Without Prog Rock the world would certainly be a duller place.
Men in robes; songs about astronomy, mythology and numerology; banks of Moogs and Mellotrons and church organs – You could certainly never call Prog “drab”, though it has always been (and still is) routinely derided as the moment when rock traded its heart for its head, its soul for the solo, and its working-class rebels for pretentious posh blokes with investment portfolios.
Arriving at the end of the 60s, Prog Rock was, in fact, psychedelia’s love child, carrying a counter-cultural flag for ambition and adventure when all around was a retreat into bedsit blandness. As such, Prog’s contempt for concision was mostly selflessly indulgent.
Even its most elongated epics are full of variety and dramatic contrasts. King Crimson‘s Lizard (1970) shifts from ballad to bolero to balls-out rock over its side-long length, while Genesis‘ sidelong Supper’s Ready on Foxtrot (1972) is a seven-course blow-out that shifts from soul to folk to vaudeville to classical and back again.
What’s more, Prog twisted and warped sound in ways that psychedelia could only imagine. Whether it’s the demonically distorted and distended organ on Van Der Graaf Generator‘s 1970 Killer, Robert Fripp’s echoing slabs of granite guitar on King Crimson‘s The Sailor’s Tale (1971) or the deep sea caves of keyboards on Pink Floyd‘s epic Echoes of the same year, Prog played the studio for all it was worth.
Whether they were instrumentally depicting trips to some infinite frontier or flashing angular-jazz chops, bands like Henry Cow, Gong and Van Der Graaf Generator were ambitious utopians, daring to wrap up entire alternate universes within a 10-minute song, if not a complete side of an album.
The high-minded ambition is what many find elitist and alienating about Prog – “a tragic waste of talent and electricity” as John Peel said of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Those who held on to the idea of rock as something visceral, urgent and immediate would not have applauded Robert Fripp’s description of King Crimson‘s debut album as auguring “a music more self-conscious than before, where different forms are sought, ones which expect a reaction from the head rather more than from the foot.”
At its best, Prog Rock has always been music that can transport the listener transcendentally (Barclay James Harvest made an entire career out of pursuing Prog’s pastoral domains with quiet, wide-eyed wonder).
Unfortunately, Progs “songwords” have always been its Achilles’ heel – too often mythological mumbo-jumbo showing off its author’s public school education. The eccentric French group Magma even went so far as to invent – and sing in – their own language . . .
And some fables were carried to comic rather than cosmic extremes: Caravan‘s In The Land Of Grey and Pink concerns “nasty grumbly Grimleys” that chase Boy Scouts across the sea to the land of smokable “punk weed”!
Prog was supposed to have been killed off by Punk. But its supposed nemesis, John Lydon (Sex Pistols) and Mark E Smith of The Fall were both Van Der Graaf fans. And Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks) admitted to liking Pink Floyd . . . and even some stuff by Yes!
Top Five Prog Rock Albums
1. KING CRIMSON – In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
Such a definitive demonstration of prog, even Crimson themselves couldn’t cap it. Epic lengths, mythological lyrics, Mellotrons, moonchildren and race-track riffing.
2. VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR – The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970)
Prog at its darkest and most forbidding – the genre’s finest vocalist, Peter Hammill, is at his most succinctly scary on Darkness and at his most engaging on the rueful Refugees.
3. YES – The Yes Album (1971)
Their most accessible and interesting record, before technique took over. Starship Trooper genuinely soars, and there’s still room amidst the plethora of epics for the gorgeous Your Move.
4. GENESIS – Foxtrot (1972)
With hooks as sharp as their humour, Supper’s Ready showed how to do the side-long song. Gabriel sounds deranged throughout.
5. BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST – Mocking Bird, The Best Of Barclay James Harvest (2001)
Prog’s neglected Northern poor relation, early BJH managed to maintain an innocence largely lost in the cynical 70s. Mockingbird is prog at its most beguiling.