Uncle Steppy's Guide to Progressive Rock

What is Progressive Rock?
Like anything having to do with defining art, the definition of progressive rock is somewhat subjective. The Oxford Companion to Music states that progressive rock bands "...explored extended musical structures which involved intricate instrumental patterns and textures and often esoteric subject matter." By the letter of that definition, Led Zeppelin becomes a progressive rock band. I think it is safer to say that prog, as a rule, tended toward complex and technically challenging instrumental (or even vocal) work combined with conceptual lyrics that were either highly philosophical or even fantastical in nature. Even that definition probably casts too broad a net so let's add that prog tended to be radio unfriendly in that the songs were not as accessible and tended to be too long for commercial airplay. And even that definition probably includes a great many bands that most would not consider to be Prog Rock. Well, that's how it is. Some bands throughout history have fit into the label extremely well. Some barely fit into this definition at all. Some were really only progressive in nature for part of their careers. So below is my list of bands with a description of how they fit into the entire Progressive Rock scene with a link to more detail on that band.


Why wasn't Progressive Rock more commercially successful?
In the last half of the twentieth century, success in popular music was totally defined by radio. If a song didn't appeal to a broad audience and fit into a radio station's format, it didn't get played. In the sixties, during the heyday of AM, any song longer than 3 minutes cut into commercial time too much to see a lot of airplay. Plus, the primary scale for whether the public wanted the song was the Top 20 or Top 40 or whatever that was defining how popular any song was. American Bandstand and how danceable a tune was were very influential aspects of a song's popularity. In the late sixties, when drugs and counterculture took over much of the music world, including a lot of its audience, more diverse music styles became acceptable. The rise of FM radio improved the fidelity of broadcasting which made more complicated music easier to listen to on the air. Stations became more experimental allowing longer songs to be played. The rise of the AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) format in the 70s opened the door for a lot of progressive rock to get played, though even then most of the artists were pigeon-holed as weird or experimental or technically outside the norm.


Why doesn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame appreciate Progressive Rock?
Good question. You might as well ask why kids don't like spinach or why Indiana Jones doesn't like snakes. The almighty RRHOF has issues defining its standards. In short: it really doesn't have any consistent standards. If they are looking for acts that are influential, there is no question that many progressive bands were extremely influential during the seventies and eighties. If they are looking for total album sales, several progressive rock bands are miles ahead of some of the more obscure inductees in the RRHOF. If they are looking for just plain talent, well many prog bands have more talent than any two or three RRHOF inductees. What it comes down to is taste - the RRHOF loves roots rock, blues, radio-friendly pop, and obscure indie rock. Now, as recently as 2013, it is obvious that something has begun to change the attitudes within the RRHOF thinking. Either they are running out of credible artists and have turned to prog for names with enough clout to keep up public interest or they have genuinely begun to realize there is significant artistry, influence, and commerical interest in prog to support including them - well, it's hard to say. But 2012 saw nominations for Rush and Kraftwerk and Rush was finally inducted. Somehow, I don't see inductions looming for Yes and ELP.


For the purposes of this table, I will define Progressive Rock by Categories:


Proto-Prog - The mid-late sixties period when bands no one would consider progressive experimented with sounds and styles that paved the way for Prog.
Early Prog - The mid-late sixties period when a few bands were forging a sound that was not commercially oriented but entirely experimental in nature.
Prog-Ish - Generally the early seventies, this category includes bands that are percieved as mainstream rock acts but which were very progressive at times, if not always.
Whole-Hog Prog - Mostly the seventies, this is a period in which some bands made a point of sounding overtly technical and classically influenced.
Commercial Prog - Seventies and eighties bands that dominated the arena rock era but were still highly progressive in nature.
Neo-Prog - Bands that emerged after the arena rock heyday of the 70s which were progressive in nature and not commercial giants.

BAND ACTIVE YEARS CATEGORY HOW THEY FIT
The Beatles 1960-1970 Proto-Prog After initial American success on Ed Sullivan and the US tours, the Beatles became increasingly experimental in later albums. Sgt. Pepper's, Abbey Road, and the White Album really have to be considered quite progressive in nature. While no one really has any business calling the Beatles a Prog band, they certainly paved the way for progressive albums by other bands in the late sixties.
The Beach Boys 1961-present Proto-Prog Initially, the Beach Boys were fast hooks, barbershop harmony, and songs about surfing, cars, and girls. But Brian Wilson's mental journeys (it's hard to call it mental illness given the amazing compositions he produced) transformed the Beach Boys into some of the most complex vocal harmonies, rhythm structures, and chord structures appearing on radio in the sixties. In retrospect, albums like Pet Sounds and the long-awaited Smile were some of the most progressive works to be composed in that decade.
The Mothers of Invention 1964-1975 Early Prog The Mothers were led by one of the most progressive rockers of all time, Frank Zappa. They were experimental from the start, totally non-commercially oriented and non-conformist. On top of that, their arrangements and song structures were unique and sometimes bizarre, making them extremely progressive and ensuring there will probably never be a good Mothers Of Invention cover band.
The Moody Blues Prog-Ish 1964-present The Moody Blues were really folk-based rock with classical influences. Their prog-ishness is emphasized by their most successful album Days of Future Passed which features a true Prog Rock anthem, Nights in White Satin. The heavy orchestration and fantastical nature of the album ensures its place in prog history and the Moodies were vocally complex enough to lean toward the genre on the majority of their work.
Pink Floyd 1966-1996 Prog-Ish In all honesty, Pink Floyd started as a Brit Pop band but the declining mental health of Syd Barrett resulted in the band's direction being taken over by Roger Waters and heavily influenced by the new guitarist, David Gilmour. Consequently, Floyd's music became more philosophical and complex as time went on which should make them a pure prog band rather than just prog-ish. But somehow, Pink Floyd retained a strong enough radio audience to become one of the most commercially successful bands of all time, which sort of shoves them toward the edges of the true Prog Rock genre.
Genesis Early Prog 1967-1974 Genesis is actually two bands. There is the very Prog early version lead by Peter Gabriel who wrote the lyrics and sang the vocals and then there is the later radio-friendly pop group led by drummer Phil Collins. Both are successful and critically acclaimed rock bands. Only the first one is truly Prog.
Jethro Tull 1967-present Whole-Hog Prog You have to admire a band named after a British agriculturist from the 18th century and which emphasizes English madrigal based flute pieces converted into blues structures. Tull featured complex rhythms and some very lengthy concept albums. Thick as a Brick was actually a 40+ minute album consisting of a single piece, broken up over two sides. That is the epitome of NON radio friendly.
The Nice 1967-1970 Early Prog Some consider The Nice to be the first true Prog Rock band. Certainly their blend of rock with jazz and classical was somewhat unique in 1967. Cementing their place in the history of Prog is the fact that the band included keyboard player, Keith Emerson.
Procul Harum 1967-1977 Prog-Ish It's hard to define how Prog this band really is. They were an eclectic group with songs that were clearly jazz, blues, and classically influenced. They had one massive radio hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale which is not really typically Prog at all, though the lyrics are certainly prog-ish.
Led Zeppelin 1968-1980 Prog-Ish Many consider Zeppelin to be the birth of heavy metal, which was never really accurate. They were a blues band with a very experimental guitarist and some rather conceptual and fantastical lyrics. From the standpoint of instrumental complexity, some of Jimmy Page's arrangements were certainly Prog. In terms of lyrics, a great deal of their original work was as Prog as Prog gets. Face it: when you're writing about Tolkien's Middle Earth, you're Prog. But Zeppelin's commercial mega-stardom combined with Page's guitar god status have generally taken LZ outside the Prog category for a lot of folks. Despite that, the band was really quite Prog - Stairway to Heaven fits the genre extremely well, whether critics want to think that or not.
Arthur Brown Early Prog 1968-present Arthur Brown gets into the list because he was always experimental and non-conformist in musical style. His band 'The Crazy World of Arthur Brown' was one of the earliest bands peforming what is called 'shock rock' which featured unique costumes, makeup, and theatrical effects. The band also included drummer Carl Palmer. So overall, because what they were doing was unique and creatively challenging, they get into the Prog list.
Yes 1968-present Whole-Hog Prog Yes is a band that has endured a couple of varying lineups which at times could sound extremely different. The typical sound is heavily dependent on the vocals of Jon Anderson and the bass guitar work of Chris Squire. Since those two have led two distinct versions of the band now and then since the 80s, Yes can mean different things. However, Yes was always very classically influenced and always featured mystical and philosophical lyrics to go with virtuoso instrumental work.
Rush 1968-present Commercial Prog Rush formed in 68 but really didn't produce an album until 1974. At that point, the Canadion power trio basically became a poster child for commercially successful mainstream prog rock. Their songs are sophisticated and complex as well as lyrically progressive, but they managed to get a lot of radio airplay in the AOR radio era which has made them one of the most commercially successful bands to be considered pure Prog.
King Crimson 1969-1974 Whole-Hog Prog King Crimson was one of the true champions of mystical, philosophical lyrics. Peter Sinfield, Peter Giles, and Robert Fripp were the primary source of their fantastical lyrical pieces and though the original lineup was fraught with conflict, the band was very influential in the British prog scene of the early 70s. King Crimson included bassist and singer Greg Lake, as well.
Supertramp 1969-present Prog-Ish Supertramp never quite fit into a category. They certainly had prog qualities in their unique compositions and influences, but they were also a true arena rock headliner for awhile which complicates categorizing them. The commercial success of albums like 'Breakfast In America' surpasses a lot of prog acts of the day, but it definitely had prog qualities.
Alice Cooper 1969-present Prog-Ish Alice Cooper is considered the father of shock rock or theatrical rock, a title that could really be applied to Arthur Brown or Peter Gabriel of Genesis just as well. But the songwriting and lyrical explorations of Alice Cooper, particularly on earlier albums like Killer, are quite progressive for the day.
Uriah Heep 1969-present Whole-Hog Prog/Neo Prog I know - 1969 is unrealistic as the start of Neo Prog, but what I have labelled as Neo Prog is the post-commercial, heavy metal fusion with prog that has emerged since the late 80s and to be utterly frank, Uriah Heep actually got there in 1969. They are unquestionably Prog, at any rate. Their reliance on keyboards, complex arrangements, and fantastic lyrics are all right in line with the Prog prototypes that surrounded them, but they were one of the heaviest bands of their era and continue to perform.
Emerson, Lake, & Palmer 1970-1978 Whole-Hog Prog ELP was the first truly Prog super-group. It combined key performers from other bands into a power trio that was as eccentric as they were musically skilled. At their peak of arena popularity, ELP had five semi's full of amps, synthesizers, drums, and audio gear. Quoting compositions by Ginastera, Copeland, Bartok, and Mussourgsky, they were one of the most classically influenced rock bands of all time.
Electric Light Orchestra 1970-1983 Whole-Hog Prog/Commerical Prog On the one hand, Jeff Lynne is a singer-songwriter and producer who was heavily influenced by the Beatles and is a master of pop production. But when you write about British legends and heroes and orchestrate it for violins and cellos, it's pretty hard to call it anything but Prog.
Kraftwerk 1970-present Whole-Hog Prog Kraftwerk is a German electronic music project which features heavy reliance in synthesizer and production effects. Considered by many to be a pioneer in the New Wave of the later seventies, they really don't belong to a specific genre as they were a wholly original creation in many ways. They have seen commercial successes, particluarly with 1974's Autobahn and they are very influential in techno and post-new wave experimental music.
Queen 1971-present Commercial Prog Queen mixed elements of shock rock, highly technical orchestration, fantastical lyrics and themes, and did it in a totally unique and very marketable way. If the inability of anyone to imitate them successfully is a measure of prog-ness, then Queen stands near the top. Their sound, from vocals to guitars, was absolutely unique.
Rick Wakeman 1971-present Whole-Hog Prog The keyboard player behind much of the work of Yes, Wakeman is deserving of mention for his solo work. Concept albums such as 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' and 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' included extensive keyboard work. Lyrical interpretations of Verne and later of Mallory made his work very fantastical and conceptual.
Styx 1972-present Commercial Prog Styx has existed in some form since the sixties. Their first album release under the Styx name was in 1972. The band has been a commercial success over the years with a big footprint in AOR radio. However, given the bombastic and fantastical nature of Dennis De Young's compositions combined with the extensive synthesizer hooks, they will never escape the Prog label.
Utopia 1973-present Whole-Hog Prog Todd Rundgren is, in many ways, a pure musician and innovator and while he and Utopia are technically two different acts, Utopia is essentially no more than Rundgren in band form. He is one of the finest composers, guitarists, and performers of the 70s and is also one of the most gifted rock producers, ever. Rundgren was never afraid to do whatever he wanted to do and Utopia is a prime example. He was certainly capable of being commercially successful as his hit Hello, It's Me shows, as well as his production and guitar work on the mega seller by Meat Loaf, 'Bat Out Of Hell'.
Journey 1973-present Commercial Prog At the height of their arena rock popularity, Journey tended towards sci-fi-looking album covers and rather fantasy-themed lyrics on a few songs coupled with strong keyboard and guitar hooks that were relatively sophisticated. But Journey was really a power-pop ballad band for most of its real radio hits and so it remains. They are one of the least Prog bands on this list, in many ways.
Kansas 1974-present Commercial Prog In truth, Kansas is more Prog-like than the more commercial arena rock bands. Their use of complicated rhythyms, layered keyboard and guitar tracks, and over it all, violin resulted in a unique and highly progressive sound, even though the core of Kansas was a plain old rock and roll band. They had a few radio hits but in general, these were not representative of Kansas at its best. While the band existed in various forms as early as 1971, their first album was in 1974.
The Alan Parsons Project 1975-1990 Whole Hog Prog Alan Parsons is known primarily as a producer though he has considerable skills as a writer, arranger, and keyboard player. The AP Project was formed a couple of years after he produced the Pink Floyd masterpiece, 'Dark Side of the Moon'. Their first and most famous release was 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination' which consisted of orchestral and rock adaptations of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Concept albums heavy on orchestration and literary references make Alan Parsons 100% Prog.
Kate Bush 1975-present Prog-ish/Neo-Prog Catherine "Kate" Bush is one of the hardest artists to categorize. She is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, producer, composer, director, dancer, and probably another dozen adjectives that barely skim the surface when it comes to describing her talents and influence on music. She has experienced enormous success in England as a pop vocalist, yet her creativity and eclectic range of subject matter and musical styles clearly wander well into progressive territory. Her ability to orchestrate even the simplest tunes into deep, moving compositions sets her apart from peers. On top of that, she uses her lilting soprano voice like a powerful instrument capable of sounds that range from guttural to operatic. As a pianist and composer, she is widely admired and regarded. Her influence on female singer-songwriters in the 80s and all the way to the present is unmatched. Her use of dance, visual effects, and thematic performance in her stage shows and videos crossed the line from music to theater and merely added to the progressive nature of her work. She is arguably the most unique performer on this list, and possibly the most talented.
Boston 1976-present Commerical Prog Boston is a band that had a distinct sound which was entirely the combination of carefully produced guitar, vocals, and organ. The guitar of Tom Scholz was largely a studio creation that proved very difficult to reproduce live with consistency. The vocals belonged to Brad Delp and the organ work was largely that of Scholz, as well. Their sound was heavily dependent on layered electric and acoustic guitars in harmony, a sound very difficult to reproduce live with the same degree of fidelity.
Asia 1981-present Commercial Prog Asia can be considered Prog's second super group. It combined members of the experimental new wave band, The Buggles, with members of King Crimson, Yes, and ELP. But even though their sound was distinctly prog in instrumentation and arrangement, they were designed from the ground up to be commercially successful, right down to choosing a name that would be in the front of the record bin, alphabetically. Their songs were shorter and less conceptual in nature, as well. They were aimed from day one at being marketable on MTV and AOR radio.
Queensryche 1981-present Neo-Prog This is really the first band to emerge from the commercial heyday of prog and begin something that would generally be referred to as Prog Metal. It is a heavier sounding kind of Prog that relies on layered electric guitars more than keyboards but retains the complexity and lyrical exporations of Prog.
Dream Theater 1985-present Neo-Prog If we credit Queensryche with inventing Prog Metal or transforming Prog into the newer style, at any rate, then we need to credit Dream Theater with perfecting it. Given the rhythyms, layered guitars, and powerful bass of Dream Theater's music, it fits rather easily into the overall heavy metal scene, however their compexity and philosophical lyrical explorations go far beyond the vast majority of metal bands.

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