Early in the new millennium, when progressive rock was emerging from underneath rocks and dragging itself out of slimy ponds, I discovered that G, the wife of one of my university friends, was into prog in a rather big way. This came as something of a surprise because I was only aware that my friend’s taste in music was very different from mine, with what I recall as being a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll of the late 50s and early 60s.
G’s collection was centred around reel-to-reel tapes that remained, to a greater degree, inaccessible and in an effort to rekindle her passion for odd time signatures and Jon Anderson flights of fancy, I offered to put together a couple of CDs (the noughties equivalent of the mix tape) to cover as wide a range of classic prog as possible with a short explanation why I’d chosen the included tracks, prefaced by a brief ‘what is prog?’ It goes without saying that my compilation conformed to the most logical arrangement i.e. alphabetically by band, and this is what I put together:
CD1. 1) Mockingbird (Barclay James Harvest); 2) First Light (Camel); 3) Virgin on the Ridiculous (Caravan); 4) Trilogy (Emerson, Lake & Palmer); 5) The Last Judgement (The Enid); 6) Anonymous (Focus); 7) The Fountain of Salmacis (Genesis); 8) On Reflection (Gentle Giant); 9) Lucifer’s Cage (Gordon Giltrap); 10) Pilgrims Progress (Greenslade); 11) Juniper Suite (Gryphon); 12) Minstrel in the Gallery (Jethro Tull)
CD2. 1) Easy Money (King Crimson); 2) 3rd Movement Pathetique (The Nice); 3) The World Became the World (PFM); 4) Time (Pink Floyd); 5) Papillion (Refugee); 6) Opus 1065 (Trace); 7) Rendezvous 6.02 (UK); 8) White Hammer (Van der Graaf Generator); 9) Arrow (Van der Graaf Generator); 10) Awaken (Yes)
Why this selection? The easy answer would be that it fitted very neatly onto two CDs, though choosing appropriate tracks to fulfil the requirement of reflecting progressive rock bands of the 70s took some thought. On reflection, “it fitted neatly onto two CDs” is probably the most satisfying answer, because the way you define progressive rock/prog has an influence on choice. I stuck to the premise that in the late 60s and the 70s progressive rock was largely, but not exclusively, a European phenomenon, centred in the UK; I included Focus, Trace (both from the Netherlands) and PFM (Italy) to highlight important continental influences on the genre. Another reason was that these groups formed the core of my collection at the time, before I’d accrued disposable income and before I actively began to fill in the gaping omissions. Some of the recordings were transferred to digital from the original vinyl because I hadn’t got round to replacing or supplementing my LPs with CDs.
I maintained a fairly conservative* view of what constitutes prog for a long time but progressive rock was genuinely a broad church and in the intervening period it has arguably become a lot broader; looking back at the list after more than ten years I think my choice stands the test of time. It’s not a ‘best of’ or my personal top 22 but I did put a great deal of effort into the selection balancing how representative each track was of each band within the constraints of an 80 minute CD.
*This is the only situation where I’m ever going to be associated with the ‘c’ word
Barclay James Harvest was the first band I went to see outside Barrow, playing at Lancaster University on the Time Honoured Ghosts tour. In an attempt to acquaint myself with their music, which I hadn’t knowingly heard up to that point, I bought the album BJH Live. Mockingbird is a quintessential BJH track, played as the encore at concerts which combines many of the elements that make up progressive rock.
First Light is second-phase Camel but it neatly encapsulates their sense of tasteful, melodic prog. The success of Snow Goose and Moonmadness is not diminished by this relatively short track that opens Rain Dances.
Selecting a Caravan track proved quite difficult. I regard much of the Pye Hastings material as being filler unless it’s integral to a multipart suite. Virgin on the Ridiculous had not been recorded prior to the live performance of Caravan and the New Symphonia and this is one of Hastings’ finer efforts with less of the schoolboy humour and a more symphonic feel.
Hoedown is archetypal ELP because it is one of their classical adaptations – Emerson named his son Aaron after Hoedown composer Aaron Copland. It covers ground that had been laid out in his days with The Nice, possibly to the chagrin of Lake, whose acoustic ballads are far too throwaway for me.
I’d followed the fortunes of The Enid since their arrival on the prog scene with In the Region of the Summer Stars from 1976. Last Judgment is from this symphonic masterwork.
I shunned the popular and successful Hocus Pocus and Sylvia in favour of a more complex but no less pleasing offering from Focus, Anonymus [sic] from their first album, a track that indicated how successful they would become.
The Genesis track had to incorporate the classic line-up and I decided on The Fountain of Salmacis from Nursery Cryme because I regard it as a forgotten gem. With its mythical concept, alternating passages of pastoralism and rock sections and dramatic Mellotron, this was the first Genesis track that I remember hearing.
Gentle Giant cover a wide range of styles but I chose a track from one of their more accessible works, On Reflection, from 1975’s Free Hand. This particular song features trademark Giant vocal acrobatics and has a more medieval vibe than most other material from Free Hand (excepting Talybont) and includes plaintive recorder and delicate tuned percussion.
Folk musician Gordon Giltrap caught the zeitgeist and produced a series of folk-inflected symphonic prog albums beginning with the William Blake-inspired Visionary from 1976. Lucifer’s Cage is the rockiest of the compositions and at a little over 4 minutes is probably the longest track on the album.
Greenslade evolved from the British Blues explosion and were unusual. if not unique, for their twin keyboard player line-up and lack of a guitarist. Though the Dave Lawson lyrics are very clever, I prefer their instrumentals. Pilgrims Progress [sic] showcases the entire band but is a standout track by virtue of some chilling Mellotron.
Gryphon were comprised of former Royal College of Music students who blended medieval folk tunes, classics and pop tunes all played on unusual and early instruments. Their compositions developed in line with the spirit of progressive rock and Juniper Suite is a good example of early music goes rock.
Stand Up may have indicated the future direction of Jethro Tull but I wasn’t over-impressed with their catalogue until Thick as a Brick. Minstrel in the Gallery is an under-rated album and the title track balances their folk leanings with some heavy prog, something that would become an accepted formula for tracks on a number of subsequent albums.
Out of the entire project, the band which caused me most difficulty was King Crimson because Robert Fripp’s contention that of all the so-called prog bands, Crimson was the only one to constantly re-imagine itself rings true. I plumped for Easy Money because it best represented the hidden power of the band that was unleashed when the band played live.
Referring back to Keith Emerson’s predilection for interpreting classical compositions, the track for The Nice was Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Movement Pathetique, the band-only version that appears on Elegy.
Premiata Forneria Marconi was the first progressivo Italiano band that I heard. The World Became the World, the title track from the English language version of L'Isola di Niente is short but perfectly formed and is indisputably classic PFM.
The progressive phase of Pink Floyd doesn’t really last very long. I chose Time because it incorporates the progressive features of Dark Side and has an archetypal Gilmour guitar solo.
Refugee was a very short-lived entity but their one eponymous studio album from 1974 was as good as progressive rock gets. Papillion is quirky and catchy and demonstrates how good the rhythm section of Jackson and Davison could be.
Trace was a kind of Dutch ELP, highlighting the musicianship of keyboard player Rick van der Linden. Opus 1065 is an arrangement of Bach and features Darryl Way on electric violin.
Progressive rock’s last throw of the dice in the 70s was the supergroup UK. Though the second album Danger Money indicates the direction towards AOR following the departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth, the uncomplicated Rendezvous 6:02 is a personal favourite.
I included two Van der Graaf Generator tracks because of the disparity in style before and after their split in 1972. White Hammer is a sonic assault and classic Hammill material; Arrow is pared-back and neurotic and quite different from the other material on Godbluff because of the paucity of organ, the major feature of the band throughout their career.
I had to end with Yes. G has accompanied members of the Page family to a number of gigs, the vast majority involving Yes or past members of the band. Awaken is an inspiring piece of music that’s deceptively accessible and one of the best prog tracks ever.
Around the time I was putting my progressive rock compilation together, the music industry and the marketing world had woken up to the fact that forty- and fifty somethings had significant buying power and latched onto the phenomenon of cyclical fashion. Recognising that prog had shaken off its pariah status they cynically released the first of a batch of compilation albums, triple CD The Best Prog Rock Album in the World... Ever! just in time for father’s day 2003 and my son dutifully bought it for me. That selection included some material that I wouldn’t class as progressive rock by Be Bop Deluxe, Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra, Hawkwind, Man, and Roxy Music, though to be fair you could call most of it prog-related and fits in with the ‘broad church’ philosophy. Whilst there was no King Crimson, the Virgin/EMI-released collection did feature many of the usual suspects, mimicking 13 of the bands in my list and strangely enough, included two Van der Graaf Generator tracks!