Pretentious! (No, Progressive)

Pretentious! (No, Progressive)

Written by Rich Isaacs

(An Introduction to Progressive Rock – the Most Critically Maligned Genre of Pop Music This Side of Disco)

In the late ‘60s, rock music experienced a period of experimentation unprecedented in the history of pop music. Musicians became interested in pushing the boundaries of rock beyond the blues and three-minute love songs, incorporating elements from classical music that included the use of dynamics; longer, complex compositions based on themes and variations; a wider range of instruments; and time signatures that went beyond the standard 4/4. Instrumental virtuosity was on display in solos and extended instrumental passages.

Some would say that progressive rock began with the wide-ranging, eclectic sound of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s (1967), which was, itself, influenced by The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds (1966). Others point to collaborations between rock bands and symphony orchestras such as The Moody Blues’ album Days of Future Passed (1967), or Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969).

The influence of psychedelia and drugs was there, for sure, but the groups that came to define the genre during its heyday in the ‘70s (led by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and others) were serious about creating more substantial works of art. Speaking of art, album covers began to move away from portraits of the artists themselves to illustrations, photographs, and paintings intended to convey or relate to the feel of the music. A prime example of this was the long collaboration between Yes and fantasy/sci-fi artist Roger Dean.

Where the guitar had been the primary instrument from rock’s earliest days, keyboards began to take an increasingly significant role in the musical compositions. The introduction of more sophisticated electronic keyboard instruments such as the Moog synthesizer and Mellotron gave bands a wider palette of sonic emotions.

Although they were complex, early synthesizers were monophonic, meaning that only one note could be played at a time, not chords. The Moog that Keith Emerson used on his early tours bore a strong resemblance to an old telephone switchboard, sometimes requiring the unplugging and plugging of various wires during play to achieve different tones.

The Mellotron, on the other hand, was actually a collection of three-track tape drives and pre-recorded loops, each of which was controlled by an individual key on the keyboard. Players could choose three sounds among somewhat eerie recordings of flute, brass, strings, or choir voices. The Mellotron was a complex mechanical arrangement that, while allowing chords to be played, had an eight-second limit on sustained notes. Along with a slight mechanical lag that precluded rapid playing during solos, the Mellotron was notorious for tuning problems, as it was susceptible to tape stretch as well as changes in humidity. Today’s more sophisticated sampling synthesizers can mimic the sound of a Mellotron with none of the limitations. Here’s a brief demo of the Mellotron’s voices:

With the exception of The Beach Boys, all of the artists mentioned so far utilized both Mellotrons and synthesizers to greater or lesser extents. The Beatles used a Mellotron on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but that other-worldly sound in “Good Vibrations” actually came from an Electro-Theremin, a variation of the Theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments. The Theremin, named after its creator, Russian physicist Léon Theremin, was patented in 1928. It looks like a small box with two antennae, one a vertical pole and the other a horizontal loop, and is played entirely without contact. The proximity and location of the performer’s hands to the antennae control both pitch and volume. (The Electro-Theremin, developed by Paul Tanner and Bob Whitsell in the late 1950s, was similar to the Theremin, but used knobs to control the sound.)

Although The Moody Blues had already released several albums by 1969, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, with its unforgettable red “screaming” cover art, was a landmark of the progressive rock genre. The leadoff track, “21sst Century Schizoid Man,” opened with strange, low-level sounds, followed by an in-your-face blast of Robert Fripp’s distorted guitar and Ian McDonald’s saxophone leading to Greg Lake’s deliberately harsh vocals. It was impossible to ignore. The musicianship and ensemble playing was unlike anything that had come before in the Rock world. The unison start/stop instrumental break at around the 4:40 mark still impresses:

They followed it up with the beautiful, mellow, utterly undistorted “I Talk to the Wind,” featuring some gorgeous flute work by McDonald (who later became a founding member of Foreigner):

The epic anthem “Epitaph” closes out the first side with impassioned vocals and lots of Mellotron:

King Crimson continues to this day in a much-altered form. Founder-guitarist Fripp is the only original member in the current incarnation.

Lake left King Crimson after the second album to be part of Prog’s first supergroup, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Keith Emerson came from The Nice, a British keyboard-based trio known for rock adaptations of classical pieces. He was an organist and pianist who displayed a level of virtuosity previously unheard in rock. Greg Lake supplied the vocals and played bass, as well as acoustic guitar. Carl Palmer had played with Arthur Brown (the “God of Hellfire”) and Atomic Rooster (which included Arthur Brown’s organist, Vincent Crane). In the prog world, this was analogous to the formation of Cream.

Emerson quickly added the Moog synthesizer to his arsenal of keyboards. ELP’s first hit was “Lucky Man,” a song that Lake had written while still in his teens. Most of the track featured guitar rather than keyboards, but the coda showcased a wild synthesizer “freak out” that was added as an afterthought:

Aficionados of early synthesizer music will notice a strong similarity between that passage and parts of “The Minotaur,” a track from Moog – The Eclectic Electrics of Dick Hyman:

ELP expanded on Emerson’s desire to fuse rock and classical, performing a complete rock adaptation of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  This was recorded live and the album was released after their debut LP. They went on to become one of the most successful bands in all of progressive rock, with best-selling albums and an elaborate stage show.

Another early prog band that went on to great success was Yes. Their self-titled 1969 debut album included notes from Tony Wilson, a writer for England’s premier rock magazine Melody Maker. Wilson, along with the rest of the staff, had been asked to choose two new bands destined for stardom. His picks – Led Zeppelin and Yes – were right on the mark.

Although the first two Yes albums hinted at what was to follow, it wasn’t until the arrival of guitarist Steve Howe, who replaced founding member Peter Banks for their third disc, entitled The Yes Album, that their musical vision took a great leap forward. The fourth album, Fragile, found Rick Wakeman taking over keyboards from another founding member, Tony Kaye. Wakeman was an in-demand session player and member of The Strawbs, and his keyboard technique rivaled that of Emerson. The leadoff track from the album, “Roundabout,” was a huge hit, and the rest of the LP cemented their status as prog superstars:

Their subsequent album, Close to the Edge, has topped surveys naming it the greatest progressive rock album ever. In an unexpected move, original drummer Bill Bruford left the band after that album to join a new incarnation of King Crimson. Yes also still performs, albeit with Steve Howe and no original members. For many fans, a more satisfying concert experience comes from ARW (Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman). Original vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Trevor Rabin (who was behind their biggest album, 90125), and Rick Wakeman have been performing Yes music with a solid new rhythm section. In 2017, they were given permission to call themselves Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. Here’s that lineup on “Perpetual Change” from “The Yes Album”:


Genesis began as a group of schoolmates from Charterhouse, a British boarding school. Peter Gabriel (vocals and flute), Tony Banks (keyboards and 12-string guitar), Anthony Phillips (guitars), and Mike Rutherford (bass & guitars) attracted the attention of Jonathan King, a pop record producer. The band’s name flip-flopped between Genesis and Revelation due to the discovery that others had previously claimed those names, so the first album was released as from genesis to revelation. It sounded a bit like early Moody Blues. They were ultimately able to use the name Genesis, and their second LP, Trespass, was a much more confident and mature outing that laid the foundation for what was to come. Much like Yes, the third Genesis album, Nursery Cryme, included new members (guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer/vocalist Phil Collins), contributing to a significant evolution of their sound. Here’s an epic live performance from 1973 of “The Musical Box”:

That record and the studio albums that followed (Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) are universally considered masterpieces of the genre. Genesis’s live shows were groundbreaking, with innovative lighting, stage sets, and Gabriel in stage makeup, changing various costumes related to the songs. When they performed The Lamb live in 1975, over 1500 slides, timed to go with the music, showed on three screens spanning the width of the stage. Some of the tour was apparently filmed, but no full-length movie/video ever got assembled. The premier Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box, has performed a complete recreation of The Lamb, even incorporating the original slides:

Although the band had been building a significant following, Peter Gabriel left Genesis after The Lamb tour, and went on to a hugely successful solo career. Phil Collins took over the lead vocals and, over time, moved the group away from prog to a more commercial, pop sound that brought them platinum albums and massive arena shows. He, too, has had an incredibly successful solo career.

So much has been written about Pink Floyd that there’s no need for detail here. Their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was more psychedelic than prog, the result of troubled founder Syd Barrett’s influence and songwriting. David Gilmour replaced Barrett on guitar for Saucerful of Secrets, and their sound took on a spacier, more experimental vibe. Dark Side of the Moon, their eighth album, became one of the most successful records in all of rock music.

Finally, on a lighter note, in contrast with the serious disdain heaped upon the genre by so many rock critics, progressive rock was hilariously skewered by the National Lampoon on its 1976 album, Good-Bye Pop. The track “Art Rock Suite” was written and performed by Paul Shaffer, Christopher Guest, and others:

Future articles will explore some of the lesser-known prog bands, including those from Italy and elsewhere in the world.

Header image: Keith Emerson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mari Kawaguchi.

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