When did prog emerge?
The progressive rock movement did not simply appear overnight and consequently there is much debate about which was the first prog album. Sgt Pepper was not prog, though the idea of the song cycle and the development of the studio techniques used in its recording were essential to the development of the genre. Piper at the Gates of Dawn was certainly not prog, but Pink Floyd were applying different rules to song writing and they approached prog territory on their second album A Saucerful of Secrets released in 1968, though it could be argued that this album, with only one compositional contribution by Syd Barrett, cemented the Floyd as the premier space-rock act. Soft Machine, who evolved at around the same time as Pink Floyd, were undoubtedly experimental, creating a mix of psychedelic rock and jazz inspired by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Both Procol Harum and The Moody Blues have some claim to releasing the first prog album with Shine on Brightly and The Days of Future Passed respectively, each album providing some of the elements that constitute progressive rock, but really these were merely proto-progressive. The first album by The Nice, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack was essentially psychedelic rock rather than prog, in the same vein as Barrett-era Pink Floyd. This is hardly surprising since guitarist Davy O’List stepped in to help the Floyd when Syd was incapable of playing. The fact that a number of different bands were challenging the existing boundaries of rock helped to create a suitable environment for the birth of a new and distinct genre, and it’s my opinion that the first album to incorporate all the elements of prog was In the Court of the Crimson King which was released in 1969.
There is a general consensus about the lifespan of the genre. Bill Martin defines a “Time of Progressive Rock” with three phases, Emergence (1968-69); Apogee (1970-74); and Trials and Transformations (1975-78). Charles Snider proposes his time line of progressive rock, running from 1967 to 1979 and Kevin Holm-Hudson also proposes a period that runs from 1967 – 1979. All commentators recognise that there is a continuation of the genre that extends beyond the 70s. Of course music that conforms to the prog ethos has continued outside the accepted time frame. Bands may have imploded or fizzled out but then reformed to continue the legacy (ELP) or they may have continued with line-up changes along the way (Yes.) King Crimson managed to implode on two occasions, the first in 1974 and the second well outside the classic prog era when the Discipline-era quartet disbanded.
Some bands formed after the first prog era, including the so-called neo-prog bands epitomised by Marillion and IQ, even as some of the old acts slipped in and out of hibernation, albeit with a sound that was more accessible, partly due to the changing nature of the music industry where executives were beginning to exercise more influence on their acts, dropping the former supportiveness that was a feature of the late 60s and early 70s for a more hard-nosed business approach concerned with shifting product and making a profit. It’s quite obvious that musical creativity and business are not the best of bedfellows, and that the more idealistic approach of record companies during prog’s heyday provided bands with a creative freedom unfettered by commercial requirements that helped push back boundaries, allowing the music to flourish. I’m not trying to suggest that all record companies behaved like saints but a number of major labels did form subsidiaries that were havens for adventurous bands: EMI’s Harvest label looked after Pink Floyd and Barclay James Harvest; Pye’s Dawn label was home to Fruupp; Caravan and Camel both signed to Deram, part of the Decca stable; Gentle Giant, Colosseum and Trace were signed to Vertigo, a subsidiary of Philips.
There is currently a movement that attempts to recreate the classic era of prog, utilising analogue instrumentation. Le Porte del Domani by La Maschera di Cera (AMS, 2013) has all the hallmarks of an album released during the golden era of prog though the sound quality and production are really clean, an obvious bonus of the digital age. The Weirding by American group Astra (Rise Above Records, 2009) is another modern album that harks back to classic prog, with mellotron passages that have been borrowed straight from Cirkus from King Crimson’s 1970 album Lizard, though the production is less polished and the instrumental skills less developed.
Changes in the outlook of the industry in the late 70s and early 80s meant that bands had less time to work on grand schemes or to please themselves. The belief that music could change the world evaporated as free market ideology and globalisation began to take hold, and though there were some major progressive rock success stories, music was rapidly becoming a commodity and a series of hit singles taken from an album was going to be far more lucrative than backing an established band touring with an orchestra.
Contrary to Punk’s belief that it was responsible for slaying the dinosaur, the return to three chords and a raw sound that crashed into the earth like some giant comet sending shockwaves around the planet and fouling the atmosphere simply led to a rethink by prog bands. When the Sex Pistols were celebrating the silver jubilee with God Save the Queen, Yes were producing Going for the One which included both the rocking title track and the cosmic Awaken, one of the best prog tracks of all time.
It was the rise of MTV as much as anything that changed prog, exemplifying the rise of style over substance. It is interesting to note that the 90125 era Yes brought the band to the attention of a very large number of new fans (90125 is the biggest selling Yes album of all time) but also turned off hard core fans who were disillusioned with the more commercial musical direction. I count myself amongst the latter though I did buy the album and attend a Wembley gig on 11th July 1984 by that particular line-up. The album is memorable for the Trevor Rabin dominated writing and the Trevor Horn production which gives it a very contemporary feel. Jon Anderson came late to the proceedings and it shows. There’s no spiritual anchor and the songs have lost all trace of cosmic oneness and pantheism, resulting in a message no different from that coming out of almost all the other adult-oriented rock acts.