From the late 70s onward, prog rock spent a lot of time in the critical wilderness, completely unfashionable even as its cult remained strong and some of its biggest acts continued to draw as they transitioned from vital creative enterprieses to nostalgia acts, and even grew as the descendants of 70s prog bands gathered audiences for themselves.
That long banishment began here, in 1976. This was the year that punk and New Wave caught the imagination of British youth and the magazines and fanzines that served them. Initially interchangeable, the two terms quickly came to represent separate camps, with punk on the aggressive and rough end of the spectrum, and New Wave occupying space closer to pop and pub rock.
Prog didn’t die overnight, or really at all. Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull all continued to sell albums in huge quantities and tour ever bigger venues, but that fed into a problem of perception that prog had fallen victim to—what had started in the underground and grown from there had to come to be viewed by a lot of young people as a sort of enemy, a dragon to be slain. Punk was not, it must be said, a reaction to this music. It was a reaction to economic malaise and social pressures in Britain during the mid-1970s, but once it was in the ascent, punk found an easy target in lumbering prog rock bands playing side-long suites about pitched battles between ogres and wizards.
The shift in commercial fortunes had at least one practical effect on prog: no one who started a new band in the last three years of the 70s started a prog band, unless they were already famous from playing in another prog band (see: U.K.) or they were devoted to the music and didn’t mind playing local gigs to tiny audiences with no hope of ever breaking out (see: Dogwatch, whose lone album, recorded live at a tiny club called the Bridge House in 1979, is sadly almost impossible to track down in the US, though it was available on CD for a time in the UK earlier this year).
1. Genesis: Eleventh Earl of Mar 7:44
From the Charisma LP Wind & Wuthering
In 1974, Genesis released an incredibly elaborate double concept album called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was followed by an equally elaborate tour, during which they played the album in its entirety. Making the album had already strained things in the band; the tour was grueling, and the band grew to hate performing certain pieces of music from the album and felt trapped by the rigid setlist, which was partly held hostage to vocalist Peter Gabriel’s complicated and frequent costume changes. Gabriel announced his intention to leave the band at the end of the tour to his bandmates, and they decided to carry on without him, searching for a vocalist before realizing that they already had a pretty good one sitting in the drum chair. Phil Collins took over the lead vocal duties, and the band, which had always written its music and lyrics democratically, made two albums as a quartet. A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering measure up quite well against the band’s Gabriel-era material, and were the band’s last two full-on prog albums before guitarist Steve Hackett departed and the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks turned in a more pop-oriented direction. “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” perhaps more than any of their other lengthy prog opuses, reveals the pop-friendly band living in the heart of Genesis with its dramatic themes and big, memorable chorus. I’ve written about this song at length before, so if you’re interested in understanding the history behind the song’s lyrics, which are about the Jacobite uprising of 1715, follow the link.
2. The Alan Parsons Project: The Raven 4:03
From the Charisma LP Stories of Mystery & Imagination: Edgar Allen Poe
The Vocoder was originally developed at Bell Labs in 1928 by a man named Homer Dudley, who was seeking a way to transmit voices more clearly over long distances. Dudley was an acoustic engineer, and he based his invention on the idea that speech is a continuous sound produced by the body, which is modified by the tongue, lips, and mouth to create words and tones. By analyzing an incoming voice and splitting it across several frequencies, he could arrive at a sound that would transmit more clearly. His work led him to the refinement of the technology in the 1930s and the earliest experiments with voice synthesis. The Vocoder had been used musically in experimental environments since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 60s that Robert Moog’s development of a solid state Vocoder made its use in music practical. Bruce Haack used one of his own design on 1969’s The Electric Lucifer, and Moog helped Wendy Carlos build one in 1970—you can hear the results on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Alan Parsons Project was not the first band to use a Vocoder to process vocals—Kraftwerk had used it in 1974 on Autobahn—but their use was one of the earliest. Parsons had been an engineer at Abbey Road Studios—he helped record Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, among many, many others—and he formed the Project in 1975 with Glaswegian musician Eric Woolfson, though these two and guitarist Ian Bairnson were the only constant contributors to the band, which was almost entirely a studio project. Naturally, their first record was a concept album. Tales of Mystery and Imagination is not half as dark or moody as one might expect an album inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe to be, but it is very bold musically, featuring lots of futuristic synthesizer from Parsons, and a prominent role for the Vocoder on “The Raven,” where actor Leonard Whiting’s lead vocal is accompanied by parsons himself running his voice through the processor to create an otherworldly effect.
3. Steve Hillage: Hurdy Gurdy Glissando 9:01
From the Virgin LP L
Steve Hillage was the Zelig of the UK’s prog scene in the 1970s. He played in the seminal Canterbury group Arzachel (aka Uriel), led the quartet Khan, briefly joined Kevin Ayers’ Decadence and played with Mike Oldfield, then joined Gong. He launched his solo career in 1975, but still found time to play in National Health. He also collaborated with early punk band Sham 69 and remains active today (more on that in the notes for the next volume). For his second solo album, Hillage left Britain to record with Todd Rundgren, and L features Utopia as the core backing band (with guest spots from jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Hillage’s girlfriend—and still partner—Miquette Giraudy). Hillage and Giraudy were early explorers of ambient music, and you can catch a bit of that in the intro to “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando,” which they wrote together. Hillage sings a sort of spaced-out hippie verse as the soundscape thickens, and then the song blows wide open at the half-way mark, slipping into a sick groove as the synthesizer solidifies into a lead instrument. We will visit Hillage again on the next volume—his early solo discography is very much worth exploring.
4. 10cc: Art for Art’s Sake 6:02
From the Mercury LP How Dare You!
I’ve talked a lot about how the ideas embodied in prog rock seeped into wider British rock scene as the 70s progressed, and it’s hard to think of a British pop band that wore those influences further out on its sleeve than 10cc. In its original configuration, the band featured two writing teams, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, and Lol Creme and Kevin Godley; it was the latter pair that lent its ear for experimentation and proggy concept work to the band, while the Stewart/Gouldman team generally wrote more concise, pop-flavored songs. Of course, I’ve now gone and featured a Stewart/Gouldman song on this volume, but it’s fair. “Art for Art’s Sake” is a broadly poppy song, with a very catchy melody and humorous lyrics, but it also features a spacey, abstract intro, several contrasting sections, a weird, Zappa-ish breakdown right in the middle, and a lot of loud lead guitar over its six minutes. It’s essentially the sound of prog folded, stapled and mutilated into the shape of an ambitious pop song. Godley and Creme left the band after How Dare You! to record as a duo under their last names, and Gouldman and Stewart carried it on into the early 80s, by which point their former bandmates had largely put aside music to focus on directing videos for other artists.
5. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: The Road to Babylon 6:53
From the Bronze LP The Roaring Silence
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was another group that teetered on the border between prog and pop. 1976’s The Roaring Silence featured by far their biggest hit in their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” but once you get past that radio-ready track, the rest of the album is littered with musical quotes from Stravinsky and Schubert, liberal use of Mellotron, and lengthy instrumental passages. Guitarist/vocalist Mick Rogers had left the band after its last album, and he was replaced by Chris Hamlet Thompson, whose vocals are perhaps a little grittier, but no more showy than those of his predecessor. “Road to Babylon” gives him a lot of room to show what he can do, vocally and on his guitar, and they skillfully blur the line between actual vocal harmonies and a Mellotron choir. On subsequent albums, the Earth Band largely lost its progressive edge, but it proved to have amazing staying power, touring and releasing albums regularly through the mid-90s.
6. Brân: Hapus Awr
From the Sain LP Hedfan
This is the second time we’ve heard from Welsh prog-folk act Brân, who made no concessions to the dominance of English as the common language of pop music, choosing to sing Welsh. The only unfortunate thing about that decision is that it limited their audience largely to Wales, and they made some music that really deserved a wider airing. “Hapus Awr,” from their second album, is one of their best songs, blending the operatic singing voice of Nest Howells with some mildly psychedelic lead guitar. The song swings back and forth between folky verses and heavier rock passages, but it does it smoothly, without the kind of on-a-dime turns so often associated with prog rock. By the time of their final album, Howells was gone and Brân had largely abandoned their prog leanings. Several members ultimately went on to form a second prog-folk group called Pererin.
7. Neil Ardley: Prologue: Rainbow One 10:27
From the Gull LP Kaliedoscope of Rainbows
Neil Ardley was an author, editor, composer and keyboardist who kept up simultaneous careers writing science books and leading bands—if you ever had one of David MacCauley’s The Way Things Work books, you’ve seen Ardley’s work in publishing. He got his professional start in the early 60s with the John Williams Big Band (where played with a young Jack Bruce), and later became director of the new Jazz Orchestra, which included, among others, Ian Carr of Nucleus, Jon Hiseman, who played in both versions of Colosseum, and Barbara Thompson, who played sax on Manfred Mann’s Roaring Silence LP and had a long, productive jazz career as a leader and sideman. In the 1970s, Ardley began composing classically influenced themes and arranging them in a setting that was about 70% jazz and 30% rock. “Prologue” begins in a rockish vein before gradually growing into a fuller jazz arrangement as the drums loosen up and the solos get wilder. Ardley’s 70s work inhabits that prog/not prog grey zone I’ve talked about so much, but I think fans of prog rock, especially in its more jazz-oriented strains, will find plenty to like on his albums.
8. Brand X: Born Ugly 8:16
From the Charisma LP Unorthodox Behaviour
Brand X was also a jazz band, but rather than a jazz band playing in a prog-informed style, they were prog musicians playing jazz. Phil Collins famously played drums for Brand X, and he was joined by session bassist Percy Jones, former Atomic Rooster guitarist John Goodsall, and keyboardist Robin Lumley, who had played with David Bowie. The group’s early albums are not for fusion newcomers, being full full of solo swapping, tricky time changes and a generslly heady mix of composition and improvisation. This lineup of the abnd recorded only one album before adding percussionist Morris Pert—Pert took over from Collins on drums for the band’s third album, and from there until they split in 1982, those five musicians and several others played in Brand X as a sort of jazz-rock collective. When Brand X reconvened in 1992 after a ten-year break, Collins was a superstar in his own right, and he wasn’t present for any of the albums recorded by the reconstituted band.
9. Queen: White Man 4:59
From the EMI LP A Day at the Races
For a long time, I wasn’t going to include any Queen at all on these sets, and you won’t find too many prog fans who think of them as a prog band. That’s because they really weren’t, but what they were was a band that was able to make a lot of the most outlandish things that prog rock brought to the table—choirs, multi-part suites, weird lyrical concepts, virtuoso performances—appealing and fun for a general rock and pop audience. The ambition of Queen’s flamboyant pomp rock had a lot in common with the work of their prog colleagues, and they stand out to me as a band that wouldn’t have been able to get hugely popular if prog bands hadn’t softened the ground for them in the very early 70s. “White Man” is a deep cut from their smash hit A Day at the Races LP, and it shows a much rawer and heavier rock band than the hits ever did.
10. Van der Graaf Generator: Wondering 6:49
From the Charisma LP World Record
We last heard from Van der Graaf Generator all the way back on Volume 6, and in the interim, the band had split up and reunited. During their time off, they’d barely broken up. Peter Hammill pursued a solo career, and everyone else from VdGG played on his albums, while his bandmates, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson, recorded an album of their own under the name The Long Hello. The band reconvened in 1975, and World Record is the third album of their first reunion the last to feature the classic Jackson/Hammill/Evans/Banton lineup. The band’s sound survived their hiatus intact, but there is a noticeable tonal shift on the reunion material, which is considerably less dark than the band’s early work, and generally more anthemic. “Wondering” presses hard on the anthem button—by the time it ends seven minutes in, one has to wonder how many more ceilings the arrangement could possibly burst through. Jackson and Banton left the band soon after this album, and the group broke up for real in 1978, but the members stayed on good terms and occasionally worked with each other. The classic VdGG reconvened again in 2005 and still tours, though minus Jackson.
11. The Enid: The Last Judgement 8:12
From the Buk LP In the Region of the Summer Stars
Just about any time you hear someone whinging about prog rock, and the excess and the hubris and cold technicality of the music, you’re hearing someone who hasn’t actually listened to a lot of prog rock. But there is a hint of truth to those accusations, as there is with nearly any stereotype. The Enid, led by Robert John Godfrey on and off for the last four decades certainly could be superficially accused of virtually any sin anyone ever claimed for prog. Their early albums are almost comically oversized rock/orchestral suites, overflowing with huge mellotron themes and screaming guitar, and, in the case of “The Last Judgement,” little injections of choir. This song works overtime to live up to its title, and every time you think it’s gone completely over the top, it goes a little further. Godfrey was in on the joke though—he has openly spoken of the overload on his albums as ironic, and he even titled the band’s second album Aerie Faerie Nonsense, pre-empting what he figured critics might call it. Ironic or no, this music had absolutley no commercial prospects in 1976, much less in 1977, when the follow-up was released. But if you’re able to read it as parody, it pretty quickly becomes a much more trenchant comment on prog rock than anything Johnny Rotten ever said at Malcolm McLaren’s urging.