There seems to be a new book on Progressive Rock issued on an ever more regular basis now. Personally, I welcome this development but it does not seem that long ago that this was the Genre that no one admitted to liking in public. Now the term PROG is attached to any music that does not seem to fit the pop format. But what is PROG, when did it really start, did it actually end and what actually constitutes being called Progressive Rock.
Well, all those questions and more are answered in this definitive guide to Progressive Rock by Charles Snider. The book itself gets its title from a comment made by Jon Anderson from YES in 1974 when he was asked how to categorize his bands music. “Our music isn’t any category. I wouldn’t put it in the category of symphonic rock because that’s not a good word. Symphonic rock sounds like …Strawberry Bricks.
Now in its third edition, this 572-page book gives you the lowdown on albums categorised and Progressive Rock from 1967 – 1982. What really sets this book apart is the Prologue and timeline. Most other books talk about the key bands and albums but this one goes into the background to the movement and style like no other.
What were the criteria that decided that some bands were included and others were not? What made them Progressive and not metal or pop?
I hope we don’t have any argument that there is in fact a body of music from the 70s known as “prog rock”, because that’s the starting place for Strawberry Bricks. As I remember, I was always the guy that was into “British” bands. We tended to think about music that way. I really dug stuff from England, and of course, that’s just following the line that started with The Beatles. Maybe the Brits won’t get this, but in America, there were Import Sections in record stores, and those were really special albums for us Americans.
Anyway, I began with a critical mass of so-called progressive rock albums for the timeline, and then worked backwards to each artist’s beginning and forward into the 80s to fill up the timeline. I went up and down, and side to side – solo albums, related bands, offshoots, etc. – trying to tie it all together as I followed the various band “cells” (e.g. Big Six, Canterbury, Notting Hill underground, etc.) throughout the decade. It’s important to read the Prologue and Epilogue of the book, that sets the stage for what’s in the timeline.
The book is about the journey of the progressive musician. If you go back to the 60s, all of these guys got excited by the music that they heard in their youth – skiffle, blues, R&B, rock-n-roll, etc. As they grew older in the 60s, they developed their skills – writing, playing, going from covers to original compositions. And as they changed, so did the music. They got excited by the psychedelic era, adding new instrumentations, exploring different lyrical content, and enjoying more advanced recording techniques. By the time we arrive at the start of the timeline, everything comes together to give us “progressive rock”. These teenagers are now young adults, and their creativity blossomed in ways no one could have predicted.
For example, Steve Howe. Now he didn’t just arrive playing Tales From Topographic Oceans. In 1964, he started in a band called the Syndicats, playing tracks like “Maybeline” or “Howlin’ For My Baby”. Classic early-to-mid 60s beat music! From there, it was the In Crowd, which by 1967 morphed into Tomorrow and offered some great psychedelia. Next, after a year or so in the vastly underrated Bodast – who’s track “Nether Street” is an early version of “Starship Trooper” – he joined Yes and the rest is history! But nearly every musician of that era that ended up in creating what we know as “prog rock” has a similar story.
Not sure about the second half of that question – why did one end up a progger, the other a popster, or metal head? They followed their inner muse? Not every artist is a painter, and not every musician is a guitarist? Some of the best years for British rock, in my opinion, is 1969 to 1970. The music seems so fresh, there was so much creativity and originality, London was like a big ol’ pot of boiling stew; bands were reaching, stretching, finding their way, finding what would be their sound. I mean, if you’re talking true “proto-prog”, you can include Black Sabbath’s debut and David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World into the mix. They were shortlisted for the timeline!
Instrumental Prowess or the concept? This is probably close to question 1; The Small Faces are included with their classic album Ogdens Nut Gone Flake. The Stones with Their Satanic Majesties Request and John Mayall’s Bare Wires. Did your selection change as each year unfolded, so these albums were closer to the spirit of Progressive rock in 68/69 but would not have been in 1973?
Absolutely, this is the “evolution” of progressive rock. It’s a rolling ball until you get into the early to mid 70s, at which point the genre formulated their specific styles; most groups had found “their sound”. So yes, many of the early albums in the timeline weren’t “prog rock” per se, but they were very important sign posts, ones that helped shape the direction of what would appear later in the timeline. Specifically, Their Satanic Majesties Request serves as a dead-end point for the Stones (and maybe psychedelia); a direction they made a quick u-turn from and never returned. Bare Wires? Well, the whole Colosseum and Greenslade “cell” begins there, doesn’t it?
Do you feel classical music was a key driver?
Many of the bands that went on to be seen as the big progressive names of the time used classical music motifs in their compositions or experimented with orchestras.
Experimenting with orchestration was very much a thing around 1969-1971 in Britain, and with the Italians, maybe a little later, 1972-1973. But certainly classical music was a key driver in progressive rock. Foremost, most of this generation were classically trained musicians. They grew up on classical, liturgical and jazz music, and obviously that was an influence on their later output. Many bands – but not all – had classical music at the root of their sound. Keith Emerson was the king of classical appropriation. And as for it being a key driver, most of these guys were musicians; they were into music in all it’s technical glory – time signatures, chord progressions, etc.
The Blurred Lines with Jazz Rock?
If Progressive rock was seen as a listening challenge, then The Mahavishnu orchestra was as far away from the dance floor as you could get. Did you feel you could have included more albums that crossed over into jazz fusion like Return to Forever for example?
Mahavishnu Orchestra was included because of John McLaughlin. He had his roots with Graham Bond, in London in the early 60s and certainly was influential. You didn’t grow up during this time and not listen to him, or at the very least, know of his immense talent.
You could list a thousand bands that could be included, but what I have always tried to do is link them all together – so many of the bands are intertwined with the same musicians because they were all part of this great thing going on in England during this period of time. I think that aspect of the book gets overlooked by some.
As we look back to the 1969 – 74 period and the bands that are seen as Progressive pioneers, they were all different, from their sound, image and branding. They were following no template other than their own.
Did you see the early 80s as the end of Progressive Rock because the founding bands started to look more towards mainstream success as they also changed their hairstyles!
This is the Epilogue to the book.
There’s a journey from the early 60s to the early 80s, of musicians finding their feet, creating something novel, and creating success from that. But for many that creativity faded; most of the groups faded, and many rested on their laurels, having settled into their particular style. Remember even Jethro Tull had a rough go of it in the early 80s. Remember, they were no longer kids! They had families, mortgages, responsibilities – they had to make a living!
But what’s important to remember is that the audience changed as well. In my humble opinion, punk signalled the arrival of a new generation. And with that new generation, came new record buyers. They weren’t interested in the “old dinosaur” bands. Record companies noticed this too, and ultimately, if you didn’t sell, you got kicked to the curb. Some musicians were able to adapt in a big way by attracting new audiences – Phil Collins, Steve Winwood – and others by carrying over their old audiences – Peter Hammill, Roy Harper.
The term PROG (which I don’t remember hearing in the 70s) is now used for any band with lots of time changes and epic 20mins long tracks.
Do you think it still holds up as a genre?
New Prog? There are some fantastic bands today – just as there were in any period of time. If people want to call the new ones “prog”, that’s really up to them. But I don’t know why a band or group made up of a bunch of 20 year olds want to pigeon-hole themselves to a genre that’s mostly now silver-haired 60 year olds… Makes no sense to me! Is it because they have some affinity to what happened in the 70s? Is there a historical line that can be drawn? Is it because Prog Magazine says they’re prog? Or some guy in a Facebook group? I don’t know. I fell in love with rock-n-roll from the classic era of the 60s-70s-80s.
Do you consider that the vast majority of modern prog has settled into a generic groove?
I am a big fan of the Polish band Riverside but I appreciate that the ingredients they use are from a former time but with modern techniques mixed in.
I’m not one to make the call about whether modern prog has fallen into a rut or not. I don’t really listen to that much “modern prog”. But what I will say is this: The bands in the late 60s and early 70s were more than eager to change musical directions and band members. They weren’t as precious – at least at the beginning – as a lot of bands are today. Change can be a great thing, yet most importantly change has given us some great music. If a band is putting out album after album of the same formula, that’s great for whoever likes it. But it’s limiting, and that’s maybe not the best. Now as for Riverside, I really dug the album Second Life Syndrome, and equally, Mariusz Duda’s Lunatic Soul albums. They’re different, musically, but I managed to find something I loved in both. But take Marillion. The Fish era is the Fish era, but for me, the Hogarth era has been downhill since Brave. I have no idea how that band is as popular as they are.
One of the differences in modern progressive music is that bands can now jump genres. For example Opeth started as a Death Metal band and Dream Theater were heavy metal / thrash.
Do you think the term PROG helps bands now or hinders them?
If you’re a metal head, and you fell in love with Opeth at the beginning, you may not like their current direction – you may even hate it. That’s a choice only the listener can make. I get that Akerfeldt wanted to move on as he grew as a musician and as a person, he wanted to make different music. And that’s maybe the best thing, they follow their muse. If we believe in them, we can follow. I know that Steven Wilson has changed his approach to music in recent years, but he’s always been a dabbler in various things. Porky Tree certainly had phases (I enjoy Lightbulb Sun and Stupid Dream the most). But he’s done Blackfield, No-Man, I.E.M., Continuum, god bless the guy for being as prolific as he is, truly a genius!
It should also be noted that I approached Wilson’s and Akerfeldt’s management (separately) about writing an intro for the book. Never heard back….
Steven Wilson probably wants to be seen more as a mainstream star. However, he has breathed new life into many classic albums with his remixes.
What are your thoughts on this and remixing the past?
I have some strong thoughts on this. There is no way that any remix can replace the original recording and mix. Why? If it weren’t for that original recording and mix, we wouldn’t be talking about this in the first place! Steven Wilson’s Close to the Edge “better” than Eddie Offord’s Close to the Edge. No fucking way! Offord is the OG – that’s the one that made history and put the album on the map! That’s the one that got Steve Wilson excited about it in the first place!
Now, if you happen to prefer or like Wilson’s version – that’s your choice, your prerogative – I know some people that prefer mono or live versions of some songs. But you can’t say it’s “better” because it cannot by definition be “better” than the original. Without the original, there’s nothing to talk about.
You mention in your book ‘that the archaeology has come to an end’ with this version of your book. Is this because you feel the genre has nothing new to say or that there are now hidden gems left to discover?
Just my way of saying I don’t think there will be a fourth edition. I’ve told my story the best I can, and I don’t think I can add anything substantial to another edition. But of course there are still countless gems to discover, and even more so, countless albums to continue to enjoy and rediscover! I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or not, but I’ll never get tired of those first couple Yes albums, for example. They sound fresh and exciting today as they did when they came out. When I think about how many records I have, that I still love to listen to and revisit, I hope I live forever!
If people want to know how to get hold of a copy of your book, where is the best place for them to buy it from?
The book is published on-demand by Kindle Direct Publishing, which is Amazon. It’s available via Prime in every major Amazon market – US, UK, DE, FR, ES, JP, etc. So in terms of ease of purchase for potential readers, I don’t think anything is simpler than Amazon. Your local bookseller may also purchase the book wholesale, as that’s part of the Expanded Distribution that KDP provides. I’ve even heard it can be found in libraries, which is fantastic! Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to ship books outside the US – shipping costs more than the book! For those in the US, I’m always happy to sign a copy and post it to you or a friend. But as I said, I can’t ship overseas. Maybe when the pandemic is over and travel returns to normal, I’ll attend another HRH Prog and bring a pile of books to sell! One thing is for sure, however, there will be no e-book or e-reader version. Everything in the timeline is available to read at strawberrybricks.com!
Do you have any future projects you would like to mention?
I’ve got a couple in mind, electronic music, maybe some guides to specific groups and their solo output, even one on these kind of “b-level” bands, like Sharks, Boxer, etc. But that’ll have to wait a couple years as I’m close to retirement and can’t wait to see what that may bring!
I absolutely love this book, even if my bank balance does not! I have discovered lots of bands and albums I missed the first time around.
That’s the best Phil, that’s exactly why I wrote the book. Even I myself have really rediscovered bands that I knew, but didn’t really know – Hawkwind, Man, Barclay James Harvest, Renaissance, etc. After all, it’s all about enjoying the music!
Thank you Phil!
Main Photo Credit – Charles Snider by Anthony Barlich