Perfect Sound Forever


Vanilla Fudge, King Crimson's debut, James Brown bio-pic

The Maturation of Prog Rock- The Advent of Technique
by Gary Gomes
(December 2017)

The worship of technique has been deemed unacceptable and antithetical to rock, but that’s primarily I think because people have poor memories or perhaps people-particularly critics-think that technique takes away from the youthful enthusiasm of rock and roll. But the solos on Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” are marvels of technique, especially for their time. Also, rhythm sections, perhaps as a hangover from jazz, actually had an element of looseness to them, showing up a looseness that later forms would abandon. Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Al Kooper weren’t Jimmy Smith (as a matter of fact, Kooper was a session guitarist who snuck in some very basic notes on organ as he couldn’t compete with Mike Bloomfield as a guitarist) but they did have some technical ability. Manfred Mann, the Rascals, and the Animals were strong players as were the unfairly ignored Sounds, Inc. (another band that did classical adaptations with three saxophones (!), guitar, bass and drums-they were the horn section on the Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning”. Even one group championed as a progenitor of punk, the Music Machine, was a tight ensemble with great players. Sean Bonniwell spoke about insane rehearsals to get the band super tight--this sounds much more like the work pattern of a progressive band than a punk band.

The late ‘60’s showed players from the jazz world with impressive pre-rock credentials (Phil Wilson (Butterfield Blues Band), Ed Cassidy (Spirit), Ginger Baker (Cream and Blind Faith) joining rock bands. But this wasn’t new--some of the British invasion drummers like Charlie Watts, Mick Avory (the Kinks), and Dino Danelli from the Rascals had jazz credentials. Most keyboard players had classical training from music lessons (Al Kooper and me excluded), and bass players were often the Swiss Army knives of bands, playing a variety of instruments as needed.

Technique always increases to meet the demands of the music. Among American bands, the Doors, Rascals, Steve Miller, Nazz (in addition to having Todd Rundgren, they had an amazing drummer, Thom Mooney), The Mothers, The Electric Flag, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Canned Heat, Vanilla Fudge, Spirit, Blues Project, United States of America and half of Iron Butterfly were amazing players. The advent of the Who, Doors, Hendrix and Cream raised the bar dramatically, especially for rhythm sections. Bass players and drummers were expected to do more--much more--than they had previously.

The advent of groups like Vanilla Fudge added the element of drawing out longer compositional settings. Classical and complicated arrangements had been used in pop earlier—“Classical Gas,” “Tears of A Clown,” “Lovers’ Concerto,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” etc., but it was really Vanilla Fudge that had a huge influence on English proto progressive groups, inspiring groups like Yes, Spooky Tooth, and Jeff Beck to look for a heavier bottom. Cream along with Hendrix and some San Francisco groups freed up the rhythm sections more, so the drummer and bass player became more active. Emerson (in the Nice), the Animals, Procol Harum, The Doors, Deep Purple, the Mothers, Iron Butterfly, Arthur Brown, Argent, and several others freed up keyboard players to a great extent to do more than just play chords in the background well before Yes and ELP came around.

So, Progressive rock instrumental sophistication was coming into view and accelerating before In the Court of the Crimson King. The path was set by earlier explorers. It was codified by ITCOTCK , ELP’s first album and the Yes Album and Fragile codified instrumental virtuosity, along with the often unacknowledged contribution of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Ten Years After and Jethro Tull, along with Hendrix, also played a significant role too. Even James Brown reflected elements of it.

I was watching a documentary on James Brown today (Mr. Dynamite) and the focus was on the evolution of his music. Brown once went through a phase in which he had two drummers, then five drummers, then two again. Two of his drummers were explaining the way they combined a jazz beat with an R&B beat. Some of his players came from a jazz background. These were top notch players, some of whom had jazz careers before joining Brown. When he fired his band during a labor dispute and brought in Bootsy Collins, among others, the rhythm section actually got looser and the bass playing became outstanding. Collins, technically, was, from the evidence of the video, equal any progressive bassist playing. But the rhythm still allowed some interaction.

Few people realize how much incidental unity there was between progressive rhythm drummers and funk rhythm. Bruford was a very economical drummer, with a stiff approach to rhythm; Mitch Mitchell, Phil Collins, Ginger Baker, Brian Davison and Carl Palmer were all influenced by funk and jazz. Mike Ratledge once remarked that Robert Wyatt would often play “We Did It Again” for 45 minutes to show he could keep a James Brown rhythm going for that length of time. There was a desire to borrow from different idioms-to take the best and present it in a different environment.

Musicians developed better chops at an astonishing rate because that was the standard musicians aspired to--to be the best they could be. Virtuosity was no longer the sole domain of the lead guitarist. In some ways, music became more democratic because every player got to express themselves, sometimes in long solos but often in interlocking parts. Gentle Giant is an excellent example of a group that excelled in both; and Magma (especially live), King Crimson, the Mothers, Soft Machine, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North and Caravan had long improvisational sections too.

Other groups like Yes and Genesis de-emphasized improvisation in favor of structured detailed arrangements played note for note, as happened to classical music after Bach. This is where a schism starts, of sorts.

What is now called ‘Progressive Rock’ was never a single entity. Rather, like jazz fusion (which I would argue is a virtually identical forms or at very least, sprang from similar impulses), it was proud to incorporate a wide variety of influences from music--classical, jazz, acoustic folk, avant garde, country (via Yes’ Steve Howe and the band Family), etc. In the early years, lots of groups improvised, experimented, took huge compositional and instrumental risks. Most emerged from the “underground“ music scene, wrote more down to structure the music, and created reproducible “masterpieces,” especially around 1971-72 and later. They succeeded tremendously.

But four things happened more or less at the same time. Audiences started expecting more and more note for note reproductions (not an expectation of groups like Cream, Hendrix, the Doors (although the Doors came closest instrumentally even if the content was different) , Pink Floyd or Soft Machine just one to three years earlier. In our culture, popularity often comes from meeting expectations, so if, let’s say, “Close to the Edge” deviates at all from the record, the performance is deemed bad.

Secondly, underground radio started to move towards formulaic programming with play lists. Although this pattern would not solidify until the mid-1970’s, it was being born. Backlash, both from more avant garde groups and more fundamental forms of rock developed and critics, as so often happens, got bored with the status quo. So, just when Prog Rock started to formularize itself, it was developing enemies.

More on this in part 4, the concluding piece.

See Part 1: The Beginning- Prog Rock love and hate
See Part 2: The Foundation of Progressive Rock- Eclecticism as a End in and of Itself
See Part 4: The Twilight Era

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