Monday, January 18, 2021

The Origins of Progressive Rock – Details

Rock music experienced a seismic change between 1966 (Rubber Soul) and 1969, inspired by art, poetry, jazz, India, classical music – and drugs. Psychedelia permeated the three guitars and a drum sensibility the Beatles created in the early 60s. Rock 'n' Roll became "Rock," for this writer, with a single riff in 1965. There isn't a soul who doesn't recognize it – Keith Richards' iconic hook on "Satisfaction." Rock's venture into the progressive subgenre arguably came about in July 1965 with Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," a six-minute single (twice the length of the average 45) with lyrics that promised profound truth and the wisdom of youth. 

Inspired by Rubber Soul, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, with its Theremins, bicycle bells and barking dogs, arrived in May 1966. Three months later, The Beatles responded with the multi-layered Revolver with Harrison's sitar and Lennon's backward tape loops. In December came The Who's A Quick One, "a mini rock opera" leading up to Tommy in 1969. 

Despite its imminent demise a few years later, AM pop radio was equally infected with The Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play," and The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee." And don’t get me started on Jimmy Webb's game-changing hit from Richard Harris, "McArthur Park." 

New records were borrowing from jazz, spacy country, musique concrète, old-English vaudeville and Burt Bacharach. Rock 'n' Roll was about sex, and suddenly, the forebearers of progressive rock were making us think. But why? One word and a few letters: Maryjane and LSD. Cannabis had greased music's wheels since the jazz era, but the impact of LSD turned pop music inside out. Even groups who never touched the stuff started making music that sounded like they did. 

"I put my hand up, I tried LSD," said Moody Blues guitarist Justin Hayward looking back. Hayward joined the band in 1966 and helped engender their move away from R&B to art-rock. "We sat there holding hands. I found the culture around LSD profoundly interesting." 

For Hayward, the year was all about, "Head magazines like International Times, Aldous Huxley's The Doors Of Perception and Timothy Leary." The Moodies, of course, would record the Leary inspired "Legend Of A Mind," on their 1968 LP In Search of the Lost Chord. 

Before it from The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper sessions was "Strawberry Fields," which fellow acidhead Pete Townshend called "creative, strange and different." Townshend had become a regular at UFO, a London club where everyone – band and audience – was tripping. Once the lads released Sgt Pepper, "the whole world changed," according to Hayward (and everyone else). It was pop music reimagined through the prism of LSD, Abbey Road's state-of-the-art studios and The Beatles' boundless imagination. "Pop music could now be whatever it wanted to be." 

Kevin Godley (Godley Crème, 10cc) said of Pepper, "It was so strange it was almost alien. On the day it came out, everyone in college stopped working and was listening… Everything changed. It was like the first iPhone. Okay, it was just a phone before, but now it’s this." 

As instrumental as Britain was psychedelically, the genre found its roots equally in the States. Garage rock was the American equivalent to the spacey U.K. bent, but with far more diversity, The Velvet Underground at one end of the country, Zappa in L.A., the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in the trippy Bay area with "White Rabbit" its poster child.

Justin Harward said, "We listened to everything coming out of America: The Byrds, The Beach Boys, anything on Elektra Records, The Doors, Love," Hayward singles out Buffalo Springfield "as a major influence on the London scene," but there was a difference from one side of the Atlantic to the other: America was immersed in a bloody and unpopular war. American psychedelia didn't lead to the gentle whimsy of 70s prog. Instead, it grew horns and turned into Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or the heavy stoner rock of Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly, while the U.K. went classical and ethereal. 

Case in point, Procol Harum. Their iconic No.1 single, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach and included fantasy lyrics about vestal virgins. "It's like the construction of a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the finished picture will be," explained lyricist Keith Reid. "I start off with one or two pieces or fragments of a concept, then, by interlocking pieces, I build up a picture that makes sense and conveys my thoughts and meaning." He could have been Jon Anderson talking about Yes. 

Paul McCartney had his first listen to the track at London's Speakeasy club and said, "This is the best song I ever heard, man." From there the trippy, psychedelic experience included Cream, the Incredible String Band and then, an LP to rival Pepper, The Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. From there, it wasn't a very big step to usher in Tommy and Traffic and despite itself, Floyd's Ummagumma made it all the way to No. 3. I can still chant the obscure lyrics to "Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict," with its hidden message, "That was pretty avant-garde, wasn’t it?" 

All of this, of course, led to Crimson's In the Hall of the Crimson King, a stellar culmination of jazz, rock, psychedelia, beautiful lyrics, gorgeous vocals, horrific concepts, and unrivaled musicianship. Like a phoenix, rock had burned itself up and reappeared with a new vitality that by 1971 would fly up like Icarus to heights it never before dreamed.

While AM doesn't condone or romanticize the use of illicit substances, there is no denying their impact on psychedelia and the music of the 60s and 70s.

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