So WHat The Hell Was Prog Rock?

prog rock

Prog Rock has become one of the decade’s guilty secrets. By 1979 even remembering Genesis or Yes had become a terrible ‘rockist’ thought crime.

These are kinder more tolerant days and now we can look back and spare a chuckle at the days when prog allegedly ruled the world. It was, of course, all a bit of an illusion just like we didn’t walk about in platform shoes and travel by space-hopper, prog was easy to miss.

I managed to miss most of it. Firstly it ‘went on a bit’, I didn’t really like classical music so I didn’t see why I should listen to a band doing the same thing only worse. The second barrier was purely economic. Music was expensive and prog didn’t get played much on the radio for the simple reason that it ‘went on a bit’, for one track by King Crimson we could have Chicory Tip, Paper Lace, Middle of the Road and The New Seekers. There was no way that I was going to spend good money on a record that I hadn’t got to hear first, a least not in my early teens.

And that leads us on to another reason why I missed it. Prog was older brother music and I didn’t have an older brother. It probably required a more sophisticated pair of ears than mine. Prog came and went rather quickly. Friends of mine just a couple of years older will reminisce fondly about ELP’s ‘Tarkus’ or Yes’s ‘Close to the Edge’ while those a couple of years my junior will have no interest at all, from 1974 onwards you could almost hear prog rock expiring.

At the time I cant even remember the term prog being used, the term was ‘progressive’ which of course is almost meaningless. Over the years prog like ‘Glam’ or ‘Punk’ has come to take on stereotypical comedic qualities which is as much about the folly of being young as the actual music.

So what makes Prog Rock and how is it different from Jazz Rock, Heavy Rock, Acid Rock, Space Rock and Underground Rock? Fear not, I have devised a guide.

So Prog Rock needs to include the following, if it hasn’t got these its something else.

  • Created between 1969 and 1975
  • Keyboards. No keyboards and its probably jazz rock or something else. Initially it was the Hammond Organ but the early 70’s saw an explosion of weird and wonderful keyboards especially. The first was the mellotron. This copied proper instruments like flutes and strings but had a sound all of it’s own (that’s a mellotron at the beginning of Strawberry Fields Forever). They were buggers live, prone to going out of tune and breaking and without them bands like The Moody Blues wouldn’t have existed. Despite this there’s much to like about them. Synthesisers started to become available as prog developed. Initially instruments like the Minimoog or the ARP Taurus could only play single notes so of course you needed a lot of them to get the full orchestral effect. If you need further proof lack of keyboards is the reason Rush are not a Prog Rock band.. you read it here first.

rick wakeman

  • Orchestral sensibility. These days anyone can go to music collage to learn to produce music good enough for the X Factor. In the early 70’s it was only the real brain boxes who went on to further education. The most famous ‘proper’ musician was , of course ‘ Rick Wakeman but even he left before graduation. Prog was however heavily influenced by classical music and this meant the European Tradition. Blues was out, in fact most American music was out unless it was Jazz and even then in small doses only (otherwise its Jazz Rock see?). Again this is linked to the rise in importance of keyboards, these were the guys practising their scales at home while the guitarists were down the clubs having a good time. Prog was their revenge. As a side issue to this Prog tended to be ‘a bit posh’.
  • Different Instruments. No more guitar bass and drums lets have a flute or cello or better still a lute. As long as there’s keyboards as well it’s Prog.
  • Time Signatures. Rock music is, or course in 4/4 time (occasionally with the blues there’s a bit of 6/8). 4/4 is quite comfortable and familiar and Prog likes to be challenging so in comes 5/4,7/4 17/8 ect. Even the drummer had to be challenged!

  • Challenging Lyrics. It was no longer acceptable just to write about a girl you fancied in the hope you could get off with her. In fact Sex was pretty much off limits. Romantic poetry or science fantasy was popular but so was free-form ‘poetry’ carried over from psychedelia. At the other extreme there was a dystopian theme often taken from science fiction (there’s even a bit of cyberpunk if you look closely). As you might anticipate from music created almost entirely by young white men songs are about things rather than about emotion.which brings us onto the final defining rule.
  • Silliness. This has been overemphasised in later years but the is usually something slightly ridiculous in the very best of Prog. It might be Greg Lake of ELP with his on-stage Persian carpet or Ian Anderson’s codpiece or just about anything to do with Rick Wakeman.

So lets do the prog test on a random prog contender and see how we score

Jethro Tull

Not a band I know an awful lot about but they existed between 1969 and 1975 (and all points beyond). They had keyboards, not as much as I’d like but enough to get them points here. Tull started off as a Blues band but moved over to folk and a more European feel, they’re  sailing a bit close to the wind with some of their guitar playing but not enough to exclude them from prog.When we get to different instruments they are fully back in the running with a flute and, possibly, even a lute lurking on one of the albums. Challenging lyrics YES!. I’ve listened to ‘Thick As a Brick’.   Weird time changes YES YES!!.Silliness ?

jethro tull

No further Questions m’lud

So Tull are a Prog band, why not apply this test to your own favourites: it fun !

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4 Responses to So WHat The Hell Was Prog Rock?

  1. Good on you for having a go at defining “Prog”. Lots of full length books have struggled to do so!

    It’s worth pointing out that most of what one accepts as history in this area depends entirely on where you view(ed) it from. If you missed it (irrespective of siblings) then it was, ipso facto, not important. If you disliked what you did hear, then the lazy journalistic cliches saved you the bother or working out were your own boundaries and assumptions were. If you belonged to a different tribe, then it was irrelevant anyway. And so it goes.

    For what its worth, I do differentiate between Prog and Progressive. I call those monster bands (who, indecently, sold truckloads of records throughout the so-called punk backlash) like those you have mentioned, Prog.
    I use Progressive as a general description of music that is exploring beyond the pop or standard rock niches, whether it is early Weather Report or National Health. It’s more about separating out Yes, Genesis, ELP and Tull from the lesser known musics than describing the rest.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to chuck in me tuppence worth.


  2. moulty58 says:

    this was a bit tongue in cheek but prog has been redefined over the years, theres even a magazine called Prog so presumably its quite big now.
    Some of what we think of as progressive came out of psychedelia somewhere in my brain I have the idea that psychedelia is good and progressive is good but prog is a bit bad but that’s just me.
    By my own definition Hatfield and the North are prog which they obviously are not well not in my head.

    Which just proves you right its not what it was it was how you saw it


  3. Tangled Up In Music (by Ovidiu Boar) says:

    I would say prog had many superb albums as well as many rubbish ones. Pretty much like any other genre, including punk. My favorite prog bands would be Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd if they count.


    • moulty58 says:

      I have developed an small admiration for Genesis and always liked the brutal bits of king crimson.i can’t really accept floyd as prog not enough tricky time changes and too much blues riffs for that but they just did some great songs. Thanks for commenting, when you look at it there’s not that many great punk albums but that’s a discussion for the future!

      Liked by 1 person

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