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Prog Rock Britannia! - BBC Documentary

Published: Tue January 06, 2009  News Feed


One of the most influential times in British music has recently been the the topic for a season of broadcasts from the BBC.

This series ran over the 2008 festive period and is repeated on BBC Four today and tomorrow.

It charts the growth and rise of the ‘Progressive’ musician starting with The Nice and Soft Machine moving onto King Crimson, ELP and of course The Pink Floyd.

Progressive rock (often shortened to progressive, prog, or prog rock) is a form of rock music that evolved in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of a “mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility.” The term “art rock” is often used interchangeably with “progressive rock”, and while there are crossovers between the two genres they are not identical. Prog Rock was the first steps of pop musicans and rock and roll musicans begining to get bored playing 12 bar blues. This was the sound of musicians who wanted a little more from their music than repitition

Progressive rock bands pushed “rock’s technical and compositional boundaries” by going beyond the standard rock or popular verse-chorus-based song structures. Additionally, the arrangements often incorporated elements drawn from classical, jazz, and world music. Instrumentals were common, while songs with lyrics were sometimes conceptual, abstract, or based in fantasy. Progressive rock bands sometimes used “concept albums that made unified statements, usually telling an epic story or tackling a grand overarching theme.”

Progressive rock songs either avoid common popular music song structures of verse-chorus-bridge, or blur the formal distinctions by extending sections or inserting musical interludes, often with exaggerated dynamics to heighten contrast between sections. Classical forms are often inserted or substituted, sometimes yielding entire suites, building on the traditional medleys of earlier rock bands. Progressive rock songs also often have extended instrumental passages, marrying the classical solo tradition with the improvisational traditions of jazz and psychedelic rock. All of these tend to add length to progressive rock songs, which may last longer than twenty minutes….Sounds great doesn’t it!


Another super cool aspect of Prog is the avid use of technology to aid their timbral exploration. Progressive rock bands were often early adopters of new electronic musical instruments and technologies. Emerson Lake and Palmer pioneered use of the Moog synthesizer, and the mellotron was a signature sound of early progressive bands such as the Moody Blues, King Crimson, and Genesis. Pink Floyd utilized an EMS Synthi A synthesizer equipped with a sequencer on their track “On the Run” from their 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon”. In the late 1970s, Robert Fripp, of King Crimson, and Brian Eno developed an analog tape loops effect (Frippertronics). In the 1980s, Frank Zappa used the Synclavier for composing and recording, and King Crimson utilized MIDI-enabled guitars, a Chapman Stick, and electronic percussion.


10 string chapman stick

The whole genre obviously imploded and was finally killed off by a combination of Rick Wakeman performing  ‘On Ice’ style shows and the new wave of punk (which was created by ex prog fans).

Prog the early days

Allmusic cites Bob Dylan’s poetry, The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as showing the “earliest rumblings of progressive and art rock” while progressiverock.com cites the latter as its “starting point”, although earlier albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver had begun incorporating Eastern music and instruments not common in rock music. This would later be followed by progressive-rock acts such as Yes and King Crimson. However, Piero Scaruffi claims that “technically speaking … progressive-rock began in 1967 with Cream and The Nice”, which he describes as “groups that reacted to the simple, melodic, three-minute pop of the early Beatles”, and notes that if “a more stringent definition, one that considers ambition and pretentiousness” is used, this “would push the birth date [back] to the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow (1968) and the Who’s Tommy (1969).”

Freak Out!, released in 1966, had been a mixture of progressive rock, punk and avant-garde layered sounds. In the same year, the band “1-2-3″, later renamed Clouds, began experimenting with song structures, improvisation, and multi-layered arrangements. In March of that year, The Byrds released “Eight Miles High”, a pioneering psychedelic rock single with lead guitar heavily influenced by the jazz soloing style of John Coltrane. Later that year, The Who released “A Quick One While He’s Away”, the first example of the rock opera form, and considered by some to have been the first prog epic.


There is so much to cover in this topic it impossible to cram it all here. Mike Oldfield’s  ‘Tubular Bells’ was a breakthough track demonstarting the poswer of the studio. Mike played every instrument himself onthe recording and the song became a staple stone for sound technology enthusiasts everywhere.

Tubular Bells stayed in the British charts for over five years, reaching the number 1 spot after more than a year and taking there for one week the place of his second album, Hergest Ridge, thereby becoming one of only three artists in the UK to knock himself off the first spot. It sold more than two million copies in the UK alone and according to some reports 15 to 17 million copies worldwide. The album went gold in the USA and Mike Oldfield received a Grammy Award for the best Instrumental Composition in 1975.

In 1967, Jeff Beck released the single “Beck’s Bolero”, inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, and, later that year, Procol Harum released the Bach-influenced single “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. Also in 1967, the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, combining classical-inspired orchestral music with traditional rock instrumentation and song structures. Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, contained the nearly ten-minute improvisational psychedelic instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive”. In 1968, Big Brother and the Holding Company incorporated Bach’s prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier into their cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”.

2009 promises alot following yet another British invasion of Prog bands. A scene taking influences also from post punk and experimental music has emerged spearheaded by bands such as a.P.A.t.T., Kling Klang, The Laze and Stig.

Here is footage of some of the more over looked genius’ not featured in the BBC documentary.These are the American and European counterparts. These artists have all strived to make advancements in their art, whilst maintaining a ridiculous air.

Prog Rock Britannia Tonight.

  1. 06 Jan 2009
  2. 07 Jan 2009
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