A few people (very few) know that I've stepped away from my sci-fi/fantasy world to work on a memoir/progressive rock manifesto. Since this type of writing not only is new to me, it also lends itself well to posting excerpts from it on this here blog site thingy. The other day I participated in a discussion on Facebook that circled the drain of the age old question, "Who were the original progressive rock bands or artist(s)? Since I had already spent the energy addressing this question in my book-in-progress, I felt well qualified to provide a few answers. But it's an intricate study, one that is too big for Facebook. And while this question resides in the "How long is a piece of string?" bubble, considering my credentials (or perhaps my stupidity) I had to at least make an attempt to come up with an answer. Keep in mind this is still in rough draft form and I have also edited out a bunch of swears so as not to offend everyone. Anyway, here it is in full, offered up as a sacrifice in all its vulnerability.
So where did it all begin? Well…who can say, really, how, when, or where the sweet baby who grew into this monstrous musical behemoth was born? Was it Robert Fripp and his creation, King Crimson? Maybe Syd Barret and Pink Floyd should get credit for their experimental innovations. Sure, if you listen to that early Floyd material you’d be hard-pressed to navigate the maze that leads to Prog nirvana. But it’s there. Believe me. Maybe Pete Townshend and his orchestral approach to rock composition influenced others to open their sphere of influence and turn rock into a more formal pursuit. Certainly Tommy is labeled as a “rock opera” and Quadrophenia expands in that tradition. But The Who are firmly implanted in classic rock, perhaps one of the best rock bands ever. After all, they won the war they were thrust into between Mods and Rockers, and would probably sneer at the idea of being considered Prog cornerstones. Led Zeppelin is sort of in the same boat. They introduced us to a whole new sound when it came to rock, with Robert Plant’s piercing vocals, Jimmy Page’s blues-based electric guitar, Bonham’s wild-man drumming, and John Paul Jones showing us that bass-players are more than just frustrated guitarists. They were heavy. They were intricate. They were at times emotionally beautiful, and so much better than your average rock and roll band. But again, they’re pillars of classic rock and heavy metal, who at times displayed some progressive leanings. In other words, Prog did not, and cannot define them. To get to the real roots of Prog you have to dig down further.
So is there a more direct, clear cut path from the British Beat scene of the 60s to the psychedelic and Prog scene of the 70s? I’m talking as the crow flies, is there one titular act leading straight to the moment that blew the lid off the Pandora’s Box of rock and roll and opened the door to something future Prog enthusiasts would glom on to? I don’t claim to be a music historian, although I always thought that if I ever got into academia I could throw together a pretty damn entertaining history of rock and roll course, with a lot of begets and flow charts and family trees and such. For example: The Nice begets ELP who begets Asia, who begets the beginning of the end for real progressive rock.
The aforementioned King Crimson begets a brain of great artists including ELP and Yes (and for that matter post-Genesis Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, David Bowie, but now we’re really pushing across borders). In essence Robert Fripp is like the Godfather of one of Prog’s most prominent families, and I'd go so far as to say that without his shadow looming over the genre it would have been an entirely different, less colorful landscape.
But is that where it started?
You may or may not know the name Arthur Brown. Here’s a hint. He’s the God of Hell Fire as authoritatively stated in his biggest hit Fire. In the late 60s Arthur Brown combined pop music with theatrics, doing all kinds of crazy shit no one had ever dreamed of before, like including pyrotechnics along with unique costumes and elaborate staging. No wonder Peter Gabriel mentions him as an influence along with several artists later associated with Prog. He even worked with the likes of Hawkwind, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa. But as far as Arthur Brown goes, he could just as easily lay claim to the Godfather throne of another prominent family more closely associated with Shock Rock or Metal.
Stay with me here. If you wanted light reading pick up a Stephen King novel or something by Dostoyevsky.
To get back to the question at hand, if British pop, psychedelic rock, classical, jazz, and folk music had this mutant baby (I’m not sure how the biology of that works but just go with it), who’s responsible for planting the seed? If you ask a group of self-proclaimed “Proggers” expect a wide-variety of answers, lots of name-calling, and perhaps a few thinly-veiled threats that wouldn’t pack much weight outside the halls of a comic book convention because let's face it, most Prog enthusiasts are, in fact, nerds. I’d bet good money that at any given time there’s at least one debate in progress on the social media pages (you know, the Facebook, the Twitter, and the like) where Prog fans are eagerly voicing their opinions on the origins of the genre.
“Class, who came first?”
Several hands eagerly shoot up in the air.
Nerd number one. “Ooh, ooh, I know.”
Nerd number two. “Pick me! Pick me!”
Nerd number one slugs nerd number two in the shoulder.
Nerd number three simply blurts out the answer without waiting to be called on. “Moody Blues.”
Teacher pulls out a Glock and puts a bullet between Nerd number three’s eyes. “Not quite the answer I was looking for.”
In truth the answer is as convoluted as the quest to discover the one true religion; there is no single answer. Prog has several sects and schools and such and as in spiritual beliefs, I choose not to declare emphatically which is correct, but simply provide an overview of their differences and where their paths might cross. So just as the very definition of Prog can get a little wibbley wobbley, with multiple facets cut into the genre, it took multiple pieces and parts all coming together in a swirling vortex of musical and cultural synchronicity to create the birth of a new genre of rock music.
Having said all that as long as I’m here and this my book, I’m going to go out on a limb and spill who I'd put my money on, a wager that might be surprising but not without legs.
It was the Beatles. Who else did you think it would be? The Beatles started everything when it comes to pop and rock. Like Jesus split the timeline of our calendar, you can look at modern music (the stuff those fool kids listen to) and argue that the Beatles built the wall that separates everything into a before and after scenario. And just think about this for a moment. Had the Beatles not gone all supernova at the tail end of the sixties, what kind of music would they have carried over into the 70s? And don’t tell me to look at their solo work as an indicator (although if pressed I would say some of the stuff Paul did with Wings is borderline progressive). John, Paul, George, and Ringo did some great stuff individually, but their collective work is as different as American football and that game the rest of the world calls futbol. My theory is that the Beatles, had they stuck together, would have become one of the seminal progressive bands in the rock era of the mid-to-late 70s. Had that have happened maybe Prog wouldn’t have been left in the annals of rock history as something that never went beyond cult status.
I also have theories on Hendrix, the Doors, and Buddy Holly as well, but, again, those are for another book (don’t hold your breath, this non-fiction shit is hard).