Theoretically Speaking S3 | E4: What Makes Prog, Prog ?

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Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians

…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

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S3:E4 – What Makes Prog Prog ?

Humans are different from the other animals in several ways. Opposable thumbs, for one thing. Um, two things.

That’s true. But we do have one notable advantage over our two-legged friends…”

We can walk upright. Combine that with our opposable thumbs and we can easily carry stuff around. We can put things on top of other things. We can build doodads.

We can also talk. That means we can tell each other how to build doodads, and say things like, “Hey Phil, carry that stuff over here and put it on top of these things.”

And we have a spectacular brain.

Of course, that’s my brain telling me that. It seems to have a pretty high opinion of itself.

“Well, hello, handsome.”

The brain likes telling itself how clever it is, and invents things just to show how clever it is. Yes, Newton was brilliant to recognize that a body at rest stays at rest and a body in motion stays in motion. But do we really need the little balls on strings bumping each other to tell us that? Do CEOs really need the clicking inertia balls on their desks? Do they actually understand Newton’s first law, or are they just showing off?

Maybe they’re fascinated by shiny objects. Like: The aptly named Executive Ball Clicker.

CFO, here. That’s Chief Feline Officer.
And we’re going to need to have a chat about your expense reports.”

So it is with European classical music.

From the Renaissance on, the idea was to make ever more sophisticated music with larger orchestras and increasingly complex harmonies.

Composers strived to show how clever they were through serious and elevated music. 

“We’ll show those other primates who’s got the biggest brains.”

There’s some humor and whimsy in classical music, of course, and the search for beauty. But the philosophy behind it all is that man is the chief animal and should create a culture of rarified intellect and artistic excellence.

Progressive rock is an offshoot of the psychedelic scene of the 1960s. Some psychedelic rock bands produced longer songs and improvisations.

Throw in the mindset of European classical music – virtuosity, a wide variety of instruments, grand concepts, and deliberate displays of intellect – and you get the start of prog rock.

While rock takes itself more seriously than rock & roll, prog takes itself more seriously than rock. It’s all about artistic progress. That’s why prog is sometimes called art rock.

The Moody Blues didn’t set out to make the first progressive rock album but an opportunity fell into their collective lap. They had hit #1 on the UK Singles chart with Go Now in 1964. Subsequent singles didn’t do nearly as well. However, their record label, Deram, wanted an album to demonstrate its new Deramic Stereo Sound and asked them to record a rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. The label gave them a budget and access to a full orchestra. 

The Moody Blues didn’t record anything by Dvořák. Without telling Deram, they recorded original songs instead. Some dispute this story, but it’s a good story.

The songs tell the story of a day in the life of an average man. The album starts with songs about the morning and ends with songs about evening and night. If one wants to read it as a lifetime from the morning of youth to the night of death, that works, too.

Released in 1967, Days Of Future Passed may be the first prog rock album.

Long songs, orchestral interludes, an overarching concept… it checks many prog boxes.

If it’s not the first prog album, then In The Court Of The Crimson King is. It was the first album by King Crimson, a band led by guitarist Robert Fripp. He’s been the only consistent member ever since. On their first album, Ian McDonald played at least nine instruments and sang. Greg Lake sang lead and played bass.

Even if you’ve never heard “In The Court Of The Crimson King” or any of its songs, you’ve seen the album cover. Artwork was always a part of prog.

Sometimes a single disk album would have a fold-out cover to display all its accompanying art.

Artists like Roger Dean and companies like Hipgnosis became as well known as the musicians.

Some albums didn’t put any text on the cover so it wouldn’t interfere with the art, and if the art was unique and memorable enough, you’d learn who the band was. There was always text somewhere listing the band, the album title, and whoever created the cover.

While it was two years between Days Of Future Passed and In The Court Of The Crimson King, the prog scene developed quickly after that, mostly in England.

Camel came from Guildford.

Yes were from London.

And Genesis met as schoolboys in Godalming.

Canterbury was a particular hotspot. This is the town Chaucer named his Canterbury Tales after, so it’s no wonder that the bands of the area added traditional English folk to their rock sound. They also added free flowing jazz and quirky lyrics, and put less emphasis on classical influences.

Even with these older stylistic influences, they also incorporated synthesizers and newer instruments. Canterbury bands like The Wilde Flowers, Caravan, and Soft Machine created a style so distinct that “Canterbury Scene” is sometimes used as a subgenre name, even for bands that aren’t from anywhere near the town.

Soft Machine member Daevid Allen was an Australian. But following a tour of France, he was denied reentry into the UK because his visa had expired.

He settled in Paris and started the prog band Gong.

France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all developed healthy prog rock scenes.

North America was slightly different.

Classical music isn’t a part of popular culture there, with the possible exception of Looney Toons (“Kill The Wabbit!”). So bands like Rush, Triumph, and Chilliwack from Canada, and Styx, Kansas, and Crack The Sky from the States emphasize the other characteristics of prog: long songs, a variety of instruments, embracing new sounds and techniques, literary lyrics, and concept albums.

Prog had its own sort of supergroup, too.

Greg Lake from King Crimson and Keith Emerson of The Nice had met while touring together.

Both were dissatisfied with their bands and talked about forming a new one.

They approached Mitch Mitchell, formerly of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, to play drums and suggested a jam session with him and Hendrix. That started the urban legend that the band was going to be Hendix, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or HELP. In reality, the jam never happened at all.

Instead, they hooked up with Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were very successful, especially in the States. They were known for their stage show featuring a revolving drum riser, elaborate light show.

And a levitating piano.

On their ten month tour of North America in 1973-4, they had three trailer trucks hauling 40 tons of equipment. Each truck had one of their names painted on top.

It’s easy to see why critics used words like “overblown” and “bloated.” ELP is always name checked when talking about punk rock rebelling against this grandiose music. More on this in a future installment.

A lot of prog lyrics are science fictiony, but, as with classical, there’s some whimsy, too. If Soft Machine can title a song Why Am I So Short? and Hatfield and the North can write one called (Big) John Wayne Socks Psychology on the Jaw, it’s not a far step to include Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention as prog artists. That’s a topic for another day, too.

Prog lyricists elsewhere took themselves more seriously. Pink Floyd explored mental illness on their classic Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here albums. Jethro Tull differentiated between God and religion on Aqualung. 

Others wrote words that sounded good together whether they meant anything or not. The idea was to write words and music that no one had before. Progress. It was just a lark for some, but many took even this seriously.

And it’s this self-seriousness that made progressive rock a punching bag for critics. 

The main word levied against prog is “pretentious.”

Sure, it’s pretentious. All art is pretentious.

Anyone who makes something, puts a picture frame around it, and calls it “art” is making the claim that it’s somehow worth looking at. Even the critics who throw around words like “pretentious” proclaim their writing is worth reading.

Everyone’s pretentious. I’m pretentious for saying so.

Editor’s note: Well dressed? We’ll give you that.
Pretentious? Never.

Prog’s 1970s heyday died pretty quickly with the nearly simultaneous rise of punk and disco, but it never went away entirely. Rush continued until drummer Neil Peart’s death in 2020. One or another of Yes’s lineups is currently touring. 

Some of them adapted to the change. They wrote shorter songs and used fewer tempo changes. Yes and Genesis had their biggest chart success well after prog’s peak. Yes hit #1 in the States with Owner Of A Lonely Heart in 1984. Genesis and their former lead singer Peter Gabriel had back-to-back #1s with Invisible Touch and Sledgehammer in July 1986.

There was a second prog wave in the 1980s, sometimes called neo-progressive rock.

Marillion had hits with He Knows You Know and Kayleigh.

Saga got to #3 with On The Loose.

Bands like Queensryche branched off into progressive metal. Their Operation: Mindcrime is often mentioned as one of the best concept albums ever released.

The 90s saw a lot of bands playing in odd and changing time signatures with complex chord structures, but they didn’t necessarily call themselves prog. Tool’s polyrhythms are as intricate and difficult as anything Yes ever did, but they seem to fall into the alternative category. 70s prog also informs the math rock of Shudder To Think and the post-hardcore of Drive Like Jehu.

After the turn of the century, new prog’s influence continues in various metal and alternative subgenres. The Mars Volta, Coheed And Cambria, and Dream Theater have rabid followings. Muse packs stadiums worldwide.

There’s not much classical influence left, but the intellectual side of prog continues with its changing time signatures, fantasy lyrics, and virtuosic performances.

Progressive rock isn’t music for dancing or romance. It’s not made for the feet or the heart.

It’s all for the brain.

TNOCS.com contributor: Bill Bois’ brain

In the Suggested Listening section below, I’ve tried to include shorter but representative songs, so you can get the idea without being here all day. The exceptions are the full version of Nights In White Satin and Supper’s Ready by Genesis, which is one of my favorites.

It takes up a full album side. But is never boring.


Suggested Listening:

Nights In White Satin
The Moody Blues
1967

Sylvia
Focus
1972

Supper’s Ready
Genesis
1972

Jerusalem
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
1973

Running Hard
Renaissance
1974

On The Loose
Saga
1981

YYZ
Rush
1981

Operation: Mindcrime
Queensryche
1988

X-French Tee Shirt
Shudder To Think
1995

Forty Six & 2
Tool
1998

Hysteria
Muse
2003

Inertiatic
The Mars Volta
2003

To Breathe Another Day
Spock’s Beard
2018


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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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December 9, 2022 6:07 am

Lots of music to discover here. I’ve always loved the full version of Nights in White Satin, gong included. And thanks for mentioning one of my favorite MTV hits but AT40 misses from the ‘80s, Marillion’s “Kayleigh.” That Saga peak must be from a rock chart, no? “On the Loose” went Top 40 in the U.S. (take that, Marillion) but not Top 5.

Eric-J
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December 9, 2022 10:56 am
Reply to  cstolliver

I had no memory of Kayleigh until I played the video, and within a few notes the entire song came flooding back.

I think if you have punks pick up the shattered pieces of Prog, and put them back together, you get the latter half of XTC’s career.

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 9, 2022 8:17 am

I’ve seen attempts to make Venn diagrams explaining what makes a nerd, dork, and a geek that don’t make sense in terms of how I understand the terms.

Here are my component circles:

  1. Nerdiness: Intellectual acumen and academic interest
  2. Geekiness: Fanaticism/obsessiveness
  3. Dorkiness: Social ineptitude

And you get various stereotypes like “Dwarf-painting hobbyist” (Geek/Dork) and “IT/STEM major” (Nerd/Geek), depending on the combinations.

Perhaps “Prog Rock Fan” is the combination of all three.

I have learned to like some prog rock, but I will admit that it took some time and some aging away from my teenage love for punk.

Of course, I love art rock, so if that’s considered prog rock, then I’m a fan of that subset. I tend not to lump them together, because the art rockers seemed to draw from different influences (maybe 20th century classical as opposed to 18th and 19th)….but also because they’re just a lot less dorky. They seemed more socially perceptive than Rick Wakeman and the rest.

I don’t see what I would call art rock bands on here. Does this mean that you’re gonna do a separate write up?

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 9, 2022 9:11 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Roxy Music, Henry Cow, Amon Duul II, CAN, Faust. What Yoko Ono was doing on “Fly.”

But of course, Phil Manzanera had his own quite proggy group 801, and Eno’s albums feature Phil Collins and Robert Fripp. And one Genesis album featured Eno. So there was no formal demarcation, just a difference in approach.

cappiethedog
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December 9, 2022 6:56 pm

Was “On Some Faraway Beach” the genesis of Brian Eno’s career in ambient? I was reading an article about Chloe Sevigny. It’s her favorite song. I played it. Yeah, it’s a good song.

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 9, 2022 8:53 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

The genesis…or the Genesis?

There are seeds of ambient on that first album, particularly that song and the title track. But I think his follow-up with Robert Fripp got him a lot closer to where he would end up.

The German group Cluster would say that Eno took his ambient sound from them (there may be some truth to this), yet Eno says that it was when he was bed-ridden and was listening to classical music at an almost inaudible level that he came up with the idea for Discreet Music.

Incidentally, I love playing a standard version of Pachelbel’s Canon right before listening to Eno’s own variations on the Discreet Music album. It’s like an early version of The Disintegration Loops.

Is that Regressive Rock? Progressive Entropy?

Last edited 1 year ago by Phylum of Alexandria
cappiethedog
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December 10, 2022 1:11 am

Grammatically-correct Fish sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel.

I spent 1.5 days in Santa Clara. I heard “One Word” in a vegetarian restaurant. It blew my mind because that’s not the sort of song I hear in public spaces where I live.

Eno should sing more often.

thegue
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December 12, 2022 8:49 am

Phylum,

Your attempted grouping is very similar to one of my favorite scenes in Foucault’s Pendulum. If you haven’t, you really should give it a read.

mt58
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December 9, 2022 9:35 am

Much appreciation to Bill for yet another wonderfully informative and entertaining article
.
When I was in high school, I went from top 40 to Prog, and then to disco. And I have fond memories of each musical affectation.

My favorite progressive rock piece is probably this one. If you enjoy the YouTube reaction videos, have a look at this classical musicologist and composer absolutely lose his mind on his inaugural listening.

https://youtu.be/vRw3QlUuuSc

mt58
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December 9, 2022 10:31 am
Reply to  Virgindog

He displays all of my favorite attribute in a person:
Humility, respect, appreciation, thoughtful consideration of a subject…

…and happy surprise when experiencing something new.

I’m a fan.

Last edited 1 year ago by mt58
Eric-J
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December 9, 2022 11:01 am

I’ve never been deeply into Prog myself, but always had close friends who were. My best friend in High School was a huge (Peter Gabriel-era) Genesis fan who considered The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to be his favorite album.

One of my favorite Pandora stations I tried to put together was called “Monsters of Prog,” but like any Pandora station in my experience, it requires constant fine tuning or it will keep bending towards Classic Rock. (When you thumbs-up Pink Floyd, you start getting Led Zepplin and Aerosmith, and if you don’t thumbs-down those hard, you’ll land on Tom Petty and Bob Seger eventually.)

LinkCrawford
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December 10, 2022 1:31 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Seems like sound reasoning to me. Unless all of you get Martin Denny and Manhattan Transfer suggestions from spotify, too?

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 10, 2022 2:58 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

We need to program our AI to be a little more sassy.

Not Terminator levels of sassy, but maybe a little more adventurous with the recommendations.

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 9, 2022 11:32 am

Prog, whatever incarnation and decade has never really done it for me other than the odd exception. Pink Floyd I’m a big fan of and occasional Muse album, especially Black Holes and Revelations but mostly its a switch off.

Pretty much for the all the same reasons you set out as criticisms; being overblown and full of itself. Not saying I’m consistent, on some overblown and pretentious is great but prog as a whole less so.

I can appreciate the at times crazed ambition. My favourite prog story is Rick Wakeman from Yes’ solo albums in the 70s. The Six Wives of Henry VIII isn’t standard rock subject matter but the follow up went above and beyond. The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table which he performed at Wembley Arena with a cast of around 200 including his own band, choir members, orchestra and, of course, ice dancers.

The Arena was already booked for the days after Rick’s three shows for an ice spectacular so he had to agree to having the ice rink already in situ for his concerts. If you’ve got an ice rink may as well use it so they got ice skaters in to provide an interpretive accompaniment. From what I’ve read it was great fun if a logistical nightmare that went continuously wrong, cost a small fortune that nearly ruined Rick and has forever been mocked since.

More details here; http://skateguard1.blogspot.com/2015/02/king-arthur-on-ice-skatings-best-or.html?m=1

LinkCrawford
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December 9, 2022 1:34 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Exactly. He was a beer guzzling jokester.

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 9, 2022 3:09 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Not seen that before. Got to be one of the great acceptance speeches. Did not go the way I was expecting!

LinkCrawford
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December 9, 2022 1:47 pm

I appreciate technical show-offiness in music to some extent. But for me the best of prog was the music that was way more developed and “mature”…they could accomplish amazingly beautiful passages of music because they weren’t constrained by 3 chords or blues scales or 3 minute time frames.

Any of these good traits could be taken to extremes (and with prog, of course they were).

That mellotron rich, anthemic section of Yes’ “And You and I” is amazingly gorgeous to me.

I’m a pretty hard core Genesis fan (of all eras) and my favorite song of there’s is the live version of “Cinema Show” from Seconds Out. The first half has the gorgeous guitar work of Steve Hacket. The second half is all show-offiness in 7/4 with Phil Collins and Bill Bruford drumming together. And then comes Tony Banks’ keyboard theme. It’s my #1 long car ride album.

https://youtu.be/XYzmDwCkDBQ

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 9, 2022 1:56 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

“Cinema Show” is my fave Genesis tune. It’s just so pretty.
(and not without some humor)

LinkCrawford
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December 9, 2022 1:49 pm

But I can’t claim to be “good” prog fan. There’s so much I haven’t listened to. Especially newer stuff which tends to lean more towards metal than I like.

dutchg8r
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December 9, 2022 3:17 pm

VDog encapsulating perfectly how a musical genre can be defined? Yep, must be Friday.

Once again, I’m reading this going – huh, that makes total sense! Way better than my summation that prog rock is for the eccentric smartypants to think they’re even smarter than everyone else because this is their music of choice. Like you said, this was a branch off of psychedelic- just these musicians felt they had to present their elitist highs and trips as serious things. No coo-coo-ca choo walruses here, no siree… 😄

Never considered Muse as modern day prog rock, but they totally are, aren’t they?!

Nom-nom-nom!!!

Pauly Steyreen
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December 9, 2022 7:18 pm

Just to be clear, Operation: Mindcrime is THE best concept album of all time.

I’ll stand on Roger Daltrey’s coffee table and shout it to the heavens.

DanceFever
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December 10, 2022 12:11 am

Bill(Virgin) you’ve hit a bit vein on this one!
I’ve talked upon the Mother Ship about the way different music can
influence an otherwise reluctance mind to accept another form of music.
My father was an ardent collector of classical music but when the Moody
Blues came out with “Nights In White Satin”, he had to have the album.
“That’s the London Symphony playing on that song! He exclaimed”
“Yes, Dad, I responded, It’s also rock and roll”
As my moniker suggests, I’m really into dance music but I’ve also got a fond place for wha they call prog music.
Maybe because after you use up all that energy dancing, you just need a place to relax.

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 10, 2022 2:56 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

The Pixies are the perfect music for the gym.

LinkCrawford
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December 10, 2022 1:38 pm
Reply to  DanceFever

Hey, DanceFever, do you remember who your dad’s favorite classical composers were, or favorite pieces?

thegue
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December 13, 2022 1:08 pm

V,

It’s been a busy week, so I haven’t had a chance to digest the entire article in one sitting until now – drop in, grab a bit, then move one. Like Ali dancing in the boxing ring, only without the quick feet, coordination or skill. But as always, a few thoughts:

  1. Kudos to the image editor for including the album cover of my favorite Pink Floyd album Meddle.
  2. I generally do NOT like prog rock, but because of freshman year in college, I have a soft spot for Lamb Lies Down
  3. That being said, I love Pink Floyd. That may have to do with freshman year as well, but because of our herbal specialist across the hall.
  4. Pauly wrote down correctly – Operation: Mindcrime is the best concept album I’ve ever heard. Are all concept albums prog rock? If so, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is the second best.
  5. I love Tool…in small bits. I had tickets to go see them and RHCP, but had to choose one. I chose Tool, and never regretted it.
  6. Due to my entirely demented mind, “Prison Sex” by Tool is also one of my favorite videos of all-time.
  7. I’ve never considered Muse prog rock, but that might be because I’ve rarely done a deep dive into their albums. “Map of the Problematique” is my favorite song of theirs; just ahead of “Hysteria”.
  8. They were also my second favorite concert, with Cold War Kids opening for them.
  9. I can not get past Geddy Lee’s voice, or his soundalike in Coheed and Cambria, Claudio Sanchez.

Great post as always, but it’ll take a bit more time getting thru your musical selections!

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