A somewhat cynical defence of progressive rock

A somewhat updated version of the old blog, republished.

The Singer, a painting of mine.

Progressive rock has been mythologized in to some sort of musical statue since the 60s and 70s. It’s now seen as something it never was, and that’s not helping modern musicians progress. Music is a very personal subject to me, so excuse a few catty-but-sincere remarks.

The origins of progressive rock

Progressive rock was a matter of necessity, as much as anything else. Sorry about the “sage geniuses of innovation” myth, but there was a much more practical reason for progressive music than mere genius.

Music naturally progresses, despite institutions, corporations, and rehash factories going back centuries. Musicians also progress, because of, and despite, themselves.

In the 20th century, the revolution started with Cole Porter, who I consider the greatest musician of the century. Cole Porter hit the music industry with what would later become a stunning breakthrough. Porter turned lyrics and by extension the music itself, in to a much more flexible, adaptive form.

If it wasn’t for Porter, Gershwin and others, modern music could never have happened. At the same time, the rise of Ellington, Basie, and the white guys playing black music entered the popular music field like a super nova.

Even the ponderous lyrical/melodic straitjackets, like “I am sing-ing a-bout my love-ly Pet-u-nia”, the old-style way of writing lyrics, gave way to the more modern, “conversational/natural speech” form. That’s how fundamental the changes were.

The music went a lot further, a lot faster. Swing, which is basically jazz for dancing, mixed in beautifully with more advanced arrangements, and, incidentally, a lot more fun for audiences, too.

Rock and roll, which is a direct descendant of R&B, came along at a time when audiences and record companies had evolved to accept it. Rock had a huge advantage; it was relatively simple, 3 chords made you a career, and you could do a lot of things with it. You can see the natural musical environment evolving before your eyes. That’s “progress”.

Then, the Beatle Apocalypse. The Beatles were tighter than hell after Hamburg, and the Fab Four thing took off, and took music with it. This was the unlikely stage for the development of every form of prog rock, from heavy metal to some of the most esoteric, semi-comprehensible music ever played.

The Beatles outgrew the Mop Tops thing fast. They were the real deal by now, and they were evolving well out of the original mould. They obviously didn’t want to be stuck with the very predictable stuff.  Lennon and McCartney were pop hook experts, but do you want to do that forever? They moved on, fast, from A Taste of Honey through a sort of high-end musical interlude including Eleanor Rigby and other non-pop structures, through Revolver, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, and ultimately the White Album and Abbey Road, That’s a very long musical journey, in less than 10 years. That’s what I mean by “evolution” in music.

Other musicians had had enough of bland pop, too, and the Beatles, who were unchallenged and unchallengeable in the world of commercial music, acted as the endorsement for progress. (The White Album for its time, and even now to a considerable extent, simply threw away pop in its old form and was a truly uncompromising prog album.)

Early prog, however, had a problem: If you can do anything, what do you do? At least partly, you come up with uncomfortable hybrids of pop and sound effects, weird noises, and mystic lyrics. Psychedelia was as much of an excuse as a fact, and it was a great excuse for the truly different stuff, produced in the mid-60s. Audiences loved it, half-arse as much of it was, and it did produce some good songs.

Prog in the earlier days was a mix. There was the blues-based but truly adventurous Cream, the expert Traffic, the electronic but still rock-ish Floyd-of-course, Soft Machine, and a host of other deserving efforts. In the States, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, and other bands also threw away the rule book pretty convincingly.

A nice, messy collection of bands, still to some extent in standard pop band forms, but doing a lot. Then came Hendrix. I have no time for anyone who thinks Hendrix was some sort of hype. His contribution to music was 100% – He took a truly dangerous musical position as a standout guitarist, and that contribution was all about being himself. The huge electric storms which came out his guitars were the start of true prog rock. Free Spirit below is from his first solo album.

(For the record – Unless you know how stupid it is possible to feel standing around playing a guitar, you don’t know how hard being “standout guitarist” really is. I’ve only experienced that feeling one time, decades ago, and the hideous taste remains. It’s NOT easy to take the entire weight of a musical performance on yourself. As a musical  “everything depends on you” position, for most guitarists, that “unique sound” is a very difficult load to bear.)

Meanwhile, just discovered something – Play Free Spirit and Crossroads simultaneously on two YouTube tabs, and they fit together very well, Keep the volume equal for both.

Hendrix basically lit up the guitar bands. Everyone got a lot more adventurous, and progressive guitar, which is a totally different thing from the old pop solos, added itself to the general exploration and adventure of new, very different music.

There were many reactions to prog rock by about 1969. Both were articulate, and not everyone liked prog rock. The critics called it self-indulgent, and that was one of the more polite comments. The purists, particularly blues purists, were very picky, unfairly so, in some cases. They said Voodoo Chile, the long version, “wasn’t blues”. It is. It’s a series of rhythmic chords, in heavy blues style, but not with the usual baggage of “compulsory chords and fingering” which most good blues guys avoid anyway. The bitchiness was unkind, but some of the more pointed remarks like WTF is that all about? did make useful points.

By now, everyone was doing some form of progressive stuff. Eric Burdon and the Animals committed pure pop heresy, a 7 minute pop song called Sky Pilot, and audiences loved it. The Beatles did Magical Mystery Tour, a much-underrated, wryly funny in so many ways, album of totally unpredictable songs. Cream did a long version of Crossroads on The live album of Wheels of Fire, and nobody could get enough of it. The barriers were crumbling all over, and popular music would never be the same. 

The Rolling Stones, who’d always benefited musically from being outside the cute pop zone, and were always experimenting with sounds, didn’t take much encouragement, either. Beggars Banquet is NEVER called a prog album, but get the vibes and the lyrics. There’s the mysticism, the exotic rhythms, and the savage wit; try doing that in 1964. When the album came out, it blew everyone away as a  sort of Stones milestone, their version of progression.

This was cultural progress, as well as musical progress. Audiences had grown up, too.  New and different were the hallmarks. The entire pop world went with the flow. Culture drives societies, and the generational ethos was established.

The intersection of progressive rock with soul, jazz and blues

Soul, which was the other big revolution in pop in the mid-60s, was another factor. Sly and the Family Stone, for example, were perfectly capable of blowing minds on a truly astonishing scale. Motown brought slick but ultra-talented arrangements in which if not quite suitable for prog, were absorbed and showed up in some very unlikely places. Saxophones, fabulous female vocals, and some damn good hooks found their way in to prog, too.

Ironically, rock was trying to do what jazz had been doing for years. Jazz is a very fluid, pluralistic, type of music.  Jazz musicians had been breaking out of their various moulds for decades by this time, and the more advanced prog rock guys got the message. Miles Davis came up with Bitches Brew, a truly complex sound with a lot of very practical phrasing which also fitted in to the theory of what prog rock was supposed to be doing.

Blues, revived by Cream and many others like John Mayall, brought out the big guns of the blues, like BB King, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Howling Wolf, and a virtual train load of others. There really are too many to list.

In the fusion process, prog rock added a few very necessary dimensions. I’ll spare you the specific cases and minutiae of analysis of individual bits of music, but you can hear all this stuff being grafted on. The musical benefits for prog rock, which is as much about musical direction as anything else, were huge.

Everything from orchestras to super groups and some fascinating mixes and developments of basic band sounds in to much more advanced musical ideas, was happening by 1969. This was the heyday of prog rock and in all honesty, it was pretty authentic. The new ideas of that time are all still around today.

Progressive rock, electronic music and the markets

Early synthesizers, notably the VCS3, a wave form machine which could actually be used to deliver decent sounds, also arrived, and were instantly grabbed. Fortunately, some of the people grabbing also knew what to do with them, and were prepared to take risks. Most of the patches you see now trace back to these basic forms. The recording techniques and arrangements are all still around in various forms. Krautrock and many others backed up the arrival of electronics and made it mainstream.

Music had retained its pop element, commercially. Prog rock sold, and that was all the suits needed to know. The musical weirdos of 1965 were the commercial saints of 1972. Prog went mainstream, and nobody minded much.

One thing about this period which is rarely mentioned is that not everybody was totally thrilled. “Complacent” prog rock was the criticism, with some reason. Prog rock albums had their own degrees of filler and cutesy crap, too. Verbose prog rock stars could get on your nerves a bit too. There’s a definite limit to how esoteric musicians should be allowed to be in public, and some went over that limit too often.

“Pomp rock” and “stadium rock” were terms of abuse to some. These big sound/big hype things didn’t go over well with the true prog aficionados, who thought it was all extraneous, not to say ridiculous in some cases. Add to this the perceived remoteness of all the big names, and not everyone was all over it.

Punk vs progressive rock

It was in this environment that punk, the thousands of tons of gel and raw noise arrived. To be fair, punk couldn’t compete with prog on its own terms. The punk bands didn’t have the technical skills, or the global distribution. So they did what they did best – Added some anarchy.

Punk and its American relative, garage, were like old rock and roll – Aggressive, directionless, and pretty damn full of themselves. It was music for the moment, and they thrashed it for all it was worth. Some turned out to be good performers, and in some cases good songwriters.

Clash, The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees, there are a lot of them. The pity of it was that they were apparently not aware of the Stooges, the definitive hardest of hard punk style bands. If they’d taken a few hints from Fun House, , particularly Ashton’s guitar, punk might have lasted a lot longer than it did.

This was where the “boring old fart” image got started, the younger bands clamouring for attention, and also sticking an apt needle in to a prog rock environment which was getting a bit top heavy and some might say smug. Some of the older bands did pay attention, unwillingly or not, but with some level of honesty.

(My view at the time, that boring young farts weren’t much of an improvement on boring old farts, wasn’t exactly appreciated. Everyone’s a martyr to criticism, however apt that criticism may be. You poor oppressed bastards, you.)

The irony of punk was that it did what music has always done – It progressed. From noise to Nirvana, Metallica, etc. wasn’t that much of a step, but it was a step in the right direction. Punk evolved in to the hair and keyboards bands, to the much broader forms of rock, which has never liked limits of any kind.

Prog rock, however, found itself out on a limb. Loyal audiences continued to support it, and still do. The problem was, and is, that a commercial market with a brief attention span is a hell of a place to try to be musically sincere, let alone try to achieve something.

The new progressive rock

Progressive rock HAS survived, online, and it’s regrowing fast in different forms. I hear so many good bands and composers, notably Wildpath, Antti Martikainen, Nightwish, and others who are obviously prepared to try anything. It’s good to see that their music isn’t turning in to some damn formulaic mausoleum. This is how it started, and how music evolves.

Viva the evolution!

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