A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

February was a somber month for fans of the progressive rock music genre.  Both Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum died.  Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims a jaundiced eye at progressive rock (fondly called “prog rock” or just “prog”), this music coincided with my hormones becoming jumpy and has enhanced my life. 

Brooker was the lead singer and main arranger in Procol Harum, and multi-instrumentalist McDonald was the chief musical force behind King Crimson’s first and best album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.  (He later helped start Foreigner.  For me, that’s like going from champagne to club soda.)

Prog rock might loosely be defined as music that evolved from Sixties psychedelic and that mixed straight rock with classical, jazz, folk, ambient sounds, or tape looping, often with an English or European veneer.  Arrangements became longer and more complex than previously, and lyrics—if there were any—flowed with florid poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and the mythological.  Electric guitar was still prominent, but keyboards, Mellotron, brass, woodwinds, and strings became equally important. 

Debate continues as to when and where prog began, but I date it to the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed album and Procol Harum’s grandiose single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” both from the year 1967.

Prog fell out of fashion starting in the mid-1970s.  The biggest groups, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, began overreaching themselves.  Punk rock also helped deflate the balloon, with its return to short, fast-paced songs and simple chords and lyrics.  Today, there’s a small but enthusiastic cult of prog-rock fans who help keep the flame burning. Most of them, like me, have thick eyeglass lenses and thinning hair.

In honor of Messrs. McDonald and Brooker, here are my 15 favourite progressive rock albums, in order of increasing obscurity. (Note my British spelling of “favorite.”):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973).  A powerful album, musically and lyrically, and a sonic wet dream that no respectable record collection should be without.  A rock-music masterpiece. If you’re a young person, DO NOT listen to this album with the songs digitally splintered up. It flows, like a river.

Genesis, Foxtrot (1972) or Selling England By The Pound (1973).  Peter Gabriel was still the focal point of Genesis at this time, especially onstage.  Early Genesis emphasized melody and were like a musical version of Lewis Carroll, which is why I love them.

Emerson Lake & Palmer, Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970).  THE supergroup of prog, with a sinister and heavy edge. Keith Emerson had fronted the Nice, Greg Lake was King Crimson’s original singer, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer was with hard rockers Atomic Rooster.  ELP’s first four studio albums are prog classics.

King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969).  Some say true prog-rock started here.  Guitarist Robert Fripp was the only constant in the ever-changing Crimson, but arranger Ian McDonald is all over this stunning debut, which Pete Townshend of the Who called “an uncanny masterpiece.”

Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly (1968) or A Salty Dog (1969).  Why Procol isn’t in that museum in Cleveland is, well, “beyond these things.” Procol has a sound all its own. Imagine Mary Shelley married to Howlin’ Wolf. These two classic LPs feature guitar-god Robin Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.  (I saw him four times and my ears still ring.)

Renaissance, Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance, Turn Of The Cards (1974).  Renaissance came closer to a straight classical sound than any other prog band.  Lead singer Annie Haslam has a voice like a bell. Notable song on this LP: the timely ”Mother Russia.” I also recommend Ashes Are Burning.

Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971).  Led by histrionic vocalist Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf was more dark and apocalyptic than other English prog bands.  Pawn Hearts was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.

Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971).  Caravan was part of the “Canterbury Scene,” which grew out of a musical collective in Kent called Wilde Flowers.  The Canterbury Scene musicians were more ingenuous and witty than their non-Canterbury peers.  Serious prog fans know of them; why others do not is as mysterious as why David Crosby is still alive.

Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969) or Third (1970).  The first Canterbury band to record, they got their hallucinogenic start at Joe Boyd’s underground club UFO along with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Volume Two is more psych-sounding, while Third is a double album of very heavy prog.

Kevin Ayers, Joy Of A Toy (1969).  A founder of Soft Machine along with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen (Gong).  Some Ayers fans think his third album, Whatevershebringswesing, is his best.  It’s excellent, but I prefer this solo debut, more whimsical and psychedelic than most prog, and with shorter songs.

Egg, Egg (1970) or The Polite Force (1971).  An organ-dominated three-piece (no guitars!) with a Goth sound not unlike ELP’s.  Bass player and singer Hugo Montgomery (Mont) Campbell wrote most of their best music.  They’re on the fringes of the Canterbury Scene, so they have to be good.

McDonald and Giles, McDonald And Giles (1970).  Very under-appreciated spinoff from King Crimson.  Crimson lost its melodic element when Ian McDonald split, taking inventive percussionist Michael Giles with him.  If you love Crimson’s first album (see above), you must get this, which continues the pastoral side of Crimson.

Curved Air, Second Album (1971).  Critics didn’t like this band much, but their second album is quite good, very dreamlike.  Key musicians were singer Sonja Kristina and violinist Darryl Way.  A later lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police.  (He and Kristina married.)

Jade Warrior, Floating World (1974).  A two-man group, their all-instrumental albums on Island Records are the best, with lots of Oriental flourishes.  Both Kites and Waves are also good, the latter with Steve Winwood guesting on ivories.

Gryphon, Gryphon (1973).  This unique and obscure band once opened shows for Yes.  Their musical zeitgeist were the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and they played every instrument in the cosmos.  (Ever hear of a crumhorn?)  I prefer the eponymous debut to their other records because it has playful lyrics and vocals.

***

Why no albums by Yes, some of you ask?  Good question.  Yes might be prog’s signature group.  I liked Yes in high school and college, especially the Close To The Edge album.  Maybe I became oversaturated with their music, plus I discovered lesser-known artists who intrigued me much more.  I will admit, they were masters of their respective instruments.  But these days, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I just like a good song.

There are many other progressive rock groups, most of them British: Moody Blues, Nice, Hawkwind, Family, Strawbs, Colosseum, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Eno, Phil Manzanera/801, Gentle Giant, Electric Light Orchestra (which evolved from the Move), Barclay James Harvest, Camel, and Canterbury offshoots like Daevid Allen/Gong, Steve Hillage, Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, and National Health. 

Germany produced denser, more machine-like bands (not surprisingly): Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust, Can, and Amon Düül. 

Italy had Premiata Formeria Marconi (P.F.M.).

France spouted Magma (and Gong lived communally in France).

Holland had Focus, featuring guitarist Jan Akkerman.

Japan had Stomu Yamashta and Far East Family Band.

North America produced Kansas, Styx, and Happy the Man (all U.S.) and Audience (Canada). 

Johnny-come-lately progressive rockers include Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Alan Parsons Project, Kate Bush, Sky, Marillion (a Genesis clone), Klaatu, Starcastle, Porcupine Tree, supergroups U.K. and Asia, and Rush, who began as a hard-rock trio.

Some folks consider Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Frank Zappa to be progressive rock, though I might question that categorization.  Same thing with “glam” bands like Roxy Music, Queen, and David Bowie.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Lindisfarne might be classified as prog, but I’ve always considered them English folk rock. 

Did I leave any out?  What are some of your favorite progressive rock bands?

Lastly, thanks for the music, Ian and Gary. Here’s a prog-rock taste test: a demo of King Crimson’s beautiful “I Talk to the Wind,” written by McDonald and lyricist Pete Sinfield. The singer is Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention. (Greg Lake would soon replace her in Crimson.)

24 thoughts on “A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

  1. Wow, that’s a pretty awesome blog. I am a big progressive rock fan and you listed some bands I have not heard of. Nice recognition of Mr. McDonald and Mr. Brooker. I listened to that demo, it’s quite fascinating. I love that song. I have always heard tones of John Barry’s Bond themes in that song.

    • Yes, the official “I Talk to the Wind” is one of my favorite tunes, anywhere. I have a thing for softer, romantic, slightly sad songs. I appreciate the harder stuff like “Schizoid Man,” but for a desert isle give me songs like “Wind.” Will look into John Barry.

      • “Epitaph” is pretty moving, although it builds into a grand production.
        With John Barry, he often infused his film scores with a foreboding mood, a sad but vulnerable tone. Bond films, Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves, etc. here’s an example.

      • I hear some of “Epitaph” in Barry’s music. “The wall, on which the prophets wrote…” Sinfield wasn’t the most inspired lyricist, but his melodramatic poems do fit Crimson’s music.

      • He did a solo album called Still that I still haven’t heard. I think there’s one song on there by McDonald. Great sleeve art, too. Have you heard it?

        Yes, Moody Blues lyrics were also pretty puffed-up. I just ignore them and get off on the music.

      • (Reading about PH now…organist Matthew Fisher may have been with Brooker on that ’93 tour. The two later fought in court over royalties for “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with Fisher ultimately being awarded 40 percent of sales after 2005.)

  2. I’d put Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick under progressive rock, and it’s one of my favourites. I’d also rep for the last couple of Marillion albums with Fish as vocalist – I think they’re up there in the prog canon, and I like Transatlantic for 21st century prog.

    I don’t know all the bands on your list – I’ve only lightly scratched the Canterbury stuff. Glad to see Renaissance though – Ashes are Burning is the album I know really well from them, need to spend some time with the others.

  3. In general, I never quite warmed to prog rock. However, as a (retired) hobby musician, I have to acknowledge the oftentimes outstanding musicianship. Plus, I do like some prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis. I’m also a Pink Floyd fan.

    I had not heard of Gary Brooker’s death – that’s sad. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is one of my all-time favorite ’60s tunes. I’ve only heard a handful of other Procol Harum tunes.

    • I like Floyd and Gabriel-era Genesis, a bit less so Yes. After punk and New Wave, critics really soured on prog rock. Perhaps understandably, since the bombast was getting a bit out of hand. Still, there were some very clever folks (like solo Gabriel, Gryphon, and the entire Canterbury Scene) that stayed well-grounded.

  4. I can’t say I know all of these bands but I did listen to lots of Pink Floyd, Moody Blues and Genesis. My brothers were into it more than me but it was a bit hard to escape it when you’re creeping around a house with timber flooring trying not to bounce the needle on the vinyl!! I know bits and pieces of Procol Harum and as I said in the comment above, I’m also surprised you didn’t have Jethro Tull in there.

    • Hi Robyn, thanks. I don’t know your age, but if one was born after, say, the year 1963 (tail end of the “Baby Boomer” generation), progressive rock probably didn’t register much. Also, this “heavy” music seemed to appeal more to males than females. The women I knew in college were more into the soft, accessible sounds of James Taylor, Cat Stevens, America, Carole King, etc. (not denigrating that music, just saying).

      Since you’re now the second person to object to my omission of Tull, I may have to include them. I’ll subtract, say, Curved Air and substitute Tull’s Stand Up (my favorite of their records). Hopefully Ian Anderson is smiling also!

      • I was born in 1961 so squarely in the demographic. I must admit though I did prefer James Taylor, Amercia and Cat Stevens but being the the younger sister with two older brothers in the house I didn’t get much time on the “record player” .

  5. Huge fan of the first few Procol Harum records here, and I kept a close watch on King Crimson well into this century. Defining “Prog Rock” is always kind of hairy, if only because when you’re saying it progresses right in its name you can’t say what its outward boundaries are. Some groups/records that would be put in “Fusion” bins fit a lot of the general characteristics you set down for Prog.

    Pleased to see Kevin Ayers on your short list too.

    • You made my day, Frank. I have a friend here in Cincinnati who also loves Ayers, and we celebrate Ayers’s birthday every year by carrying one of his LPs into a local English-style pub to quaff a few. I thought we were the only two Ayers heads in America! You’re right about fusion. It’s a slippery slope, which is why I omitted Zappa, Brand X, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and others, while still listing Soft Machine’s third album, National Health etc. (which could be considered fusion jazz).

      Categorizing music is tricky, but nonetheless fun to discuss.

  6. Pingback: A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock – Urban Fishing Pole Lifestyle

    • Hi. I like Gentle Giant. I have their debut LP as well as Three Friends (same sleeve art for both). More interesting to me than Yes. But I’m always pushing people toward the Canterbury Scene, which is where my prog heart really lies. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s