Pre-prog (originally posted 27/1/14)
By ProgBlog, Mar 26 2014 04:47PM
I first took an interest in the progressive rock genre in 1972, three years after its inception. I’m subscribing to the commonly held opinion that the prog time-line began in 1969 but I’ll also stick my neck out and say the first progressive rock album was In the Court of the Crimson King. On reflection, hitting on prog at that time was relatively fortuitous because following the release of King Crimson’s debut album there weren’t too many bands or too many releases to retrospectively discover. Anyone getting into the genre for the first time in the present will have great difficulty going back through albums from the last 45 years simply because of the sheer weight of numbers.
Back in 1972 I didn’t have a clue when this sort of music started and it was only natural to look at any music that interested me, which included jazz and classical music. I wasn’t particularly aware of rock ‘n’ roll but the fusion of either classical or jazz motifs in a rock context did appeal – the title track from Atom Heart Mother is a prime example. This might explain why The Nice were the second band that I got into even though I now regard them as proto-prog or pre-prog. A significant proportion of the repertoire of The Nice was not self-penned, especially the material on the later and posthumous Nice albums and I think that’s a reason they’re not actually prog. Once Davy O’List had departed the band simply became a vehicle for Keith Emerson; out went the psychedelia that allied them with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and in came the treatment of Bob Dylan songs and classical interpretations. Despite his indisputable influence on modern music, the only way I can listen to a Dylan song is if it has been covered by The Nice. The use of orchestration by ‘serious’ bands may have been an attempt to bridge the genuine cultural gap between rock and the establishment but it didn’t make the music progressive rock. In my opinion, Ars Longa Vita Brevis is closer to prog than the Five Bridges Suite that came later but it’s more the idea of bridging that cultural divide that is truly progressive.
The Beatles have to be credited with helping to create prog through the way they became studio-based and the use of the concept of the song-cycle. The Beatles aren’t prog but they did open up a new way of working and organising their own musical endeavours. Their huge popularity allowed them to exert this control and it was the nature of the music business at the time that ceded artistic decisions to musicians because they saw the financial possibilities of album-based music, knowing it would generate a lot of money for the labels. A large proportion of progressive rock is concept-based, relying on not just musical thematic continuity but also on presentational themes. On reflection, this probably opened the door to the exploitation of merchandise – I used to buy postcards of Roger Dean’s illustrations for Yessongs from the student union shop at Goldsmiths’, more than 5 years after the release of the album; an iconography that represented an idea that had started on Fragile and continued on Close to the Edge and concluded on the expanse of the gatefold sleeve of the triple live album.
Procol Harum’s eponymous first album was far from prog, reflecting the state of British Blues and the influence of psychedelia at the time. The release didn’t even include their first single A Whiter Shade of Pale, with its Bach-borrowed organ refrain from classically-educated Matthew Fisher, revealing similarities with the approach of The Nice. However, their second album, 1968’s Shine On Brightly featured an almost side-long length composition In Held Twas In I that took in a Beatles world-view and included Eastern influences. Matthew Fisher was given a writing credit for this track; the closest Procol Harum would get to prog.
Another album that some claim was the first prog album is the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Ray Thomas, in the liner notes to the digitally remastered CD brought out in 1997 describes the piece as a ‘rock symphony’ and though the comparisons with Sgt Peppers are inevitable, he didn’t see that as a direct influence. I see this as proto-prog because it’s another step in the right direction. The Moodies were asked to record a version of the New World Symphony to show off Decca’s Dynamic Stereo System but used the studio time to record their own material which was quite distinct from their earlier records. The variety of musical backgrounds was important in this new music; Justin Hayward brought along a folk sensibility which gives the album a distinctive sound. The other distinctive sound comes courtesy of the Mellotron which became integral to the music of the Moody Blues. Though very competent, the Moodies were never virtuosos nor did they try to push musical boundaries. Days of Future Passed is a well produced album with some great melodies but it heralded an output that was a bit formulaic and never challenging. When I first heard them in the mid 70s I used to associate them with religion and was slightly dismissive. I think I was wrong about the religion but, though they play an important part in the establishment of progressive rock, they are not much more than a rock and roll band.
More challenging music was coming from Pink Floyd. A Saucerful of Secrets was something of a crossroads for the Floyd; Barrett’s mental health issues effectively exiled him from the band that were then left without a main song writer. Roger Waters tried his hand at psychedelic pop with the delightful (but unsuccessful) Julia Dream and also branched out more into space rock with Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun and Let There be More Light. It’s the title track that really sets out Pink Floyd as potential prog-rockers. Part improvised and part written, the piece moves from chaos to melodic resolution and takes the listener on a sonic journey that challenged accepted rock music form. I discovered this in 1974 and it remains one of my favourite Floyd tracks.