A Conversation for Progressive Rock

The Beatles' Sgt Pepper? Nope!

Post 1


Interesting theory on the Beatles and I respect your opinion. I am not a fan of earlier Beatles material, but The White Album and Abbey Road are good albums and show a maturity and depth of talent rather than a wish to satisfy the cravings of the media and hysterical women.

The sequence of songs on side two of Abbey Road came about as a result of the Fab Four, not knowing what to do with several unfinished songs, so they cleverly segued the bits and pieces together. If that is progressive, either based on the clever thought pattern of the (arguably) fab four or simply on the basis of it being one long piece of music, then fair enough - but I don't agree. Certainly, virtuosity does not dictate a prog rock group - Pink Floyd were not grandmasters of their instruments for instance.

For me, Progressive Rock started as a style that combined rock, classical, psychedelic and literary elements. It was born in the late '60s with art-rock bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson, whose albums typically featured 7 to 10 minutes songs with shifting time signatures and evolving musical themes.

Several groups had released arguably more progressive albums before Abbey Road. Amongst them are The Nice (Symphonic progressive rock). They were the precursor to one of progs most influential bands - Emerson , Lake & Palmer. This band began their career at the dawning of rock and its sub genres, the closing of the sixties and an era of growing desires to challenge the boundaries of popular music. The four musicians branched out, utilizing and combining classical, jazz, blues and rock music to forge a new and dynamic sound - later to be known as Progressive Rock. The seeds were already sown for the Symphonic and Orchestral style of music that Keith Emerson would champion throughout the decades to come. The Nice released their first album in 1967 - The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack. This contained far more progressive elements than Abbey Road, two years before Abbey Road was released.

Also Pink Floyd (Psychedelic/Space progressive rock) - the first album "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" of 1967 contains come catchy pop songs, together with more experimental and longer instrumental pieces. They even reached the Top-20 in England with the song "Arnold Layne". In the beginning of 1968, guitarist David Gilmour joined the band to replace Syd Barrett in live performances. Eventually Barrett had to leave the group because of mental instability. Pink Floyd became even more successful, whilst playing psychedelic progressive rock with a touch of classical music.

Caravan (Canterbury Scene) - they were the other half of the Wilde Flowers - the Soft Machine (don't get me started on them lol) being the other - that originated in Canterbury, Kent. The band itself was originally formed in early 1968. They were a leading exponent of what became known as "the Canterbury sound". The band's 1968 self-titled debut was a hybrid of jazz and psychedelia.

I could carry on with other examples but I don't want to bore folks to tears. The point I am making is that The Beatles were more likely influenced by these earlier releases rather than influencing the future of Progressive Rock.

It's a common fact that many Beatles' fans hold John, Paul, George and Ringo responsible for absolutely everything and that they moulded the future of all music forever. This is simply not the case. They made a worthy contribution but when it comes to the evolution of Progressive Rock and concept albums for instance, there are many that had a far greater influence.

Usually, in popular music, an album of an artist or group simply consists of a number of songs that the members of the group or the artist have written or have chosen to cover. In a concept album, on the other hand, all songs contribute to a single effect or unified story. It is a popular misconception that Sgt. Pepper is a concept album. It is not.

Sgt. Pepper is often considered to have been the first concept album, primarily because the title song, occurring in two versions, wraps around the rest of the album like bookends; however, most of the songs on that album are actually unrelated to one another.

In essence, The Beatles having grown tired of touring, had the idea of making an album that would do the touring for them. Paul's idea was to create fictitious characters for each band member (The "Lonely Hearts Club Band") and make an album that would have been a performance by that fictional band. The cover was designed to look like the band was performing in a park. The album starts with the Sgt. Pepper's theme, then introduces "Billy Shears" who sings the second song. The Beatles essentially abandoned the concept after the first two songs though. As such, Sgt. Pepper was not a true concept album, although its reputation as such helped in spreading the idea of concept albums.

A more generally accepted candidate is S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, which was released in 1968, and which tells the life-story of the eponymous character.

The concept album, as a concept, overlaps with rock opera and to some extent with rock musical.

Some other early concept albums include:

Freak Out! - Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention (1966) - questioning the conventions of rock music and offering alternatives
After Bathing At Baxter's - Jefferson Airplane (1967) - An attempt to catch the psychedelic experience in music
The Story of Simon Simopath - Nirvana (1967) - A boy's wish to fly
The Who Sell Out - The Who (1967) - A pirate radio station that plays only Who music
In Search of the Lost Chord - The Moody Blues (1968) - A search for spiritual fulfillment
The Village Green Preservation Society - The Kinks (1968) - A call to return to the old ways of living
We're Only in It For the Money - Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention (1968)
Tommy - The Who (1969) - A deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard brings salvation
Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire - The Kinks (1969) - A middle-aged man gradually loses touch with society
To Our Children's Children's Children - The Moody Blues (1969)

Interestingly and paradoxically, both Yes and Genesis didn't release a concept album until 1974. These were 'Tales from Topographic Oceans' and 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' respectively. Therefore, irrespective of the influence of early concept albums, there is a lot more substance to progressive rock and it's emergent sub-genres that is rarely credited by the media, thus fueling misconception and interesting discussion.

Progressive Rock as a genre is difficult to define when one studies the achievements of five of the best:

Gabriel era Genesis were probably the archetypal English prog rock band insofar as there were some very English qualities to their music - pastoral, humorous and whimsical. Post 'Wind and the Wuthering' (the second album with Collins taking lead vox), very little Genesis output was what I consider to be progressive either in genre or in the true sense of the word. Fair enough, one could argue that Burning Rope (And Then There Were Three), Duke's Travels (Duke) and Abacab and Dodo (Abacab) have their prog moments, but clearly, to those in the know, they were more an exercise in trying to maintain the interest of the old faithful whilst the majority of new output was gradually entertaining a wider, younger audience more inclined to buy singles than albums. Ally this to Collins' solo success and it's not hard to understand why anything over 5 minutes long on a Genesis album after 1981 turned out to be just a long song as opposed to a prog rock epic.

King Crimson's 'In the Court of the Crimson King' is widely regarded as being the first prog rock album, although some Beatle's fetishists will try and persuade all and sundry that Sgt. Pepper was the first, based solely on the fact that they consider it a concept album. Personally, I think that theory is a load of biased bull$h!te which I dealt with earlier and I concur with the Crimson theory as it appears to mark a shift from 60s psychedelia to (what was to become) 70s prog. The Crims' use of the mellotron was far more impressive than any of the other groups involved in the first wave of Prog Rock and showed them as the true innovators that they continue to be to this day. Bear in mind too that the Crims are one of the few prog rock groups to 'progress' without a recognised keyboard wizard.

Don't forget Yes - pretentious, overblown, complex virtuosity and utterly brilliant; Emerson, Lake and Palmer - classically diverse and futuristic; Pink Floyd - symphonic, melodic and socialist anthems - one begins to realise that the true worth and value of progressive rock remains unsung.

All of these BIG FIVE were completely different in style, composition, format and execution, yet the 'progressive' genre does each of them a disservice as it groups all of them together under one umbrella thus diluting the readers' attention; in essence, each of them are worthy of a genre of their own.

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The Beatles' Sgt Pepper? Nope!

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