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16 February 2000


Thirty years ago there were few critical doubts. Progressive rock was the sound of the 1970s; this was the way the music would go. People would still sing pop songs, of course, still dance to Motown tracks, but serious listeners wanted serious music and here was a kind of pop which could hold its own with jazz and even classical music. It would repay rapt attention and the purchase of perfect hi-fi.

You can still get something of the flavour of the times in the books written now for collectors.

"Close To The Edge," suggests Yes analyst Bill Martin, "is to rock music what Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring is to Western classical music."

"As long as there are musicians who choose to go beyond the pop norm," writes Jerry Lucky, "and as long as their music gets in the hands of fans who want to listen to something adventurous, progressive rock will be with us."

And yet, less than ten years later, the critical consensus was even more solid the other way. Progressive rock was thoroughly despised. It was pretentious and tedious and had none of the qualities of real rock music at all. It was a self-indulgent detour off the rock rails. Even having analysts was a source of ridicule. Anything but progressive, it had become regressive rock, its fans a laughing stock

This is one of the more remarkable critical volte-faces in history. One moment we were in awe of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe et al, as they called down their astounding flow of notes; the next moment we were laughing at their solemnity. Looking backwards it is hard to see how anyone ever did take the music seriously — was Ian Anderson, the well-known fish farmer, standing like a heron to play shrilly on his flute really once admired?

The late Chris Welch probably did more than anyone else to establish the notion of 'progressive rock' (in the pages of Melody Maker). As early as 1966 he suggested that the pop world could be divided up like the jazz world into the traditional, the mainstream, the modern, and the avant-garde. There was already "progressive pop that is valuable by any standard."

The term got taken up by record companies and was soon being used in two ways. On the one hand, pop music was evolving from the naive to the sophisticated. On the other hand, the barriers were breaking down between rock and jazz and classical music. In 1968 Welch described Keith Emerson as

"a classically trained musician who also plays jazz piano. Combining these influences in a progressive pop mould results in a singularly exciting and novel music."

The same year the debut Caravan album had these liner notes: "Caravan belong to a new breed of progressive rock groups — freeing themselves from the restricting conventions of pop music by using unusual time signatures and sophisticated harmonies. Their arrangements involve variations of tempo and dynamics of almost symphonic complexities."

This new breed — Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Camel, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd etc — didn't necessarily sound much like each other but they were similarly ambitious. They were deliberately eclectic (combining electronic and acoustic instruments, for example). They wrote long, long numbers in which individual virtuosity could be displayed — all those endless guitar solos — and a variety of rhythmic and sonic textures developed. Lyrical themes were not personal but grandly metaphysical or mythical (progressive rock lyrics were indeed, without exception, naff); the albums came kitted out in portentous sleeves usually designed by a hippy-trippy outfit called Hipgnosis.

This wasn't pop music as we knew it. As Rolling Stone wrote of King Crimson's 1973 album, Larks' Tongues in Aspic:

"You can't dance to it, can't keep a beat to it, and it doesn't make good background music for washing the dishes. To fully appreciate the album, you have to sit right up there with your head wedged between the speakers."

What seems surprising now is that in the early 1970s there were plenty of people happy to do just that. The musicians' ambition to be artists, to take their place alongside jazz and classical musicians, to make literary and classical allusions, was matched by the fans' need to take themselves similarly seriously or, at least, to justify the cost of their hi-fi systems by playing music with the maximum dynamic and sonic range (there was always something nerdlike to progressive rock fandom).

By the end of the 1970s, though, this audience had shrunk. Today it can only be found among the diehard subscribers to the web's various progressive rock pages. Talk to the musicians today and they blame their demise on punk. For Gentle Giant, punk meant a shift of taste which reduced their audience almost overnight. For Caravan the gigs started falling off when the college circuit on which they had relied started booking punk bands instead.

I'm not completely convinced by this. I just read a PhD thesis on progressive rock (there are a few of these by now; this one was from Belgium) in which its rise and fall is mapped empirically, using sales figures and chart places. Progressive rock's commercial popularity certainly rose steadily from 1970 to its peak year, 1974, but it then fell even more rapidly — it was only a minority taste by 1976.

In gigging terms what saw off progressive rock was not punk as such but the pub rock out of which punk emerged. It was bands like Dr Feelgood, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and Alex Harvey, virtuoso showmen who began to dominate the college circuit.

And the critics turned against progressive rock well before punk provided a new aesthetic argument. Chris Welch notoriously slammed Jethro Tull's A Passion Play in 1973 ("If this is where ten years of 'progression' has taken us then it's time to go backwards"). The same year Melody Maker dismissed both ELP's Brain Salad Surgery ("The pomposity of the arrangements and of Lake's singing is sufficient cause for more than a mere chuckle") and Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans.

By 1974 Allan Jones was stating the new rock critical line:

"There is an anonymous sterility behind the music of the bands I've mentioned [Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes] which is suffocating rock, and has almost succeeded in castrating the vehemence and aggression which marked the music of the 1960s ... These bands are just the tip of an iceberg threatening to freeze rock to death in some wasteland of sterility."

It was not so much that punk changed critics' minds as that the critics were waiting for punk to justify their new position. Looking back on the debate then, David Sinclair, author of the definitive guide to rock on CD, suggests that progressive rock was simply "too clever for its own good". It involved, above all, the vain pursuit of perfectionism.

The musicians seemed to believe that

"if they could only play the right notes, get the right sounds, even eat the right food, they would achieve nirvana."

But they couldn't and they didn't and the attempt soon became antiseptic.

As Sinclair suggests, the most interesting rock group of the early 1970s turned out to be Led Zeppelin. On the face of it they had all the right credentials to be progressive rockers. Jimmy Page was an exceptionally technically gifted guitarist, John Paul Jones was a brilliant arranger whose career before and after Zeppelin has meant working easily with jazz and classical conventions. The group had a fierce concern for sound quality, live and on record (Page is one of the few musicians who insisted in doing his own transfer of Zeppelin vinyl albums to CD). They wrote long songs combining electric and acoustic effects. They drew from the blues, from black magic, from English pastoral mythology. Their sleeves were designed by Hipgnosis.

But they were, as Sinclair puts it, too dirty to be progressive. They played wrong notes, their sound could be deliberately murky, they were interested in how things could go wrong spontaneously. In Jimmy Page's words, they played not progressive rock but progressive rock'n'roll. They could not be accused of lacking vehemence or aggression. In the end, though, the difference between Page and the progressive rockers was that he was a formalist whose interest was what made rock different from other musics. He had no desire for a place in the jazz or classical pantheon. Thirty years on, it's clear that he was right. These days it's impossible not to hear either jazz-rock or rock symphonies as kitsch. And I'm still not clear which is the sillier way of remembering the 1970s: Yes or Bjorn Again?