In Defense Of: Prog Rock

Side note: In the headline to an Atlantic Magazine review of author David Weigel’s book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, James Parker (or the Atlantic’s editor, it’s never clear who writes the headlines) jokingly declares prog rock “The Whitest Music Ever” as if that is supposed to resound as a brutal criticism, but I heard it differently.

Without wading too far into the murky waters of cultural appropriation arguments, I do want to say that rock music indeed owes an unpayable debt to the Black musicians upon whose foundation rock is built. Rock music draws directly on the songs and styles of not only blues but R&B, soul, and early rock and roll as well, all genres invented by and developed by Black musicians, a lot of them never profiting off of their innovations and hard work. From the beginning, Rock and Roll was a straight-up annexation of “race music” sold to white audiences for profit without a dime being transferred to the original artists, that money going to the white publishers who duped or forced the songwriters out of their copyrights. It’s an ugly history that continued in spirit through rock’s golden age with Led Zeppelin packing arenas and selling millions of albums, rarely if ever sharing any proceeds with the many Black blues artists whose works they repurposed as Zep tunes.

Yes, progressive rock draws heavily on white European sources, classical music from medieval to modern, English and Irish folk music, and also from the art-rock pretensions of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper albums. And while I find the respectful mingling of cultures generally to be the source of the most interesting music, I also find the act of taking to task a whole genre like prog rock because it doesn’t draw enough from Black music to be, not only crass but unfair to all parties. I like a good joke at the expense of entrenched power, but, if you know the history (which the Atlantic cultural staff must), it seems that the joke doesn’t land solidly on the heads of white prog rockers, but comes to rest on the backs of the Black musicians that were exploited to give birth to the popular music genres that built white profiteers their mansions. Besides which, there are so many valid criticisms of prog to choose from, so let’s get into it. 

There was a time in my life when I considered the virtuoso thunder of Yes, Genesis, and my favorite, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to be the greatest music on earth. Then I turned 15.

Eventually, after exploring a bunch of music, every other subgenre of rock, as well a lot of musical back alleys, I did return to prog and I am a fan once again of its audacious inventiveness and sheer power. I’m much older now and am not so serious (plus I’ve seen This Is Spinal Tap), so I can better tolerate the sacred robes and four-sided epic poems that proggers seem to favor. Plus, I’ve been known in adulthood to burst out laughing in the modern sections of art museums. I say the seriousness of prog is just a fulcrum made for tipping on — it’s an inherently goofy genre. Smiling is allowed.

Lie back and think of England

The roots of progressive rock are a bit hard to untangle, but with a couple of notable exceptions, we can say that prog was spawned by and large in England in the late 1960s at the tail end of the short-lived but thrilling era in pop music known as the psychedelic movement. Unlike in America where psychedelic pop functioned as a garage rock form of proto-punk (as featured in the legendary Nuggets series), psychedelic pop in England had its own whimsical sound and was the precursor to a wholly different area of music.

Not surprising that children raised amidst the rubble and economic austerity of postwar England would grow up differently from American kids who were part of a far-reaching economic boom. Memories of war rations, Anglican hymns, and the neoclassical works of Benjamin Britten mixed with pot and LSD would foster a slightly more twisted outlook than the surf rock/rockabilly mashups coming out of American garages:

English Psychedelic Pop

As the 60s seeped into the 70s, a lot of growth in depth and breadth occurred in the development of rock music. Psychedelia faded as a force in England and bands subsequently matured in different directions; The Move and The Beatles shifted towards rock, Soft Machine and the Canterbury bands moved towards jazz. But Pink Floyd’s transformation from a psych-pop band with some extended jams into a heavy rock group with more symphonic ambitions is exemplary of this period of the metamorphosis of psychedelia into prog.

Procol Harum arrives in 1967 with a massive hit single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” based on a few bars of Bach’s “Air on a G String” and the fully-orchestrated, LSO-backed Moody Blues 1967 Days of Future Passed album rams home the symphonic rock conceit on a quantum scale. By 1968, Keith Emerson’s The Nice shift from a psychedelic pop outfit to a band that fashions extended workouts on existing classical themes (something he would perfect in his next band), and King Crimson’s authoritative arrival in 1969 with their jarring contrasts and breathtaking virtuosity closes the door on psychedelia and signals the end of its transition. A new band Yes release their self-titled debut, Genesis finds their footing with their second album, Trespass, and the seeds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer are in the wind.

Progressive rock had unmistakably arrived.

Which is exactly where some people get up and leave. Prog is ponderous and square. Too concerned with technique. Intellectual hogwash. Where is the feeling, the blood? Where is the rock?

Well, check out prog’s greatest keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson driving knives into his Hammond organ and riding it like a rodeo bull:

Or, how’s this for passion?

“21st Century Schizoid Man” (King Crimson)

Or this?

“Heart of the Sunrise” (Yes)

“Heart of the Sunrise” is a good encapsulation of the main point I want to make about progressive rock. For me, it’s not the pyrotechnics or the virtuoso playing (although I do appreciate the musicianship). It’s certainly not the lyrics, which are often nonsensical and yes, sometimes even repellent. It’s the shifting contrast in moods which, I think, prog does better than just about any other genre of music. 

Prog Mood Swings

Only in prog do you get a song like “Heart of the Sunrise” that starts out with such violent thrashing only to segue into a wholly different mood with that extended halftime groove. Then after a reprise of the violent intro section, a segue into yet another mood, the beautiful, yearning vocal section that starts at 3:40. And the real hallmark of prog is not just the presence of contrasting sections within a song, but the way that the band unifies the whole work, almost by sheer force of will.

Or take this moody masterpiece by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer which opens their third album, 1973’s Trilogy:

“The Endless Enigma Pt.1 / Fugue / The Endless Enigma Pt.2” (ELP)

“The Endless Enigma” manages to bring together such a wide range of moods in a unified but not integrated way. It opens with a spaghetti western vibe, shifts into a ripping jazz solo section, pulls out of that with a modern classical segue, and lands in the vocal section which has a bombastic medieval feel. All within two and a half minutes. Incredible. Continuing on after the vocal section, at 6:02 comes an inserted “Fugue” which is more of a solo piano fantasia until 7:28 when the stunning one-minute fugal section occurs, after which yet another instrumental passage with all new themes and textures leads to the reprise of the vocal to end the song. What is remarkable is not that ELP can come up with so many different ideas in one piece, but that they can somehow unify them, despite their each being derivative of wholly different areas of music — film music, jazz, pre-classical, baroque, rock, church music — and have it all sound like one cohesive idea.

It’s the shifting contrast in moods which, I think, prog does better than just about any other genre of music

Elton John and his band pull off the same feat with “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (which a friend recently described as prog crossover). Beatles did it with “A Day In the Life.” In fact, the Beatles may have provided a template for prog with that song given the pervasive influence of the 1967 Sgt. Pepper album and where it fits in the prog timeline. Many classic rock bands and artists (The Kinks, The Who, Chicago, even Cat Stevens, and James Taylor) and every single prog band has an example of the extended work that features palpable mood changes within the piece. Like so much of the rock era, in this case, the road likely leads back to the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper.

The real hallmark of prog is not just the presence of contrasting sections within a song, but the way that the band unifies the whole work, almost by sheer force of will

Mood is just one aspect that justifies prog for me. Here’s another: Drums, specifically the drumming of Bill Bruford but not just him.

Seriously, what is it about British drummers? Is there something in the water? John Bonham. Keith Moon. Mitch Mitchell. Charlie Watts. Ginger Baker. Ringo. Aynsley Dunbar (Zappa ‘70-’72), Mick Woodmansey (Bowie’s Spiders from Mars), and Nigel Olsson for that matter. And Phil Collins is a badass drummer too. Just one opinion, but with a couple of exceptions (Levon Helm, for example), the world of rock drumming in its golden age was dominated by Brits. If you’re a fan of British drummers, a feast is there for you in prog.

Yes, progressive rock can be overly intellectual. All the more need for some visceral experience. Enter Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Phil Collins, and the other monster drummers of British prog. Here’s just a sample (by the way, check out the cool mood shift at 2:50):

“Tarkus” (ELP)

Or here’s Bruford in his first stint with King Crimson:

“Red” (King Crimson)

All the more need for some visceral experience. Enter Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Phil Collins, and the other monster drummers of British prog

Another area of fascination for me is the diversity of prog’s influences and the wide range of musical intentions in the bands that constitute prog. There is often a classical influence, but there is also a jazz influence, most often heard in the Canterbury bands (Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North, National Health), but also in the music of Camel, Gentle Giant, Can, and Gong, plus ELP, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Frank Zappa. Here’s a sampling of the jazz influence in prog by way of the somewhat insular bands of the Canterbury scene in the southeast corner of England:

Canterbury Scene

There’s also an obsession with synthesizers and electronic music most apparent in the German prog band Tangerine Dream, which itself had a pervasive influence on other bands in the prog universe and beyond. There is a strong Celtic folk influence in prog, most evident in the music of Jethro Tull, but it’s audible in almost every prog band. And there are Indian, Middle Eastern, and African influences as well. And prog in its golden age had a spillover into the world of funk via Herbie Hancock, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Stevie Wonder:

“Contusion” (Stevie Wonder)

For a genre of music denigrated recently in the press as the “Whitest Music Ever,” prog, like rock in general, actually displays a commendable ethos of eclecticism that keeps the music interesting, despite the lack of racial diversity within the prog bands (but that’s a general criticism of rock in its golden era as well — no need to single out prog in this area).

And finally, besides the obvious musicianship on display in progressive rock, I just want to put a word in for the masterful quality of much of prog’s arranging and orchestration. The manipulation of sound, the combining of elements, and the quest for expressive timbres, harmonies, and textures is a constant in progressive rock. It’s everywhere you look in prog. No need for specific examples.

So, as stated in my previous article, the purpose of this series is not to change minds but only to share what tips the scales for me personally in these musical disputes. I have really just scratched the surface here (I didn’t even mention Rush, for instance) but maybe the next time you hear some prog you’ll listen for those mood shifts or the gutsy drumming, or you’ll hear the diversity of influences. I know what it is to be repelled by its excesses but after many years, I have returned to prog. Somedays all I do is play my ELP or Yes albums one after the other and I’m now officially obsessed with the jazz-prog music of Canterbury bands. I can appreciate the musicianship and creativity of progressive rock once again without getting bogged down in its more ridiculous aspects. And remember — it’s OK to laugh. I’m sure they were having a goof on us most of the time.

For further research on the Canterbury Scene, the roots of prog and all of its progeny, view the three-part BBC documentary Prog Rock Britannia in all its glory here

Photo Credits:
Stonehenge Photo by John Nail from Pexels

Forest Photo by Daniel B from Pexels

Castle Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Drums Photo by Josh Sorenson from Pexels