Listen to this track by parodic prog rock paragons Genesis. It’s “The Return Of The Giant Hogweed”, a tale of botanical horror as featured on the 1971 album Nursery Cryme, their third. The album kicked off a new era for Genesis; new members, new textures, and a new sense of scale.
The vital additions to the band by this time were drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and guitarist Steve Hackett. Both musicians added their considerable instrumental chops to the material on the record to raise the whole band’s game. As a result, they helped to assure the group’s place as top shelf participants in a growing movement of bands at the time who traded on complex musical structures and often very high-minded lyrical subject matter.
To me, what made Genesis unique in their early output is that they could take conventions of all kinds and bring out the absurdities in them, no matter how obscure or mundane. And here, they’re able to write a song about an invasion, while also rooting it (pardon the pun) in an area not generally drawn on by most songwriters; botany. But there’s also hint at another area of interest that can be traced in their work that delves deeper still. Read more
Listen to this track by top-of-the-heap prog rock players Yes. It’s “And You And I”, a track that served as a single in a radio-edited form, and heard in its full form on their 1972 record Close To The Edge. That record is the last in a trio of key albums that would define their peak period, kicked off by The Yes Album, with Fragile in the middle.
These records feature what is widely acknowledged as the classic line-up of Yes; Jon Anderson singing, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. It was this configuration that enabled them to connect smaller musical ideas into larger and more involved extended pieces for which they became known. This song is certainly one of those, which to this day is among the core tunes on set lists.
As popular as this piece is, a lot of the discussion around it is on what it’s actually about. Is it a love song? Is it a spiritual homily? Is it what the band (inexplicably) called it, a protest song? Read more
Listen to this track by former Charterhouse school graduates and British progressive rock architects Genesis. It’s “Supper’s Ready”, the seven movement suite and final song from their classic 1972 album Foxtrot.
By the time of this record, the classic line-up that included new drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, and recent recruit Steve Hackett on guitars had already put their first effort together; 1971’s Nursery Cryme. Empowered by their new level of musicianship, that record came complete with longer, seamless pieces, capturing a uniquely English sensibility with a bizarre sense of humour and high potential for the theatrical at the heart of it. And those ideas for longer, more ambitious statements continued in earnest by the next year on Foxtrot.
And “Supper’s Ready” would surpass all of the longer form pieces they’d done to date, in many ways being the culmination of all of the longer pieces they’d done from 1970’s pastoral and atmospheric “Stagnation”, to the vividly disturbing themes found in 1971’s “The Musical Box”. It would hook into some big, sweeping mythological motifs using even more vivid and florid imagery. But unlike their earlier work along the same lines, it would touch on a very personal, and very human set of themes that lies underneath its Biblical scale.
Listen to this track by progressive rock guitarist, composer, and one-time Genesis member Steve Hackett. It’s “Ace of Wands”, the lead track from Hackett’s debut solo album, 1975’s The Voyage of the Acolyte. This is an album he recorded and released while still a member of Genesis, and with the help of two of his bandmates; Phil Collins plays drums and sings lead on a number of tracks, and Michael Rutherford plays bass, and second 12-string guitar.
What can be gleaned from this track is just how important Hackett’s playing is to the classic Genesis sound; angular, yet lyrical, and evocative of a certain spirit of the time that actually pulls the whole genre into focus. Hackett takes his influences of rock and classical music, and synthesizes an approach to both, making the music on the record extremely evocative of a something that suggests a wordless narrative unfolding, like a soundtrack to a film that the listener makes up as the music plays. That’s what prog always strives for, after all! Read more
This song is the track which really introduced me to this band, which had been a going concern for a number of years before I came across them. The group is led by Steven Wilson, who began the band as something of a fictional lost band from the early 70s, when prog, or progressive rock, was at the height of popularity. But, in fairly short order, Wilson put out a string of records which borrowed from the early years of prog, and eventually added something of a hard rock edge as Porcupine Tree became more of a going concern as a 90s band.
“Piano Lessons” clearly pulls in a number of Pink Floyd stylistic references for which the group had become known on past releases, yet also brings out something of Wilson’s ability to balance style with accessibility. So, ultimately this is a pop song in a rock setting. The rest of the album follows suit, with the Floyd approach to creating atmosphere mixed with the aggression of hard rock and European progressive metal.
I first heard this song on a sampler, and couldn’t believe it was the band that I’d seen earlier at the Strawberry Fair Festival in Cambridge a year or two before. That group was more experimental, and slightly unfocused. But, on this they got to the point without being dull. Clearly, Wilson had evolved the band since their earlier period as an artier, more experimental band. On this, Wilson shows his interest in putting across songs, instead of just trying to capture a sound.
Here’s a clip of British prog behemoths Yes performing one of my favourite tracks from 1971’s The Yes Album, “Your Move’, which is actually one of the movements from the longer piece as listed on the record, “I’ve Seen All Good People”. In addition, the group works in the Steve Howe classical guitar showcase ‘Mood For A Day’, as well as an acoustic rendition of the band’s FM radio staple hit ‘Long Distance Runaround’.
The Yes album was a make-or-break record for this group, who were seeking to expand their sound from the single-driven pop music they had been making on their first album into a form that was more musically ambitious. In forming the band in 1968, Bassist and vocalist Chris Squire and lead vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson were interested in the catchiness of beat music which had preceded them, having both served in local beat groups. Yet, they also wanted to work in the harmonies they were hearing in Simon & Garfunkel, as well as the lilting melodies of traditional British folk music.
By the time they got guitarist Steve Howe into the group in 1971 for this album, they had even more musical scope from which to draw, with Howe bringing in jazz and bluegrass textures to add to the mix. They were able to move beyond the standard song-by-song approach on their debut album, and create longer pieces that were more like movements in a classical piece.
Yes had hit their stride at just the right time. The market for this music was shifting. The teen rock audience was growing up, and the time was ripe to give what many considered to be greater depth to rock. This meant more complicated arrangements, grand lyrical themes, and virtuoso playing, all of which Yes had been pursuing. By the following year, they’d recruited keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman (David Bowie, The Strawbs), who expanded their compositional potential to an even greater degree, helping them to create their two most admired albums in Close to the Edge and Fragile. Yes certainly embodied all that was good in prog rock, sticking to their stylistic guns late into the decade even when their peers changed their sound to suit the changing times (Genesis), or withered away entirely (Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
By the 80s of course, they’d adapted too, with membership in the band shifting as much as the group’s style was. Their biggest hit to date is 1983’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which had been released after Howe and Wakeman had long departed, and when the group had returned to a more single-driven rock sound. Yet, today, the band are centered around the sound of their early 70s period, with a rotating membership which includes both Howe and Wakeman, with many other past members also making appearances with the group. Classic prog may no longer be as ubiquitous as it once was. But, audiences new and old are still discovering it.
Of course even when prog roamed the earth in its heyday, there were a lot of rock fans who still wanted to dance around and break things rather than ruminate on weighty lyrics and shifting time signatures. This gave rise to other tributaries of rock music, which eventually led to pub rock, power pop, and punk scenes. As such, the 70s was a decade where a being rock and roll fan was no longer about being under a common banner. Rock journo Lester Bangs said “We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis”. Maybe the seeds were planted before hand. Yet, the advent of prog rock is a pretty striking example of ‘you either love it, or you don’t’, and the definition of rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same.