Monday, January 11, 2021

The Origins of Prog... Revisted

I maintain that progressive rock's catalyst into popularity was Gentle Giant's and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's eponymous debuts in late 1970. Stating that has caused a myriad of arguments, most that point to King Crimson instead. I buy that, though, from a practical standpoint, my argument remains – neither King Crimson nor the Canterbury Scene or even the Moody Blues fully established prog in its commercial sense. Brian Eno's remark about the Velvet Underground remains true: only 30,000 people bought the Velvets' debut, "but everyone who bought one started a band."

Nonetheless, acknowledging that there was a plethora of Velvets, leads me to these, ahem, five – the catalysts of the catalysts (this ought to rip the top off a can of worms):

1. The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! (June 1966). Alice Cooper said, "Before prog and shock rock, you had Frank and his musicians who were doing something unlike any other band I'd heard before." Freak Out! was as psychedelic as the day was long and in this, those who insist on pigeonholes neglect its prog influence in the same way they do #2 on the list. A brash opening statement from Zappa that he would make the music he wanted and didn't care who he failed to please or to offend along the way. From the Mr. America in "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" who brushes under the carpet the unseemly aspects of suburban life to the avant-garde parody of American self-assurance "It Can't Happen Here," the almost angry attack on the mainstream West is unflinching. Devoted to avant pioneer Edgard Varèse, R&B, and experimentation with tape loops, Zappa had the Mothers "master-planned" years before he hijacked L.A. bar band The Soul Giants into his surreal vision. Not prog, you insist, see No. 2. 

2. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (May 1967). The psychedelic poster child doesn't have Zappa's quirky time signatures or avant-garde [lack of] focus, but its concept, dreaminess, and surrealism are a constant of things to come. If not a progressive LP itself, Sgt. Pepper is the most non-progressive LP to influence the likes of Genesis, Tull, Can or more modern bands like Porcupine Tree. 

3. Pink Floyd The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (August 1967). Named after a chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In The Willows, Pink Floyd's whirling amalgam of psychedelia and space rock was highlighted by Syd Barret's astoundingly proggy songwriting. From the whimsy of "Bike" and "The Gnome" (which harken back to Bowie's debut a month earlier) to proto-prog epics like "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive," the album is a colorful mix of the sounds of its time – and another peek into the future. I don't usually catalog Floyd alongside progressive artists like Gentle Giant or Yes, but the influence is unmistakable. 

4. Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed (November 1967). "We were originally a rhythm-and-blues band," Justin Hayward said, "but it was incongruous, getting us nowhere, and in the end, we had no money, no nothing." Then came what Hayward called "a series of wonderful accidents." Decca ventured into its new stereo format with Deram Records and to foot the bill for the new studio asked that The Moodies to record a rock version of Dvorak's New World Symphony. Michael Barclay, the project's coordinator, suggested turning it around – The Moodies' songs interspersed with orchestration; symphonic rock was born. Later offerings from the band would be far more progressive, but without Days, that would never have come to fruition. 

5. In the Court of the Crimson King would be released in October of 1969 and, as one of my all time favorites (and yes, you’ve heard me say I like Poseidon more), I’m not likely to refute its stature, but I’ve paid tribute enough. Yet if I X it out of the list, I struggle with my choices leading up to GG and ELP. Choose your own ending to the post, therefore with bands and debuts from Magma, Fairport Convention, Curved Air, Van der Graf Generator, Caravan – hell, I see the prog in The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains;” and leave it up to you.

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