Progressive Rock

The Progressive Rock Era marked a period of experimentation that is unique in the history of rock and roll. Its music, while made with mostly traditional "rock" instruments, produced songs and sounds that pushed the limits of conventional rock and expanded the limits of what you could do musically within the rock genre.

What distinguishes progressive rock from other genres in the rock world is the emphasis on composition over basic song structure. The lengths on most progressive rock songs exceed five minutes regularly, and often filled an entire side of an album (Yes' Close To the Edge, Genesis' Supper's Ready and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Karn Evil 9). Many progressive rock bands relied on keyboards as a predominate instrument as opposed to the guitar.

While traditional rock and roll is ultimately based on the blues, progressive rock tends to be based more in European classical music and post bop jazz. Gustav Holtz's Mars was a concert staple at King Crimson concerts in the early 70's and Emerson, Lake and Palmer put Copeland's Hoedown and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in their repertoire.

Because European classical music is known for grandiose instrumental passages and post bop jazz is known for improvisation, the influence they provided to the structure of progressive rock cause a division on how the movement was, and is, viewed in rock history.

For example in the early 70's progressive groups such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer were viewed by both fans and critics as innovators and geniuses. A popular joke circulating during the same time period was Q: How do you spell pretentious? A: E-L-P.


While the period does not have an exact "starting date" many rock historians and musicians who played at that time believe that the Progressive Rock Movement was set in motion by the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

"After Sgt. Pepper, there were no rules to follow -- rock and pop bands could try anything, for better or worse," said Stephen Thomas Erlewine in the All Music Guide.

Seemingly overnight, numerous groups that would have profound influence on music in the 1970's began to form (mainly in England). Jethro Tull was founded in Blackpool by eccentric flutist Ian Anderson. The Electric Light Orchestra was the vehicle for musicians Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood to incorporate a full time string section into a rock and roll band. And a band from Manchester called Pink Floyd, released what many musicologists called the first psychedelic album with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Even established bands of the time began to experiment with the rock sound, such as the Moody Blues, who recorded their Days of Futures Past album with conductor Peter Knight and the London Symphony Orchestra. Even the Rolling Stones also got into the act (and divided their fan and critical base in the process) with the psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request.

While the majority of songs that were played on the radio were similar in structure to those that received airplay before this new era of experimentation began, the course was clearly set. Small college radio stations and specialty shows such as Clyde Clifford's Beaker Street (which reached most of the Northern Hemisphere) began to play selections from these albums, which intern gained enormous popularity with college students who were particularly interested in the alternative culture that was developing throughout the country.

1969-73 The Golden Era

The year 1969 saw the new experimental movement gained its common name "progressive rock" (although the origin of this is unknown). Nineteen sixty-nine also saw a new batch of bands that would eventually become the embodiment of the genre. Yes released its first album on Atlantic (although larger success would not come to the band until 1971's The Yes Album). King Crimson released In The Court Of The Crimson King, which garnered the most attention among fans and critics alike (Pete Townsend of The Who called In The Court..."an uncanny masterpeice."

The era of 1969-73 proved to be the golden age of the movement, aided by an influx of new bands such as Genesis and the first progressive rock "supergroup," Emerson, Lake and Palmer featuring keyboardist Keith Emerson of The Nice, bassist Greg Lake of King Crimson and Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster) and a new breed of FM stations who ignored the tight restrictions of AM Pop Radio in favor of a more freer format that accompanied Progressive Rock bands.

Progressive bands also were making strides in AM commercial radio. Yes hit the American Billboard Charts with a condensed version of "Roundabout" in 1972, Genesis received some mainstream airplay in 1973 with "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" and Jethro Tull grabbed stateside success with 1971's "Aqualung" remains a staple of classic rock radio. In 1973 Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon which stayed on the Billboard Chart of the Top 200 records through 1987.

The movement arrived at mainstream success.

However the dynamic of the music scene was beginning to change and by 1974 an anti- progressive movement had begun.

1974-76 Decline

Progressive Rock had always had it's detractors, but by 1974 there was an out and out anti-progressive movement in the form of Pub Rock.

"If pub rock is anything, it is loose and unpretentious -- these were guys that played music for the hell of it...This kind of rootsy music stood in direct contrast to the glam rock, hard rock, and prog rock that dominated the British charts," said the All Music Guide. While Pub Rock ultimately did not come anywhere near the status that progressive rock enjoyed, groups like Ducks Deluxe and Dr. Feelgood, represented a back to basics approach to music that stood against everything that the movement had stood for. Pub Rock served as inspiration to and paved the road for the next musical movement that would overthrow progressive rock from the mainstream plateau: Punk Rock. Punk Rock was directly opposite to anything thing that progressive rock stood for. While Progressive bands preferred long, winding "compositions," Punk Rock were extremely short, simple songs.

A classic example of this is the debut album from New York Punk legends, The Ramones, whose 1976 debut album clocked in with 14 songs at 28 minutes (Jethro Tull's Thick as A Brick, which many consider a progressive rock masterwork, takes approximately 50 minutes). Prog Rock specialized in complex, melodic sequences. Most Punk Rock groups, on the other hand only knew four chords, and the overall emphasis of the song was on rhythm.

The Punks also made their displeasure with the progressive movement, which they regarded as old and self indulgent, widely known,. The single most famous example of the "punk additude" on Progressive was done by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols who regularly wore a T-Shirt on stage saying "I Hate Pink Floyd." The message began to resonate.

The Punk movement changed the landscape of music. No longer was it considered in fashion to make long, complicated compositions. The younger audience that Prog Rockers held only a few years before had now gravitated towards punk (those that didn't were drawn to disco). Sales of progressive rock albums began to plummet. The era was coming to an end.

Epilogue 1976- Present

Emerson Lake and Palmer, after enjoying resounding success before the emergence of Punk, disbanded in 1978. Peter Gabriel left Genesis in 1975 to pursue a solo career. While the remaining members carried on, the band, under the leadership of Phil Collins departed the progressive format for a more pop oriented sound. They became one of the biggest selling acts of the 1980's.

Yes, one of the biggest selling acts of the progressive rock era struggled on after the punk explosion before splitting up in 1980. The group reunited less than three years later and had a top ten hit with "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which, like Genesis, emphasized a more pop oriented format.

Other groups continued to perform. Jethro Tull released jtull dot com in 1999. King Crimson reunited in 1994 (after disbanding in 1975, reuniting in 1981 and splitting up again in 1984), to record Thrax and Pink Floyd, while never quite matching the success of Dark Side of the Moon, remains one of the top concerts grossers in the music business.

But there is no new blood to carry the values of the movement. While some modern bands embark on progressive-like ventures (Dream Theater, Smashing Pumpkins and Spiritualized) there is no out and out new progressive band in the national music map.

Which makes what happened during its era, very special. There was nothing that sounded like it before, and nothing has sounded like it since.

NorthernNotes from Northern Illinois University

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