This episode was put together by Malcolm Garrett and is a pretty comprehensive introduction to the world of Progressive Rock (not ‘Prog’ though, there is a difference).
There was once a time (as the 60s turned into the 70s) when pretty much all music that wasn’t classified as pop, classical, jazz, or easy listening, was known simply as ‘underground’ or ‘progressive’.
Everything contemporary, unusual and otherwise unclassifiable found its way into a rack in the record store that was labelled just ‘progressive’. Naturally this was always the place I would look for anything exciting or challenging. I would return to the same few stores in Manchester and thumb through the same collections of discs week by week, wondering whether or not to buy a particular disc, invariably one adorned with a curious image or with an esoteric sounding title. It was a mysterious challenge trying to decide if the music would be as enjoyably intriguing as the sleeve. There was no internet to aid research, so almost everything I sampled was based on personal recommendation from friends, or was a reference from an enthusiastic NME or Melody Maker review. More often than not I simply bought it on a whim, or after a cursory listen to a track or two in the listening booths, which were still installed in some of the better stores.
Faced with a mixed lot of largely unknown and previously unheard discs, and with precious little guidance, it is remarkable to recall that most albums I picked up were by and large fresh and eminently listenable. Some of what I found was truly progressive in a way that I don’t think has been heard since. The world of music really was opening up. In that first explosion of audio experimentation, I discovered things that are genuinely timeless, and so, with the passing of time, here I am still listening.
A cautionary note, however. Please do not confuse ‘progressive’ with ‘Prog’. Throughout the period from about ’73 to ’75, musicians such as ELP, Rick Wakeman and Yes embarked upon what can only be seen as a wilful and systematic ruination of what had originated as genuinely fresh and exciting musical experimentation. With each new album they recorded longer and longer pieces, but for no discernible benefit, and with less and less musical discipline or charm. Often they had fairly meaningless ‘concepts’ underlying them, in an attempt to imbue them with some sort of higher musical significance.
Thus it was that the perfectly appropriate, and suitably descriptive, tag of ‘progressive’ was somehow abbreviated to ‘Prog Rock’. This was quite a different name for what I perceive as quite different music altogether, albeit springing from similar origins. A rather pejorative term, it is now attached to all music from the post-Psychedelic period up until Punk (Glitter notwithstanding), and sadly it has thus tainted the heritage and credibility of musically sophisticated recordings such as the ones to be found in this collection.
What we have in this playlist, by way of clarification, is mostly work from those early days of progressive, and is definitely not what I would call ‘Prog’. This, instead, is from the time when pop seemed to turn to rock almost overnight, and the LP found favour over the 3 minute single. Another playlist (Pop Rock 70) addresses this transition from pop single to rock LP track, but these recordings are definitely album material only. They are somewhat longer than 3 minutes, no longer constrained by 7″ vinyl nor daytime radio restrictions. Whilst they feature extended instrumental passages, and are musically quite complex, they display a sparkling sense of musical invention. The basic instrumentation of electric guitar, bass, drums was augmented first with keyboards, then often with wind and strings, and most significantly, with their electronic counterpart: the magnificent mellotron.
This collection begins and ends with pieces by Van der Graaf Generator, who are archetypal ‘progressive’, and a band truly without equal. The opener Man Erg, from their opus ‘Pawn Hearts’, I have listened to regularly since its release in 1971, and it still chills me with its haunting presence. The last piece is an impassioned live rendition of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, which was the closing track from the penultimate Van der Graaf album, ‘Still Life’, before they called it a day in 1976, and left the way open for Punk.
I could write much more about the other songs in this list, and detail my reasons for selecting them, but I’m hoping that you’ll discover and enjoy this music with that same spirit of enquiry that I did first time around.
If you enjoyed this, you may, or may not, enjoy his other lists Songs My First Girlfriend Made Me Listen To and Von Himmel Hoch > from Krautrock to Kosmiche or the more recently added 40 Hot Rod Highs.