Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Though most readers will have a good understanding of the term ‘progressive rock’ it is inherent in the nature of many prog fans to query the exact definition of prog rock. If you ask one of them to provide a description they will begin a long rambling diatribe who, what and even why some obscure Andorran band, who only ever released a demo tape should be included. Ask another and the definition and the list would be different, with different reasoning. Ask another one, and another one, and the picture gets pretty complicated. Jerry Lucky begins The Progressive Rock Files with a definition and Charles Snider reaches his definition after a brief word about how he came to listen to prog. Given the intended readership, it may then seem surprising that I should need to include my definition, but this is a personal take on the prog phenomenon. Ask me, and this is what I’ll tell you.
Prog was largely, but not exclusively, a European phenomenon, centred in the UK, especially in the south east of England. Whereas jazz and blues were Black American music, and rock ‘n’ roll was American youth music, prog reflected European classical music, even though some prog bands like Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant started off as basic blues outfits.
The roots of progressive rock were many and varied, which I would regard as one of the key points of the movement: Prog came about through the blending of the different prevailing influences – blues, jazz, folk, classical, eastern, without being any one particular style. Listen to some Yes harmony vocals, and you can hear the Beach Boys and feel Californian sun. Dissect the song structure and it is evident that the songwriters had an understanding of composition.
In general, bands that evolved into prog bands were unhappy with the constraints of the 3-minute pop song, and eschewed instant commercial success. They wanted to experiment, either with the compositional structure or the way songs were recorded, or both, resulting in complex and often long musical pieces, incorporating changes of tempo and mood. Technique was also a feature of prog, but not only mastery of the instrument itself, but also the technology associated with instruments: effects pedals for guitars; different keyboards (the analogue synthesizer made its first appearance on Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Switched on Bach in 1967; the mellotron was used in the studio in 1967.) It is the broadening of influences and the sonic palette that distinguishes prog from the extended jamming of Cream’s blues-based psychedelic rock, though evidently technique, mastery of the instruments and sonic exploration is shared between the two forms. Though it was often different keyboards that helped to widen the sounds available to a band, with some believing (myself included) that keyboards helped to define a prog band, things are never straightforward. Acts such as Gnidrolog did include piano and organ but it was the recorder that defined their undoubtedly progressive rock sound.
What’s prog and what’s not is a spectrum of shades of grey, and highlights the difficulty associated with pigeonholing or labelling bands. The genre includes output from bands that doesn’t always conform to what most commentators would consider to be prog. Controversially, I would suggest that not all Pink Floyd fits into the classic definition, despite Dark Side of the Moon being one of the albums that most epitomise progressive rock. As much as I like the Floyd I rarely listen to side two of Atom Heart Mother or the first side of Meddle (One of These Days excepted.) I have not listened to studio version of The Wall for years, and I’ve probably only ever played The Final Cut a handful of times. I’d define their progressive era from Ummagumma to Wish You Were Here, with the seeds sown on A Saucerful of Secrets and the bloom withering on Animals. Though A Momentary Lapse of Reason has been described by detractors as a Dave Gilmour solo album, I regard it as a massive return to form, and unlike either the preceding two Gilmour solo efforts, or the later On an Island I happily call it prog. Though the musicianship within the Floyd is not what you’d call virtuoso, it is fairly solid and the work of Gilmour and Rick Wright is always tasteful. They were at their best when collaborating, producing truly progressive pieces such as the track A Saucerful of Secrets and Echoes, though the Wright and Gilmour individual tracks that form the studio album from Ummagumma (Sysyphus and Narrow Way respectively) form a sonic continuity that spans from their second album and Dark Side of the Moon.
Pink Floyd - Image from XX anniversary CD
I’d also class early Wishbone Ash as exponents of prog, although there is a paucity of keyboards in their oeuvre. This is because the twin guitar work of Andy Powell and Ted Turner incorporates an impressive harmonic sensibility and they also use contrasts in tempo and volume within a single track to create interest. A television series entitled Prog Rock Britannia – An Observation in Three Movements was first aired in 2009 on BBC4 and was accompanied by separate footage of progressive rock shown on the BBC that included a clip from 1971 of Wishbone Ash playing Vas Dis, an instrumental track from Pilgrimage written by jazz organist Jack McDuff. There was something definitive about the overall sound of Wishbone Ash, not simply the guitar work, but also the distinctive bass guitar work of Martin Turner who at the time has to have been one of the finest, unsung English rock bass players around.
There’s an unstated acceptance that Tangerine Dream are prog artists because of their keyboard and associated technology basis, but in reality they form a distinct sub-genre. Though different German groups with quite distinct musical styles formed in different parts of the country, their music was all categorised under the rather denigrating term ‘Krautrock’ (a term coined by the America-centric music press) and was championed by the fledgling Virgin records. I’m interested in this sub-genre for cultural, historical and political perspectives but I only like a few of the bands involved, even though I’ve collected music from a range of acts, some of which that I don’t particularly regard as progressive or necessarily like very much.