"Prog" was a secret world, an unknown universe. It was challenging. Parents who thought they knew them only as "longhairs" hadn't a clue as to the true talents of these band members. The styles were changing; songs were getting longer. So were the titles. One of the newest innovations was a new and different naming convention much akin to classical music. Here's an example by Genesis from the "Foxtrot" album:
- I. "Lover's Leap"
- II. "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man"
- III. "Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men"
- IV. "How Dare I Be So Beautiful?"
- V. "Willow Farm"
- VI. "Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet)"
- VII. "As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men's Feet)"
This gave the music a more sophisticated feel, knowing that these marvelous musical structures were well thought out, deliberate, and intended to be more of an epic than a mere rock song. These bands wanted to give us a presentation. And that, they did. Half the fun was just trying to figure out what was going through their heads at the time. Was there chemical intervention, or did a simple note on a synthesizer strike a mental chord? In any event, this is just one of the finer points of prog that made the music so fantastic, and so life-lasting.
Also referred to as "Theatre Rock" Prog took on new dimensions, twisted them inside out, and spewed forth powerful, gifted musicians. In the end, these players created a tapestry of some of the most intricate musical stitchings the world of rock and roll would ever know. "Prog" was rock and roll all grown up. And for those of us who were fortunate enough to have grown with it, in that period, and actually see the birth of such excellence, we have been left happily scarred, never to be the same again.
Warriors on the Edge of Time
Born in a greater universe, warriors armed with guitars, drums, and keyboards traveled strange lands. They soared the universe in odd flying machines equipped with mellotrons and synthesizers. They took us across galaxies unknown with inspired works and lengthy overtures lain upon a multi-colored wasteland. Echoes of willowing tides and silver machines filled our minds and our ears. Crimson kings, hawks on the wind and floyds of the pink variety were largely responsible for my newer, and more profound musical education.
Though many of these bands would never lay claim to the title of being a "prog" band, the moniker applies simply because that's what these groups were. They were progressive, concept-driven miniature orchestras that created walls of sound with layers of varying forms of instrumentation. It was the way they used these instruments that made the difference. true proggers weren't afraid to experiment and try new things and new instruments. They sculpted their sound, bent the rules, created new divisions of sound and composing techniques until ultimately, many of these bands were recognized as being serious contributors to the musical industry.
The Court of the Crimson King: Now in SessionI can remember that day well. It was January, freezing cold and gray. I went to Music Millennium looking for a particular album. When I found it and saw that bizarre cover staring back at me, I knew a life-long devotion was in the works. In my hands, I held the sacred stone; the initial induction to the legendary world of prog rock and King Crimson. The first album "In the Court of the Crimson King" was a landmark discovery for me. I bought it because Greg Lake was in this band. As it turned out, I thought that Crimson was probably one of the most astonishing acts of all time. "Epitaph" and "21st Century Schizoid Man" were pure classics overheated with energy and reverberating from ghostly cobwebbed hallways. The splendid cover art by Barry Godber was the topping on the cake.
"I Talk to the Wind" was an awesome piece not only for its tranquil pace and fine musicianship, but for the fact that a song like that could follow the mania of "Schizoid Man". The vocal harmonies of Greg Lake on this song were delicate and angelic, a trademark that would see him through EL&P. "Moonchild" was great, but my feeling was, and still is, is that they'd run out of gas on the overly long and boring filler section. Little did I know that I'd entered Frippland, an obscure galaxy in the constellation Prog. Finally, to apply a fine veneer of finesse to an already perfect LP, came "In the Court of the Crimson King." One of my favorite impressions of King Crimson was the feeling that nobody was the front man. Each member was like a player in an orchestra, no one contributor any more important than the next.
When "In the Wake of Poseidon" was released, I gobbled it like candy. The title track remains probably my favorite Crimson tune to this day. It was dramatic, beautiful, and perfectly rendered to vinyl. For me, this was Crimson's finest hour. The album came packaged in beautiful, medieval-esque cover art perfectly rendered to suit the mood of this work. "Cat Food" was another interesting piece, and I could easily sense Greg Lake's departure from the cover lineup as he added only vocals to this album. "Pictures of a City" was a great opener. Its middle section was like a fast-chase James Bond type of segue that was masterfully performed. "Cadence and Cascade" seemed to me a sincere attempt to re-create "I Talk to the Wind", especially since it followed a rocker like "Pictures." Actually, this entire album is an exact replica--formula-wise, to their first.
Upon the release of "Lizard", a truly unique LP was accompanied by a dazzling medieval cover painting that precluded the oddness of the LP itself. I saw a Lake-less Crimson, but still an entirely disciplined band.I truly felt that Greg Lake contributed so much to Crimson, but he was by no means, the heart and soul of the band. To truly appreciate King Crimson, thou must be willing to accept the influences of Robert Fripp, and let his unique guidance squire thee to worlds unknown. "Lizard" was an odd release, but still a gem. In fact, I think it's one of the finest, and most definitive prog albums ever. It soon became apparent that there was absolutely no limits to King Crimson. Whatever they tried, they mastered.
Stones of Years
The year is 1970. I stumbled upon an relatively new and innovative band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Upon my initial listen to their first album, I wasn't sure what I thought. I was experimenting, buying albums for their covers, (a habit that would carry me for the duration of my album buying days.) After getting acquainted with the LP, it truly frightened me. Why? Because nobody should be that good. I mean each and every one of these guys were master musicians. Their skill level was astonishing. Check out the song "Tank" from the first album. Listen to Greg Lake playing bass, note-for-note, exactly what Emerson is playing on the keyboard. At age 15, I was duly impressed. I'm still impressed now. The first album was incredible. The song "Take a Pebble" was one of the oddest tunes I'd ever heard coming from a rock band. It quickly became a favorite of mine, and remains so today. "Knife Edge" was raw, but not nearly as raw as "The Barbarian". However, I always thought that "Lucky Man" was rather blah compared to the rest. Still, the record was so hot it was scorching, and from that first album on, EL&P and myself began a lifelong love affair.
I tried Keith Emerson and The Nice and I tried Atomic Rooster. Both The Nice, and Atomic Rooster didn't impress me that much. Atomic Rooster was okay, they just seemed too mainstream for me. I was now fully addicted to the likes of King Crimson, Yes, the art rock of Genesis. The Nice seemed to come up short.
When the LP "Tarkus" was released in 1971, I was so far into ELP's universe, that I knew I'd never get out alive. There were some great pieces on Tarkus, especially "Stones of Years" and "Battlefield". "Tarkus" was wonderful, but I always felt that it was missing a "side". Tarkus took up side A, but side B was almost as boring as the entire "Works" LP. Even though I loved Tarkus, I almost felt like they weren't quite sure about it themselves.
In my opinion, the most incredible album I'd ever heard from them had to be "Pictures at an Exhibition." I bought it because it was EL&P, and my personal discipline required that I buy anything by EL&P. Also because it was a live album, and I always loved live albums. This record showed extreme versatility, especially with Greg Lake's guitar work on "The Sage". It was classical guitar played on steel-string as opposed to the standard nylon string. The solo was amazing. And somebody should have given Carl Palmer a speeding ticket for his drum work on "The Hut of Baba Yaga". All of my friends that ever listened to it soon fell in love with "The Gnome" because of the creepy synth work.
The entire presentation was just dynamite, both cover-wise, and performance-wise. Still, there was one problem with it: "Nutrocker." Why was it that EL&P always managed to throw a turkey into their beautiful mix? Their turkeys thus far would be "Nutrocker", "Eddy Are You Ready?", and "Benny the Bouncer". So, to conclude this incredible masterpiece of live concert work on a variation of Mussorgsky's delightful "Pictures at an Exhibition", is the tiresome "Nutrocker". This song mostly earned the gesture of "Lifting the needle to start the record over" when it came on. Sorry Keith, Greg & Carl, but I didn't like your goofy tunes.
"Trilogy" marked a new beginning for EL&P and myself. This was a marvelous, well-disciplined album, with some of Emerson's finest compositions to date. However, it was a bit sugar-coated and a little boring. "The Endless Enigma" was great, "Trilogy" was greater, "Abbadon's Bolero" was wonderful, and I even loved "The Sheriff", due to the great tack piano and story-telling lyrics. I thought the true gem of this record was Greg Lake's "From the Beginning". This song makes the entire album worth buying. Greg Lake's guitar work was always top-notch and on this one, he proved himself to be one of the most stylish guitarists ever. His picking on the opening of the song requires a discipline unto itself.
The Mecca of all EL&P albums came into my vision as "Brain Salad Surgery", one of the finest crafted LP's in prog history. This was now high-brow prog, serious jamming and performance. The epic "Karn Evil 9" was--and is-- the most fantastic thing in the world. The music is great, it moves, and it moves hard. The structure is perfect, and Greg Lakes blistering guitar solos are so musically and tightly honed that they qualify (in my opinion) as textbook examples of how to write and perform a rock guitar solo. Everybody shines hard on this record. Palmer's electronic percussion, Lakes guitar and vocals--and songwriting ability, and Keith's true expeditionary keyboard work make this one unforgettable album.
"Surgery" does feature the A-typical dud that's almost an ELP requirement in "Benny, the Bouncer," but the album regains its pace and momentum after dropping the Benny ball. The phenomenal cover painting by Swiss artist H.R. Giger (pronounced Jee-jur), was beautifully horrifying. Giger himself once mentioned in one of his books that he basically "painted his nightmares". Next, the cover had structural engineering: it opened as two doors to reveal the inside. EL&P also now had a unique logo. Soon the big triple live album came out, and it was well-worth the money. For once, we had a preview of EL&P original material performed live, and that was a good thing. When I saw them in 1973, it was this same tour.
I felt that what followed in the years after, were largely experimental works that did not really impress me that much. After Brain Salad I saw the beginning of the end, and that premonition remains one of the saddest days of my life.
The Book of Genesis. 1:1
In the beginning there was mellotron and mellotron was the word. There was also 12-string, and nursery rhyme chimes, strange, haunted vocals, NASA precision drum work and cinematic keyboard work. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Steven Hackett, and Tony Banks, aka Genesis.
Where do I begin with these guys? I could rant for weeks, but the bottom line is that there was, but never will be again, a band as unique as Genesis. I was a late-bloomer with them. I picked up "Genesis Live" in 1973, having never heard of them before. Why I hadn't was unusual, for I experimented like a madman with albums. Still, the situation remained; I had not heard of Genesis. Again, I bought this one for the cover. Peter Gabriel in mask and costume with the blue-curtained backdrop and seated band members was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was immediately blown away, and fell in love with "The Musical Box". It didn't stop there. I moved forward, buying Genesis album after album. Anything I could find by them, I bought. Not once was I ever disappointed.
The versatility within the band was amazing.
Keyboardist Tony Banks also played guitar onstage. Peter Gabriel had a never-ending supply of costumes and masks. Steve Hackett made use of "tap picking", a technique that many believed to be adopted by Eddie Van Halen years later. The songs were not songs, but fables; fairy tales, legends, predictions of the future, and whimsies that ranged from the apocalypse to a storytelling lawnmower. The Genesis infrastructure was so intricate that each member contributed a mathematical precision to their performance. Nothing was left to waste. Steve and Mike's unique 12-stringing harmonies, Phil's tonal paintings and the lyrical keyboard work from Tony provided the ultimate canvas. This allowed for each song to become a complete story. Introducing these stories was Peter Gabriel, our master of ceremonies. Among his many guises he was The Moonlit Knight, the Old Man, the Bubble Creature, The Flower, The Fox, and the Bat-Winged figure that in some shows, literally hovered above the stage on invisible wires.
My pride was seriously wounded when I picked up "Nursery Cryme", "Foxtrot", and "Trespass" for two bucks each as cut-outs. Though I couldn't whine about the price, the fact that Genesis was in the cut-out section was nothing but pure insult. They were a band whose honor should be defended at any price. Though I'm not sure, I think these 3 LP's had opening covers as imports, whereas the U.S. releases were just single covers.
Genesis' live performances seemed to be as good as the LP's. Their onstage act was as equally stunning. Genesis took us through a storyland where scenes and acts were prompted by some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage. And the songs were incredible! One of my favorites is "White Mountain". After I picked up "Selling England by the Pound", my favorite Genesis tune was "Firth of Fifth". Tony Banks was one of the most intriguing keyboard players I'd ever heard. His Mellotron intro on the Arthur C. Clarke inspired "Watcher of the Skies" was, and still is amazing.
Now, Peter Gabriel. Peter was quite the stage performer. His caterwauling vocal ranges that changed from a stuttering and cracked "talk-singing", to a high-pitched whine were the most interesting stage voices I'd ever heard. Complimented by his wild and bizarre masks and costumes--all of them scary-including the daisy, he was a very animated performer. Phil Collins whom I always felt was a precision-hitter much like Carl Palmer, was a great drummer and second front-man. I'm talking about the Gabriel Genesis, and not the latter 70's re-grouping (though I liked them too). Mike Rutherford was an interesting player in this band. I loved the way he switched from bass, to bass pedal, to 12-string without missing a beat. Even in the 80's when he formed the short-lived MIke and the Mechanics, their style was interesting. It was apparent that so much was learned from being a member of Genesis.
I learned too. I learned how to play "The Musical Box" on guitar, and it opened up new worlds of experimentation for me. I then tried to learn another of my absolute favorites "Get 'em Out by Friday", but was only able to figure out a few parts. Just like its namesake in the bible, Genesis was a beginning, and for me, they will remain that way forever.
Prog Rock Main Menu Next: Hawkwind | Lucifer's Friend | Yes