LIFE IS SHORT, ART IS LONG

“When did prog rock begin?” is a question that gets trotted out periodically and always invites a storm of opinion, most of it generating more heat than light.

A big part of the problem is a lack of shared understanding around the terms. What is prog? Is it different from progressive music? And what constitutes a beginning? A single song? An album? An article in the music press?

For the purposes of this particular contribution, we’ll define “progressive” as an attitude towards pop music that involved change, experimentation, and an expanded palette of musical influences including (but not limited to) jazz, classical/composed, non-Western and folk music. 

The experimentation side of things is most clearly seen in the birth of psychedelia—particularly the UK variety that tries to translate the experience of acid into music, in contrast to the US version that is frequently music made while actually on acid. In this context The Beatles can rightly be placed in the vanguard, particularly regarding the embracing of Eastern instruments and textures and ground-breaking use of newly available studio technology. Not to mention writing about things other than lurve. (Listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows” for a reminder).

If we allow progressive music to be about moving beyond the fields we know, about experimenting with shifting forms, with different instrumental arrangements, with expanded cultural influences and so on, then many artists from the mid-60s (and onwards) have laced on those boots and taken a trip. The birth of psychedelia provided the organic (or perhaps lysergic) soup from which Progressive music grew, especially in the thirst for freshness and the harnessing of new technologies.

But these were not the only influences. An ambition to include more literary elements—pioneered by Bob Dylan, but also seen in the poetic lyrics of other ‘folk’ artist such as Leonard Cohen—raised the bar above the paper-thin “I love you, I really do” sentiments of much early 60s pop. Even band names reflect this: The Doors from Aldous Huxley, Steppenwolf from Hermann Hess.

The technicolour pop scene of 1967-1968 was characterised by a feverish eclecticism in all aspects of social and cultural life, amply illustrated by fashion trends. Unearthing a 19th Century military jacket or donning an Indian shirt marked the wearer as someone in the vanguard, someone ‘now’, someone progressing towards a bright and surely better future. Pop stars were highly visible flag bearers in this regard, just as they were in popularising (even advocating) the use of mind-altering substances.

So from ‘high’ culture we have literary ambitions and ‘classical’ music influences, from fashion and art we have spirited appropriation of styles and the insertion of pop culture into the fine arts. Technology offers new ways to experiment and manipulate sound. Social change trumpets a breaking down of barriers and an optimism that progress is not only possible but actually happening. 

All of this moved psychedelic music beyond pop towards a richer, more diverse aural canvas than ever before. It was adventurous, it was fearless, it was gloriously prog.

One of the earliest albums to attract the term ‘progressive’ was the first LP by British band Family. Music In A Doll’s House (in all likelihood a reference to the Ibsen play) was released on 19 July, 1968. It is a thoroughly eclectic work, as seen in the list of styles applied by the Allmusic guide:

Art Rock

Blues-rock

British Psychedelia

Prog-rock

Psychedelic/Garage

So, not easy to categorise, eh? And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem: our insistence that art fits into neat categories and has neat chronologically tabulated labels. We live in a fragmented post-modern world but that doesn’t stop us desperately craving the surety of neat, clear, boundaries.

The thesis here is that there are a number of LPs from 1968 clearly demonstrating the transition from psychedelic to progressive rock, a development that enriched and permanently changed popular music forever. 

Family’s entertaining Music In A Doll’s House is one example. 

The music created by The Nice is another.

Stay tuned.

NOTE: The feature image is the cover of Cherry Red’s terrific 3 CD compilation of 1968 psychedelia, Looking At The Pictures In The Sky. Also, the above Nice compilation of BBC recordings (1967-1969) is brilliant. Neither of these are being reviewed in this present series.

 

37 comments

  1. It’s interesting how the label progressive changed from music that pushed boundaries to a specific style of symphonic, long, grandiose songs.

    I used to have that Family album, but found Chapman’s vibrato too difficult to take. Maybe I should try it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roger’s voice is certainly, er, unique, isn’t it? Probably worth having another listen. It’s an interesting transitional album, certainly.

      When the British music press had a ‘Progressive’ chart, it included bands like Traffic. I blame journalists for much of the prejudice and narrowing of terms.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm. I’ve always loved the cover of the Doll’s House one, my dad has it but I’ve never played it. Where was the Beatles cover from?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the sheet music. So you can play ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on your 20 quid keyboard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You should have heard my comb and paper playing back in the day.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heard you did a mean version of “21st Century Schizoid Man”.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Although I enjoy when the Fab 4 sang about lurve, there’s something all the more special about the impossible-to-categorize tunes like Tomorrow Never Knows!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All right and proper. Nuffin wrong with the L-word of course. Really, the thrust of the piece was about moving beyond the confines of pop. Into Tomorrow, where, really, you never know.
      Thanks for stopping by Geoff. This piece will continue…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really worthwhile article! (and I like “feverish eclecticism” and organic/lysergic soup a lot) I’ll be glad to follow this series of pieces – – I’ve never had a clear understanding of how some bands are categorized. We all survive the day by identifying myriad things in a flash – sorting, labeling, pigeonholing,and moving on. But bands are experimenting, layering on, adopting/appropriating new sounds, evolving so quickly (or maybe flash mutation is a better description). Music is so fragmented now, and reviewers (present company excepted) seen to struggle with categories – pretty often they’re jiving all over the place, with strings of modifiers, exceptions, caveats – “Originally folk-based-blues-influenced, while on tour, they’ve embraced feminist-Latin-hip-hop, and their new guitarist Spleen adds massively distorted blackened death metal power chords to the formerly Prog-Art-Rock-synthesizer-backed sound…”) So I’ll be very glad to learn about this Prog phase, which really seems to have broken open the doors to all this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m very grateful for your thoughtful response, Robert. This piece was certainly a labour of love, as they say, and I was unsure how many would engage with it. Often it seems blog posts flutter by like autumn leaves; part of that fragmentation you mention, I expect. But for me the variety of sounds and textures emerging during this period are what keeps me listening still.

      As for that band you mentioned, more info please! Where are they playing? I simply must hear Spleen venting over a foundation of synths.

      – Bruce

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Spot on, it’s easy to forget that prog was originally progressive. I think it marked a turning from American based music to European and more world music, inevitably it all became more rigid al ‘ classically trained’ musician crawled out of the woodwork and we ended up with Rick Wakeman”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, a real opening up of inputs and influences. Funny, but I’ve never had a problem with ‘classically’ trained musicians playing rock. I mean, why not? I love that rock music is a broad secular church where both Rick Wakeman and Joey Ramone are welcome.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The main (only) issue I have had is the establishment have had the idea that classical is ‘ proper’ music and somehow more worthy of serious discussion. That’s pretty much ended now the rock fans are in charge of everything but when I was growing up rock was regarded as childish. Classically trained can be a blessing or a curse. What I loved about the Beatles is they were so intelligent and open hence TNK

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There was ridiculous and ill informed prejudice, that’s for sure. And looks pretty silly fifty years on!

          Like

  6. 365musicmusings · · Reply

    Great article! I’ve often been more interested in the earlier stages of program than the excessive, and to my taste, less enjoyable 70s on work. Fascinating little history and explanation here!

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    1. The ‘birth’ of a style or shift in popular culture is always a fascinating time, isn’t it? Glad you enjoyed the piece. Perhaps you might even hear some of the wonderful early 70s progressive music a little differently now!
      Thanks for your comment.

      Like

  7. A good perspective and background, Bruce. I think too many people, myself included sometimes, tend to narrow the definition around just a handful of 1970’s groups (Yes, ELP, Genesis, etc.). The sample is actually much wider, and It’s good to be reminded of that. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marty. Your comment captures, in a nutshell, the motivation for writing this ‘think’ piece (to quote Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Almost Famous’!).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Wow, I assumed Cherry Red only did shoe-gazish music since that’s all I know of them really, one of favorite bands, Felt. Great write-up and looking forward to the next. The Nice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I probably should check, but I think Bevis Frond (who you’d probably like, being a GBV fan) are on Cherry Red. I’ve reviewed a couple of albums here I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Yes I know that name, will keep an ear out for him!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. A really interesting and, well, educational piece, Bruce. I certainly learned something today! For full disclosure, I look for capes when out looking for prog stuff.

    Onto more serious matters, I love that image used on the Looking At Pictures in the Sky compilation. Buckcherry used the same one on their debut album. Very striking. Wonderful colour. Never did learn who was responsible. Does it say within the liner notes?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks J. I have so enjoyed sharing a lifetime’s listening and thinking about the birth of progressive music (as distinct from cape-wearing prog!) and having a crack at distilling at least a few of the ideas/themes.
      Have been unable to find out much about the cover art, I’m afraid. Might see if I can recruit JDB (below) – she’s an absolute wiz at finding sources of visual art.

      Like

  10. I’ve always thought the album referenced in the title here was the beginning of prog-rock as we know it today. Classical references, a “humorous” number, lots of organ solos, and a 20-minute suite on Side 2…it had it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Damn! You’ve just summarised my next post in 40 words!

      Like

  11. Man did you bust out the “$10 dollar words” for that one. You used two album examples that CB digs. Don’t have that Nice album. Love their version of Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me”. I’m all over the Family stuff. Good piece Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Got a fabulous job lot so they only cost me $7.50 each. Good, eh?
      (More on The Nice tomorrow, CB!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good deal. Keep throwing them around. It’s good for CB to stretch out of the 4 letter words. Emerson was probably my first hero on the keyboards.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Fabulous. I wanna see this in many parts (he says hopefully)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You wish is my command, good Sir!

      Like

      1. We’re all winners on this!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m right with SnakesInTheGrass2014 in having always thought of ‘prog’ as being a 1970’s phenomenon, and I consider myself duly edified and ready for your next installment on this topic. It seems one could consider the album on which ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ appears, Revolver, as an early entry to the prog canon, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the emergence of UK psychedelia (1966, flowering in ’67) The Beatles are absolutely central. Their curious creativity about new sounds, the licence to have limitless studio access (based on their phenomenal success) and the subtle yet vital input of George Martin combined in a way unmatched anywhere in popular music. (People who say The Beatles are unimportant are demonstrating that they are uninterested in history/social change or the development of popular music, which is absolutely OK, as long as I don’t have to listen to their opinions. Pompous poseur rant over).

      So. Revolver is a massive leap forward (and my favourite Beatles album, as you probably recall) and you simply could not describe ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ as anything but progressive psychedelia. But, like ‘A Day In The Life’ on the next album, it is a stepping stone. A staging post, you could say, on the journey towards an even greater field of exploration (that ultimately fragmented along commercial lines, primarily, around 1973-74).

      Oh goodness, I’m going on, aren’t I? What was the question? 😅

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL! More, please! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  14. […] much covers the bases mentioned in the previous post, really. And all those elements are present on The Nice’s sophomore LP, with the progressive […]

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  15. […] me tapping away and spinning records most days. My fondness for connected series—currently the birth of progressive music—means I regularly feel impelled by a sense of completion to push out another missive. Sometimes […]

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  16. […] above. Both are worthy of attention; both demonstrate the incorporation of influences described earlier as components of progressive music; neither would be considered compulsory acquisitions for most […]

    Like

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