PROGRESSIVE ROCK AND CRITICAL REACTION
Part 2: The Foundation of Progressive Rock
Eclecticism as a End in and of Itself
by Gary Gomes
In the last article, I tried to make a point that Allen Sherman's My Son, the Nut and novelty records in particular--as already pointed out by Andy Partridge of XTC and the Dukes of Stratosfear--were the foundation for psychedelic music. I would argue that they helped lay the foundation for Progressive as Psychedelic and Progressive are really members of the same family. But there are two more core elements. Popular eclecticism is the first.
The popular music community of the 1950's and 1960's was, interestingly enough, more diverse than is currently the case. Although there were instances of niche programming in large cities--all-soul stations, all-country and all-classical stations did exist--the range of different listening environments was limited. So you had an arena in which light jazz (Dave Brubeck, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," Vince Guaraldi) could be on the same station as Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, the Four Seasons, Rolling Stones, the Tijuana Brass, Baja Marimba Band, the Beach Boys, Motown, Stax/Volt, Tom Jones, Simon and Garfunkel, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Byrds, Hendrix, Cream, the Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Who, Bob Dylan, the Troggs, Love, for example, could all be heard. This has already been noted by Ritchie Unterberger in his writings.
When I was a teenager, I had already grown up with at least half these artists. As I entered high school in 1966, more outre items were on the menu. The expansiveness of the sixties did hurt some music--jazz, especially avant garde jazz, was missing--but you could sometimes catch that and some twentieth century classical music on NPR, or even the burgeoning underground market. So I was exposed to what I like to call the first cadre of above ground psychedelic groups, like the Blues Magoos, the Left Bank, the Electric Prunes, Music Machine (personal favorites), even some later Rascals ("It's Wonderful"), Blue Cheer, Doors, Vanilla Fudge, Jefferson Airplane on the AM band and if I was adventurous enough to go the the FM band and tune in the local underground radio station, I could hear the latest "underground" bands. I heard the Blues Project because of an album my brother brough back from college. Musical technique started improving, but I will return to that later. Of course, the Beatles' popularity and experimentation are taken for granted, but shouldn't be; they, the Stones, The Who and the Kinks made experimentation commercially viable.
(The UK's access was far more limited than the U.S., as the BBC only featured pop music in limited time slots, but classical was played more regularly, perhaps wallpapering the background for more serious attention to the classics in the UK than in the US. But they also broadcast John Cage interviews which would not have been heard of in popular radio in the US).
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown's Fire was #2 in the country in 1968 for everyone to hear; that was just insane. The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" was also a hit--not as big as their first three singles, but still impressive. Dylan and the Animals succeeded with long singles, and the quasi-operatic recording of "McArthur Park" by Richard Harris and "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams were sensations. Another huge influence in airplay was Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (Harum and Vanilla Fudge remain under-recognized contributors to what became progressive music).
One more component in the development of prog was the apparent acceptance in popular culture of classical music. NBC News featured Beethoven's Ninth; the Today Show with Dave Garroway featured Erik Satie as theme music. "Switched on Bach" also played a role in this evolution.
Also, groups like The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Zappa, Soft Machine, Hendrix, and Cream had some classical influences that they integrated into their music, seemingly without much effort. Even the Velvet Underground did this to a certain extent, as did many groups who were contemporaries or followers of these groups.
With the apparent success of many oddball bands in the 1960's, with everything being declared the "next big thing," record companies seemed interested in finding out how much their audiences could take. In 1966, MGM released records by the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground (their first two singles), both of which would be influential in music circles for decades to come. The group that had the more immediate impact seemed to be the Mothers, who influenced the Beatles, among others. But the Velvet Underground hosted a classically trained player and flirted with influences like Ornette Coleman and La Monte Young, one of the first mnimalists. The Velvets even released a tape loop single--a couple of years after future Soft Machine members Daevyd Allen and Hugh Hopper worked on their tape loops. And Brian Wilson was doing interesting things in the studio that also influenced the Beatles and the Who. The Doors, emerging in 1966, were another influence on early progressive music, with their long instrumentals and concept works. The Blues Project made it acceptable to be a little flash on your instrument. Cream and Hendrix made it acceptable to be extraordinary; although both emerged in 1966, they didn't make a big impact in the States until 1967.
Roky Erikson in Texas had his psychedelic experimentation around the same time. Meanwhile in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and continuing in England, several exploitable scenes were developing. Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead scored their first records in the U.S., and Traffic, Pink Floyd and the Nice did the same in the UK. The Airplane's first two records were fairly straightforward songs and instrumentals, but their other releases were extraordinary for their time. I felt UK releases were better produced than the U.S. bands. The smaller labels had sketchy finances and less technical expertise than the English (Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum was recorded by an off duty policeman who didn't put microphones on the drums, for example).
This arc of further and further out expression seemed to peak in 1968. Several very experimental albums came out and more and more bands with truly outstanding players emerged, like the United States of America, Blood, Sweat and Tears (the original version), and Spirit, Canned Heat in the U.S, and Procol Harum released Shine on Brightly, the Nice Ars Longa Vita Brevis, and many more in the UK (Brian Auger broke through a bit and Arthur Brown had a huge hit). Many more bands seemed to emerge from the shadows, and the concepts of the albums became IMMENSE. Hendrix, Cream, Airplane, the Doors, Steve Miller, the Mothers and others released increasingly sophisticated--and outside the norm-- fare. The interesting things about these releases was the recording quality had improved and for the first time perhaps, you were hearing pop music not being made exclusively by studio musicians but by bands that could really play their instruments well.
Then arose what I like to call "the Great Simplification" with the advent of bubblegum music and the good time music of Creedence in 1969--right on the heels of the election of Richard Milhaus Nixon. The year before, the Encyclopedia Americana Annual noted that the Beatles "lead the way" with a return to simpler musical forms-perhaps based on "Hey Jude" or "Revolution," ignoring the patchwork nature of the White Album. Nixon did try to exert influence on the media and there were notable attacks on reporters. This was the point at which popular music began to separate.
No more Hendrix on the AM dial. No more freer form bands showing up from unepected places, at least not in the U.S., which seemed largely done with adventurous music in the early 1970's--or it certainly became less frquent. But mainstream popular music, for a short while at least, moved away from psychedelics-the most extreme thing recorded by a former bubblegum star was probably "Crimson and Clover"-but about as complicated as a Troggs song. And in 1969, both the Doors and the Stones headed straight into blues-based rock without hesitation after the failure of The Soft Parade and the success of Let It Bleed.
But the arc of experimentation turned from studio manipulation (which, to be honest, could cover up instrumental inadequacies) and reverted to more virtuosic displays as musicians gained more skill, confidence, and recruited players from the jazz, studio and classical music worlds. So, as the studio faded, the sound became more raw (Eddie Offord, Jimmy Miller and among others take a bow). Also certain groups (like Traffic, the Stones and even the Beatles) wanted a cleaner sound, leading to less obvious studio manipulation for a time. Even Zappa refined his edits so they sounded more organic and seamless.
I would not underestimate the influence of seven major groups influencing progressive rock in its mature form: the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Mothers of Invention, and the Nice. In terms of musical experimentation, use of new art forms, unorthodox musical instruments, and studio experimentation, these groups were extraordinarily significant. The first six groups were also incredibly popular, which made experimentation and the evolution of unorthodox structures into something marketable. So other groups followed them and were significantly influenced by them. Cream, Hendrix, the Mothers and the Nice, along with the vast multitude of earlier blue-based rock bands that started to emerge in 1966-1968, made long instrumental solos a viable commercial possibility. Granted, the Doors and even groups like Iron Butterfly, Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield made albums with long instrumentals popular (an interesting observation: I could hear echoes of Erik Brann's playing in the Iron Butterfly in certain passages of both Gabriel-era Genesis and Belew-era King Crimson).
However, these instrumentals were almost inevitably blues based, and to be honest, usually unplanned or spontaneous. The advent of King Crimson made complicated unison musical passages with very tight ensemble playing into very palatable. Bill Bruford admitted that everyone was terrified when they saw the first King Crimson. Townshend and Hendrix were fans too. Something was clearly brewing.
Also see Part III of this series: The transition from DARING INNOVATION TO FORMULA AND THE RISE OF PROGRESSIVE DOMINANCE and The Twilight Era
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