Progressive Rock: Definition, Bands & Songs

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will provide a definition of progressive rock and articulate its basic features. Well known bands will be discussed and classic albums will be assessed. Test yourself with a quiz at the end of the lesson.

Authenticity, Virtuosity, and Progress

Progressive rock (sometimes shortened to prog) was one of many attempts on the part of musicians, the music press, and the record industry to reaffirm rock's sense of artistic legitimacy. With its roots in African-American blues, much of the rock music that was popular during the 1960s was made by white, often British musicians. Proponents of jazz, classical, and folk music have often accused rock music of intellectual laziness, musical simplicity, and of being overly commercial. Progressive rock was an attempt by some musicians in the late 1960s and 1970s to address these criticisms and prove rock naysayers wrong.

Progressive rock was primarily a U.K. based movement. Musicians that had formal musical training attempted to add the compositional, rhythmic, and thematic ambition of jazz and classical music to a rock band format. Thumbing their noses at the pop song format and top 40 radio, prog songs were famously long, often 20 or 30 minutes in length. In addition to the open-ended compositional structure of songs, prog bands often included flutes, organs, violins, and other instruments shunned by traditional rock. To some, the progressive rock of the 1970s was a high water mark for rock music more generally. To others, progressive rock, in all of its intellectual pretensions and musical bombast, represented everything that was bloated and decadent in rock music of the 1970s.

The concept of virtuosity, or mastery of one's instrument, remains deeply important to progressive rock. A progressive musician has the ability to wow crowds with their amazing musical chops. Individual musicians were permitted the opportunity to solo and display their individual skills. Guitarists shredded their fret boards, keyboardists flew across the keys, and drummers changed time signatures with dizzying speed. Catchiness, danceability, and raw energy often took a back seat in progressive rock to musical virtuosity and the public demonstration of skill.

The Golden Age of Prog

Peter Gabriel, singer for Genesis in full costume
Peter Gabriel

Genesis was one of the most famous British progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Fronted by dramatic vocalist Peter Gabriel, Genesis matched musical sophistication with opera-like stage performances. Gabriel would often wear elaborate make-up, change costumes numerous times during performances, and sing heart-wrenching elegies addressing obscure, high-minded subjects. Albums 'Foxtrot' and 'Selling England by the Pound' were both critical and commercial hits. Although Peter Gabriel eventually left the group to peruse a successful solo career and the remaining members of Genesis turned the bands in a decided more pop direction, the early Genesis albums are still seen as classics of 1970s progressive rock.

Yes equaled Genesis in terms of both musical virtuosity and ambitious lyrical concepts. Their classic album 'Close to the Edge' featured compositional refinement and soaring melodic vocals delivered by singer Jon Anderson as well as metaphysical lyrics. Album art was crucial to Yes' image and overall affect. Artist Roger Dean's psychedelic, colorful covers for numerous Yes records are as memorable as the band's music.

Jethro Tull's progressive rock masterpiece 'Thick as a Brick' was partially intended as a parody of progressive rock. Singer and frontman Ian Anderson gleefully teased progressive rock's humorlessness and pretension, while simultaneously delivering one of prog's finest examples. Like Joss Whedon's film 'Cabin in the Woods' or Alan Moore's comic book classic 'Watchmen', 'Thick as a Brick' both celebrated and mocked the genre it was working in.

The 1970s allowed vast numbers of progressive rock bands to enjoy moderate degrees of popularity. The most successful progressive rock band of the 70s was almost certainly Pink Floyd, although Pink Floyd's music represented something of a departure from the genre. Sometimes called space rock rather than progressive rock, Pink Floyd might best be understood as a genre unto themselves.

Jethro Tull
Jethro Tull

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