Prog rock: In praise of a much-reviled musical genre

Capes, 20-minute songs, gnomes: progressive rock had it all

Prog is not a four-letter word

Heilemann/Camera Press

Novelist Rick Moody must secretly enjoy being a cultural pariah. After taking on Taylor Swift and incensing her legion of fans with an article in The Rumpus earlier this year that compared Swift’s music to “some flattened squirrel on a country road,” he’s come out with a defence of one of rock’s most hated bands: Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP). In “Defending the indefensible,” published in Yes Is The Answer, a new book in which marquee writers confess and confront their affection for the much-despised genre of progressive rock, Moody lays out the evidence against ELP. “They toured with an orchestra.” “There was robot imagery.” “They believed in virtuosity.” “Up-to-date equipment!” But he pokes holes in those accusations even as he’s outlining them. Long before he gets to “So why do I like them anyway?” his fondness for the band is quite apparent.

Let the hating begin. ELP are often cited as the reason punk had to happen. After the Beatles and before the Sex Pistols, they, along with Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Pink Floyd, sold millions of records, topped critics’ polls and ushered in a golden era of prog rock. There were capes, songs about supernatural anaesthetists, a trilogy of albums about a “radio gnome,” and King Arthur on ice—literally, with skating pantomime horses (courtesy of a Rick Wakeman show). Prog virtuosos fused rock, classical, folk, jazz and Renaissance music, and took little from blues. The music couldn’t get more white—or more unfashionable. Twenty-minute songs performed by earnest young men trying to sound like an orchestra, hopping from one instrument to another, or playing several at once: this was large-scale, ambitious music meant to accompany grand lyrics and stage spectacles. Gone was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, replaced by Kubrickian space-outs, Eastern philosophy and walls of synthesizers—or guitars trying to sound like synthesizers.

For decades now, any self-respecting pop music fan has had to keep his (it’s usually his) love of prog under wraps, though a few writers have stealthily mounted campaigns to reintroduce the music in the conversation. Jonathan Coe named his novel The Rotters’ Club after a prog album by Hatfield and the North. Journalist Nick Awde produced a tome on the Mellotron, an instrument featured prominently on many prog albums, including King Crimson’s genre-defining debut, In The Court of the Crimson King.

Prog for years remained the last musical subgenre to be claimed by hipsters. While artists once deemed terminally uncool, such as the Bee Gees, ABBA and Daryl Hall, have had their critical reappraisal—even Paul Williams, who wrote the syrupy Carpenters hit We’ve Only Just Begun, has the most celebrated guest spot on the new, buzzed-about Daft Punk record—prog rock was a frontier too far. The long-running book series for rock snobs, 331/3, featuring writing on culturally significant albums, has devoted exactly one book (so far) out of 86 to a prog record: Aqualung, by Jethro Tull. The average music fan may not even know the term “progressive rock” but knows enough to snicker at the sight of the impressionistic album cover of a vagrant named Aqualung with snot running down his nose.

Now the music is crawling out from under its toadstool in Yes Is The Answer, edited by Tyson Cornell and Marc Weingarten. Cornell, founder of L.A.-based Rare Bird Books and a musician himself, admits the idea of having respectable writers challenge the accepted gospel about prog was far-fetched. “When Marc and I started doing this,” he says, “everybody we talked about it with was just laughing at us. But then people started to tell their stories, and it just unfolded.”

Cornell, a self-confessed “prog nut,” knew others in the publishing world with the same guilty obsession, including his co-editor. Moody had already outed himself by writing an ode to Gentle Giant, a prog favourite, in The Believer. Esquire writer Tom Junod came to them after Weingarten tweeted something about the book; within three days he’d contributed a brilliant and moving piece about early Genesis and Peter Gabriel as the soundtrack to his adolescence. Musician and author Wesley Stace, who performs as John Wesley Harding (after the Bob Dylan record), and wrote the Commonwealth Prize-nominated book Misfortune, contributed a memoir of a resolute folkie who got swept up in prog and still loves it. Stace was introduced to the genre in university by a female friend. “I was a punk and new wave kid and I liked singer-songwriters,” he said in an interview, “and I didn’t like the science-fiction art and everything that came with prog. I was bigoted, but I was teenaged, and it was amazing to discover it later in life.”

The book—a tribute to what Weingarten identifies in the introduction as “prog rock’s grandeur, its mushy mysticism, its blissed-out mystery”—is a high point in a renaissance that’s been building: a reverential 2009 BBC documentary (Prog Britannia), a magazine (Classic Prog), and a growing number of festivals, including Prog Angeles, organized by Cornell and featuring members of Weezer and others. Tastemaking online music journal Pitchfork drops the P-word on an almost weekly basis in describing some impossibly cool band’s music, from metal monsters Mastodon to French electronic duo Justice—an admission, finally, that someone was listening. And there is the full-on revival of the band responsible for  a concept album about hemispheres of the brain: Rush. As Nirvana’s Dave Grohl said in his speech inducting Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “There’s one mystery that eclipses them all: when the f–k did Rush become cool?”

For all this, it’s unlikely prog will get the reappraisal its supporters feel it’s due. The biggest strike against the genre has long been that it’s bloated, corporate, the antithesis of punk—even though in spirit prog may not have been all that far off from punk. They shared a broad political ideology. Henry Cow and the other bands make up “rock in opposition,” a popular subgenre of prog, which, aside from influencing avant-garde jazz musicians over the years, make the Clash look like weekend protesters. King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man opens with the snarl of, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.” Prog explored dystopian worlds of environmental apocalypse and corporate greed, occasionally with more subtlety and whimsy than punk. And prog rockers were as committed to their outlandish musical vision as punk was to its three chords; far from all being pampered middle-class kids, they too struggled for an audience and money during their formative years. The average punk band just imploded within a few years of forming—they never stuck around long enough to be derided as “dinosaurs.”

But even fans of prog such as the contributors in Yes Is The Answer relegate the music to a thorny nostalgic curiosity or a soundtrack to a pimple-faced, girlfriend-free, mostly male adolescence. Unlike so much rock, prog is not about sex. The whole point was to “sidestep sexuality, not draw attention to it,” as Andrew J. Mellen writes.

It’s easy enough to admit to liking King Crimson or Robert Wyatt, and you are safe saying you like psychedelic music or “Krautrock” (a term of endearment used widely in the music press). These are the kind of names dropped by indie rockers, crate-diggers and critics alike. But prog is equally about Gentle Giant, a band that has a friendly giant for a mascot and is not afraid to indulge in baroque a cappella counterpoint. It includes a substantial number of bands that will forever be too weird or uncool to be part of a revival. Genesis wrote songs about a giant hogweed brought to England by a Victorian explorer, but will most commonly be regarded as the band with Phil Collins in it. France’s Magma, who have been active for more than four decades, sing in their own invented language (Kobaïan, a phonetic system drawn from Slavic and Germanic languages. “French wasn’t expressive enough for the sound of the music I had in my head,” its leader, Christian Vander, told Britain’s Telegraph a few years ago.).

For its fans, of course, that out-there-ness is a huge part of the appeal. At its best, prog was adventurous and inventive and affecting—and it was unapologetically itself. “I think that’s why hearing [Rush’s] Tom Sawyer on the radio hit me as hard as it did,” writes Beth Lisick, one of two female contributors in Yes Is The Answer. “It didn’t feel like a put-on. Even as a kid I sensed that the band’s weirdness was true and that’s what was so creepy and exciting.”


Prog rock: In praise of a much-reviled musical genre

  1. I think Pink Floyd doesn’t really fit in with the others, especially post-DSotM. While they definitely shared some things in common with prog rockers, their music (particularly Gilmour’s guitar) is deeply based in the blues, and they crossed over from their avant-garde days into very main-stream successes. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with someone who doesn’t like them, let alone someone who’s ashamed to admit it. I think it would be the other way around, if anything.

    Anyway, it’s a fun article.

    • Blues influence doesn’t remove them from the category of prog. Prog fused with and was influenced by pretty much anything and everything. The definition is pretty broad, but in no way was Pink Floyd mainstream rock.

      • dont be naive, prog rock was mainstream on its time

    • Yes, the first albums are more Psychedelic Rock than Prog. But wonderful albums with Syd Barrett.

    • ALL of Prog comes from the (moody!) blues, just highly altered. Renaissance and Led Zeppelin were both spawned from The Yardbirds.

      • BELIEVE ME…my original family name is Stovall (yes, the name of the “back-fawty” that Muddy Waters comes from), and I do know a bit about the Southern US…where I was growing up in Thelonius Monk’s hometown of Rocky Mount, NC. Where I met the girls that got me into Prog/Britinvasion/Classical in the first place (that’s a whole OTHER chapter!)

  2. Wrong picture. No Jon Anderson, no Yes.

    • No Rick Wakeman, nor Bill Bruford : best line-up ever : Close to the edge…

    • yea, they could have picked a better photo to represent Yes, not the line-up that produced only 1 album…a good album though

      • Technically, 2. “Fly From Here.” is regarded as a sequel.

    • No Jon Anderson, no Rick Wakeman, no Yes.

    • Well then I suppose you don’t think the Yes from the past 3 years is the “real” Yes(as if there is such a thing) either then.

  3. I still go back .. occasionally .. to Gentle Giant and Soft Machine.

    And I don’t feel a bit guilty.

    btw, Dave Weigel has recently written about his fandom.

  4. What’s not to love? Solid musicianship and tunes based on classical, jazz or classic rock sensibilities. Since that time, with some exceptions, of course, the popular music scene has been dominated by people who are something less than masters of their instruments, if they play one at all. Now, if you own a laptop and some gimmickry to speed up or slow down someone else’s music, you’re a star.

    Bring back program rock. Please…

  5. Prog still exists! I bought a copy of the Prog magazine mentioned in the article and the CD which came with it has re-educated me from being someone who thought that prog was dead to someone who is spending far too much money buying prog music – IQ, Pineapple Thief and Tangent are the best of the British bands, along with Riverside from Poland and Wobbler from Norway, amongst many others.

  6. Steven Wilson’s solo music & with the band Porcupine Tree is getting huge attention & bands like Riverside, Tool, Anathema, & Big Big Train show prog is alive & well

  7. Only UK bands?

  8. ELP at the Big O, I’ll never forget it. YES at the Forum, twice. Phil Collins with EW&F brass section. Take a guess what type of music I enjoy most now… It’s JAZZ!!! 91.1 in Toronto.

  9. Best prog music by far is still Camel.

  10. There has certainly been a prog revival. And I’d like to thank Steven Wilson for that. Amazing how you can hear the influence of so many bands with an original twist that is the genius of Wilson in ONE SONG!

  11. …..prog rock died because its a talent based genre, you cant fake it, the labels were scrambling to find super groups and they weren’t cheap in the era of zepp and Floyd, the labels had no control of these bands and the profit margins favored the band, not the co., Now labels hire half-wits like Taylor/Biebs/beyonce/gaga/kanye etc and they market them as if they actually had sustainable musical talent, as if they were getting ready to put out greatness like the beatles or joni Mitchell, and actually wow you in concert like a Kansas or Rush,elo, Yes, zappa,beck,boston,super tramp,little feat,genesis,dixie dregs,brandx,steely dan,elp etc., but they never will, they’ll be forgotten more often than not in a couple of years and the co. will move on to the next charade, and the co wins, not the bands, and not the fans. Everything changed in 1980. I saw them all,yes in the round, ‘Close to the edge tour, Rush hemispheres,floyd Animals, Zepp, physical graffiti, Marley, Elton goodbye yellowbrick road, Kansas leftoverture, my 1st show was the Jackson 5 ABC, I still play and teach guitar but I don’t go see a lot of shows now, definitely not the eagles for 1000 bucks a pop when they were so -so back in the day, the only band now that can hold the true prog rock flame is little known but mighty, ‘Umphrey’s Mcgee, period.

  12. A few points Yes above aren’t YES That’s the Buggles . The only YES line up is the classic Fragile to Topographic ocean and the reformed Yes. If John Anderson isn’t singing, Wakeman on keyboards Howe, Squires and Bruford or White on drums sorry It isn’t YES. The point also is that prog was never in the main stream and was always more underground that punk, which was hyped to oblivion by people like Malcolm McLaren and Charles Shar Murray of the NME. It came and it went, whilst prog simply faded a bit, looked inward and waited. Nowadays prog has a bigger following and the critics (who are frustrated can’t play any instrument musicians) simply ignore prog and enthuse over the next boy or girl group!!! So for one I am happy that the likes of Charles Shar Murray ignore prog rock, as I travel through life listening to Close to Edge/Foxtrot/DSOTM etc and still love every second. Working into the night is somewhat softened by “Suppers Ready” etc

  13. “Genesis ………………………. will most commonly be regarded as the band with Phil Collins in it”.

    I totally disagree. Genesis will alwys ne tied to Peter Gabriel. Their best albums (Foxtrot, Nursery, Selling, etc.) were with Peter, not Phil. Though I love Phil Collins specially his own compositions.

  14. Like many other music genres, punk, ska, reggae, hiphop, to name a few, prog rock was an inevitable genre and like so many music eras, it came along at a time when live and recorded music needed something fresh, inventive and to stop the flow of monotony and boredom which had started to set in towards the end of the sixties.

    I started listening to prog rock with friends in around 1968-69 with albums/bands like The Yes Album, first ELP and Tarkus, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Atomic Rooster and King Crimson. The anticipation of the original 12″ vinyl and amazing cover sleeves, such as what Roger Dean did for Yes and a few others, will never be forgotten. A mate and I still claim to have bought the first (Australian) copy of Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans when it arrived at importer Anthem Records at Sydney’s Town Hall station. We had pre-ordered it and were at the store when the shipment arrived and got the first one out of the box and also told it was the first shipment to Australia. We couldn’t get home quick enough to play it. The longest one hour bus ride home ever. A few years later my second Yes highlight was when I saw them in ’77 at Empire Pool, Wembley Stadium performing all of Going For The One and many earlier classics. Donovan was a surprising support act to a prog rock band flying high at the time, but also enjoyable as he also played a part of my ’60’s music listening. And….I agree with earlier comments about the “Yes” (?) photo – no Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman? Is this the best photo you could find to represent one of the greatest bands ever.

    One of the problems i’ve had with the prog rock scene is the number of so called experts who start off with the usual Yes/ELP/Genesis banter then start mentioning Black Sabbath, Kansas, Iron Butterfly or even Deep Purple. I have really enjoyed many moments with all these and Led Zep but none of them are prog rock. I have never even included Pink Floyd or Mike Oldfield in the mix even though i have been a huge fan of both for 40-odd years. Now some might argue it has even been a genre not easy to define, not as defined as reggae and ska, so maybe that’s why so many other bands/artists get included in a prog rock discussion. Just because Tubular Bells was new and innovative and recorded when prog rock was really starting to get exciting (Close To The Edge was out not long before it), it doesn’t mean it’s prog rock. Same goes for Tangerine Dream, who I have also seen and love. Go to and see some of the bands mentioned there under the guise of prog rock – The Beatles and Frank Zappa – come on give us a break. It’s an insult to both the genre and the artists who are all brilliant in their own way. Just not prog rock.

    One important part of the whole prog rock era, and sadly missing in this article and many others I’ve read, is the European influence, especially Italian bands like PFM and Acqua Fragile. The Germans had a shot at it with Triumvirat but after a few, and quite clever in parts, albums, you started to realise that they were really trying to rip-off ELP rather than just being influenced by them. There is a difference. Reminds me of Starcastle, I think from memory Canadian, who went out of their way to sound like Yes. Even though i did have some Trimvirat and Starcastle vinyl, looking back now I consider their attempts to cash in on the prog rock success in the ’70’s and 80’s to be somewhat blasphemous. However, it has also ceased to amaze me how under-rated PFM has always been. Albums such as Photos of Ghosts, The World Became The World, Storia Di Un Minuto and Chocolate Kings should be etched into the annals of prog rock history forever. Amazing musicianship, clever, with a touch of abstract, lyrics and as always – the covers. Listen to Four Holes in the Ground from TWBTW if you want to hear the brilliance, musically, of this band. Ok, the vocals and few lyrics aren’t PFM’s finest, not like on The Mountain and the title track, but the guitar and violin will just blow you away. It doesn’t stop with PFM when discussing Italian prog rock from the ’70’s but they seemed to have an edge on the others for originality and completeness.

    Now to finish with the more recent wave of “prog rock” bands. Also labelled now as neo-prog – just to be contemporary. I am really enjoying what bands like Riverside, Opeth, Marillion, IQ and Porcupine Tree are doing, but, I only hear small sections on each album which I guess could wear the prog rock tag. And even then sometimes I feel I’m kidding myself by trying to hear a tradtional prog rock riff only because the band has been labelled, or even squeezed, into the prog rock genre. Or is it because I have so many fond memories of prog rock’s heydays, that I want to think it is all still alive and well? I am however thankful for their contribution even if the prog rock tag is somewhat questionable as it does keep alive, to a certain extent, an exciting genre and era of music which I know millions of people would hate to see forgotten forever.

    For all it’s apparent pretentiousness, not my words but often used, it’s 20-plus minute symphonic-like tracks, audacious and surreal album covers and the outrageously unpredictable stage acts (look at some early Genesis videos), I believe prog rock has left an indelible mark on the music industry. Not suggesting it has finished, but I wonder how many may agree that “real” prog rock was as much an era of music as it is a genre. It has always had a ‘you either love it or hate it” type of approach from music fans but as I said from the start it was – inevitable. Thank God for that.

    • I saw Yes/Donovan Aug. 16, 1977 in Landover, MD. Just as I was leaving the house the announcement about Elvis came over the radio. Donovan was introducing a song about dead Rock Stars, and he said: “…,and Elvis”.

      Actually Greg Lake is a big Elvis fan. He saw Elvis in 1971 and in Knoxville TN spring 1977 as ELP was doing its heavily Elvis-ized ‘Works’ tour. The crown was passed.

  15. You just have to talk about how hated progressive rock is don’t you? That’s right, perpetuate the myth. If it were hated it would still have influence. The only people that hated progressive rock were rock writers. It’s not like they have or will ever have anything remotely intelligent to say, and every time I read anything any of them ever wrote, what I read is the writing of someone who has major self-esteem issues on display. . .

    • “No-one ever built a statue for a critic.” -Jean Sibelius

  16. Listen to Froskull: Nashville’s premier progressive rock band.

  17. GENTLE. GIANT. RULES. (And kudos to Quebec prog rock, Klaatu and the Moody Blues.)

  18. Prog was/is never popular with the 50-cent-words-to-describe-a-three-chord-act crowd. The problem with most music journalists is that they don’t know much about either–music or journalism. Prog fans like prog for reasons that stand the test of time: melody, literacy, compositional technique, virtuosity, inventiveness. In fact, all the things that are missing from current pop music. Go figure.

    P.S.–Good evening, Mr. Burg. Gentle Giant does indeed rule.

  19. I cannot believe that the writer of this article even mentions Prog Rock in the same breath as punk. Not even close! Nobody in the punk era could compare to the music of ELP, Jethro Tull, Yes, Camel, King Crimson, Genesis (with or without Peter Gabriel), Rush and all the others. Most punk bands did not include musicians. In that era, anyone could pick up a guitar and make noise and it would sell if it was classified as punk. Geeze!

  20. From 1969-1976 (the heyday of progressive experimentalism using rock rhythms) there was so much more progressive things being done with rock music than just the nerdy, white boy stuff. I think it is utterly criminal that the African American musicians who were every bit as “progressive” in their use of rock rhythmic structures get marginalized by this ‘prog was/is music by nerdy white musicians’ revisionism. Jazz musicians also rocked hard like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. Those Jazz musicians were every bit as influential in the development of prog in its heyday. Perhaps one of the main reasons prog is laughed at is precisely because all these writers of books focus only on the white artists and ignore the other races who contributed equally and were just as progressive with rock music from 1969-1976.

    • Ah, “the old prog guy”. Hey, MT, how’re you doin’? They weren’t racist, they weren’t ignored. They were just categorized differently, as “fusion”. I know you have a propensity to lump everything into “prog”, but that’s just not the way it happened. Please stop trying to paint something as racist, when it’s clearly not.

  21. Anyone who has a taste for high quality, well crafted rock music, usually has some interest in prog rock. I’ve been a music aficionado since the early 70’s and from the beginning, prog rock was a big part of my music collection. Back then, my first and always favorite band was Deep Purple. Their musicianship set them apart from their counterparts. I also listened to Robin Trower, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk and everything else that was popular at the time, including Pink Floyd and Yes, both prog rock kings. I liked the musical chops the prog rockers brought to my ears. (One thing I’ve learned, that if you’ve been a real prog rock fan, you are constantly searching for new or lost classics). Soon, I was listening to Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Triumvirat, Camel…….Today I listen to The Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, J. Geils Band, Joe Walsh and maybe even some Alice in Chains, all good quality stuff. It seems though that my musical tastes, change with the seasons. I find myself listening to more prog rock and ambient music in the winter. My prog rock collection has expanded quite a lot since the 70’s. While I have tried to replace a lot of my vinyl with remastered CD’s, there are some that will never make it from the original vinyl. I have discovered some great bands over the years, some were never commercially successful, making their music hard to find and some new talent that has come along the way. Porcupine Tree, Ozric Tentacles, Glass Hammer and Spock’s Beard are some of the newer discoveries. I’ve armed myself with many rock and prog rock encyclopedias over the years and have found some very interesting progressive rock music. Anyone listen to Agitation Free, Barclay James Harvest, Brainticket, Greenslade, Jericho ? ……. I could go on…

    • Got to be Gentle Giant. Enough rich material to keep anyone going for years. Newly discovered Happy The Man… how on earth did I miss them by? Thanks to my 28 yr old son (a huge Zappa fan) for pointing them (HTM) out…


  23. Thank you, Chad and Rob, for NEARfest.

  24. Wadda-ya mean there’s no sex in Prog Rock?! We all know what “Brain Salad Surgery” REALLY is, and “Living Sin” says it right there.

    As for “girlfriend-free”, ALL of my serious pre-net relationships are from my Prog-Classical connections (you know who you are!).

  25. settle down Skratt youre getting way outta hand

  26. Came here via The Gentle Giant site. IMHO the Best Band Of All Time… But, I never saw them live… Sniff. But I did see ELP, Genesis, Focus, Argent, Wishbone Ash, Fudd(?) and Jack Bruce (jamming with Focus) in the Melody Makers Poll Winners concert 1973 at the Oval. Whole day – 50p


    • Oh, and later that year (I think) saw YES premier Close to the Edge at Crystal Palace. First ever YES gig for Alan White.

      Also on the bill – Mahavishnu Orchestra, and others I can’t remember.