Progressive rock grew out of the experimental and psychedelic era of the second half of the 1960s and reached its peak between 1969 and 1974. During this time, groups like Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, and dozens of others were at the top of their game. Albums became double albums and concept albums and live performances grew to fill stadiums with grand stage sets and sometimes costumes, too. The show began to take over for the music and the music became grandiose and above the listening patience of many. By this time too, the social climate was changing and the hopeful, forward-looking youth of the sixties were being replaced by a new generation who faced a grimmer, un-promising reality.
It is said that the decline of prog came at the pivotal year of 1974 but its demise occurred once punk rock became the new music of youth around 1976 and 77. By the late seventies, punk, disco, and New Wave were what young people were into and the older generation of long-haired and bearded (except for the ladies) musos found themselves playing to smaller audiences or only partially filled venues. Not just progressive rock, but the fledgling musical style that had become termed heavy metal also fell out of public favour as it too tried to be musically complex and intelligent. Only bands like AC/DC with their rawer and simpler approach to hard rock were able to find big success during punk’s rise to the forefront.
This is the general story that I have read and heard. A memorable moment in the BBC documentary about progressive rock in Britain is when Rick Wakeman describes looking for records in a store and having to ask in a hushed whisper if there is any prog rock in the store and the clerk says that he has some in a brown paper bag under the counter (watch the video from about 1:23:00 to 1:24:05).
But did prog really die out in the late seventies? Though the year the rot set in is given as 1974 the true decline of the first generation of prog rock coincides with the early days of neo-prog, with some saying that the first neo-prog album was “A Trick of the Tale” by Genesis, one of the first generation prog rockers and now without their performing artist frontman, Peter Gabriel. A new turn for Genesis sparked the neo-prog movement possibly? The interesting thing to note is that as the old guard were beginning to face the music, so to speak, the next generation were already eager to establish themselves as composers of music and songs that went beyond the standard rock format. And not all of the chart-toppers of the early seventies were looking for lifeboats just yet either.
Among the first generation of progressive rock groups, Pink Floyd and Yes both found great success with their 1977 releases, “Animals” by Pink Floyd and “Going for the One” by Yes. Yes even scored a hit song with “Wondrous Stories”. Genesis had not yet evolved into a pop band and “Wind and Wuthering” was still very much in the prog vein and holding on to the fan base for the band. Other bands like ELP, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson struggled with their music, changed their style, or split up in order to take time to think about the next move while prog rockers like former Yes and King Crimson drummer, Bill Bruford, teamed up with others and formed new bands like UK.
Prog was far from dying during the early days of punk and disco. The Enid released their debut “In the Region of the Summer Stars” – a symphonic approach to rock music if there ever was one – in 1976 and began their career then. Canada’s Rush found their very progressive third album a hard sell in 1975 but found huge success with its follow-up “2112” in 1976. The next two albums saw Rush at their most “progressive” with lengthy and complex compositions. Perhaps Canada was slow to catch on to changing musical trends because neo-prog band Saga was also born during the fall of prog. Their first four albums released between 1978 and 1981 combine a pop sound with intelligent song structure and lyrics and classical/rock blends of guitar and synthesizer duels. Furthermore, the neo-prog movement in Britain took shape during these same years as bands like Pendragon, IQ, and Pallas continued the tradition of writing more complex and thematic rock songs. It was Marillion, with their hard rock guitar approach combined with a modern pop synthesizer sound and an frontman to match Peter Gabriel for flamboyancy and theatrical vocals, whose success paved the way for the neo-prog movement into the 80’s.
Outside of Britain and North America, Eloy from Germany were enjoying the peak of their success with “Oceans” and “Silent Cries and Mighty Echoes” during the years of 1977 and ’78. And Sweden’s Kaipa had begun recording songs in English because their success was creeping beyond Swedish borders.
Perhaps the supposed “death” of prog was more of a forced step back and a time to rethink the approach. Prog could only have died if for three reasons: the prog fan base had grown so small that bands could no longer sell enough tickets to shows; record companies refused anyone of a progressive music nature; and musicians themselves gave up on writing more complex music. The BBC documentary linked above says prog became something talked about in the backrooms, and Rick Wakeman likens it to the porn of the music industry. Yet clearly faith was not lost.
As it was, progressive rock shrank back and survived punk, disco, and New Wave, and with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal it received an unexpected revival in a new form. Many of the musicians who were part of the heavy metal scene of the early 80’s had been fans of and influenced by the prog bands of the 70’s. Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut in 1980 featured three songs where instrumental sections were extended to include rhythmic and tempo changes and music dynamics rather than just guitar solos. This approach to song composition influenced younger bands who would begin their recording careers in two or three years time, namely Queensryche, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory – all three groups being credited for helping to start the progressive metal movement. In fact, while many of the older progressive rock bands were finding commercial success once again by playing more mainstream music (e.g. Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull), the progressive metal movement was on the rise and even reaching groups like Metallica.
From my perspective, the real low point of progressive rock was in the late 80’s when even neo-prog bands were choosing to write more commercial and conventional-sounding pop music. Aside from the progressive metal movement which was still gaining momentum, there were only hints that progressive rock had not died. It Bites included some very fine prog compositions on their second album “Once Around the World” and Ozric Tentacles were gaining ground with their unique take on music. Jon Anderson had to leave Yes because the new line-up didn’t always agree with his old-school ideas, so he teamed up with former Yes members Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe to form a new band that wrote music beyond pop.
The final attempted blow to the progressive rock genre was likely the grunge explosion of the early 90’s, which not surprisingly also caused trouble for heavy metal bands again as punk had some 15 years earlier. But shortly after and largely thanks to progressive rock bands from Scandinavia, the prog revolution was reborn, and since then there has been a very good-sized niche for progressively oriented musicians and artists.