I remember well the early days of prog rock, in the late sixties. It was pompous, it was pretentious, it was self conscious and self reverential. Big-screen, technicolor, and unashamedly over the top. And so much fun.
I’d drifted into other musical pastures in the seventies, and missed out on what this very entertaining article in The New Yorker, The Persistence of Prog Rock, views as prog’s finest moments, including those Gentle Giants “songs that seemed to occupy some phantom limb of music’s evolutionary tree”.
““I suppose that your local newspaper might call it ‘jazz-influenced classical-rock”, a reviewer wrote. In fact, a term was being adopted for this hybrid of highbrow and lowbrow. People called it progressive rock, or prog rock: a genre intent on proving that rock and roll didn’t have to be simple and silly—it could be complicated and silly instead”. Ouch!
Back in the day, I saw King Crimson in first bloom and full flight. Lay back on Parliament Hill as Pink Floyd played “Interstellar Overdrive” as jets flew overhead enroute to Heathrow. I watched the Who performing “Tommy” in its entirety in a cramped, humid Birmingham club calld Mothers (of Invention, surely?) with Roger Daltrey swinging his mic just above our heads. And the Nice, in the same venue, Keith Emerson climbed on top of his Hammond organ, sticking knives between the keys, and splitting his tight pants in the process. As Wordsworth might have said, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.” I guess you had to have been there.
As the article relates, prog rock just grew bigger, braver, and bolder, with ELP, Genesis, Uriah Heap, and Yes leading the charge – and there was even a Euro-prog, with Vangelis’ Aphrodite’s Child, with Demi’s Roussos as vocalist.
Both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP joined the great gig in the sky last year, joining that long line of famous folk who were knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. But their music, and that of their peers, lives on. “Progressive rock, broadly defined, can never disappear, because there will always be musicians who want to experiment with long songs, big concepts, complex structures, and fantastical lyrics”. Indeed.
“There is something inspiring about the indigestibility of prog, which still hasn’t quite been absorbed into the canon of critically beloved rock and roll, and which therefore retains some of its outsider appeal. Often, we celebrate bygone bands for being influential, hearing in them the seeds of the new; the best prog provides, instead, the shock of the old”.