Progressive rocks holds an iconic place in the development of rock history. With synthesisers, surrealist album covers, and songs that last 43 minutes, there is no genre quite like it. And although it might be hard to imagine today, progressive rock was once a mainstream genre with albums reaching the top of the charts. What inspired this unique genre to develop and how did it capture the imagination of fans the world over?
Origins and Meaning of Progressive Rock
Progressive rock, also known as prog rock or just prog, initially began to develop in the UK in the late 60s early 70s. Capturing the experimental, barrier breaking mood of the 60s generation, progressive rock was an inherently exploratory genre, which sought to discover and create new musical planes and unheard sounds.
Driving the experimentation was the development of new, portable electronic instruments (synthesisers). Early synthesisers were huge and impractical devices that were almost impossible to lug around on tour – especially for an upcoming act. Pioneering synthesiser companies, such as Moog, simplified synthesisers and miniaturised them. This allowed bands to include elements of classical music without having to hire a complete orchestra.
Synthesisers like the Mellotron, which was made in the UK, became essential pieces of kit for early progressive bands, along with synthesisers from Hammond and Moog. The Mellotron gained fame after The Beatles used it on several tracks on the Yellow Submarine album, leading some music critics to site The Beatles as a proto-progressive rock band.
Other bands that inspired and contributed to the development of progressive rock were The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, and Pink Floyd. Generally referred to as symphonic rock bands, all the aforementioned bands contained elements of progressive rock without fully embodying the genre. Emerging from the psychedelic rock, which centred around clubs in London and the prolific use of LSD both while listening to and creating the music, proto-prog rock bands began experimenting with lengthier songs, unusual sounds, and the addition of orchestras.
In 1967, The Moody Blues released the album Days of Future Past, a vibrant combination of psychedelic rock and classical. The album was recorded together with the London Festival Orchestra and produced a charting single, Nights in White Satin, which reached number 19 in the UK. Progressive rock was the result of an even deeper exploration of the use of classical music techniques applied to rock music, with synthesisers instead of orchestras.
The first bands to play prog rock started out playing folk rock music in the 60s, before being inspired by the proto-prog efforts of The Moody Blues and others. Only in the 1970s did progressive rock form into a genre in its own right.
Progressive Rock in the Mainstream
The first fully fledged example of progressive rock, an album by King Crimson titled The Court of the Crimson King, was released at the end on 1969. The album included the use of the Mellotron, utilised the most modern recording techniques, and included elements of classical, jazz, and symphonic music. Having gained exposure by playing in front of half a million people at the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, the album became a huge success, reaching number 5 on the UK albums chart.
With their debut album, King Crimson became one of the most influential progressive rock bands of all time and crystallised the genre into something unique and identifiable. Following King Crimson’s lead were: Jethro Tull, Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, Emerson, Lack and Palmer, and Genesis, to name a few.
The golden era of the genre was undoubtedly the early 1970s. During the first few years of the decade, progressive rock bands scored four number 1 albums in the US, along with multiple top 10 albums. The popularity of the genre focused chiefly on the US and Europe, and was particularly popular in the UK.
In 1972, Jethro Tull, a British band from Lancashire, recorded and released their first fully progressive album. Titled, Thick as a Brick, the album is one continuous song, running for more than 40 minuets. Inspired by the comedy of Monty Python, Jethro Tull had intended to poke fun at themselves, the music, and progressive rock generally. Ironically, it led fans and critics to label them a serious progressive rock band from then on. The album peaked at number 1 on the Billboard 200 in the USA and at number 5 in the UK.
In the same year, Genesis released Foxtrot. Although the album contained more than one song, it did include a song that was 23 minutes long, called Supper’s Ready. The album reached number 12 in the UK and topped the charts in Italy. Their next album, Selling England by the Pound, peaked at number 3 in the UK. The band was asked to perform on Top of the Pops, but declined, which was something of a rarity in an age when Top of the Pops could make or break a band.
A year later, in 1973, Mike Oldfield released his seminal debut album, Tubular Bells, through Virgin Records. At first, the album sold slowly but after the music was used on the hit film, The Exorcist, the album received enormous attention. In 1974, Tubular Bells went to number 1 in the UK and reached number 3 in the USA. The record went on to sell more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Due to the genre’s international success, prog rock bands began popping up in the USA and all over Europe. In the US were Happy the Man, Kansas, Ethos, and Fireballet. Europe boasted Anyone’s Daughter (Germany), Magma (France), and a host of bands from Italy, where the genre became especially successful. Despite the proliferation of progressive rock bands around the world, the focal point of musical development and commercial success remained British.
As the 70s wore on however, enthusiasm for the genre began to decline. In part due to the rise of punk music, but also as a result of being ignored or bashed by music critics, who often described the music as pompous. What is more, several of the most influential prog rock bands took a break or changed line-up and character during the middle of the decade, including King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis. Meanwhile, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, and several other prog bands turned to arena rock in order to continue developing their sound and reach audiences who had grown tired of long, meandering songs.
Critics Confusion – What Counts as Progressive?
The word progressive has been thrown around by music critics without a great deal of regard for what it refers too. In part, this is due to the shifting styles of the main prog rock bands. Nearly all the early 70s progressive rock acts started out playing different music and went on to play yet another kind of music after dabbling with prog.
Lazy music critics were apparently unable to keep up with the times and continued to call these bands progressive rock even when they had clearly moved on. Bands like Asia, Foreigner, Toto and others were labeled progressive rock by the media, for example, even though they are clearly arena rock and pop bands.
At times, any band using more than one synthesiser would be branded as a progressive rock band regardless of the music. The confusion this has led to continues to this day, with heavy metal bands Dream Theatre, and hard rock band Rush, being incorrectly categorised as progressive rock bands.
The Future of Progressive Rock
Progressive rock returned in the 1990s with Ozric Tentacles, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard, and Echolyn. Though these acts never achieved anything close to the commercial success of the 70s prog rock acts, they have continued to be popular among a niche audience and have kept the genre alive and developing.
In the 2000s, several of the 70s groups reformed causing much excitement among prog rock fans. Yes returned with the album Magnification, which used a real orchestra rather than keyboards, and Van der Graaf Generator produced the album Present.
Key Moments in the History of Progressive Rock
1969 – King Crimson released The Court of the Crimson King marking the birth of progressive rock as a recognised genre.
1972 – Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick earning themselves a place among the prog rockers.
1973 – Mike Oldfield produces the best selling progressive rock album of the 70s, Tubular Bells.
1974 – King Crimson break up.
1975 – Peter Gabriel quits Genesis.
1976 – Jethro Tull released their last progressive rock album: Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!
1995 – Spock’s Beard released The Light, initiating a new wave of progressive rock in the USA.
2001 – Yes released Magnification, which features a 60-piece orchestra.