Ah, the widely-ridiculed, and sometimes very silly world of Progressive Rock, or simply Prog, as it is known to its close friends.
As a baby in 1971, I managed to miss the golden era of Prog completely, falling as it did between the late sixties and mid seventies, when the mad usurper Punk put Prog as an acceptable part of the mainstream music scene to an early death.
I properly discovered Prog in the late 1980s, when I became interested in the band Yes, following a school French exchange visit, where I discovered the music of Rick Wakeman as a solo artist, and the vocal exploits of a certain Jon Anderson, who performed on a couple of Mike Oldfield tracks I liked.
As a budding musician, I was looking for, shall we say, something a little more interesting than standard pop music, which started its long and slippery decline (in my book, anyway) after about 1983. Having discovered that Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson were in fact in the band Yes, I decided to investigate the band further and bought the albums Fragile (1972) and the recently recorded Big Generator (1987). They were poles apart in sound, but there was some commonality in musicianship.
My first reaction to Big Generator was that I quite liked the heavy, polished and over-produced sound.
My first reaction to Fragile was laughter. What utter flarey nonsense!
How wrong I was. Progressive Rock is an acquired taste. It is not instantly-gratifying, but takes some commitment on the part of the listener. It is this very commitment which leads to an emotional, yes, emotional, attachment to the music. If you are cynical, angry, and seek instant gratification, you will not enjoy Prog Rock. If you appreciate the beauty, strong melodies, and power of music, you will probably grow to love it. I have seen people at Prog gigs literally cry with emotion. A spiritual experience? I wouldn't go quite that far, but there are those who would.
I put in some time listening to Fragile, and once I had got past the very amusing analogue synth sounds (which I now love, by the way), I discovered that the music had great depth to it. All musicians involved weren't simply knocking out the standard blues chords that most other bands knock out. All were extremely inventive.
On the album, and even more so on its successor, Close To The Edge, we hear a band that is pushing back the boundaries of rock music, not because they're on any kind of superiority trip over other bands' musicians, but simply because they have the freedom and the skills to do so.
You could not put Rick Wakeman, a classically trained pianist and organist into a three chord band - he'd go mad. The same applies to Chris Squire, with a background in English church music, and bass lines which strongly resemble bass parts in choral music. Bill Bruford, on drums, was (and still is) an extremely melodic drummer, with a deep love of jazz. Steve Howe loved and was clearly influenced by early jazz guitarists, but knew how to pull out the stops to rock things up. Finally, and by no means least, the 'you either love it or hate it' voice of Jon Anderson. Anderson's high voice soars above the music and is a very refreshing change from the standard rock voice.
And the music is powerful. With progressive rock you get a mix of big classical influences in arrangement, going from floating melodies in quiet sections of a song, to immensely powerful sections featuring bass pedals which should carry a health warning - no really. The music has to be listened to loudly to be enjoyed properly.
So why did Prog fall out of mainstream favour in the late 1970s? Well, it has to be said that some of blame must be laid squarely at the feet of some of the Prog bands. Several Prog bands, like Yes and Genesis, had the ability to take their music seriously, but retain a tongue-in-cheek, almost self-mocking approach to their work. Others did not. They thought that they were gods of rock and should be worshipped as such. Frankly, some of these more experimental bands' music was lost on Joe Public (I include myself here), and so Joe turned to punk as a means to knock these big-heads from their self-made Prog pedestals.
To my mind, the unfortunate consequences of this were to throw the baby out with the bath water. After less than ten years as a respected form of rock music, during which time Prog even became cool, Prog was effectively laughed off the stage and we started to hear the now tired old accusations of Prog musicians being dinosaurs.
Many of the Prog bands vanished completely (some up their own backsides). Yes carried on until 1980, had a three year break and then came back with a new, modern rock sound, a slightly changed line-up and once again became successful, albeit with quite a different sound, under the guidance (you have to hand it to him) of new guitarist, Trevor Rabin.
Genesis sold out (Phil Collins' words, not mine) after the departure of their hugely underrated guitarist, Steve Hackett (to me, they were at their best when Hackett was on an album) and achieved stratospheric success as a pop band, as did their original and very wacky vocalist, Peter Gabriel.
During the 1980s, pure Prog went underground, with some exceptions. Marillion continued to carry the flame in the mainstream, and even bands such as It Bites achieved some success, once they had turned themselves a little more radio friendly.
More recently, with the fragmentation of the music scene and the death of the singles market (I wonder why), we are seeing the return of some old Prog bands to the medium-sized and big tour scene, and the development of a third generation of young and very gifted Prog bands. Although they probably hate the tag, because it still loses them street credibility, bands such as Radiohead and Muse ARE Progressive Rock bands, in the true sense of the term. They are going beyond the normal constraints of blues-based pop/rock and bringing a wide range of influences, odd time-signatures, and dynamics into their music.
Many of the first generation Prog bands are still touring. Yes recently completed their 35th anniversary tour, and they can still sell out the big arena venues. The same goes for Rush, who had to add dates to their 2004 tour to cater for demand. Unfortunately, Genesis are no more, but there are some pretty good Genesis tribute bands doing the rounds. Notable amongst these is The Musical Box, a Canadian tribute to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It says a lot that they can sell out the Birmingham Hippodrome in 2003 with their exact replication of Genesis' 1973 Selling England By The Pound concert (lights, scenery, projections, instruments, costumes, and all)..
Prog has a continuously growing underground market, particularly outside the United Kingdom, where most of the public still care more about how musicians look and how often they can say 'f**k' (dead clever that), than their skills as musicians and songwriters. The music export figures speak for themselves. There was a time when 40% of the U.S. charts comprised British music acts: this figure is now less than 0.5%.
I remain optimistic for the next generation. At a recent Prog gig I noticed for the first time that most of the audience in front of the stage were under twenty five. Let's face it. Rap, R&B, Soul, and the like have had their time. Move over and make way... for I have seen the future... and it is in 15/8 time!
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