeworld are putting their own spin and updates on the progressive rock scene. Now, some insist on specifically categorizing all these different eras of progressive rock as distinctly different entities, such as early prog as 'proto-progressive', later stuff as 'post-progressive', then 'neo-progressive' and 'new progressive', etc., but come on, it's all progressive rock, why nit-pick that way. So, progressive rock has not only survived through the decades, it has flourished, albeit with peaks and valleys, it has been influential to so many other styles and sub-genres over the years, and has remained tremendously popular. How else could bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Moody Blues, and countless others, not to mention the individual former members and the various tribute bands, still be around and performing today (and primarily performing songs from the 'golden' days), even with all the personnel changes and re-grouping?
Although there have been progressive bands of all types, kinds, and styles over the years, whenever people talk about progressive rock, they usually refer to just a handful of bands that were the biggest or made the most impact, and they are the big half dozen or so: Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and perhaps The Moody Blues and Rush. Those bands have all been very well-covered already, and there are lots of recordings of their concerts and music available all over the internet. So, in this current feature on progressive rock, I won't be posting any music from any of them (besides, I have already posted quite a bit of Genesis and ELP, and the others are readily available). Instead, I will focus on some of the other progressive rock bands that may not have gotten as much attention as the Big Names. So, over the next several weeks, I'll be featuring various shows from different worthwhile progressive bands, spanning the history of the progressive rock movement. Stay tuned.