“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.
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.