What is Progressive Rock, anyway?

This question has crossed my mind a lot in the last couple of days. I’ve seen it discussed online too in recent months. I’ve never seen a satisfactory explanation. I have my own idea of what Progressive Rock actually is, or at least what it feels like. But, putting this into words is harder than it looks.

I was compelled to put my thoughts into pixels during a long car journey, accompanied by the music of noughties US bands The Polyphonic Spree and Subtle, when my mind wandered around the land of Prog for an hour or two. I was still recovering from a lunchtime discussion during a band rehearsal, where that old chestnut was raised, debated, and left unresolved. I think I got a little closer to the answer, by the time I arrived…

Accepted wisdom states that Progressive Rock is flowery music about wizards made by ex-hippies in flares, who attained Grade 8 in their chosen instrument at Boys’ Grammar School. The songs are long and meandering—so long, in fact, that an album of only 2–4 tracks including some complicated time signatures and plenty of Mellotron should be of no surprise. Accepted wisdom—oh, the irony.

Let’s face it, Prog Rock got a bad name from this common perception. And this previously-hip musical genre was outcast with the advent of back-to-basics Punk and Disco in the mid- to late-seventies. Much of this accepted wisdom remains to this day. Even Progressive Rock fans sort of believe it. I went along with it, ashamedly, though I never really fully believed it.

What do I know, anyway? Who am I to judge? What follows is only an opinion. The cool thing about music is that it’s subjective. And it is very personal. People argue about music all the time, and all opinions are valid. But my opinion is more valider.

Unknowingly, I got into Progressive Rock at a very early age—probably 7 or 8. I was the youngest in my family, and I was influenced by teens with growing record collections, because there wasn’t much else to do in the early seventies. I say “unknowingly” because it was all just music to me back then. I was weaned on a diet of Beatles, Beach Boys, Focus, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Stackridge, Roxy Music, Supertramp and Mike Oldfield. At the age of 11, my first favourite band was 10cc.

Back then, Progressive Rock was as much a fashion as a musical genre. And fashions change. True to form, I didn’t properly get into Progressive Rock until age 13, in the late seventies, when it was very uncool. That’s when I knew the type of music I liked had a name, and I had to find more of it to listen to. My new favourite band was Yes. My bedroom wall was covered with Roger Dean posters and band photos. I learned to play guitar on a diet of S.H. (Steve Howe, Steve Hackett and Steve Hillage).

I had to be content with listening to records by bands who’d gone a bit crap. They’d had their day. By the early eighties, it was a bit embarrassing. When asked which my favourite bands were, my responses were met with a mixture of disgust and amusement, because they were currently making shit records. They didn’t know one of the universal laws of Physics, which states that, “a band’s best albums are usually their earliest.” When I ran out of good Progressive Rock to listen to, I moved on to what the people in the know were calling New Wave. Anyway, I digress…

Some time in the nineties I had an epiphany. Quite a few of the albums I had been enjoying over the last decade were pressing the same buttons as those seventies Prog albums. I eventually created a website called Prog’s Not Dead, dedicated to contemporary albums which I felt followed the Spirit of Prog and yet avoided that classification. [Don’t look for it; I wiped it a long time ago.] It was around then that I realised that popular bands like Radiohead were very much Prog, and that Punk, Dance, Folk and Hip-Hop could be Prog too.

Fast forward to recent times. In 2021, a band answered my musicians wanted ad, asking if I’d be interested in joining them in their Prog Rock band. My initial thought was, “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, no.”* I hadn’t followed actual out-of-the-closet Progressive Rock since the early 80s. Don’t get me wrong—I still love my seventies Prog—but, it was in the past. The post-seventies Progressive Rock bands I’d heard had been pretty dire, in my not-so-humble opinion. Why would you try to recreate that magnificent musical genre if you couldn’t do it any justice?!

Back to today, and I’m daydreaming in the car to a soundtrack of hippy choral indie rock and experimental hip-hop from the mid-noughties. Both albums strike me as being very Prog. Neither has long meandering songs with weird time signatures or great instrumental prowess. No fancy solos, or references to dragons or faeries. No sci-fi album covers. But they are still Prog. Why are they Prog? There must be a pattern, a code or a formula!

Then it began to dawn on me. You have to separate the ‘Progressive’ from the ‘Rock’. They are two different things. Rock music emerged in the mid-sixties, and, like Blues, Chart Pop and Traditional Jazz, had a defined set of musical parameters: raunchy guitars, earnest singing, pumping bass and hard-working drums. Verse, chorus, bridge/solo. The Progressive guys found this a bit boring and predictable, and messed around with the format. It’s as simple as that. I guess you could say that, by the mid-seventies, the Progressive guys had run out of possibilities within the Rock format, and got stuck. Some went downhill rapidly, and some managed to extract a bit more mileage for another few years before going the same way.

So that’s what Progressive Rock is. It’s almost as important to know what it isn’t. This is where I reach for the dictionary, and check what the word ‘progressive’ means, literally. It can be interpreted in a few subtly different ways. It can mean steady evolution by increments. It can mean trying to improve/change something. Which brings me to those aforementioned post-seventies Progressive Rock bands. They aren’t so much Progressive Rockers as Retro Revivalists and copyists. Indeed, there’s nothing progressive about emulating something you liked when you were a youngster. Unhand that adjective!

So, to recap… You can have all types of Progressive music: Progressive Hip-Hop, Progressive Dance, Progressive Metal, Progressive Punk, etc. BUT, it’s only truly progressive, if the artist is trying to change the format for the better. Progressive Rock probably had it’s time by the late 70s. Progressive Rock is dead. Long live Prog!

[* I joined the Prog band.]

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