Sunday, 4 April 2010

The 70’s Blog

Progressive Rock


Progressive Rock is basically a British genre; an exception for example is Rush from Canada. The genre has its roots in the late 60’s but was mainly successful in the mid 70’s.

Significant artists were King Crimson, Yes along with Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Pink Floyd.

Important albums of the time were Close to the Edge (Yes, 1972), Brain Salad Surgery (ELP, 1973), The Lamb lies down on Broadway (Genesis, 1974), Thick as a Brick (Jethro Tull, 1972) and Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd, 1973)

Typical for Progressive Rock was to have untraditional song forms. The songs started to get longer than two or three minutes. To make it musically attractive and interesting for the listener and especially for the musician songs got structured and had different sections and movements. As a result, some songs were actually suites like Rush’s album “2112”. Along with the movement structure, came another important feature of Progressive Rock: music theory. A lot of the musicians had classical music education and used their knowledge of music theory to write harmonic, rhythmic and melodic complex songs. One result was, for example, changing keys in a song. It could easily happen that every part of a song is in a different key. Using complex and unusual time signatures like 9/8 (“Apocalypse in 9/8” by Genesis) instead of common ones like 4/4 was also common. Tempo and rhythm changes in a song were also very common. Another feature of the music was the use of complex chords like augmented chords, add9, sus4, sus2, add 13th and so on. Also variations of scales were used. Everything was used to create a “new” sound or to give a piece of music a new character. Even dissonant tones were used like in King Crimsons “The sheltering Sky”. Another feature of Progressive Rock was the adoption of classical themes. A good example for this is the song “A whiter shade of pale” by Procol Harum.

The instrumentation included typical rock instruments like guitar, drum and bass, but there were often traditional instruments, all kind of percussion instruments, organs and very new: the synthesizer. Like every other genre in the 70’s, except Punk, Prog Rock made use of this new kind of instrument. All instruments were used to create new sounds. It had its peak with Carl Palmer. He had a steel drum kit with a built in synthesizer.

Another important factor of this genre is the lyrical content. The lyrical range was from fantasy based stories, Sci-fi and whole themes of just one topic to abstract song. The other end was socio critical songs or albums like Pink Floyds “Animal Farm”. The use of fantasy based lyrics was common, because it was hard to find lyrics, which fit over long and complex songs.

Concept albums were typical for the Progressive Rock movement. A concept album is an album that has a theme which appears throughout the whole album. This theme could be musically or a lyric based theme. One of the first Progressive concept albums was “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull. The idea was that the lyrics were a poem of an eight year old boy, backed up by Jethro Tull’s music. The whole album is actually one song. A 12 page newspaper was part of the Artwork. Another good example is “Tales from topographic oceans” by Yes.


Along with concept albums the artwork was very important. The artwork was mostly futuristic or fantasy based. Also psychedelic influenced artwork was very common. A very important character in the scene is Roger Dean. He created all Yes album covers.

Typical for the fashion were stage costumes. These costumes can be compared to Glam costumes, with fancy colours and a lot of decoration. ELP wore these kind of clothes. Jethro Tull used to wear medieval influenced dresses, which was because of the folk influence. Peter Gabriel is a good example of wearing stage dresses. He actually changed dresses on stage according to the song played. He did this, because the PA was so bad. For example he dressed like a flower in a part of a song.

A part of Progressive Rock was that the shows were excessive and big, the bigger the show the better. Emerson Lake and Palmer is the best example for it. They had three trucks loaded with gear and Carl Palmers drum kit weight 2,5 tons. Emerson Lake and Palmer were also well known for having the stage filled with instruments. Along with this big shows, came massive, expensive and impressive light shows and other effects. At this time stage designers were hired to create a fantastic scene. Pink Floyd had a wall between the audience and the band which they would knock down at the end of the show. Very interesting is that the audience was very male orientated. I think women weren’t attracted to the music, because women tend to listen to danceable music or music which is easier to listen to. Men tend to be more interested in the process and the analysis of the things which happen with the music itself. Also men are more likely to accept the high skilled, arrogant attitude of Progressive Rock musicians.

In the middle of the 70’s Prog was very big. The big Prog musicians went over to America, where they were very welcomed. When they went back a change had happened. Punk Rock was getting popular in the middle of the 70’s and the easy, aggressive music with the DIY attitude attracted many listeners. Punk Rock was the total opposite of Prog Rock; it was stripped down, back to the root, “in your face” rock. It was against everything what Prog Rock stands for. Punk went back to have short songs (2-3 minutes), easy, “three” chord guitar riffs and socio critic lyrics. The same happened an about a decade later when Grunge heralds the decline of Glam Metal. A big, arrogant scene redeemed by a genre which was the total opposite.

As a conclusion many Prog Bands fell apart or changed their line up or changed their musical style to more sellable music. For example Peter Gabriel left Genesis and Phil Collins went on from drumming in the band to be the singer. The other change was that the song became shorter and more radio friendly.

The psychedelic movement had a big influence on Progressive Rock. The music was influenced by Psychedelic Rock and Psychedelic artist such as “The Doors” or early “Soft Machine”. Prog Rock adopted the long solos, the use of effects and studio effects like reverse playing etc. Also the root of the complex structure lies, besides classical music, in Psychedelic Rock. The complexity can often be traced back to the roots of Psychedelic Rock: Jazz. This influence can be seen in The Who’s “Rael” or Pink Floyd’s early record “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.

Also psychedelic drugs had an influence on the song writing process. Lyrics got more abstract and the attempt to find new noises was definitely under the influence of drugs such as LSD. Beat Poets, poets like Jack Kerovac or William Burroughs who wrote about road trips and drug experiences, were very influential.


The Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper” can be seen as a blueprint album of Progressive Rock. This album had a lot what was later adopted by Progressive Rock: lyrical themes, diffuse sounds and drug influence (LSD).

Sci-Fi and classical books had an influence on the lyrics. The fantasy based epos “The Lord of the Rings” is often cited as an influence.

Another musical influence was Classical music. The influence of classic can be seen in the adoption of movements and suites. A good example for complex song structures is “Karn Evil, 9 1st impression part 1,2 and 3” by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Also the length of musical pieces was adopted by Progressive Rock. A typical classical piece could last for 80+ minutes. A good example for both adoptions is “2112” by Rush. This piece is 20:33 minutes long and is divided into seven sections. Also the musical complexity of classical music influenced Progressive Rock. On the one hand it was because a lot of progressive musicians had classical music education and on the other hand the use of complex theory helps to create longer tracks and makes the music more interesting. Another influence can be seen in “Pictures at an exhibition” by ELP. ELP rearranged it from the original which was written by Mussorgsky.

Other musical influences are Jazz, which is seen in the complex arrangements of the music. Some bands later went on to become Jazz bands instead of Progressive Rock bands. Besides these influences folk is another one. Jethro Tull, for example, is heavily influenced by Folk, which is seen by Ian Anderson playing the flute and other folk instruments.

Progressive Rock went on to influence bands like Coheed and Cambria, Dream Theater, Marillion, The Mars Volta, Opeth and Porcupine Tree.

One thing later bands adopted from Progressive Rock was the concept album. A very good example is Dream Theaters’ “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory”. This album is about a character that travels through his dreams back in the past to see a murder scene and the circumstances. Another good example is the band Coheed and Cambria. The bands albums are all based around one theme.


Themed songs and movements are also influential on bands like Dream Theater. A direct line of influence can be seen in songs like “2112” by Rush and “In the Presence of Enemies - Part I & In the Presence of Enemies - Part II” by Dream Theater. Both songs are very long and both songs are structured. The only thing is that the song In the Presence of Enemies” is split in two parts, because of tactical reasons.

The Artwork has an influence as well. It is not futuristic anymore; it still is fantastic or abstract. A good example for this is the album “De-Loused in the Comatorium” by The Mars Volta. The Artwork is done by Storm Thorgerson. He also did the Artwork for Pink Floyds “Dark Side of the Moon” and Dream Theaters “Falling into Infinity”.

The length and complexity is adopted by The Mars Volta in the song “Tetragrammaton”. This song lasts for nearly 17 minutes. Two other songs on the same album last longer than 11 minutes. This is also typical for Dream Theater. “Octavorium” is 24 minutes long and “Sacrificed Sons” is over 10 minutes long. This influence can be traced back to songs like “2112” by Rush or “Close to the edge” by Yes.

It is worth mentioning that Folk influence can be seen in musician/composer Arjen Anthony Lucassen. He adopted long and complex song forms, themes, fantasy based artwork, folk instruments, complex songs and the idea of concept albums in his band Ayreon.

Lyrical examples:

“Thick as a brick” – Jethro Tull

“Supper’s Ready” – Genesis

“Dogs” – Pink Floyd


BBC Prog Rock Britannia



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