Devotees of progressive rock have to fend off more vilification than fans of almost any other rock genre. Pure-bred rock & rollers scorn it for lacking rock's earthier and poppier elements; scholars of classical and serious music find it too simple and undemanding to merit attention; latter-day punks and new wavers held it aloft as a target, painting it as the embodiment of the self-satisfied dinosaur that the music business had become, and one which needed to be deflated (in the days when John Lydon joined the Sex Pistols so the story goes, he wore a T-shirt emblazened with the logo "I hate Pink Floyd"). Nonetheless, progressive rock was one of the defining styles of '70s rock, and responsible for some of rock's most ambitious -- and pretentious -- efforts.
Progressive rock came in many shapes and sizes, but it can be loosely defined as music that attempted to combine rock and psychedelia with classical, symphonic, and literary elements. Most of the groups placed instrumental virtuosity at a premium, used keyboards rather more than the typical rock group, and used synthesizers a lot more than the typical rock group. Electric guitars were also important, sometimes battling it out with the keyboards, sometimes taking off for lofty, lengthy solos on their own. Lyrically, prog-rockers didn't neglect love songs entirely, but were usually more concerned with weighty philosophical matters, which were often influenced by psychedelic drugs, science fiction, and fantasy, sometimes on an epic scale. Virtually all of the major prog-rock groups were British in origin, some hailing from the European continent as well.
Progressive rock -- sometimes called "art-rock" -- has its origins in the British psychedelic scene of the late '60s. The Moody Blues were the first group to combine rock with classical symphonic music on their 1967 album Days of Future Passed. On subsequent albums, they dispensed with the actual orchestra and used synthesizers and sophisticated studio techniques to create symphonies by themselves. Few groups have endured as much frenzied adulation and vituperative criticism as the Moodies; undeniably pretentious, they were also one of progressive rock's most infectiously melodic acts.
Also massively popular were the Pink Floyd who turned increasingly serious-minded after the departure of their original leader, Syd Barrett in early 1968. Many thought the band was dead with the loss of Barrett their original songwriter, guitarist, and singer, whose inimitable sense of whimsy made the group's 1967 debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, one of the greatest psychedelic rock albums. The Floyd surprised their critics by getting bigger and bigger, with increasingly lengthy and spacious experimental epics whose electronic eerieness defined early "head music" for many listeners. While their big international breakthrough was 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, which remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, their earlier output contained some of their most original work, and the group never entirely lost sight of their pop and blues roots.
Other key British bands of the late '60s were the Soft Machine who incorporated jazz and Dadaism into their psychedelic hard rock; Procol Harum who used multi-layered keyboards, melodies with strong echoes of classical music, and the consciously literary lyrics of Keith Reid; the Nice who featured Keith Emerson's virtuosic, classical-inspired keyboards and flamboyant showmanship; the Pretty Things whose rock opera S.F. Sorrow predated the Who's Tommy by about a year; and Jethro Tull whose early mixes of blues-rock and Rahsaan Roland Kirk soon metamorphosed into inscrutable album-length epic poems with strong hints of traditional English folk music.
For many aficionados, the first true progressive rock band were King Crimson whose 1969 debut was a groundbreaking synthesis of stately virtuosity and fierce guitars and Mellotrons. Although some critics would be loathe to concur, early reviewers often compared King Crimson's first lineup to the similarly melodic and Mellotron-laden excursions of the early Moody Blues. With guitarist Robert Fripp at the helm, the group endured several rapid changes of personnel and quickly became a less song-oriented outfit, with increasing emphasis on flights of instrumental virtuosity and dense, challenging material with strong jazz and avant-garde influences.
Even as early as 1970, there were striking subdivisions within the progressive rock school. Several of the most critically respected bands clustered around the banner of the Canterbury sound; spearheaded by the Soft Machine these also included Caravan, Hatfield & the North, and Soft Machine-offshoots like Matching Mole, Gong and the solo work of ex-Softs, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers Lighter in tone than the most commercially successful exponents of the genre, they also frequently exhibited a sense of humor that the superstars were not exactly prone to display.
While these bands may have gotten critical accolades, it was up to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Genesis to shift serious units. While Pink Floyd used fairly economic licks on their epics, the other stars tended to brandish flashy instrumental passages by guitar and keyboard heroes like Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson All their considerable bombast couldn't mask a firm grasp of songwriting hooks and tasty instrumental riffs that the masses found most palatable.
When they deigned to examine art-rock, critics reserved a lot of their enthusiasm for Roxy Music whose ironic pop was flavored with unnerving synthesizer blasts from Brian Eno After a short time with Roxy, Eno split for a solo career and recorded increasingly abstract, and increasingly instrumental, rock-flavored compositions that rank among the most well-respected art-rock and avant-rock recordings of all time, although Eno would largely forsake rock by the late '70s for contemporary composition (he continues to work with many rock performers as a producer).
Then there were was a wing of progressive rock that was primarily instrumental. Unsurprisingly, many of these acts came from the European continent, and used the instrumental format as a way to circumvent their limited grasp of English, the lingua franca of popular music. Germany's Kraftwerk had a surprise Top Ten album in the mid-'70s with Autobahn; their foreboding, electronic textures, as well as those of fellow German bands like Can, Amon Duul, Faust, and Tangerine Dream, gave rise to the school of "Kraut rock" (dubbed as such by England's Virgin Records, who marketed the bands to an international audience), and had a considerable influence on new wave acts several years later. Holland's Focus featuring guitar wizard Jan Akkerman, Greece's Aphrodite's Child (featuring a young Vangelis), and Italy's P.F.M. also made international inroads. And in the U.K., Mike Oldfield (who had played guitar with Kevin Ayers) had a huge international hit with the instrumental suite Tubular Bells.
Progressive rock's influence declined after the mid-'70s; the punk/new wave and disco explosions were factors, but more important, a lot of the bands broke up, moved toward more pop-oriented fare, or simply played themselves out. The British Harvest and Virgin labels, instrumental in exposing the music to a wide audience, wound down their activities (Harvest) or moved on to the larger pop/rock market (Virgin). Groups like Electric Light Orchestra, Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Asia, Kansas and Supertramp became massively successful by incorporating progressive rock's flashiest attributes into their brands of mainstream pop/rock.
With a more modified symphonic lens, bands like the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd remain superstar concert attractions and big record sellers whenever they reassemble to work in the studio or hit the road, and scattered modern bands like Marillion pursue the original prog-rock ideal. From the other side of the spectrum, performers like Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Robert Fripp, Material and Public Image Limited took progressive rock into more avant-garde territory than it ever dared to tread during its heyday. And there's no doubt that the loftier excursions of performers like the Who, Led Zeppelin the Mothers of Invention, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie owe not a little to the better values of progressive rock.
13 Essential Progressive Rock Albums: