Progrockracy: scaling the pinnacles of prog rock

Last week a couple of friends and I met up with the hope that a liberal ingestion of alcohol would bring us a step closer to resolving a challenge we set earlier in the week. Each of us had been allocated 1Gb of data to load with ‘PROG-ROCK’ tunes that would best describe the history and continued influence of this much maligned musical genre. The bar for this evening activity was set fittingly high, it was no less than…

TO DEFINE THE TRUE NATURE OF PROG-ROCK AND SELECT OUR TOP TEN SONGS

Upon arrival the three of us handed over our usbs to be checked to ensure selected songs all adhered to the pre-set under 11 minute rule. In acknowledging the grand-stand soloing which typified many music genres we also decided open the door for outliers such as jazz, fusion, metal etc. But crucially, the song would only survive if the selector could establish its prog-rock credentials by showing its direct influence on the development of prog OR show that the song had been infected with enough prog to carry the tattered flag forward from the halcyon years of the 1970s.

This of course leads to the final and perhaps most important rule … the ‘VETO RULES’.

This rule was essential to ensure that songs which started to drag our minds into a mire of cape tossing self-reverie could be truncated immediately, on agreement of the other two. OR as happened when memories had failed to grasp the true nature of a tune, all three had no hesitation in rushing to sever a virtuoso’s flatulence.

Lastly, from long experience of having to watch the pained reactions of my partner to my prog roots we checked to  make sure she wasn’t within audible distance … all needlessly as it turned out as they had immediately made other plans at the instant of hearing of our enterprise …  so finally we were back to square.

SURPRISE NO.1 was almost immediate. In true prog-rock spirit I had pompously presumed Pink Floyd would be one of the common denominators among our trio. But NO, I was alone, marooned on David Gilmore island, none of the others felt Pink Floyd was prog! In the ensuing moments of jaw-dropping silence I was enlightened to the fact they were a rock/psychedelic band and that this genre could, if necessary, be revisited on another evening.

This in fact proved to be a great introduction to the evening as it was clear that we were seeking a very specific definition of prog. The 3Gb revealed each of us had been at some pains to select far more outliers than the initial conversation may have hinted at. While the list included the usual cast: Egg, Van de Graaf Generator, 801, Camel, Caravan, ELP, Kino, Matching Moles, Peter Hammill, Soft machine, King Crimson, Hugh Hopper, Spock’s Beard, The Mars Volta, Focus, Lard Free, Hatfield and The North, Opeth, IQ, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Mike OldfieldPorcupine Tree, Henry Cow, Procol Harum, Genesis, and yes … Yes,

It also included:10cc aka Godley and Creme, Deep Purple, Flaming Lips, Kevin Ayers, Alan Parsons,Flying Lotus, Sigur Ros, Queen, Super Furry Animals, Aphrodite’s Child, Todd Rundgren, Split Enz, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Roxy Music,  Brian Eno, The Cockney Rebel, Steely Dan, Hawkwind, XTC, David Bowie, and Radiohead.

1 – Getting down to business the first song selected for the evening was a Prog staple, Yes’s Roundabout and yes all agreed it set benchmarks for ….

  • PROGROCKRACY RULE ONE; Immaculate band rehearsal and studio recording techniques dominate. Lyrical whimsy, especially tipping of hats to rural ‘Ye Olde’ England and nature are guaranteed to aid the perilous climb up the slopes of the Misty Mountains.

2 – Next we tested the borderlands of prog with Deep Purple’s Speed Kingwhose flamboyant blues intro is followed by, often proggy John Lord hammond work, but clearly this failed the prog test. A call considerably helped by the improvised call-response guitar/organ work which kicked in at around 3m. And the perennial thorn in the side of many songs from this period, inc prog, ‘Lyrical Obtuseness’

It was also suggested Deep Purple’s credentials could have been better served by a song from the 1969 album Concerto for Group and Orchestra (the first to combine rock and orchestra) and which was  an early release on prog’s Harvest Record label. However the horrendous song length and the mere thought these were accompanied by lyrics had us quickly reaching for the Scotch and writing …

  • PROGROCKRACY RULE TWO: no obvious blues roots. No caterwauling about sex. And most importantly no overt lyrical references to early rock’n roll.

3 – Third song up was a real contender for the final ten ticking boxes on many levels. King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man from their 1969 album Court of the Crimson King is an undeniable early prototype of prog, Not only did it host prog royalty in the form of Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, but also in offering inklings of those insanely polished palantiri; Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red that would appear between 1973 and 1974.

While all of us agreed 21CSM was a prog classic we were less certain as to why. On one level it has more in common with Vertigo stablemates Black Sabbath, on another lyrically … blood rack, barbed wire, politicians funeral pyre, innocents raped with napalm fire .. are about as removed from unicorns and hobbiton as progs 70s nemesis Never Mind the Bollocks. BUT … there are those multiple time signatures, sax, speeded up chord progressions and, well, its inextricably linked to other songs on the album drenched in mellotrons and medieval mystery. All which boiled down to …    .

  • PROGROCKRACY RULE THREE; multiple time signatures are essential to baking a prog tune, but guitar power chords and jazzy sax can add something more than icing. In fact elements of jazz, metal, classical, pop, and occasionally good lyrics, made us realise how important it is to keep an open mind about the genre. …

4 – Song number four was Procol Harums’s, Cerdes. Recorded in 1967 for their debut Procol Harum, the album was released on the back of their hit Whiter Shade of Pale. This album and their second Shine on Brightly 1968, are widely credited as being the harbingers of prog. And what isn’t to like about these incredible albums … the band was even named after a burmese cat breed … or was that a dog? Who cares! It was 1967 for chrissakes.

Written in the main by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid song after song contains the kernels of what was to blossom into prog-rock. Of special note, although ineligible on the night, was the appearance on ‘Shine on Brightly’ of the 17:31m progressive rock suite ‘In Held ‘Twas in I‘ which should have served as a heavily sign-posted warning for those that followed down this path.

  • PROGROCKRACY RULE FOUR; introduction of classical flourishes can only add to being taken seriously, the importance of over-reach is paramount even when it comes to lyricism, as is saying no to nothing … even songs that are under 3 minutes long.

5 – I think it was about this time that we heard Sir Elton knocking on Eddie Offord‘s studio door, with Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding from 1973’s Yellow Brick Road. This opening song from high-water mark of Elton’s career not only starts with a grandiose intro on the ARP synthesiser, a staple of 70s prog, it then segues another song originally recorded separately. A key link between this song and Elton’s prog-rock pretensions was the recording engineer, David Hentschel, who played the synth and would go on to work with Genesis, Peter Hammill, and Mike Oldfield.

However on the night even Hentschel’s synth overdubs failed to win over the judges, who, while applauding the prog intent of fusing two completely separate songs into an 11 minute epic, felt the plonky rock piano of ‘love lies …’ relegated the work to the icy wastelands conjured up at the beginning of the song.

… to be continued.

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