Progressive Rock, The Program Notes

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On Saturday, February 13, 2016, I will join over 30 musicians in the Prog Rock Jam, an epic jam session at Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs, Georgia, described thusly in my Facebook post:

Come hear me tomorrow night as I sing in the most over-ambitious jam session ever attempted by thirty-odd of the best rock musicians in Atlanta! Thrill as we, live, without a net, pay tribute to Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Kansas, Rush, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Gentle Giant and more. Twist and turn as we rip through epic, triumphant, grandiose, pompous, intricate, baroque arena-filling anthems in a cozy folk music club. Colossal musical train wrecks and widespread collateral damage are predicted. All superlative adjectives will be exhausted. If you survive, you’ll have something to tell your grandchildren about. You might even send them to us for music lessons.

At these jam events, the musicians are beginning to look to me to fill in time between the numerous set changes by telling stories about the history of the music. So I wrote the following 3,000 words, what I call the “program notes” although they aren’t going to be printed up and handed out to the audience. There will probably be very little time for me to use any of it, as we are looking at a 4-hour performance, so I thought best to post it here.

This show is focused on what is referred to as British progressive rock, a movement within rock music that spanned a rather narrow time period, circa 1968 through 1979.

The great Louis Armstrong, especially in the early days, was sometimes asked by professional journalists if he could explain what jazz is. He was said to reply, “If you have to ask, I can’t explain it to you.” Progressive rock is like that.

The most effective way to understand progressive rock is to listen to the actual music itself. More work for you, but as Billy Joel said in “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”: “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”

In a nutshell, however, it is this: In the 60s and 70s, British rock was bands appropriating American blues and rhythm and blues (“R&B”) and doing things in their own style. But there was a group of bands that came to be known as the British Progressive Rock movement, and what they were doing was this: They used the musical instruments of a rock band, but they sought to compose original music that drew on every musical influence they could muster, with the exception of American blues and R&B and rock and roll. My essay below goes into some of that, and provides a background for our concert.

What is progressive rock?

To talk about it in 2016 is a bit of an oxymoron: what we are concentrating on here is the British movement that took place in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Looking back from 40 years in the future it seems a bit strange to refer to it as progressive, but at the time, it was avant-garde. My esteemed colleague Sean Tonar, founder of the ProgressiveEars.org music fan forum, explains progressive rock in this fashion: There was a time in the early 70s when the music business was such that certain bands in the genre of rock were financed and enabled to create music that was experimental and non-commercial in nature; they were free to create a kind of music no one had heard before, and the record labels were willing to promote it. Some of these bands did indeed achieve worldwide commercial success. This was a unique time that was brief and would never be repeated.

However, to look at it only that way is to assume that the musicians in these bands created the music entirely on their own in a vacuum. That’s never the case. While it’s true that many of us musicians today go no further back than the original compositions by Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like, it’s certainly not true that the musicians lacked prior influences for their songwriting. Let’s talk about that.

In the 1960s, British musicians got into “rock and roll” by blatantly copying American delta blues and Chicago blues from the earliest massed-produced recordings in the 1920s up through their period in the 1960s – the music of working-class black Americans recast for middle-class Brits, updated with the instruments they had on hand. Acts like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin all owed a tremendous debt to African-American music. All through the 1960s and 70s, the dominant form of British and American rock was heavily influenced by African-American blues.

But there is a clear line between these bands and progressive rock acts, and it is this: progressive rock bands wrote music that drew on everything that they could find to listen to except for the blues. In this way they defined themselves against the mainstream of pop music. But where did they get their ideas?

The Beatles, thanks to Paul McCartney, injected a thread of British Music Hall, a kind of adaptation of big-band jazz that went all the way back to the New Orleans Dixieland jazz of the earliest part of the 20th century and flourished into its own unique style through both world wars and up until the ascendency of rock. The Beatles’ more avant-garde excursions using tape loops are due to the influence of an early style of electronic music called Musique Concrète, specifically the 1950s and 1960s recording of classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from Germany.

King Crimson was clearly influenced by 20th-century European classical composers such as the Hungarian Béla Bartók. Crimson seemed to be creating 20th-century classical chamber music but with amplified rock instruments at ear-splitting volume.

Yes started out with an infatuation for the American vocally-oriented pop of bands like the Association, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, but throughout the 70s they strove to create an orchestral, symphonic sound using the instruments of a small rock band. Jon Anderson listened to the symphonies and tone-poems of 20th-century composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and the ballet music of Russian-French-American composer Igor Stravinsky, while guitarist Steve Howe listened to the 300-year-old chamber orchestra concertos of the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman has had a life-long love affair with the music of 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, whose style and sound pops up all through everything Wakeman has done.

Keith Emerson went a bit further back; he is known for adapting a monumental piano work of the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, called Pictures at an Exhibition, and going from there.

It was the 20th-century European classical composers who were the first to incorporate a musical element that would prove essential to the British progressive rock sound: the use of odd time signatures and frequent changes in meter throughout a song. Ultimately these ideas came to the classical composers from the traditional folk music of Eastern Europe, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. Writers like Tony Banks of Genesis, members of Yes and King Crimson made a careful study of how 20th-century Western composers made use of these exotic rhythmic ideas.

A core element of most of these bands was a keyboardist, and those keyboardists, almost without exception, got their musical direction from one source: being trained as an organist for worship services in the Anglican Church. The great electric bass guitarist John Wetton, a featured performer in several prog rock bands, said further, “I learned from the greatest bass player of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach. My brother was a church organist, and I would sit next to him and study Bach’s bass lines as he played the organ.” Similarly, some singers in these bands were known to have been trained as church choirboys. Chris Squire is a well-known example, but I would be remiss if I did not add that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was an accomplished church choirboy as well.

British folk music and British classical music played a large role. Jethro Tull is probably the best-known band with obvious British folk-music roots. Tull started out flirting with African-American blues but found exploring British folk music, going back hundreds of years, to be more fertile ground.

When Pete Townsend of The Who wrote “Pinball Wizard” from his ground-breaking rock opera Tommy, he explained that the pedal-tone bass arrangement for the song came straight out of the works of British composer Henry Purcell, from the same time as Vivaldi. Likewise, Paul McCartney explained that his guitar composition “Blackbird” was his attempt to emulate J. S. Bach’s lute music.

Gentle Giant was a band that probably went further back for ideas than all the rest. They made great use of a style of musical composition that came well before the Baroque chordal music of Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach. Gentle Giant drew upon the 500-year-old Renaissance methods of counterpoint and polyphony, which is to say writing several simultaneous independent melodies that weaved together intricately to create a whole. Some of Gentle Giant’s music sounds rather Renaissance in tone, but they adapted these compositional ideas into their own take on funky American-sounding rhythm and blues as well.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, there is another element that characterizes progressive rock, and that is the compositional idea of the suite. Most pop music, then and now, is in the format of the song, which is a short composition structured into verses and choruses. Commercial radio in the 1950s and 60s dictated that popular songs needed to be no more than three minutes in length. Progressive rock, on the other hand, used a more classical model for much longer compositions. In a suite, one piece of music is divided up into a sequence of different musical sections, played one right after the other. Each section can have its own different keys, tempos, or musical moods. Many British progressive rock compositions are thus around twelve minutes or more in length. Now the use of the suite goes back to my colleague Sean Tonar’s point about bands having the creative freedom to experiment: in many cases, these classic suites, some of which we will be performing tonight, were composed on-the-fly during monthlong stints in a recording studio, where the band would compose only eight or sixteen measures of music, then record it, then compose a few more bars, then record that, and have the engineer splice it all together to create a final long-form suite. Only then would the band address learning to actually perform the piece live. This is why it’s often said that certain bands’ live albums contained better, more cohesive performances of these long suites than can be found on the original studio recordings.

My final observation is that British progressive rock happened at a unique point in music technology. It came to use sounds that nobody had ever heard before, made by a new and rapidly-evolving kind of electronic musical instrument called the synthesizer, which first appeared on the market circa 1968. They had been around in experimental recording studios for a few decades, but it was only at the very end of the 1960s that synthesizers were designed and built that were portable and suitable for use in stage performance. Progressive rock bands were especially eager to exploit this new technology. The first synthesizers, however, in addition to being staggeringly expensive, were only capable of playing one note at a time, like a flute or a trumpet, and not chords, as on an organ or a piano. Thus the synthesizer fell naturally into the role of providing a bass line or a solo melodic instrument for the keyboardist. It was not until the late 1970s that synthesizers became available which could play full chords like on an organ or piano.

Now let’s look at some of the individual bands on our program.

The Moody Blues were founded in 1964 as a party band that simply did covers of African-American music, hence their name. But after a radical change in the lineup, they became a kind of composer’s club bent on psychedelic, consciousness-expanding music centered around a cumbersome and unreliable magnetic-tape-based keyboard instrument called the Mellotron, played by their member Mike Pinder, who happened to work for the British Mellotron factory and thus got the old employee discount. The story goes that in 1967 their record label asked the Moody Blues to make a demonstration album for a new technology that the record company wanted to market: this was called stereo. The record label hired the Moody Blues an orchestral arranger and a pick-up orchestra and asked them to make an original album of their own adaptation of the 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s popular orchestral work called the Symphony out of the New World. However, the Moody Blues won the orchestrator over to their side and recorded and delivered an album of all-original compositions. Fortunately the record label was forward-thinking enough to put out Days of Future Past, which became an instant classic and a best-seller. The Moody Blues were on their way to create their own progressive rock.

King Crimson is a band with a revolving door of musicians, the only constant being guitarist Robert Fripp. (Fripp grew up with and took guitar lessons from the same teacher as guitarist Andy Summers of The Police, who came to prominence more than a decade later.) With Crimson, each new album consisted of an entirely different lineup of musicians. Their sound went through many permutations, most all of them very serious, very hard, and very loud. However, tonight we are performing two rather atypical Crimson songs. The first, “I Talk to the Wind”, is a gentle acoustic piece of music that might have more to do with the Beatles that with the bone-crushing proto-heavy-metal that they included on the same debut album in 1969. The second, “Cat Food” is one of their only singles, and it’s clearly a tongue-in cheek throwback to the British blues-rock that all the proggers seemed bent on avoiding. We also must acknowledge that “Cat Food” bears a clear debt to the Beatles’ “Come Together”.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer was prog rock’s enduring “supergroup”. Keyboardist Keith Emerson, while never having been to music college, brought to bear a formidible understanding of concert classical piano and orchestration as well as bebop jazz. “Karn Evil 9” is a wide-ranging suite covering everything from psychedelic space-rock to acoustic piano jazz, and covering themes of human suffering in the face of technological oligarchy. The lyrics came from Pete Sinfield, who also worked with King Crimson. We’re doing the movement in the middle, which is a whimsical stab at carnival entertainment and a shout-out to the great American Tin Pan Alley songwriter Irving Berlin and his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from the year 1911.

Yes is a band that never accepted any limits on what kind of influences they could incorporate into their music. They are know for their gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies, in a close-harmony style reminiscent of the Beach Boys. But they also freely drew from American country music and jazz, psychedelic science-fiction themes, and built their lyrics on Eastern mysticism, while they strove through the keyboards and the bass to approach making a five-piece rock band sound as big as a symphony orchestra. They might be said to have the biggest arena-filling sound of all the prog bands.

Genesis started out as a cadre of friends from the same high-school, adapting British folk music to the rock idiom. Their earlier music is characterised by intricate layers of rather simple chords played on two or three twelve-string guitars. Lyrically they drew on classical Greek mythology, fairy tales and flights of science fiction. “Watcher of the Skies” is something that speaks to young men of my generation who read all they could of the “golden-age” science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Even Marvel Comics had a character called “The Watcher”, an immortal and supernatural being whose job it was to observe everything that humans did throughout the history of Planet Earth, without ever interfering. “Watcher of the Skies” is a story on a cautionary tale that was common at the time: that of Planet Earth being totally worn-out and uninhabitable, and human beings having to migrate from the planet into a new home elsewhere in space. Neil Young wrote a song called “After the Goldrush” which is on the same theme. “Squonk”, on the other hand, is based on a whimsical folk tale that they say comes from Appalachia. Sonically, Genesis was striving toward the epic sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.

If Yes was a monolithic wall of sound, then Gentle Giant was a stainless-steel chain-link fence. Rather than huge chords sustained on organs and guitars, Gentle Giant played nimble, intricate interlocking melodies that are, let’s be honest, really hard for musicians following them to figure out how to play. That’s why you don’t hear of Gentle Giant cover bands. Yet tonight we’re attempting two songs from their 1974 album The Power and the Glory, which are meditations on the theme of political power and control. Say a prayer for us.

Jethro Tull is all about their sole songwriter and front-man: singer, flutist and acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson. He started out with the blues, but took a sharp turn into loud, powerful rock built on British folk music, with a continuous dose of whimsy, and a knack for Dickensian characters and narratives in the lyrics. Tonight we present one of their most lyrical and “pop”-sounding pieces, “Living in the Past” and one of their darkest, heaviest works, “Aqualung”.

Kansas is the sole American band on our lineup tonight. They started as friends and fellow musicians from small-town Kansas, but as soon as they broke out they relocated to Atlanta, Georgia; several members still live here although they aren’t seen around town very much as they continue to tour heavily all these years later. Kansas is one of the very few rock bands to feature a solo violin throughout its history, giving its arrangements a penchant toward orchestral sounds. Kansas was the brainchild of songwriter Kerry Livgren. His early musical inspirations came from trying to identify with the plight of Native Americans and their history; he progressed through New-Age spirituality and settled on Christianity, which became a theme that put him at odds with other members of the band. Tonight we also feature one of Kansas’ best-known pop hits, “Point of Know Return”, which was actually written by other members of the band without Kerry Livgren’s contribution.

Rush is here tonight representing Canada. Our musicians on  this jam come from two active, working Rush tribute bands here in Atlanta: The Spirit of Rush and Permanent Waves. Rush had a unique sound that nobody tried to emulate for a long time. They were a power-trio veering on heavy metal but very much into Yes and King Crimson. Somehow they managed to find tremendous commercial success, an enduring fandom composed of working-class people and not intellectuals, and just about the longest continuous career of making new music of all the bands we are paying tribute to tonight.

Copyright © 2016 by Wheat Williams, Unpublished. All rights reserved. 

Originally titled "Becoming a Guitarist"