28 Aug 2018

What is progressive rock?

From Afternoons, 2:20 pm on 28 August 2018

Progressive rock is a term that's been used widely for 50 years. But it can still be difficult to pin down what it actually is.

Associate Professor Rob Burns from Otago University has written a book on the genre, Experiencing Progressive Rock.

no caption

Prog royalty: Emerson Lake and Palmer. Photo: Wikicommons

He told Afternoons' Jesse Mulligan prog is notoriously difficult to pin down and most musicians dislike the term anyway.

Rob sees it as a style of music defined by virtuosity; as "music for the curious".

“As one of my interviewees said it’s about musical curiosity, musical invention not being tied down to the norms of what pop music expects pop music to be.”

Prog rock began life as a term used by record companies to encompass any rock band who were including elements other genres in their music.


Yes in their early '70s pomp. Photo: Wikicommons

“Artists began pulling elements from folk, jazz, pop, classical music and integrating them into the rock band format. People didn't really know how to talk about this music so the term prog rock became a catch-all.”

Record labels Island and Harvest in the UK were at the forefront of this new style of rock music in the early 1970s, he says. 

“Some would take it back further, I heard some mention of Peppers, most critics seem to think it finished when punk came along certainly in Britain in the mid to late 1970s others take it to 1980 - more recent evaluations of it have it still going now.

No caption

Photo: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

“So you can treat progressive as an era or you can say it is what it is - it progresses.”

Early exponents of the genre were Yes, King Crimson and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

“They were experimenting with classical tropes, most of them had been musically educated or were musically literate.

“It gets quite elitist with Genesis who use a lot of literary references from George Orwell to Keats, even the Bible.”

This more expansive approach was made possible by a record industry awash with cash and the emergence of the album as a coherent art form in itself.

“It didn’t stick to the norms of what record companies required the bands to do since the invention of the 7 inch single in 1948.

“There was money around in the late 1960s, bands were allowed to experiment without having to make ‘the single’.”


10CC brought complexity to mainstream pop. Photo: Wikicommons

Tracks played:

1. 'Yours Is No Disgrace' - Yes, 1971

2. 'I'm Mandy Fly Me' - 10CC, 1976

“That might be an odd choice but it doesn’t stick to one tempo all the way through, it has several sections and is a concept song … It’s not a regular pop single but it was a hit.”

3. 'Fanfare for the Common Man' - Emerson Lake and Palmer, 1977

“Aaron Copeland was still alive when they recorded it so they had to ask his permission and he was quite glad for them to record it and I think it’s a great tribute to the late Keith Emerson’s virtuosity.”

4. 'Thick as a Brick' - Jethro Tull, 1972

Jethro Tull started life as a kind of bluesy jazzy band and then went folkier their arrangements were very well-structrued their songs have lots of different sections

Jethro Tull live in Hamburg in 1973

Jethro Tull live in Hamburg in 1973 Photo: wiki commons

“Thick as a Brick was a single when prog bands didn’t really release singles. I know it’s popular in NZ because most of my friends have it.”

5. 'High Hopes' - Pink Floyd, 1994

6. 'Heroes' - King Crimson, 2000

King Crimson

A contemporary iteration of King Crimson, Founder Robert Fripp 3rd right. Photo: Supplied

Founder of King Crimson, Robert Fripp played “hairy rock’n’roll” guitar on David Bowie’s original Heroes.

“It’s the only time I’ve ever heard them do a cover” 

7. 'Hand. Cannot. Erase' - Steven Wilson, 2015

Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson Photo: supplied