Prog Rock Is So Misunderstood

Prog Rock – some people hate it. But for those of us who love it, we just can’t get enough of it. The idea behind prog rock was that by drawing on ideas that were more literary, exploratory, classical, and experimental, rock music could be elevated to an even higher plane than it’s already on. Prog rock was all about pushing boundaries, breaking down those walls, taking an anything-can-happen approach to the music, old rules be damned! Like most things in life, prog rock didn’t spring up out of nowhere fully formed, but has a history. But from whence did this exciting and glorious new genre come? And who were the first bands to really probe its depths? To enlighten you on this, we present to you Prog Rock: Origins!

The Pre-History of Prog Rock

  • Bob Dylan

One point of origination that is often cited is the lyrical ingenuity of Bob Dylan. One might find this a bit weird. But the whole idea behind prog rock music was to help heighten the artistic respectability of rock and roll.  Prog rock wanted to change rock from something that was perceived as merely a light, fun, entertaining diversion, to something with real weight and heft. Something truly artistic. And perhaps nobody played more of an important role in turning basic rock and roll into an elevated art form than Bob Dylan. The first snare hit on the song “Like a Rolling Stone” has been described as a shot heard around the rock world because of the profound influence that song had on music. This is especially true of its significant length and lyrical depth. One need only compare a song like The Beatles’ pop pleaser “Love Me Do” to Bob Dylan’s lyrically complex “Desolation Row” to know that Dylan had caused a profound change in the scope and depth of rock and roll music. Suddenly, rock lyrics were converted from silly little love songs (mostly) to truly inspired poetry.

  • Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

What Bob Dylan began with lyrical ingenuity, The Beach Boys and The Beatles soon did with musical complexity and unification. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a stunning record for its time. It’s sound is symphonic, largely owing to its use of both traditional rock and roll instruments in combination with various tones including harpsichords, flutes, Theremin, Hawaiian-inspired string instruments, organs, as well as non-instrument sounds such as animal noises and the sounds of Coca-Cola cans. On a musical level it was truly innovative, and continued the Dylan-esque trend of striving for a more mature lyrical approach.

Largely inspired by the complexity and unity of Pet Sounds, The Beatles decided it was time to outdo The Beach Boys. And boy did they ever. The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles was so monumental, so world-defining, that it can only be described as an event or a happening of the highest importance in music. Groundbreaking doesn’t even really begin to describe the phenomenon, or the seismic shift in musical culture that occurred. After June 1, 1967, nothing would ever be the same in popular or even so-called “higher” music. The album did not only rock the critical world, but it was a smash commercial success as well.

The change in music that directly led to the creation of prog-rock from Sgt. Pepper’s is two-fold. For starters, Sgt. Pepper’s opened up and expanded the mind to what was actually possible to do with music. The horizons now seemed unlimited. The sounds, moods, and textures on the album are so rich and diverse, and yet still find unification as an album, it is almost hard to fathom.  The gorgeous chamber strings that accompany Paul’s breathtaking “She’s Leaving Home”. The deep spirituality that George Harrison brings to his Indian-based piece “Within You Without You”. The rampant nostalgia of “When I’m 64,” and the tension-breaking pure fun of “Lovely Rita”. It’s hard to place a finger on its truly best moments. The Beatles could and did do basically everything.

But another factor is that Sgt. Pepper established the album as a true artistic medium. It was no longer just a container for a collection of songs. One truly needed to listen to the album from start to finish to get the full effect. This would be an essential feature of prog rock.

The Beginning of Prog Rock

The Nice – The Nice were a progressive mixture of rock, jazz, and classical music. They also happened to be the first successful band that included Keith Emerson, future prog rock all-star. Emerson’s organ playing was the centerpiece of the band, because of his incredible showmanship while playing and some would even say “abuse” of the instrument. The Nice began their life as a back-up band, a la Booker T. & the MG’s. It wasn’t long until they grew into an incredibly talented progressive rock band that struck out on their own. They scored commercial success with their radical rearrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story. Their success became an important inspiration in the prog rock movement. Both Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator were big fans, for example.

Procol Harum – Procol Harum, of course, had monster success with its tune “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, but it always happened to be one of the more successful of its prog rock brethren. In a way the band is an overnight success story. They formed in 1967 and struck gold with “Whiter Shade” that very same year. The band’s musical influences include music of both the baroque (Whiter Shade is heavily Bach inspired) and the classical music periods of classical, as well as blues, soul, and R&B. After their studio success, they transformed into a fully functioning live band. Their live debut was an opening slot for Jimi Hendrix. Of course, another major contribution to music from Procol Harum are the incredible guitar stylings of Robin Trower.

The Moody Blues – The debut album of The Moody Blues, The Magnificent Moodies, pre-dated the explosive birth of prog-rock in 1965 and was essentially a rhythm and blues record. However, their 1967 follow-up Days of Future Passed was an amalgamation of rock and classical music. It helped to firmly entrench them as pioneers at the beginning of the prog-rock scene. Days of Future Passed was a great critical success, and has been considered to be one of the first truly successful concept albums. The album is constituted by an orchestral song cycle about a person’s typical day on the job. Keyboardist Mike Pinder incorporated the Mellotron and the London Festival Orchestra contributed real orchestral music to the sound. It spawned the famous single “Nights in White Satin”, which found its way back onto the Billboard charts in 1972, hitting #2.

King Crimson – If prog rock still wasn’t a real fully defined “thing” in 1967, King Crimson fixed that problem in 1969 when they released their album In the Court of the Crimson King. Their music featured offbeat instrumentation and complex song structures, and the album drew on elements of jazz, classical, and experimental music. They opened for The Rolling Stones in 1969 which helped to increase their popularity. The band became highly influential, directly influencing the bands Genesis and Yes, as well as Rush. These were all bands that belong to the high period of prog rock.

While prog rock definitely has its detractors, those of us who love it say long live prog rock, and may you continue to rock our ears while breaking down barriers and carrying out extreme sonic exploration for all the rest of our days!

– Tribut Apprel

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