Saturday, December 8, 2012


Those of us who came of age in the early to mid seventies lived through an oft-maligned and always controversial period in modern music. If you read pieces by musicologists on this period, it is often described as being one of the most creative times, or an absolute wasteland of pretense and lack of talent. Talk to a person who lived through this time and get a discussion on music started, and you're sure to jump into an often heated debate.

For me, the period from about 1970 to 1976 represents a unique and wonderful time in music. It was a transition of not only style, but indeed the entire approach to music. Before 1970, most of the music listened to by young people was basic rock and roll, with its best exemplar in the so-called British Invasion of the early 60's. But, by the time 1970 rolled around, the Beatles were basically dead, and other Invasion bands had faded into obscurity. Other styles, such as the American surfing genre, featuring bands like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, had run their course. Psychedelic rock was still in its heyday, but the early deaths of Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin put a pall on the genre. Essentially, the teenagers of the 1960's ( those who could have been my older brothers and sisters ) had grown into young adults and were looking for something more "serious."

In Britain, with the demise of Invasion bands ( the Rolling Stones being the exception ), young musicians put their energies into the creation of a new genre in an attempt to rise above the teenage-angst drivel that characterized  Invasion music. And, miraculously, a new genre was born: Progressive Rock.

For me, as a teen who loved music, I found the emergence of the Prog Rock bands as a revelation. Finally, rock musicians seemed to be taking bold new chances and actually learning to compose, arrange and perform  as serious musicians. I was introduced to the genre by my friends Rob Fraser and Dave Jack. Rob had 8 tracks ( ! ) of the Moody Blues' album "Seventh Sojourn" and Dave was a fan of Yes. Dave had me listen to Yes' "Close To The Edge", and, because of these musical exposures, I was hooked.

For some unknown reason, I find myself looking back at the genre not only with much nostalgia, but also a longing. I watched the half time show at the recent Grey Cup and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. A cadaverous Gordon Lightfoot made me wish for musical legal euthanasia, and the modern artists Carly Rae Jepson and Justin Bieber made me cringe. So, back through the vaults I went looking for salvation. I found it in my old discs of the Prog Rockers.

Just what constitutes Prog Rock is highly debatable and entirely subjective. My definition of Prog Rock has evolved through the years, and puts the genre into three categories:  True Prog Rock, Semi-Prog Rock, and Wannabe Prog Rock. Here is the break-down:

True Prog Rock takes its form in the pioneer bands of the genre. The emphasis is on long, convoluted, thoughtful and original compositions, often arranged into symphonic movements. Inspiration for these compositions often comes from classical and jazz music, literature, philosophical treatises, classical and Biblical sources, and, to be sure, pharmaceuticals. Virtuousity in the instrumentation is essential: these people aren't three-chord guitarists, skiffle drummers, or honkey-tonk pianists. They are among the most gifted players, both technically and creatively, ever heard by the human ear. They eagerly embraced the technical advances of the time: this is the heyday of electronic sound. Most importantly, they displayed complete courage and audacity in their music : these bands were not afraid of anything, and didn't seem to worry about putting out material that flew in the face of established rock music. They had their detractors, for sure, but they won over a legion of followers who knew they were listening to something significant and wonderful.

The bands in True Prog Rock category include the Moody Blues (who learned to move beyond their "Go Now" blues rock of the mid 60's ) , Yes ( perhaps the best practitioners of the genre ), Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull ( of the "Thick As A Brick" era ), and early Genesis ( featuring Peter Gabriel ) . It is interesting to note that all these bands were British.

Once the True Prog Rockers became fashionable, especially on newly formatted FM radio, and concerts on college campuses, other bands began to follow their lead, although with less pretentious overtones. These bands are what I call the Semi-Prog Rockers. Here's where the debate really heats up. Just how do you characterize something that is "semi" anything?  For example, does Led Zepellin qualify as a Prog Rock band? Some say no, because of the heavy American blues influence in many of their songs, and in Robert Plant's vocals, reminiscent of Janis Joplin or Joe Cocker. For me, however, as Led Zepellin evolved, as their song writing became more sophosticated, as John Paul Jones' keyboards took on more electronic and haunting qualities, they sounded very much like True Proggers. But the blues never left them. So, for me, Led Zepellin becomes Semi-Prog, still to be ranked with the True Proggers, but perhaps a bit more palatable for main stream listeners. Other Semi-Proggers would include the Who ( outstanding compositions, but so bloody loud ! ), Uriah Heep ( lyrically impaired, but good players ), Supertramp ( great musicians, but with a Top 40 feel to their songs ) and Queen ( trending into Glam Rock, but still great virtuousos on their instruments).

As the mid-seventies rolled around, the Prog Rock genre became corrupted. Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the Moody Blues disbanded,  Yes and King Crimson went through awkward and messy personel changes, and Peter Gabriel left Genesis, taking the creative heart out of that band. Proggers launched solo careers with mixed results: Gabriel became more mainstream, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman stayed true to the genre but lost their following, and others turned in medicore efforts. But the influence of True Prog Rock continued to be felt in newer bands.

This is the era of the Wannabes. Perhaps the best example of Wannabe Prog Rock is close to home with Rush. The reason I characterize them as Wannabe Proggers is that they have elements of the genre, but, perhaps in true Canadian style, they have a bit of the head banger in them, especially on some of their early work. Other Wannabes could be bands like Kansas, Styx, Asia, David Bowie, Golden Earring, Tangerine Dream, a good Quebec band called Harmonium, and others. The term "Wannabe" is often used in a derogatory sense, but, for me, I use it in a more complimentary way. Since I am a True Prog follower, when I listen to Rush, for example, and hear the layered compositions and arrangements, and admire the skill of Neil Peart's drumming or Geddy Lee's wonderful bass lines ( so reminiscent of Chris Squire of Yes ), I hear Proggers. But the heavy sound, and Alex Leifson's excellent but mainstream guitar work is more Top 40, and I sigh and say to myself, "they could try harder to be brilliant." But I still admire and enjoy their music and the music of other Wannabes.

The decade closed out with the disillusion created by the stagnant British economy and the repressive regime of Margaret Thatcher. Proggers had left their mark on music and gave way to their creative but extremely angry offspring, the Punk movement. Prog Rock's grandchildren were Grunge and Altenative, all terrific genres of music, but, alas, not quite what their grandparents were. Today, Prog Rock is treated as a curiousity, with slightly amusing reactions of those who were never bitten by the bug. But, for me, and I suspect many others of my time, the Proggers represented the very best of not only the 1970's, but of modern music generally. It will always live on in my heart and soul as the sound track of my youth in the 70's.

Then, along came disco and ruined everything.

1 comment:

  1. Dave Seale Great look at music history John! I am a huge Supertramp fan, but suggest that they peaked musically (Crime of the Century and Even in the Quietest Moments) before they hit their headiest pop 40 days.... (Breakfast in America). Secondly, I am a huge fan of ELO, a group that has some detractors. I have heard Kim Mitchell say that all of their concerts were the same because so much of the music was already recorded. But to listen to their albums, I think they (or more specifically Jeff Lynne) match most if not all of the criteria you list for top notch prog-rockers. These two bands are also British!