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.)

Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

50 years
piper

Yippee, you can’t see me

But I can you

Not long ago I wrote about a dinner party I hosted (“The Craziest Meal I Never Had”). While I thought it was a good party, there were also some tense moments. After I bade goodbye to Herman Melville, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, I retired to the den to reflect on the evening. I thought about how ill-mannered Billy was, and how distracted Herman seemed. My Indian friend, understandably, appeared very uncomfortable.

Then I thought about the fourth guest I invited: the one who never showed up. In fact, I didn’t even get an RSVP. But it’s probably good he didn’t attend. He would have been as uncomfortable as Crazy.

When finished reflecting, I decided to honour this reticent invitee the only way I knew. So I dragged myself upstairs, lit a stick of patchouli incense, dimmed the lights, and put on one of his records.

***

Most people have heard of the rock band Pink Floyd, even if they may not be fans. Casual fans might have a hazy recollection of a mysterious chap who led the band in its earliest days… before Floyd was “welcomed to the machine,” when it was still a cult psychedelic group known mainly in England. Only the most devoted fans know the full details of the tragic and poignant Syd Barrett, a brilliant artist who briefly burned like a supernova, then divorced himself from society and, for 35 years, took refuge in the garden behind his mother’s house.

Since I’m reviewing a record album here, I won’t discuss Barrett’s odyssey through music and life. There are plenty of places out there that deal with that stuff, myths and all.

Anyway, discussing his music is the best way to properly honour this artist. And I do mean “artist.” Pink Floyd guitarist and childhood friend David Gilmour, who knew Barrett as much as anyone other than his family (and despite taking his place in the band) called him one of only a few musical geniuses, along with Bob Dylan. He also maintains that Barrett’s collapse wasn’t all that unusual: many people in the late 1960s also fell by the wayside. But 99 percent of them we don’t hear about. Barrett stands out because he was so gifted, and because the band he fronted so long ago achieved phenomenal international success…without him.

Barrett was a butterfly that broke through the netting, his wings permanently damaged. But this is important: try as they might, they were never able to pin him to Styrofoam.

***

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released August 5, 1967) is a surreal, slightly ominous title for a rock album.  Surprisingly, Syd Barrett didn’t conceive it. He borrowed it from his favourite chapter in his favourite book, Kenneth Grahame’s fantasy classic The Wind in the Willows. But the title expertly sums up the mixture of science fiction and children’s fantasy that inform the words and music on the record.

grahame illustration

Paul Bransom illustration from “The Wind in the Willows”

Within these grooves we share English tea with all varieties of the phantasmagoric. Hallucinating gnomes. Existential scarecrows. Sinister, mind-reading cats. Outer (inner?) space denizens. “The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…”

Ok, I hear you snicker. “This is the kind of airy fairy shite that gave hippies a bad name.” You may be right. A lot of this stuff was done by hack musicians/writers eager to hitch a ride on the magic bus. But…

Long before the Summer of Love became an innocuous cliché and marketing tool, there existed a few imaginative, English art students bent on taking music, words, and art to undiscovered areas. The blueprint for the new music was created by the band Pink Floyd, helmed by the youngest member, Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett of Cambridge, who named his band after two of his beloved cats (who were named after two obscure American bluesmen).

According to his sister, Barrett had a rare condition called “synesthesia.”  Most of us only hear sounds and see colours.  But some “synesthetes” can evidently see sounds, and hear colours.  Barrett, a talented painter as well as musician, apparently exhibited this condition as a child and budding artist… years before he ever touched a hallucinogen.

In early 1967, Barrett penned two eye-opening singles that titillated the London youth underground: “Arnold Layne,” a true story about a Cambridge transvestite who stole women’s underwear from washing lines; and “See Emily Play,” a slice of English whimsy that teeters on insanity.

Based on these singles, EMI Columbia financed Pink Floyd’s first full-length LP. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, right when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on SGT. PEPPER. Legend has it that the Floyd members occasionally peeked in on Lennon and McCartney to absorb the brilliance. I propose it was the other way around.

If so, what might John and Paul have heard? There are two faces to this record: an unsettling and ragged trip into space (I’ll call it the Gates of Dawn) and a pleasant and pastoral trip back to childhood (The Piper… this would be all Syd). I’ll save The Piper songs for later.

“Astronomy Domine” “Pow R. Toc H.,” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come close to the later Floyd sound and were staples of the band’s blinding, liquid-light-fantastic live shows. All soar into space on the static-y strings of Barrett’s guitar. “Astronomy” is bolstered by Nick Mason’s tribal drumming, and the 10-minute “Interstellar” by Richard (Rick) Wright’s cosmic organ. “Pow R. Toc H.,” one of the album’s lesser songs, is an instrumental crammed with vocal and instrumental sound effects, but it has a characteristic spacey Floydian closeout.

Let me interject that Barrett on guitar was no Eric Clapton. But he made up for technical inadequacy by bravely exploring the instrument’s electric and aural capabilities (using a silver Telecaster adorned with 15 circular mirrors). He pioneered a technique of channeling bottleneck slide through an echo device, and it gave the Floyd a distinctive eerie sound.

Back to the songs: “Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk” is Roger Waters’ very first composition. Nothing notable here except the paranoid vocals by Barrett.

Hutton Archive, Getty Images

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright (Hutton Archive, Getty Images)

“Lucifer Sam” is a sleek nugget about a third feline owned by Barrett, a mysterious Siamese named Sam. The descending chords and twangy guitar lines have been described as “psychedelic Duane Eddy,”  and recall the Sloan-Barri hit sung by Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man.” In my garage-band days, I used to love playing this song (Sean Connery always popped into my head). It’s the closest song to a single on PIPER, in the same vein as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”

Now for The Piper part of the record: these songs were written exclusively by Barrett.

“The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” might as well be solo Barrett – I’m not sure if anyone else even plays on them, except perhaps Mason offering soft percussion help. Both are pastoral evocations that capture children’s fascination with the unreal possibly being real. “The Scarecrow,” also, has a rolling melody that may have made Paul McCartney blush while eavesdropping on the proceedings.

“Chapter 24” is a collection of observations lifted from the I Ching and set to music: “Change returns success/Going and coming without error/Action brings good fortune/Sunset, sunrise.” This song may have been inspired by Barrett’s interest in Eastern philosophies. Like other young people seeking new ways of thinking, he’d attempted to join a Sant Mat sect, but was rejected for being too young.

The oddest song here is probably “Bike:” “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like/It’s got a basket/A bell that rings/And things to make it look good… I’d give it to you if I could/But I borrowed it.” Note the rhyming, alliteration, and syncopation. Also, the little lyric twist at the end. On surface, the lyrics seem like nonsense.  But Barrett was a skilled writer, and like all great writers, he understood the power of letters and words.

John Steele Collection

Teenaged Roger Barrett in the family garden with guitar and tiger cat (Floyd? Pink?). Lucifer Sam is by his side in the foliage shadows (John Steele Collection)

Now for the pièce de résistance, the two songs that may be the cream of all English psychedelia. Musically and lyrically, they’re a joy to listen to: “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming.”

“Matilda Mother” is a bittersweet memory of Barrett’s about fairy stories read by his mother, with lyrics partly inspired by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc, especially his 1907 parody Cautionary Tales for Children. The best psychedelic music was less about hallucinating through drugs than about transcending the mundane, and in “Matilda Mother,” Barrett yearns to throw off the rigidness of adulthood and return to the comforting calm of his mother, and the “scribbly black” lines she recited, where the phantasmagoric was tangible, colours pulsate with life, and “everything shines.” Rick Wright, the low-key, underrated keyboardist in Floyd, who later also wrote several evocative songs about childhood, sings the verse, while Barrett sings the slightly bitter chorus (“Oh, oh mother/Tell me more…”).

“Flaming” is my favourite song on the album. Originally entitled “Snowing,” it’s a tune that requires little effort to listen to, just opened ears, an open mind, and a willingness to float on “eiderdown” through fields of buttercups and dandelions. Listen to this with a good set of headphones and let Wright’s deep organ fills wash over you, and Barrett’s stirring multi-tracked vocals warm your insides. You may giggle at the sudden entrance of a cuckoo… but, then, you’re supposed to. On surface, this song is about playing hide-and-seek. We were all children, once, so who cannot relate to that? But, as Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Syd Barrett all knew, words have different meanings.  This song is just as much about the exhilaration of being invisible, floating like a fetus, gazing at the hustle and bustle of a world gone cuckoo.

“Flaming” clocks in at a mere two minutes and forty-two seconds, but it’s more imaginative than all four sides of THE WALL.  And it has one of the most beautiful musical closeouts ever devised.  John and Paul certainly walked away shaking their heads in astonishment.  It’s obvious where they got the final notes for “She’s Leaving Home.”

Many have tried over the years, but nobody writes songs like this anymore. Very few back then could, either.

To its credit, U.S. subsidiary Tower Records actually released “Flaming” as Pink Floyd’s third U.S. single. But the song is too good, so it never charted.

Floyd-5

The short-lived five-piece Pink Floyd, and one of the last photos from the Barrett era. Gilmour is front center. Syd is second from left (Pink Floyd Music LTD Archive)

***

The Pink Floyd sound and image changed noticeably after PIPER was released and Barrett left the band. Rick Wright’s keyboards replaced Barrett’s guitar as the dominant instrument. The songs became less lyrical and more thematic, more like soundscapes. When there were words, Roger Waters adhered to Barrett’s philosophy of “keep it simple,” although Waters being Waters, more than a little social and political commentary crept into things. And since the band had no distinct leader anymore, the members’ identities were mysterious, even to many fans.

With the release of the epic DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in 1973, however, the Pink Floyd capsule finally broke the sound barrier of fame. Although the musicians still retained an air of mystery, their days as a curious cult attraction were forever gone. They could now enjoy the fruits of the capitalism which they’ve sometimes criticized. (And fight over possession of the band’s name, whilst the man who bestowed that name puttered in his flower garden, without regard for such matters.)

But the Piper never totally disappeared: his spirit hovered over the band and its songs until the end.

Psychedelic rock, or acid rock, only lasted a few years, from 1967 to ’69 or ’70.   Much of it was juvenile and derivative. But the best psychedelic rock is extremely interesting, in my view, and a few records could be termed classics. One of them is THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Pink Floyd’s one and only album with a colourful, talented, and enigmatic butterfly named Roger “Syd” Barrett.

***

Longitudes has now profiled four groundbreaking albums this year (three of them debuts). In December, I’ll discuss one more rock masterpiece in honour of its 50th anniversary, closing out what I consider the penultimate year for rock albums: 1967. But, in the playful spirit of Syd, I’ll keep you guessing as to what it is.

(Have you got it yet?).

The Wind in the Willows Shepard