A history from our perspective
In the late 1960s a wonderful moment in the history of music was about to unfold and for a few short years progressive music was to take hold of peoples imagination.
Our definition of progressive music was the exploration of complex rhythmical and notational structures far beyond the boundaries hitherto set by popular music. Exploration conducted not in a cold and clinical way but as a spiritual journey to the upper reaches of the soul’s river by way of romanticism, jazz, classicism and of course rock.
Progressive music was a natural extension of the long extemporised jams of the ‘67 – ‘69 psychedelic period at the end of which bands like The Nice and Pink Floyd started moving in a more structured direction. With the emergence of bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Egg and Gentle Giant at the start of the 1970s musical boundaries were shattered giving progressive musicians and their followers the belief that anything was possible. The Progressive Rock movement was forming, taking part of its root from the hippie era (with free-form thinking being applied to the standard musical rules) and part of its root from the classics (using compositional styles from the romantic and baroque periods).
A common misunderstanding nowadays is that progressive music was merely a long jam session with ego-heavy soloists drifting aimlessly about in a sea of instruments. This was far from the truth. Most musicians of the progressive era worked together in an almost commune-like existence, sharing musical ideas often crediting the entire band as the composer of a piece whether or not this was true. Whilst we don’t want to appear too misty-eyed, it was, for us, a truly remarkable period of musical excellence.
Progressive music was predominantly a British invention – it is not really possible to include under its banner such bands as The Grateful Dead and Tangerine Dream – their pieces were more atmospheric and jam-inspired than the British progressives. Nor can bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or Wishbone Ash be included although Deep Purple certainly veered towards progressive music, particularly through the influence of Jon Lord. Pink Floyd were, as they are now, a law unto themselves and, whilst being a major force in the psychedelic era, concentrated on a more thematic song approach – not so technically embellished as say a Yes piece but still very atmospheric. Progressive rock did not just mean ‘long’ it also meant ‘intricate’.
For a time even the music press was behind the progressive movement but naturally this could not last and each progressive band finally went a bar of 5/4 too far and so by 1976 the hatchets were being sharpened in the gloom, waiting for the day in which the progressives could be dragged through the streets, in Hugo-esque fashion, and mocked as the Kings of PompRock. And swiftly were the blades to fall – the arrival of punk in 1976-77 could not have been more fatal. A number of progressive bands did not survive the punk era and those that remained were exiled to safe(ish) havens like America and Germany to ‘tone down’ their individual styles into a more palatable sound – perhaps more 4/4, more rock-steady, more AOR.
Progressive music was never to be composed in quite such an esoteric style again but the influence on musicians was huge – in the last decade or so Prog bands have surfaced certainly with some influences from the past. The innocence of those early days would be lost and the commercial necessities of `album-oriented rock’ would take over. Will the world ever see another band like Egg or Gentle Giant? Time will tell.