Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Origins of Prog - Sort Of...

"But I don't like country." "You like the Eagles?" "Yeah." "Then you like country." It's simple to alienate people by categorizing their music in a bent with which they can't associate. Not recognizing the country and folk-rock (albeit psychedelic) aspects of bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and CSN is absurd. That same kind of animosity abounds between those who do and don't appreciate progressive rock.

The mention of the term will result in blank stares that generally lead to the question, "What is progressive music?" We can generalize: Longer songs (or epics); time changes and odd time signatures; complex, sophisticated instrumentation and composition; conceptual ideas and heightened, lyrical content; classical and jazz influences. These general guidelines hold true now, as they did during prog's heyday in the mid-70s. Tracing prog's history is a bit more speculative. What may be confusing is mistaking what is avant-garde for progressive. While prog can be extremely experimental (think "We Have Heaven" from Yes or Gentle Giant's "Knots"), the utterly experimental and avant-garde Trout Mask Replica cannot be mistaken as progressive.

Picking a starting point is a bit like putting a pin in a globe to choose one's vacation. This writer sticks a pin in The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out from 1966, in particular, "Help, I'm a Rock." Zappa's sophomore release, Absolutely Free, may more specifically be progressive, but I'll stick with Freak Out as where it all began, but only in the same way that Robert Johnson in the 1930s created rock 'n' roll. Definitive prog instead would come in 1970 with two LPs that truly fit the mold, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the eponymous debuts from both bands. More on that in the next post.

What appears today as run of the mill (hardly) was ground-breaking in 1967. The idea of fusing psychedelic rock with orchestral arrangements was an improbable marriage. The Moody Blues somehow made it work on the prog classic Days of Future Passed. A true concept album, Days of Future Passed is thematic in that it follows a day's activity.  As "The Day Begins" Graeme Edge commands the sun to rise.  The optimism of the early morning is reflected in Michael Pinder's "Dawn is a Feeling" and in Ray Thomas' "Another Morning". By the afternoon, the recording takes on a surreal quality typical of later psychedelic recordings; indeed, John Lodge's compositions ("Peak Hour", "Forever Afternoon") are truly inspired. Despite the "typical day," the symphonic arrangements with the London Festival Orchestra are far from ordinary. In essence, Days was a fluke, a mistake, but for scores of flower children, the LP was their first exposure to classical orchestration and soaring melodies. In actuality, the album is more proto-prog than prog: for all of its orchestral ambitions, the songs stick largely to pop song formats. And yet, the way the group tried to seriously meld themselves with the orchestra, rather than simply use it as a sweetening device as in earlier pop music, was important--it's the *intent* here that counts. Not to mention, the group's unabashedly "cosmic" aspirations which would be a more defining characteristic of prog than Zappa's more biting, punkish social satire. 

While The Moodies were busy attempting to meld rock and orchestral sounds, Keith Emerson, and The Move were busy incorporating classical and jazz elements within a tighter four-piece (later three-piece) rock band arrangement, using only his considerable virtuosity at the keyboard and a partnership with Robert Moog. The results would do more to influence prog-rock, and keyboards in general, than any other album for years to come. While "Emerlist Davjack" is more of a transitional album between psychedelia and prog, the LP is as progressive as much of ELP's later work.

Also in 1967, the Moodies were back with In Search of the Lost Chord. Here we may find the very first intrinsically progressive LP. A mini-suite opens with "House Of Four Doors," a solemn and somewhat mystical number that features the sound of different doors opening into different musical worlds: medieval guitar and flute, a baroque harpsichord, and a 19th-century orchestra, leading to the fourth and final door which opens cleverly into the next song, "Legend Of A Mind." This psychedelic classic is a tribute to acid guru Tim Leary, which features a trippy mellotron hook played with a pitch bend. This upbeat track features a catchy melody and a series of exciting time changes, constantly building in strength until the piece quiets down for a mystical flute solo and more of the pitch-bended mellotron for maximum psych thrills. The break continues this mellotron/flute duet for a while, stretching the song way past pop boundaries and into solid prog territory, the track's orchestral grandeur becoming apparent as the band rejoins and gradually plays in a faster and faster tempo, soaring high until the chorus triumphantly returns. "House Of Four Doors" returns for a brief reprise, sounding moody and contemplative, a tambourine being stricken ritually as the group sings of different paths on the quest to enlightenment. And that's just side one.

By 1968 the genre would further emerge with bands like Tomorrow, Mabel Greer's Toyshop, Yes and King Crimson, not to mention the Canterbury Scene which was progressive all the way back to 1964. Progressive Rock would explode into the mainstream in the mid-70s with Tull, ELP and Genesis, finally self-aggrandizing itself so fully that it fell by the wayside amidst the clash of punk and disco. It would reemerge in the 90s with bands like Porcupine Tree. Interesting that Steven Wilson would look back so fondly on LPs like Gentle Giant's The Power and the Glory, remaster and mix them and offer them up to a new generation.