Essay: Prog in The 70’s

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Christian Anthony Goldsmith Meares

Intro: Definition of Prog

Progressive Rock was born off the back of the counter culture movement of the 1960’s – if not somewhat ironically, the counter culture of the 60’s created its own counter – counter culture with musicians who were more focussed on making music which required more involved listening. Progressive rock (sometimes referred to as “Art Rock”, although commonly known by its shorter name “Prog”) is rock music stylised by a higher level of complexity – odd time signatures, less diatonic chord structures, long song forms and more abstract lyricism are often defining features of a prog song. (Gibbs, 2018)

King Crimson: Lyricism, Arrangement and the Mellotron

As mentioned above many muscicians begun to seek out more technical music – “The whole idea behind prog was to help heighten the artistic respectability of rock and roll” (Bonamassa, Joe, 2016). Musicians had become incresingly dissapointed by the simple pop music of the time, and musically rebelled against the ideas associated with rock music. As a result, lyricism became much more mystical and had a fantasy feel to them, remnisicent of the psychedelic music of the late 60’s (Prog Archives, n.d.). This can bee seen on the early work of King Crimson, particularly, “In The Court of the Crimson King”, who’s lyrics are drenched in a feeling of morose grandiosity. Songs like “Epitah” reach their climax close to the 7 minute mark, with a repeated lyric of “I feel tomorrow I will be crying” followed by a large guitar solo. This signifies another difference to the rock and roll prior to the prog movement – The arrangements are long with many parts, and there is a heavier emphasis on orchestration; in the case of King Crimson this is primarily due to “[Ian Macdonald’s] incredible knowledge in part writing because of his [time spent] in the army working in a military band. (Song to Soul, 2011) “The Court of the Crimson King” features a symphony of “strings” throughout, and helped define one of the subgenres of prog – Symphonic Prog. The idea that there is a real symphony orcherstra on this album, however, is an illusion, created by one of the large technical revolutions of the time – The Mellotron. The Mellotron was one of the first samplers – with a similar appearance to a keyboard, when a key was pressed tape with recorded audio was played, until the key is released, which is when the tape is pulled back to the starting position. This allowed Ian Mcdonald and Robert Fripp, founding members of King Crimson, to explore different instrumentation. (Ian McDonald Conversations on Mellotrons, 2001)

Yes: Furthering Technical Profficiciency and the Backlash to “Sophisticated Music”

One defining point of the prog rock genre is the showcasing of technical prowress. Among a sea of fantastic musicians, Yes emerged as a band willing to showcase it to then point where one of the biggest criticisms of their album “Fragile” (the album that defined their lineup) was that apart from the technical skill of the musicians, there was almost no other point to the music… “[with the release of] Fragile, the fruit is at last beginning to ripen. Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to show off syndrome. Their music often seems designed only to impress…” (Cromelin, 1972). This quote from Rolling Stone shows one of the biggest cultural backlashes to the genre of prog. There was a growing feeling of discontent towards progressive rock, technical mastery and the intricacies which were no longer being met with the same response of admiration they had once receieved. The beginning of the punk movement, the rebuttal of skill and the overwhelming desire to break down the barriers to playing an instrument ultimately overtook the prog movement and was one of the reasons for the downfall of progressive rock. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd set a precedent for skill that didn’t sit well with the lower socioeconomic groups that couldn’t afford the gear like that being used on these iconic recordings. (Gibbs, 2018)

Pink Floyd: Commercialisation of Prog and the Downfall of a Movement

The uprise of the punk movement wasn’t the only killer of the prog movement, however; prog died from within its own genre, when heavy hitters Pink Floyd started to achieve commercial success. Iconic album “Dark Side of the Moon” is revered as the greatest prog album of all time (Rolling Stone, 2015), with it being one of the highest selling albums ever. The album showcases brilliant, focussed songwriting, with themes of greed, the passage of time, mental health and death. The album showcases incredible guitar work from virtuoso David Gilmore, advanced recording techinques (i.e. tape loops which can be heard on the beginning of the Money), but more so, it seems to throw away the symphonic ideas of King Crimson and earlier prog works, in favour of almost space like ambience. Songs like “Us and Them” and “Breathe (In the Air) are drenched in reverb, and delay giving the songs a light floating feel. But the heavy commercialisation of such a successful record is one of the early signs of the downfall of prog. Commercial success was at odds with the origins of prog, and with Pink Floyd inadvertently hitting massive radio play for songs like “Money”, “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall”, there was a template being created for how to be a successful prog band. More bands soon followed, blending prog with more digestible, radio friendly songs – Kansas with hit song “Carry on Wayward Son”, and Boston with “More Than a Feeling”, ultimately signlling the end of the prog genre and the beginning of the Stadium Rock genre.

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