The cliché is familiar: progressive rock, with its copious capes and pretentious lyrics, was a dinosaur slain by punk – honest music, made by good down-to-earth rock ‘n’ rollers. I put it to you that the above is fallacy. That punk never killed prog rock. That prog changed and progressed, outlasting punk. I posit that this was never even the aim of punk. Punk’s fight was elsewhere, and it is only due to lazy journalism and revisionist history that the ‘facts’ we have come to know are treated as gospel.
But, with your mind suddenly filled with images of anarchy, Mohicans and phlegm, I hear you cry: ‘Punk broke in 1976, sweeping away the old farts of prog’. Indeed, this is widely accepted, but even a most cursory glance at historical fact shows prog was busy elsewhere when punk broke, and then proceeded to return stronger than ever.
By 1975 the major players in prog were incapacitated. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were on hiatus. Yes were on tour. King Crimson had ‘ceased to exist’ the previous year, and with Genesis beginning their long, painful slide into banality, Peter Gabriel licked his wounds and prepared for his future solo career.
The popular musical landscape of the time was barren (recent repeats of Top of the Pops from the era confirm this). Filled with trite whimsy and the final excretions of music hall and vaudeville, it was a void that needed filling. The rot in the charts is emblematic of the troubles gripping the country at the time. The governments of Heath and Wilson had crippled the country, people taking comfort in mumsy light entertainment (and bloody legs and co). It was this blighted isle – plagued by strikes, shortages and the three day week, that punk was rebelling against. The anger was cultural and political, not aimed at some hippies singing about mushrooms, man.
At this point I feel it is important to define what I mean by progressive rock. True prog rock is an ethos. A belief that music can, indeed should, be made that strives for the new – that pushes it just that bit further. That incorporates different musical textures and patterns, music that pushes the technological boundaries of the medium and explores the human condition. Attempting to prove that music is an art form.
Genuine progressive rock fulfils all of these criteria. Listening to classic music of the genre the above becomes clear – no two bands sound the same, but they all are capable of producing music that is no longer simply ‘rocking’ or ‘groovy’. It is music that achieves the beautiful and the sublime.
It is important to remember this definition of prog when discussing the punk sea-change. Yes, the particular style of ‘prog rock’ of the early seventies was dead by 76/77, but of course it was – the ‘genre’ (if indeed we can really think of it as such) moved on. Listen to Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums, to David Bowie’s late 1970’s output, to the incarnation of King Crimson born in 1981 – using our definition, they are all prog rock. The music supposedly being destroyed had dodged the charge of the punk brigade and progressed. As such, to envisage punk in direct opposition with prog is anachronistic as humans battling dinosaurs.
The supposed rage and vitriol expressed by punk musicians towards prog was a cheap trick employed by the music press and the industry itself to make the new punks seem more exciting – more dangerous. Danger sells in this line of work, and everybody knows it.
In reality however, the punks had an admiration and debt to prog rock. Before anyone was demanding anarchy, the proggers were truly doing what they wanted, regardless of whatever anyone else wanted of them – how can anything be more punk than that? Without Jethro Tull or Peter Hammill there would be no Johnny Rotten. Rat Scabies of the Damned is a confirmed fan of Phil Collins. The Clash released ‘Sandinista!’ in 1980: a triple album no less self-indulgent than Yes’ infamous Tales from Topographic Oceans.
Punk’s image was manufactured for selling records and Vivienne Westwood’s designs. Punk of this type was very much style over substance. All about the filth and the fury – but not the music. How many people can recall any of Sham 69’s tunes?
The more creative bands of the era beg the question – can such a thing as ‘prog-punk’ exist? Can music fulfilling our prog criteria also maintain the immediacy and rawness of punk? The prog ethos can be applied to any genre. If Magazine, PiL, or any of a whole host of other so called ‘post-punk’ bands aren’t prog then I’ll eat my mellotron. Howard Devoto or David Byrne’s lyrics are no less pretentious than Peter Gabriel’s, but I would suggest equally compelling and enlightening.
Prog and its history are in dire need of a reassessment. The concept of what prog truly means needs to be understood. Forward thinking, creative and progressive music is alive and well today, well outliving ‘real’ punk (whatever that is). It is because of our desire to compartmentalise everything and have our lives be ubiquitously neat and categorised that we focus so much on genre.
But prog rock is not a genre. Not really. It is music made by creative people in an attempt to get that bit closer to perfection, to art, to God. Whatever you want to call that something deep in the human psyche that leaves us with a desire to create the transcendental, or die trying. Popular music is an art like all others, and prog rock is just an example of artists making art. The resilience of the human spirit that means you just can’t kill it. Peter Gabriel wrote perhaps the perfect prog epithet in 1973: – “The sands of time were eroded by the river of constant change”.