Progressive Music for Newbies

Progressive music was born out of the British Blues Rock scene of the late sixties. It is a complex music, deserving of a complex analysis. I will waffle at length later — you know I will — but here is the chase scene, to which we now cut:

King Crimson - The Court of the Crimson King
Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, there was The Court of the Crimson King. There have been many subsequent and wonderful King Crimsons, but after this first and very fine album, Robert Fripp and lyricist Peter Sinfield were the only remaining original Crims. If you absolutely love it, the live fragments of this epoch-breaking ensemble are to be found on Epitaph, including a version of Holst’s Mars, which is something of a clue to the foundations of this music.

Touch came out in 1969. It is a rare example of American progressive, beloved by fans like me who bought it way back then. After a brief blaze of glory they were hurled into ignominy by Decca Records, who favoured the Zen method of promotion by total silence. In 2004, the album was resurrected to the acclaim of Moby magazine. As leader Don Gallucci said, much later, it was ‘a search for the holy grail of its generation by way of sound ... designed to go where no one had musically gone before in order to break down barriers and walls in the mind; to cause the listener to achieve an altered state of consciousness not through meditation or drugs, but through music.’ ’Nuff said.

Yes - The Yes Album
I loved The Yes Album from the very first moment I heard it (thanks again Charlie). The same was true for the whole run of albums up to the fabulous but unpopular Relayer. From the finger-twisting guitar rag, The Clap, to the sonorous chords of Starship Trooper, this album voices the poignant longing of my generation. It moves from the incomprehensible, but splendid, Yours is No Disgrace to the cautionary Perpetual Change, as did we all at some time or other. Original drummer Bill Bruford says No Disgrace was based on the theme to Bonanza, but you can’t believe everything you read.

ELP - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Greg Lake left the first and holy King Crimson to join the accounting department of Emerson and Palmer. Carl Palmer later admitted that the band were the very definition of pretentiousness, but they also managed to knock out some rousing tunes. The first and eponymous (ah, that’s better) Emerson, Lake and Palmer shows off their considerable talent, as well as putting a touch of Janacek to good use in the almost Crimson Knife Edge. Pretentious or not, Palmer’s drumming is beautiful to this day, and Emerson knew how to frighten any keyboard.

Genesis - Foxtrot
Genesis left the playing fields of Charterhouse School for the harsh realities of everyday rock and roll. Harsh because they insisted on carting a mellotron around. The first several albums are good, especially the third, Nursery Cryme, but Foxtrot hosts their interpretation of the biblical Revelation of St JohnSupper's Ready — so best to start there, really.

Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick
Ian Anderson was exasperated when his forty-minute satire of progressive pretension was taken seriously, but Thick as a Brick is yet wonderful. Jethro Tull had an absolute right to success after a run of excellent albums. A shame that the members of the earlier ensembles couldn’t share in the later glory (and cash). In sneering, Anderson developed an often sensible lyric, unusual in this world of pomp and pretence — really don’t mind if you sit this one out, my words but a whisper, your deafness a shout, I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think, your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink... Anderson became the great protagonist of progressive traditional folk rock. Oxymoronic to the ultimate, really.

Gentle Giant - Free Hand
Gentle Giant deserved far better than they got. The unwillingness to compromise became self-fulfilling, given the ruthless nature of the music biz. There is nowhere a more virtuosic or distinctive music. They maintained a loving following for over a decade before the irritation of poverty rubbed too close. Strange, because several progressive bands became multimillionaires. Giant understood close harmony, complex times, and married driving rock to a hint of courtly mediaevalism. Always intelligent, always underrated. Grab a copy of Free Hand, and enjoy.

dvd: Pink Floyd - Live at PompeiiPink Floyd - Meddle
Pink Floyd were the pipers at the gates of progressive. Success beyond anybody's dreams came with the return to rock of Dark Side of the Moon, but the album before, Meddle, houses the fine Echoes and of course the Kop Choir on the great Fearless (a song that rings true for anyone who has tried either mountain climbing or idiocy). It is also worth aquiring their performance in the empty amphitheatre of Live at Pompeii to see what the British sub-species of hippie looked like.

Moody Blues - On the Threshold of a Dream
The Moody Blues hi-jacked the orchestra they were meant to record the New World Symphony with, and made Days of Future Passed, a source music for progressive. A spacey song-based band with a mellotron, but well worth a listen or two. Try On the Threshold of a Dream for that full ’60s idealist flavour.

Van Der Graff Generator - H to He Who Am the Only One
Listen to Van Der Graff Generator only if you have no suicidal tendency. Lyricist and singer Peter Hammill claimed to be a happy sort who vented his distress successfully by visiting it upon the rest of us. H to He Who Am the Only One is suitably odd, and oddly suitable. The title refers, so we are told, to the fusion of hydrogen (H) nucleii to form helium (He), the ‘basic exothermic reaction in the sun and stars’— you even get the formula so that you can make a sun and stars in the comfort of your own home. It took me a while to realize that Pioneers over C referred to C as in the speed of light. The same hideous state — melting by travelling too fast — has been achieved by others through that other big C, cocaine. Oh, and you get a free Robert Fripp guitar solo with every copy.

Colosseum - Valentyne SuiteColosseum - Daughter of Time
Colosseum incarnated as two distinct and wonderful bands. The first produced The Valentyne Suite, a fine fusion of classical, rock and jazz. The second, fronted by the astonishing growl of Chris Farlowe, gave us Daughter of Time.

Punk drew the pariahs of the press away from underground music in the late seventies. Yes and co still packed arenas and sold huge amounts of albums, but were sneered at by journos (that must have really hurt). Oftentime Crim, former Yes drummer and Bonanza fan, Bill Bruford, took part in a late flowering called UK , in 1978. Partnered with fellow ex-Crim, John Wetton, Zappatista Eddie Jobson and my favourite rock guitarist, Allan Holdsworth, they made the album loquaciously titled UK. Many of the old folks kept touring. They gathered together as Asia , or toured with Genesis’s Steve Hackett, and rocked and rolled in nostalgia. Good luck to them, each and every one, but these are my quick picks, and here I must leave you, returning to my unresting quest for the Growly Whale.

28 April 2004