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.

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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.)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part Two

2013 004 

Despite all the computations
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station,
And it was alright

               (Lou Reed, from the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll”)

Last month I inducted five bands into the longitudes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and promised there would be five more.  These, then, will wrap up the Top 10 artists I feel should have already been inducted, but so far been shunned by that other Hall.  You know, the one whose museum is in Cleveland but whose VIP induction ceremonies are usually shifted to the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Sorry about the sarcasm.  I should try to keep things upbeat, especially when it comes to music.  Anyway, this induction is a time to celebrate!  A time to be happy! 🙂  And one of the best things about this ceremony is the total absence of self-congratulatory music biz backslapping, cronyism, and sloppy post-induction onstage “jamming” by bloated, bag-eyed, half-drunk, over-the-hill millionaire rock stars wearing ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Well, I tried.

The next five acts being inducted are… (Paul Shaffer, please leave the building):

New York Dolls: how can longitudes induct a band that made only one great record, and one very good follow-up?  Well, the Sex Pistols made only one great record, and there would be no Sex Pistols – and therefore nobody to label the RnRHoF a “piss stain” – had it not been for these proto-punk nasty boys.  Led by Mick Jagger look-a-like David Johansen (aka “Buster Poindexter”), the Dolls’ music was often ramshackle, but it was delivered with in-your-face panache. dolls Songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Subway Train,” “Frankenstein,” “Trash,” and “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown” are stripped-down rock & roll before the fall, straight out of a Staten Island garage or Bowery basement.  Classic New York City hard rock, with exaggerated androgyny just for humorous effect.  Iggy and the Stooges made it to the RnRHoF, as well as the cartoonish Alice Cooper, so why not these guys, three of whom are already dead??  I’d ask record exec and RnRHoF guru Ahmet Ertegun, but he’s in rock & roll heaven too.

Todd Rundgren: the “Runt” seems like a 180-degree turn from the Dolls.  And like the Moody Blues from last month’s induction, he polarizes opinion: you either love him or hate him.  But Rundgren actually produced the Dolls’ classic debut album, as well as successful albums by Badfinger, Patti Smith, XTC, the Tubes, the Band, Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Psychedelic Furs, and many more.  He’s also famous for his groundbreaking work in media technology.  But his induction rests on his own solo records, including his masterpiece, Something/Anything?, a double album filled with golden pop nuggets all written and sung by Rundgren and where he played almost all the instruments (long before the artist formerly or presently known or not known as Prince ).  Bravely changing direction, Rundgren followed with the kaleidoscopic A Wizard, A True Starrunt2Like many prodigies, Rundgren was erratic, and his philosophic excursions with his band Utopia didn’t help his case with RnRHoF.  But he’s one of the pop renaissance men, along with Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder.  And even more than the others, he was unafraid to risk failure or ridicule.  Songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,”  “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “A Dream Lives on Forever,” “Can We Still Be Friends,”  “Time Heals,” “Bang the Drum All Day,” and others only scratch the surface of his significant contributions to rock.

Fairport Convention: similar to Love (see first induction), Fairport Convention is unknown to many rock fans.  They’re more familiar in England than America, where many hail them as Great Britain’s greatest folk-rock band.  Like the Byrds in America, Fairport covered a lot of Bob Dylan songs when they started, but they soon found their own muse, plundering English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s archives to create their own British Isles brand of psychedelic folk-rock.fairport  Singer Sandy Denny is regarded as having one of the best voices in rock or folk, sort of a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Judy Collins (her beautiful song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by Collins).  Fairport also included critically respected guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson.  If you haven’t heard this band, I encourage you to check out the albums What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief, which form the core of their catalog and earn them a spot in longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Procol Harum: yet another English progressive rock band.  What doesn’t RnRHoF like about these groups?  Are they too Caucasian, or European, or musically proficient?? (I’m convinced Genesis was inducted due to their Phil Collins-era pop molasses, not Peter Gabriel’s earlier, more intriguing influence).  But even critics of progressive rock are fond of Procol Harum.  Their lyricist, Keith Reid, didn’t play an instrument, but wrote clever gothic poems with references to rusted sword scabbards and haunted ships.  He had the perfect partners in pianist/arranger Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher.procol  This axis was ably assisted by Hendrix-styled guitarist Robin Trower and thunderous drummer B.J. Wilson.  All of them gave Procol a sound like no other group, one that veered between crunching blues and soaring symphonic rock.  Last year they were nominated by RnRHoF but missed induction (“Sorry boys, maybe next time”).  A slap in the face to a great band that did “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” and made some very cool albums.  Longitudes hereby corrects the injustice.

King Crimson: here is a British band that wrote long, complex songs with flute, violin, saxophone, and keyboards.  And the keyboards included a Mellotron, a modified tape replay keyboard, no less. Oh my God, what heresy!  What would Elvis say!  Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is rolling in his grave (wherever his grave is located).  Despite RnRHoF’s misgivings, longitudes recognizes Crimson’s importance in stretching the boundaries of rock, with their bold explorations into free jazz, classical chamber music, and dissonance.  Led by erudite guitarist Robert Fripp, the only permanent member, King Crimson in the beginning included talented vocalist Greg Lake, later crimsonone-third of the supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and multi-instrumentalist and tunesmith Ian MacDonald (who later went for the bread and formed Foreigner).  Pete Townshend of the Who called Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, “an uncanny masterpiece.”  King Crimson influenced a lot of musicians, from Genesis to Rush to Nirvana.  More than just a band, they were a forward-thinking musical aesthetic.  But RnRHoF evidently prefers the group Heart.  ‘Nuff said.

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians