The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock by Paul Stump (1997)

20 January 2013

Stump’s thesis is that Pr0gressive or Prog Rock – think Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer – has been unjustly vilified and eclipsed from ‘histories’ of rock and pop and needs to be reinterpreted and restored. This book was written in 1996 and a lot has happened by way of rehabilitating old rock bands in the past 17 years. I see from a quick surf of Amazon that there are in fact plenty of books on the subject, and plenty of these bands’ LPs are being rereleased, or rerereleased in remastered format or in expensive box sets etc. In fact, quite a few of these bands are still recording albums and touring!

Whatever you think of it, Prog certainly has a place in the social and musical history of the UK. This book sets out to shed light on both and more. First, what characterises Prog? In fact what does Prog mean?

  • Progressive. It meant Progress. It meant that sometime around 1967 the pop song was unzipped: the model of the pop chart, the album of pop hits and the concert where the performer performed his or her pop hits, was blown wide apart. Young pop musicians in many countries began experimenting musically – incorporating elements of modern jazz or classical music; lyrically – exploring the use of modern poetry, avant garde textual experiments etc; sizewise – recording ever longer songs or recording ever longer improvisations and jams; product-wise – forming small, fugitive record labels, marketing and distributing records themselves; performance-wise – bypassing the old club circuit to perform to halls full of drunk students and warehouses full of stoned hippies.
  • Progressive The assumption was that all of this experimentation, on every level, was moving forward. New forms, new multimedia, new sounds, new instruments, new combinations, new ways of thinking about songs or tracks or jams or sounds – it was felt all this was leading forward, onwards and upwards towards some great new musical synthesis.
  • “Progressive rock was the soundtrack to the counter-cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and the period’s gallant pipedream of thoroughgoing societal and cultural transformation.”
  • Progressive The jam and the solo were about extensive self-expression and the accompanying hippy movement was about finding yourself, dropping out of the rat race, returning to the country, finding deeper meaning and spirituality etc
  • Progressive So the musical experimentation went hand in hand with personal, psychological, social and political experimentation. The music was the soundtrack to a social and cultural movement. Arguably, the social movement reached a dead end around the time the music did – sometime in 1974/75 depending on where you were sitting.

Characteristics of Progressive Rock:

  • Traditional rock music instruments – drums, bass, guitar, singer, generally with an organ or early synthesiser thrown in; onto this base might be added any number of new instruments, sounds and colours…
  • but stripped of blues structures or inflections. Surprising given that they started out in blues bands, but there are no blues structures or licks in Genesis or Yes. It’s very white music.
  • Blues were replaced by jazz or classical influences – either the organised chaos of Free Jazz (The Soft Machine), or the adaptation of classical to Rock rhythms (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) or just the use of actual symphony orchestras (Moody Blues and then everyone else)
  • Long numbers, sometimes very long numbers, often spreading out to become ‘concept albums’ on a single theme or story. Classic concept albums include:
    • The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966)
    • The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966)
    • The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • The Who’s The Who Sell Out (1967)
    • The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967)
    • Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus (1971)
    • Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972)
    • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
    • Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
    • Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
    • Wish You Were Here (1975)
    • Animals (1977)
    • The Wall (1979)
  • … and characterised, especially live, by long jams and long individual solos
  • Pretentious subject matter – think Yes’s incomprehensible hippy fantasies, Peter Gabriel’s art school stories, ELP’s shocking bombast, Dark Side of the Moon ‘tackling’ the themes of Life and Death
  • Drugs like marijuana and LSD were widely used and encouraged the creation and consumpton of a particular type of music – one that was long, repetitive, developing changes and variations over repetitive structures
  • Spiritual. The drugs also encouraged both the bands and their fans to believe that the creation and consumption of this long, freeform experimental music was akin to a religious experience. The hippy movement set great store by the idea of self-expression and personal liberation, to be achieved through sex, drugs and great rock music. Fans and musicians alike hankered ” after a rock-derived Sublime which forms the core of Progressive rock music.”
  • English. It’s very English. With quite a lot of well-educated public schoolboy English men, led by Genesis almost all from Charterhouse (one year boarding fee £32,000)
  • White – not a black face in sight. Stump quotes various performers saying it wasn’t overt racism, but many of these bands wanted to incorporate Western classical forms which had zero  black input or performers.
  • Male – after all consumers of Prog and Rock tended to be (often university-educated) young white men – while consumers of chart pop music tended to be more downmarket young women, apparently.
  • Snobbery. Prog’s overwhelmingly white, often college-educated, male fans tended to look down on all other forms of rock and pop as junk, as not ‘serious’, ‘demanding’, difficult’, as too commercial, as having ‘sold out’ to The Man etc. This trope of an exclusive cohort of male initiates can be found across virtually all societies in all times. I revisited the Tate Britain exhibition of the PreRaphaelites this morning, another gang of young English men determined to reject the mass-market art and the exploitative industrial society of their time in order to create an Art which was more ‘demanding’, more ‘true’ etc. And who, of course, ended up being the Grand Old Men which a younger generation was to rebel against…

Stump’s book starts with jazz and the longhair Bohemian scene of the early and mid 1960s. You had to really tuned in to have heard let alone understood the New Thing, the free jazz being played by everyone’s hero John Coltrane and – further out into abstract music – Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders etc. These guys had taken jazz improvisation into wild new places, as a listen to Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ makes clear.

John Coltrane There’s a recognisable band – drums, bass, trumpet, saxaphone – and a structure of sorts – ensemble playing and solos alternating. But everything after that – the ‘tune’, the ‘melody’, even the rhythm, seem undetermined, in flux, leading to a raucous listening experience unlike anything else that had probably ever happened. This track is 40 minutes long and has to be listened all the way through to get the full disorientating affect.

‘Ascension’ by John Coltrane on YouTube

Improvisation and soloing had been a part of country and blues for the whole century – but the New Thing took it to new heights of virtuosity and aural demandingness. What’s impressive at this distance is how close behind the most advanced rock acts were. Ascension was recorded in 1965 and released in 1966 by which time a young Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead were, in their different ways, ready to do similar things – long soloing improvisations frequently bordering on chaos.

King Crimson You can hear some lovely electric band chaos at the end of the title track of ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Stump dates the start of Prog to this album, released in October 1969. King Crimson – brainchild of guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp – shot to fame when they supported the Rolling Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, in front of 500,000 people.The contrast between the delicately orchestrated whimsy of most of the track and the superloud distorted guitar of the choruses, the pretentiousness of the lyrics and then the pure chaos noise at the end, is pure Prog.

‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ on YouTube

Crimson’s first four albums contain traditional songs of hippy tweeness, about knights and ladies etc which burst into episodes of heavy guitar rock. The latter three albums become more musically uncompromising, with freer improvisation, delivering a more intense aural experience. After ‘Red’ in 1974 Fripp dissolved the group, believing he’d reached the end of the road. Though they reformed three years later, and continued releasing albums through the 80s, 90s and 00s, they never recaptured the Zeitgeist, the sense of surfing the wave and shaping its direction, which they had in the early 70s. They were Prog Rock without the confident sense of exciting Progress which you can sense in the exuberance of the early albums. Prog without the Progress.

  • In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
  • In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
  • Lizard (1970)
  • Islands (1971)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
  • Starless and Bible Black (1974)
  • Red (1974)

KC maintained a formidable commitment to aural experiment and difficulty. But most of the other famous Prog bands came from pop or blues backgrounds and were saturated in conventional harmonics and songwriting traditions. Very few of them could begin in apparent chaos and carry on for 40 minutes as the Coltrane track does. Most gave some kind of nod to the structures and cliches of pop. The most hidebound, traditional and, uncoincidentally, by far the most successful, is…

Pink Floyd Although Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) is probably the most famous ‘concept album’ of all time, Floyd themselves stand a little to the side of Prog. Most Proggers tried to be musically more adventurous and sophisticated than Floyd’s fairly basic tunes and harmonics. Most of us can play Floyd’s simple 3 or 4 chord structures on piano or guitar. What they pioneered was sophisticated use of studio technology at a time when the technology was changing at breakneck speed. The songs are passe and use childishly simple changes of dynamics (first soft – then loud – then soft again), but the way they are extended and segued using sound affects, and the band’s skills in the studio, meant they pioneered techniques and technology which created new possibilities for their epigones.

‘Us and Them’ by Pink Floyd on YouTube

  • The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
  • A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
  • Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)
  • Ummagumma (studio and live, 1969)
  • Atom Heart Mother (1970)
  • Meddle (1971)
  • Obscured by Clouds (1972)
  • The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
  • Wish You Were Here (1975)

Many of the longer tracks are improvisations around a simple modal pulse played by Roger Waters’ bass, generally an octave of E or D, for example the famous ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ (1968). Child’s play compared to anything by Yes, Genesis or Crimson.

‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ performed live by Pink Floyd on YouTube

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Greg Lake played bass and sang on the first King Crimson album (1969) but then left a band he thought had no future to form a ‘supergroup’ with Keith Emerson, the manically extrovert organist from The Nice and Carl Palmer, the hyperactive drummer from Atomic Rooster. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) was born and quickly released a sequence of albums which became a byword for pompousness, pretentiousness and bombast. Long, long tracks with heavy thumping rhythms, dominated by Emerson’s demented Hammond organ and Moog synthesiser, lyrics about the end of the world, or heavyhanded adaptations of popular classics (Fanfare for the Common Man, Pictures at an Exhibition, Jerusalem). They became one of the most successful acts in the world, pioneered stadium rock and earned a fortune.

  • Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970)
  • Tarkus (1971)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
  • Trilogy (1972)
  • Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

The track ‘Tarkus’ from their concept album of the same name illustrates what was so so wrong with this band.

‘Tarkus’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on YouTube

Genesis Maybe Genesis are better known than Floyd to the general public because of the crossover pop hits they had when fronted by Phil Collins in the 1980s and 90s. But purist fans hark back to the earliest years, 1969-74, when the band was fronted by Peter Gabriel who also wrote many of the songs:

  • From Genesis to Revelation (1969)
  • Trespass (1970)
  • Nursery Cryme (1971)
  • Foxtrot (1972)
  • Selling England by the Pound (1973)
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Genesis’s music has almost no blues or soul or rock and roll techniques in it at all. Of course it has a rock layout – drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, singer – but the music is extraordinarily inventive without resorting to anything people thought of as blues cliches. Genesis are often thought of as a very English band. Stump seeks to explain: partly it’s the subject matter: Peter Gabriel’s songs, which dominate the early albums, convey a kind of essence of English 6th form/art college whimsy – songs about a magical music box, the giant hogweed as invader England, a song about a Rachman-type rackrent landlord (‘The Knife’), or the thrilling song based on Arthur C Clarke’s very English sci-fi classic ‘Childhood’s End’ (1973).

‘Watcher of the Skies’ by Genesis on YouTube

I knew that the band had met at the elite public school, Charterhouse. Stump adds the fact that Charterhouse has a famous musical department and choir. All the band were soaked in the English choir and hymnal tradition. This explains their musical style with its tendency for the guitar and keyboard to elaborate chords with arpeggios and fugue structures, giving a stately, classical air to even quite raucous passages.

Yes The personnel of these bands were often very fluid. (Floyd again stands out as an exception for the group’s stability; after Dave Gilmour joined in 1968 they stayed with the same 4 musicians up to their Live 8 reunion in 2005). King Crimson, on the other hand, changed personnel and sound with every record, something which hampered them developing a steady following. Yes had a fairly stable memberhood formed round the core of singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (although their drummer, Bill Bruford, who had joined Yes in June 1968, left in the summer of 1972 to join King Crimson.)

Yes are as famous for their album covers by the artist Roger Dean as for their music, like this cover for the 1971 album ‘Fragile’.

Their early albums are striking for the long tracks very carefully arranged from numerous small fragments which are seamlessly joined, for the sound of Jon Anderson’s falsetto vocals and the driving bass of Chris Squire, for Chris Howe’s prodigious virtuosity on acoustic and electric guitar. and for the hippy incomprehensibility of the lyrics.

  • Yes (1969)
  • Time and a Word (1970)
  • The Yes Album (1971)
  • Fragile (1971)
  • Close to the Edge (1972)
  • Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
  • Relayer (1974)

‘Siberian Khatru’ by Yes on YouTube

The End of Prog There were three ends:

1. Punk 

The first punk singles were released in Summer 1976 and suddenly a younger generation of performers and punters realised you didn’t have to be a virtuoso like Robert Fripp or Rick Wakefield or Chris Howe to get on stage and perform a song which spoke to you and your hearers’ lives and emotions. Also songs didn’t have to be half an hour long with extended solos, and be all about the end of the world or knights and fairies or Starship Troopers. They could be short and punchy and about nicking cars, finding a job, about the boring, drunk, sometimes violent urban scene which most English people actually inhabit. Culturally, Punk Rock destroyed the imaginative worldview which underpinned Prog. It was like the Emperor’s new Clothes: once one person pointed out the emperor was naked, the whole artifice with its pomp, its pretentions and its sacred cows, came crashing down.

On the street, vast numbers of young people wanted other sorts of music, whether it was soul, disco, heavy metal, ska, two-tone, reggae, the  chilled-out Californian sounds of the Eagles or James Taylor – and then suddenly the completely new worldview of Punk burst onto the scene. Punk wasn’t just a music but an aesthetic. It made the gritty street scenes, the urban decay of developed countries, it made poverty, aggression, loutish thuggish je m’en foutisme, cool and stylish. The editor of punk fanzine Sniffin Glue famously threw any single which lasted more than 3 minutes out the window.

2. Death of progressive politics

Progressive politics collapsed. Whether it was hard politics of post 68 revolutionaries or the soft utopianism of the hippies, both were strangled by the economic collapse of the early 70s. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab countries quadrupled the price of oil plunging the developed world into a depression which lasted nearly a decade. Radical politics and hippy druggy alternative lifestyles dragged on, but without the confidence with which they’d begun back in the booming 1960s. In one sense Punk was just being honest about the crappy urban world of unemployment and street fighting which it saw out the window. The bands became multimillionaire tax exiles phoning in their solos from Switzerland and arguing about royalties. Whatever idealism they had at the start had vanished by the mid-70s.

3. Out of steam 

Stump’s book suggests that Prog was running out of steam before well Punk exploded.

Peter Gabriel left Genesis in June 1975, exhausted by writing most of the big ‘concept’ album ‘The Lamb lies Down on Broadway’, and a long American tour. Robert Fripp dissolved King Crimson in September 1974, exhausted and disillusioned by the ‘rock’ world. Pink Floyd‘s multimillion smash album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (1973) was followed by the less-popular ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) which is a sour meditation on the band’s embittered alienation from their fans and the exploitative music business. There’s a big gap between Yes‘s ‘Relayer’ (1974) and its successor, ‘Going for the One’ (1977), as if they’d run out of inspiration. In 1974 Emerson, Lake and Palmer, at one stage vying with Led Zeppelin as biggest grossing rock band in the world, released ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973), toured it in 1974, then took a sabbatical. It turned into a 3 year break and when they returned with Works I in 1977 the world had moved on and they were never to recapture their success. The Incredible String Band, the influential experimental folk band which had issued hugely successful albums since their 1967 debut, broke up in 1974. In summer 1975 Gong, maybe the archetypal hippy band, lost founder member Daevid Allen and two other core members.

On the broader Rock scene, John Lennon, a Master presence who helped oversee the transition of pop from Royal Variety entertainment to experimental Rock, retired from music in October 1975 after the birth of his son, Sean, and after delivering diminishing returns with his solo career. And a real Giant of 20th century music, Miles Davis, also retired in the summer of 1975, exhausted from decades of substance abuse. If you listen to his musical progress in the early 70s it’s hard to avoid the conclusion he had painted himself into a corner with increasingly rackety electronic jazz. In his last concerts he stopped playing trumpet altogether and leant his elbows on an electric organ, glaring at the audience.

Bit of a sweeping conclusion, but it is suggestive that somehow the explosion of creativity which began sometime in the 1960s, around 1966/67 – which saw widespread experiments in musical form and structure, in instrumentation, in crossing over genres, the transformation of recording technology, the transformation of venues from sweaty clubs to vast American stadiums –  these enormous changes in the creation, marketing, selling, performance and consumption of the new genre of Rock Music, had taken place and been consolidated. The experimental phase was over. A new phase of stadium rock, an established genre with its own expectations, populated by transAtlantic rock gods, was well in place by about 1973. The open-ended experimental progressiveness these bands had pioneered had ground to a halt.

4. Or… did Prog die?

The thing that strikes me most about reading this book and revisiting these old bands is – they still exist! To my surprise, they either reformed later in the 70s or 80s or just continued writing and recording music. What else could they do? In the 80s, swept aside by Punk, new Wave, then the New Romantics not to mention hiphop and World Music, they must have seemed a forlorn hope and I imagine sales collapsed. But they persisted, and recorded and toured through the 90s and into the 00s. The invention of the CD must have been a boon for musicians who liked making album-long tracks of music – and better digital quality must have helped people understand the subtleties of composition and instrumentation which had been muffled on vinyl. But then the advent of the internet must have also been a lease of life – allowing as it did the establishment of worldwide communities of fans, the publication of concert footage or rare tracks – the creation, in other words, of a whole new online audience.

Now there are annual Prog awards, festivals, magazines, and newer young Prog bands, and from all sorts of disparate countries. Back in 1980, who on earth would have imagined that Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, the various bits of Pink Floyd, would still be recording and touring over 40 years after most of them were formed.

Big caveat

I’ve only discussed the most famous Prog bands, the ones I’m (over)familiar with. Stump’s book is extremely useful for listing and describing and analysing music by a host of other bands of the period, including:

  • The Moody Blues
  • The Strawbs
  • The Incredible String Band
  • The Nice
  • Soft Machine
  • Caravan
  • Gong
  • Gentle Giant
  • Henry Cow
  • Renaissance
  • Van de Graaf Generator
  • Tangerine Dream
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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for your wonderful blog article..keep sharing.

    Reply
  1. Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999) « Books & Boots

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