16 Progressive Rock

Progressive Rock

Progressive Rock music is a form of rock in which elements of ‘art music’ such as classical music are incorporated in with rock elements. Though each progressive rock group vary widely from one to the next, they fall very roughly into three categories.

1) The most basic type of progressive rock is simply the addition of classical orchestral instruments (violins, cellos, etc.) into a rock setting, an extension of what producers George Martin and Phil Spector had been doing. Groups such as the Moody Blues used the mellotron (a keyboard that emulates the sound of orchestral instruments) to recreate the recordings they made with full orchestras.

2) A more advanced style came through groups such as Yes that wrote complex multi-movement works common in the classical music world. These pieces were often quite elaborate and intricately composed, and it was not uncommon for a complete ‘piece’ to take up an entire side of a vinyl record.

3) A more experimental style of prog rock was the use of “musique concrète”, or “concrete music”, based on ideas from modern classical composers in the avant-garde and electronic areas. The idea is that composers would use tape recordings of non-musical sound and organize them, via audio tape, into a musical composition. Sounds such as trains, clocks ticking, animal noises, or cash registers were all fair game. Pink Floyd explored this with the electronic sound collage work that permeated many of their albums, notably on Dark Side of the Moon (1973).

Rock Groups with Orchestra and the Mellotron

Color photo of a person changing the tape cartridge on a mellotron.
Figure 16.1 Changing the Tape Cartridge on a Mellotron.

The Moody Blues incorporated the classical orchestra into their sound in 1967, featured on recordings such as “Nights in White Satin”. They used an electronic instrument called the Mellotron to emulate the orchestral timbres on their recordings. Soon after, the Mellotron showed up throughout popular recordings and was picked up, in particular, by progressive rock groups.


Black and white photo of Genesis performing live
Figure 16.2 Peter Gabriel with Genesis in 1974.

Genesis also incorporated orchestral effects via the mellotron into their music. Additionally, they performed elaborate music and developed elaborate an stage act involving costume and character changes for singer Peter Gabriel. Genesis reached their theatrical peak with the double concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in which Gabriel plays a character that goes on a surrealistic journey of self-discovery. Gabriel left the group to pursue a solo career shortly afterwards, encountering great commercial and artistic success through the 1980s.

Drummer Phil Collins replaced Gabriel on vocals, continuing in the progressive rock vein with the album Trick of the Tail (1976). As time went on, the theatrical element of Genesis as well as the progressive nature of the music became less important as the group pursued a more commercial pop direction into the 1980s and encountered enormous success with Phil Collins as their primary vocalist. “Invisible Touch” (Listening Examples 16.2) from 1986 was one of the group’s biggest commercial successes, being their first and only No. 1 hit in the United States. Formally the song is not representative of their progressive rock style; rather, it uses a tried and true popular song form we are very familiar with at this point. Examine an excerpt of the lyrics below:


Well I’ve been waiting, waiting here so long
But thinking nothing, nothing could go wrong, ooh now I know
She has a built in ability
To take everything she sees
And now it seems I’m falling, falling for her
She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah
She reaches in, and grabs right hold of your heart
She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah
It takes control and slowly tears you apart
Well I don’t really know her, I only know her name
But she crawls under your skin
You’re never quite the same, and now I know
She’s got something you just can’t trust
And it’s something mysterious
And now it seems I’m falling, falling for her
She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah
She reaches in, and grabs right hold of your heart
She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah
It takes control and slowly tears you apart

The live version of “Watcher of the Skies” by Genesis in Ch. 16 Listening Examples is a perfect example progressive rock, featuring the use of synthesized orchestral sounds combined with rock instruments and a theatrical performance by lead singer Peter Gabriel. Listen as to how the vocals have a different feel rhythmically when compared to the rhythmic figure the band plays to accompany Gabriel.


Black and white photo of two members from Yes performing live
Figure 16.3 Yes.

Yes formed in 1968 and became one of the first and longest lasting progressive rock groups. They used multi-movement classical structures in their works, virtuosic instrumental playing, and used full group vocal harmonies. Early on, the group used synthesizers to emulate an orchestral sound, but their music developed to focus on the members’ technical skills.

Their fourth album Fragile featured each member taking turns as the featured performer on different tracks in addition to full group tracks.Their fifth and sixth albums, Close to the Edge and Relayer made use of the classical “suite” form in which a single piece was made up of multiple movements, and lasted much longer than a standard rock song.

Many personnel changes occurred, and the group broke up and reformed many times. They have been back together since 2008.

Listening Examples 16.2

Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies” (1973). “Invisible Touch” (1986) indicative of the band’s pop direction in the 1980s. “Entangled” (from Trick of the Tail) is an example of the beginning of the Phil Collins-led era of Genesis and showcases the interesting musical textures the group was capable of. The music features three guitars and glockenspiel (a metallic pitched percussion instrument). Bass sounds are produced through organ bass pedals played with the feet. Collins still performed on drums periodically, but for the most part became primarily a vocalist.

Yes: “And You And I” live 1972. Listen for how the band goes through a number of contrasting musical sections. Some of these sections are purely instrumental while others feature vocals. The instrumental sections maybe be slow and minimal with a keyboard playing a single sustaining chord, or they may be complex and full of pre-written parts. The vocal sections sometimes feature the lead vocals of Jon Anderson and sometimes feature full sounding group vocals. Another example is of “Close to the Edge”.

King Crimson

Color painting of King Crimson album art
Figure 16.4 King Crimson.

King Crimson formed in 1969 by the leader and only constant member guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp brought together instrumental virtuosity, avant-garde electronics, atonality, jazz and improvisation, and colorful instrumentation into a very intense and dark version of progressive rock. The group went through many lineup changes throughout the 1970s until Fripp disbanded Crimson in 1974 to focus on his experimental electronic music with composer Brian Eno until reforming the group in 1981.

The new version of the group featured Bill Bruford (who had been in the 70s group) on drums, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, and bass/stick player Tony Levin. This group had an updated sound which they combined with the dark intensity of the 70s sound. The dual guitars and the new “Stick” (an instrument which uses two handed tapping on the strings) created complex rhythmic interplay reminiscent of classical minimalism. Belew added new life to the group as an energetic frontman/vocalist, and Fripp used new technology such as the guitar synthesizer in this new version of the group. Fripp disbanded the group again in 1984, and regrouped again in the mid 1990s. As of 2013 they have reformed with a new lineup featuring three drummers, woodwinds, and a new singer who has replaced Adrian Belew.

Listening Examples 16.2

King Crimson: “Red” (1974) is instrumental, relying on the electric guitar for the primary theme of the music. It is dissonant and reminiscent in some ways of modern classical works but features distorted electric guitars and rock aggression.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer formed in 1970 as a progressive rock “power trio” of sorts. Consisting of keyboards/synths, guitar/bass, and drums, this trio made a sound much larger than most trios could make through the use of multiple keyboards and a plethora of percussion, obtaining an almost orchestral sound. ELP is well known for their reinterpretations of extended classical works and filtering them through rock instrumentation and rock aggression. Keith Emerson was classically trained on piano and brought an authentic touch to the music. “Fanfare for the Common Man” is a rock variation on the classic and timeless composition written by American composer Aaron Copland. ELP performs sections of the melody and intersperses rock and roll sections throughout, including an extended synthesizer solo.


Color photo of Rush performing live
Figure 16.5 Rush in Concert.

Rush formed in Canada in the early 1970s as a power trio (Guitar, Bass, Drums) to play Cream and Led Zeppelin style hard rock. Originally formed by Alex Lifeson (Guitar), and Geddy Lee (Bass and vocals), drummer/lyricist Neil Peart joined later in 1974. With the album Fly By Night (1975) they began to incorporate extended multi-movement classical forms into their hard rock.

Their music was distinct from other progressive rock groups in that it was considerably heavier and rooted in the riff-based style of groups such as Led Zeppelin. Also, the voice of Geddy Lee is highly distinct for its high range. Although they occasionally use synthesizers and different percussion instruments such as the glockenspiel, Rush sticks primarily to the basic guitar, bass, and drums sound.

Pink Floyd

Black and white promo photo of Pink Floyd
Figure 16.6 Pink Floyd in 1971.

Originally a psychedelic rock group, Pink Floyd was forced into a new direction with the departure of singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Syd Barrett. The remaining members were Roger Waters (bass), Richard Wright (keyboards) and Nick Mason (Drums). Waters would grow to become the groups primary creative force, though all members gave creative contributions. Barret was replaced by guitarist/singer David Gilmour, and the band’s sound changed as the other members became more creatively competent.

Important features of Pink Floyd’s music was their use of sound effects and the construction of sound collages with prerecorded sounds in combination with their songs, and the long form compositions comprised of multiple smaller parts. Pieces such as “Saucerful of Secrets” (1968), “Atom Heart Mother” (1970) and “Echos” (1971) would take up an entire side of a record (or most of it), and were often epic in scope. “Atom Heart Mother” was structured into multiple movements much like the suite-style forms used by Yes and other groups and utilizes an orchestra along with the band, while “Saucerful of Secrets” makes extensive use of studio effects and unusual electronic sounds.

Waters had the idea for a concept album based on his own experience growing up without a father, and the album turned into one of the biggest selling albums of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon. (1973) The album makes use of prerecorded, non-musical sounds, called musique concrète (concrete music) that relate thematically to the lyrics. “Time” includes the sounds of clocks ticking and alarms ringing, while “Money” (Listening Examples 16.3, below) features rhythmically organized cash registers clicking and coins falling. “Money” also happens to be one of the most popular tracks on the album, notable for the fact that features a seven-beat pattern in the bass riff rather than the usual three or four beat patterns. Many of the songs on the album feature spine-tingling blues-based guitar solos from David Gilmour, a guitarist who focuses more on lyricism and voice-like expression on his guitar.

Their next album Wish You Were Here (1975) was a tribute to Syd Barrett who had since been living as a recluse due to mental illness. Animals (1977) takes a cynical view of humanity based on George Orwell’s book Animal Farm (1945) and features a mix of epic, heavy songs including the guitar-led epic “Dogs”. The Wall (1979) took a pessimistic view on modern society. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” talks of an education system that restricts freedom of thought. Both Animals and The Wall were primarily composed by Roger Waters, who by this time was exerting more and more creative control over the band’s output.

After The Final Cut (1983) Waters separated from the band and a legal war ensued over the use of the name Pink Floyd and of other elements. The other band members continued, however, using the name and remained very successful. The group reunited for one concert in 2005 at Live 8 before Richard Wright passed away in 2008.

Frank Zappa

Black and white photo of Frank Zappa playing guitar live
Figure 16.7 Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was a Los Angeles-based composer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, vocalist, businessman, filmmaker, and leader of many groups including the Mothers of Invention. He stands alone in the world of popular music as an artist that crossed between genres, from classical to rock, jazz to humor, Doo-Wop to Avant-Garde electronic music. He was an extremely prolific artist with an incessant energy devoted to creating, and his body of work is vast.

Zappa incorporated a huge variety of instruments (think Phil Spector) and made productions that to this day remain completely unique. Sound effects are prominent, segues between songs occur often, and meticulously composed material is evident. Often vocals are modulated to sound high pitched, or otherwise bizarre.

Unusual instruments are showcased in the music of the Mothers. Orchestral percussion augments the sound of the drum set, wind instruments such as oboe or bassoon are not uncommon, and electronic sounds created in the studio are utilized. Some members of the group were highly accomplished, classically trained instrumentalists. In the live setting, Zappa served as conductor and leader as well as a guitarist, composer, and singer. Often times, Zappa conducted the band in an improvised context, telling them through hand signals what kind of sounds to play, how fast or slow, and when to transition into a composed section of music.

Black and white photo of Frank Zappa and band performing live
Figure 16.8 Frank Zappa conducts his band through a humorous improvisation in 1968.

Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention in 1969 mainly because Zappa was unable to continue paying the band member’s salaries, but also due to the fact that he wanted players who could read music and play some of the more difficult parts he was writing. The first album he released as a solo artist was Hot Rats (1969), a largely instrumental album that showcased both Zappa’s compositions and his unique guitar solos. It also featured the skills of keyboard/wind player Ian Underwood, a member of the original Mothers. The first track from the album is “Peaches en Regalia” and features layers over overdubbed guitar, keyboard, and saxophone lines. The music is instrumental, upbeat, and complex, though it is full of melodic hooks and has an upbeat, joyous feeling.

Zappa’s band again continued to evolve into the mid to late 1970s to include younger musicians such as drummer Terry Bozzio and singers Ray White and Ike Willis. His song “The Black Page” (see Listening Examples 16.3 below) became notorious for its complexity of rhythm, requiring considerable practice and technique. The song features extremely complex rhythms over top of a 4-beat pattern, and Zappa even made a danceable “Disco” version called “The Black Page No. 2” which highlights the 4-beat pattern and simplifies some of the complex rhythms. He continued writing satirical and crude pop songs as well. Around this time, business relations with Warner Brothers (with whom Zappa had been with for a number of years) began to deteriorate. He intended to release a 4-Disc record that included works for orchestra, complex instrumentals, and standard rock songs, but WB refused, instead releasing a number of single albums without Zappa’s consent. By the early 80s he was running his own label Barking Pumpkin Records and releasing his own music as an independent recording artist.

David Bowie

Black and white head shot of David Bowe
Figure 16.9 David Bowie.

David Bowie – (Born David Jones, 1947-2016) Was inspired by the Beats as a teenager and began playing jazz and rhythm and blues. Inspired by beat poet Allen Ginsberg who demanded equality for homosexuals, Jones developed an androgynous image. He changed his name to David Bowie to distinguish himself from popular singer Davy Jones, and he developed a glittery space-age character known as Ziggy Stardust. Bowie doesn’t stick to one particular style, and his image is the primary reason for his “glitter rock” association.


4 tiled photos of Queen performing live
Figure 16.10 Queen with a standard hard-rock lineup of Freddie Mercury (vocals), Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass), and Rodger Meadows-Taylor (drums) from 1971.

Queen formed in 1971 with a standard hard-rock lineup of Freddie Mercury (vocals), Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass), and Roger Meadows-Taylor (drums).

Associated with “glitter rock” more for their androgynous visual image than for their music (like David Bowie), with vocalist Freddie Mercury wearing makeup and glittery outfits, and the band’s name itself suggests the androgynous association. While their music was hard-rock, the sound approached progressive rock with the use of sophisticated classical-style arrangements in the overdubbed guitar and vocal lines. The effect is of a string section or a choir and adds to the power of the music without actually using an orchestra or a choir. Freddie Mercury died in 1991, effectively ending the group, though they reunited in 2004 with different members.

The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Ch. 16 Listening Examples) is modeled after the operetta, and is structured as such with many sections, going beyond the standard rock song format. At one point the piece uses antiphonal choruses, a classical technique that is essentially call and response between a solo singer and a group of singers.

Listening Examples 16.3

Pink Floyd:

Rush: “Tom Sawyer”. Notice the unusual rhythm of the melodic “hook” played by the Geddy Lee on the synthesizer at 1:33. The line uses an unusual time: 7/8. A practical way to think about this unusual timing would be to describe it as a standard 4 beat pattern where the second half of the beat is deleted. So if standard 4/4 time is 1& 2& 3& 4& – 1& 2& 3& 4& etc, 7/8 would go as follows: 1& 2& 3& 4 – 1& 2& 3& 4 (Notice that the count goes directly from 4 to 1, no & is present, so the offbeat of the 4th beat is removed.)

Frank Zappa: “The Black Page” live and played by me on guitar to show the unusual technique required

Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody”


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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