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.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
S3:E4 – What Makes Prog Prog ?
Humans are different from the other animals in several ways. Opposable thumbs, for one thing. Um, two things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nights In White Satin
The Moody Blues
In The Court Of The Crimson King
In The Land of Grey and Pink
Sold To The Highest Buddha
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
On The Loose
X-French Tee Shirt
Shudder To Think
Forty Six & 2
The Mars Volta
To Breathe Another Day
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