From the musical gymnastics of King Crimson to the extended banquets of Yes, progressive rock is about musical indulgence. Drums, bass, guitar, flute, saxophone, banks of keyboards, a mellotron, and the occasional symphony orchestra mean that nothing is off the table, from the 22-minute suite of Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready” to Big Big Train’s musical reconstruction of the Grand Tour of Europe during the Victorian era. Compelling lyrical invention and rhymes penned by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Peter Sinfield, Ian Anderson, or even Roger Waters might fire the imagination like a great fantasy or science-fiction novel but can be secondary to musicianship where the likes of Keith Emerson, Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett, Steve Howe, Mike Rutherford, Rick Wakeman, and Richard Wright (to name a few) unbuckle their musical belts and take listeners on a journey that can start at a “Garden Party” and end up in the cosmos – much to the delight of progressive rock fans around the globe.
Prog Rock History
Technically, the origins of progressive rock lay in jazz. The advent of the long-playing LP in the 1950s allowed jazz musicians to escape the straightjacket of three-minute songs and blow up to 20 minutes per side. Indeed, the symphonies of classical greats could now be recorded and presented as their composers intended. Of course, the short melodic pop song still ruled worldwide singles charts, but 1967 Pink Floyd’s psychedelic hit “See Emily Play” became the gateway to a debut LP that featured the 10-minute glorious exploration of “Interstellar Overdrive.” In the same year, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed offered up a musical journey rather than a collection of songs. As the ’60s ended, more bands – Pink Floyd among them – turned to longer, ambitious musical structures or shorter complex songs laced with musical and lyrical allusion. The Nice’s Keith Emerson thought nothing of plundered West Side Story, jazz and classic terrain transforming the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk” into the rocking “Rondo ’69.” King Crimson blended highly technical musicianship with power and lyricism. Their debut LP, In the Court of the Crimson King, was a progressive tablet of stone! Like Moses, they had more commandments to follow.
By 1970, major U.K. record labels were not only snapping up progressive bands like Audience, Czar, Caravan, Colosseum, Dr. Strangely Strange, Egg, Fire, The Gods, Jethro Tull, and Spirogyra, but also setting up subsidiaries like Vertigo, Harvest, and Neon to market bands as diverse as Affinity, Catapilla, Cressida, East of Eden, Gentle Giant, Gracious!, Indian Summer, Patto, Spring, and Tonton Macoute. After a poor-selling debut, Genesis found a home on Charisma who, amongst others, gave us Van Der Graaf Generator.
Some progressive bands only recorded one or two collectable albums before falling by the wayside as music executives chased other dragons. A cohort like ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Yes exported the British strain around the world through increasingly ambitious albums like Tarkus, Trespass, Thick as a Brick, In the Wake of Poseidon, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Close to the Edge. Just as punk began snarling at rock dinosaurs, the Alan Parsons Project started their career, serving up a debut LP that took on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and found an international audience with even more expansive concept albums. By the end of the ’70s, Pink Floyd took the progressive concept to its ultimate wall-building height that started their coda. But, despite headwinds, neo-progressive bands like the Enid, Marillion, Pendragon, and Rush ushered progressive rock into the digital age fuelled by music curated by the original progressive explorers.
Essential Prog Rock Songs
- “The Turn of a Friendly Card” by Alan Parsons Project
- “Blindness” by Captain Marryat
- “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer
- “Black and White” by Flash
- “The Knife” by Genesis
- “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull
- “Lizard” by King Crimson
- “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 1” by King Crimson
- “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
- “Garden Party (The Great Cucumber Massacre)” by Marillion
- “Echoes” by Pink Floyd
- “Azreal” by Ptolomy Psycon (not on Spotify; listen here)
- “Anesthetize” by Porcupine Tree
- “Cygnus X 1” by Rush
- “The Ikon” by Utopia
- “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” by Van Der Graaf Generator
- “Time Was” by Wishbone Ash
- “Starship Trooper” by Yes
Essential Prog Rock Albums
Essential Prog Rock Artists
What Has Prog Rock Influenced?
Like punk, early progressive rock acts inspired a new generation of bands and saw existing blues-rock bands jump on the bandwagon. Although Miles Davis pioneered fusion in America as early as 1968, in the U.K., Ian Carr’s Nucleus and Soft Machine recorded a slew of instrumental jazz/rock albums that could be classed as progressive. Progressive was incredibly elastic, incorporating twin lead guitars of Wishbone Ash and power of Uriah Heep in a more armored style and the expansive folk-rock of Tudor Lodge, Mellow Candle, and Agincourt.
Musically, the style exported internationally with legions of bands emerging in countries like Italy (like Premiata Forneria Marconi, Metamorfosi Le Orme, Analogy, and Fourth Sensation), France (Ange, Clearlight, Heldon, and Magma), and even Northern Ireland (Fruupp). Germany’s krautrock scene spawned prog-rock bands like Birth Control, Embryo, and Frumpy. American prog ranged from Utopia via The Mars Volta to Spock’s Beard. There were even progressive outfits in Australia and Japan like Soliloquy and Flied Egg.
As well as orchestral rock, progressive claimed parental rights to the space rock of bands like Hawkwind, the output of Gong, and even concept albums like Not Available and Eskimo by the Residents that made Dark Side of the Moon sound like Billy Joel. Prog rock was also the birthplace of electronic artists like Vangelis, who cut his teeth as part of the Greek trio Aphrodites Child. Florian Schnieder and Ralf Hutter of Kraftwerk’s first studio foray happened as members of Organisation and Klaus Schulz broke bread with space rockers Tangerine Dream.
Progressive rock changed the way that albums were packaged. Although some bands still peered out at you from their sleeves, key artists basted masterpieces in artful sleeves. Roger Dean became a household name with work for Yes and Asia but also did the artwork for lesser-known albums by artists like Ramases, Gentle Giant, Babe Ruth, and Budgie. Dean designed the logo for Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin Records, who then hit progressive pay dirt with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. The design team of Hipgnosis cut their teeth on the Gods and Wishbone Ash before becoming world-famous for their allusive work with Pink Floyd on progressive rock cornerstones like Atom Heart Mother and later Rush’s Hemispheres. Alien artist H.R. Giger served up arresting cover art for ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery.
Prog rock was perceived as “serious” music and many bands dedicated themselves to the LP format, spreading suites over one, two, or even three albums. Pink Floyd did not release a U.K. single between Point Me at the Sky in 1968 and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 in 1979. As the ’70s progressed – Glam rockers Queen served up the ultimate prog-rock single in “Bohemian Rhapsody” – acts that ruled the progressive rock playground changed musical direction. With Peter Gabriel flying solo, Genesis began to enjoy huge pop success with drummer Phil Collins singing on the aptly named Follow You Follow Me. Yes’s Wonderous Stories was a prog-rock hit, although Owner of a Lonely Heart lost sight of the progressive shoreline.
Although musical fashion changed, progressive rock never truly faded away as new bands like Marillion and Rush picked up the baton whose music echoed the classic period. Ozric Tentacles were as key to the ’80s as Porcupine Tree was to the ’90s and 2000s. Even Tool swam in progressive waters and parts of Radiohead’s OK Computer thrillingly suggested a post-modern King Crimson. At the other end of the telescope, Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occcupanther is a modern progressive folk-rock masterpiece and Sufjan Stevens Illionois could be on progressive reading lists.
Progressive pioneered trance. Albums by the likes of Pink Floyd, the science-fiction-based Julian’s Treatment, or Ozric Tentacles were immersive “head music” without a dance beat inviting listeners to enter a dream state. Gong’s 1974 album You received club remixes spread over two CDs in 1997. The work of The Orb is basically progressive dance music fuelled by magisterial sampling and they, of course, collaborated with original Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, who danced the night away with System 7.
Finally, let’s tip the hat to Steven Wilson, whose career has prog rock at its core, from the metallic Porcupine Tree to collaborations, production work, and recent remixes of the output of classic-era King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, and even pastoral popsters XTC, showing progressive music never goes out of fashion.
Prog Rock Rarities
Progressive rock has thrown up some of the most sought-after rarities on Discogs — just check out this list of the most expensive prog rock albums ever sold. Here are 10 of them.