A spitfire analysis of four albums you need to know to journey into the origins of prog rock.
By Steven Prazak
You know progressive rock, right? Those songs (ahem, “compositions”) that go on for hours, packed with furiously-paced self-indulgent solos, cosmic pie in the sky wordsmithing about wizards and lizards, and cardiac arrest-inducing time signatures?
Or, perhaps, they’re thoughtfully assembled pieces, played by gifted musicians, alternately demanding and improvised that range from the melodic and dramatic to the abrasive and discordant.
Progressive rock is indeed all over the map. And, since so much time has elapsed since its late ‘60s “awakening,” no two “prog” fans really view the idiom in much the same way. But back in the day, the road was narrower. From its humble beginnings, we can begin to trace the vast tributaries that today fall under the enormous prog umbrella.
What’s most notable of these origins is that nobody set out to create anything remotely “progressive.” It just turned out that way! A genuinely organic and honest creation of something new and novel. Let’s set the way-back machine to four (completely subjective) starting points as to what got this prog-thing going in the first place.
1966: The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out
Despite the name and photo of a band on the cover, this nearly incomprehensible album (for 1966, certainly)—and a double, no less—is due entirely to the fertile-if-offbeat brain of one Frank Vincent Zappa. An accomplished guitarist who gleaned as much inspiration from greasy doo-wop music as he did from more daring 20th century composers like Varese, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen. Zappa, somehow, managed to create a sonic experimental stew of all the above, peppered with biting social and political commentary (both in verse and narration—and often, very funny) that completely flew in the face of anything released on a major label that year. Or even years after that!
The music, despite being carefully composed and assembled, could just as easily switch trajectory into free-form improvisation and post-produced audio collages. Danceable, it ain’t! But it turned out to be a remarkable jumping-off point for perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific and daring musician to ever come down the pike.
Frank would indeed record many more albums—some of which are even more impressive than Freak Out (1968’s We’re Only It For the Money, 1969’s Hot Rats and 1976’s Zoot Allures are popular stops along the way for this writer). But it’s Freak Out that alerted serious musicians worldwide about the barrier-obliterating possibilities. That’s progressive, right?
1967/68: The Nice, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack
Part and parcel to most people’s perception of prog rock’s first wave, is the classical music influence (most particularly from that ol’ progressive himself, Johann Sebastian Bach), and typically empowered by dominant runs on an electric Hammond organ. Here’s where it started, courtesy of the fleeting fingertips of Nice keyboards-man, Keith Emerson.
The Nice’s first album, Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (recorded in ’67, but released the following year) is largely a psychedelic album informed by many of the usual post-Sgt. Pepper British musical notions. But, it’s the often over-the-top and complex keyboard runs that set the scene here, with the gifted Emerson liberally quoting from both romantic and classical composers of centuries past and some of more recent vintage.
Another stimulus here is modern jazz as manifested on the rearrangement of celebrated jazzman Dave Brubeck’s time signature-challenging, "Blue Rondo à la Turk," as simply Rondo—a staple of every Nice onstage set list, and most of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s, too!
The Nice, though never one of the more popular UK bands, sure cut a wide swath with musicians all over the world. As within a year, there were “junior Emersons” popping up everywhere such as in future celebrated prog outfits like Yes, Triumvirat, Ekseption, Argent, Kayak, PFM, and literally countless others.
The Nice were to continue for three more albums with the classical influence being even more pronounced, culminating in Emerson’s spectacular orchestra-accompanied "Five Bridges Suite" in 1969.
By 1970, using the 3-man Nice trio approach as its template, Emerson, Lake & Palmer took over the prog rock reigns themselves using many classical motifs and runs throughout their hugely successful ‘70s career.
A bit of an obscurity, but a key development in the growth of prog rock in the late ‘60s. Touch were a 5-piece out of Oregon formed by one Don Gallucci who, at 15 years old, played the organ on the Kingsmen’s big and rather un-prog 1963 hit, "Louie Louie," followed shortly by the garage-rock/harmony band Don & the Goodtimes. By 1968, they became Touch—a completely different animal indeed!
Touch’s one-and-only album sounds like it came from another planet, albeit one with rock n roll bands on it! Swamped with a boiling and swirling Hammond organ, huge choral accompaniment, guitars cranked and loud, and some of the most insane stop-and-start drum breaks ever laid down on wax. Big Touch fan Jimi Hendrix is rumored to have helped bankroll the sessions.
As an import in England, late night club DJs would spin this unusual LP for many soon-to-be prog stars who took this music to heart.
A wild release that went under practically everyone’s radar back in ’69, members of Yes, Kansas and Uriah Heep have subsequently sited this LP as a key influence.
Touch never made it out of 1969, leaving this molten embryonic prog platter as sole evidence of their existence. Happily, it was reissued by Esoteric in 2012 and still in print today. (And use caution not to confuse this Touch with the 1980 AOR-lite band of the same name.)
1969: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King
When I first put the tone arm down on side 1, track 1 of this album in 1969, the earth below me moved. A complete seismic shift in the possibilities of modern music using your standard guitar-bass-drums-wind instrument lineup, but taking the music that came out of these fine players into truly parts unknown. King Crimson’s initial audiences in clubs and theaters around London were left gape-mouthed by what they experienced. The fearlessness of a modern jazz assembly, but played by skilled and well-amped rock musicians.
The ominous ferocity of "21st Century Schizoid Man," with its speed shifts and seamless guitar/sax duel; the delicate, if nearly pastoral "I Talk To The Wind and Moonchild;" the sad majesty of "Epitaph" and "In the Court of The Crimson King" fueled by the mighty and mischievous mellotron. And, that’s just what’s on the album! More dimensions of this practically peerless band showed up in the wildly improvised segments of their onstage set, capped off with an interpretation of Gustav Holst’s, "Mars, The Bringer of War."
King Crimson, known for its personnel upheavals nearly as much as its transformative music, would continue making remarkable and incomparable albums for decades to come, albeit with a few lengthy breaks in the action. Notable stops along the way include, Lizard (1970), Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Red (1974), and Discipline (1980).
So, there are four ‘60s-era starting points that certainly contributed to the monster we know today as “prog,” though your mileage may vary. Nothing can quite convey the rush experienced hearing these albums in the context of the actual era they were released. But, if your ears are still fresh and keen, you need to start here.
Steven Prazak is a former A&R consultant with Geffen Records and program and music director with WUSC-FM. His first concert (the Nice and the Byrds) was at the Fillmore East in 1969 when he was all of 11 years old, and was reviewing the first two Alice Cooper albums in Hit Parader magazine the year after. He’s also appeared on numerous national TV wrestling shows over the years as commentator, interviewer, or annoying bad-guy manager, though he’ll deny it. Prazak is presently a marketing content and corporate communications writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.