Once upon a time, there was the psychedelic movement. Laced with sitars and mellotrons and spacey sound effects, it bespoke a new age of peace and harmony.
And then the Summer of Love ended, and we went right into the Year of Hell that was 1968. Even John Lennon was blowing it off in “Revolution.” But others decided to carry on the trend. At least in Britain. Bands like The Nice and these five guys with the effeminate lead singer calling themselves Yes began injecting jazz and classical elements into the music. The result was progressive rock, In America?
Well, in America, rock got back to its roots and took on either country or metal leanings. At least for a few years. But prog eventually emerged on this side of the Atlantic.
By that time, however, an entire new form of rock and roll had emerged. King Crimson declared the sixties at an end with the lead track to In the Court of the Crimson King with “21st Century Schizoid Man” while Keith Emerson had himself a keyboard orgy with a pipe organ and a mellotron (and eventually a Moog synthesizer, just to get freaky) in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. This music was big. It was loud. It was complicated as hell.
So why did it take so long for American artists to pick up? By the time Kansas emerged in the late 1970’s, British prog had waned. The music got bigger and louder, which did not jibe with the suddenly-screwed working class. The backlash came in the form of the Sex Pistols, whose lead singer, Johnny Rotten, introduced himself to his bandmates while wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-Shirt. Ironically, Floyd, despite doing some of the best prog ever, was probably identified more with the blues rockers of the sixties and early seventies, more in line with punk than its adherents might admit. By the time prog had gone from hip to dated, Yes was on its third keyboardist, Peter Gabriel had left Genesis to become the second coming of David Bowie, and ELP had… Well, they E, L, and P, barely a band anymore.
But there were a lot of these British bands’ albums lying around in American collections. And so bands like Styx or Kansas, which, at their core, sound more like The Doobie Brothers or The Eagles, started asking themselves, “Hey, what if we amped up the Hammond organ? Let’s play with violins and oddball time signatures. What about doing a concept album?”
It was, ironically, a Canadian band that made prog break big in America. Rush, a Toronto-based trio who clearly loved their Led Zeppelin, started introducing Roger Dean-worthy lyrics and Yes-influenced basslines into their music. Rush also built a big following in the Midwest, where acts like Todd Rundgren and Bruce Springsteen and, later, Pat Benatar went to build an audience before breaking in New York or LA. Rush had all the power of Zeppelin with overtones of Black Sabbath, but then added those prog influences right when their audience got hungry for them.
Would Springsteen turn an Ayn Rand novel into a concept album? (Thankfully, not Atlas Shrugged.) Would The Eagles devote an entire album to the subject of corporate radio? Would the Ramones?
Rush lives in that rarest of worlds: Beloved by prog fans – who are very unforgiving – yet considered mainstream rock masters. It seemed Rush would lead a new wave of progressive rock. In the mid-1980’s, they toured with a band who sounded a lot like the classic Genesis, British rockers Marillion. By 1989, Marillion seemed poised to take the prog crown from Rush in the absence of a stable version of Yes and the glacial output of Pink Floyd. Alas, touring and excess drove lead singer Fish to quit. Both Marillion and Fish eventually moved away from prog, though hardcore fans still love both acts. Fish was very nearly Phil Collins’ replacement in Genesis. (Now that would have brought the band full circle, if only they’d seen the wisdom in making their live band full members.)
In the 1990’s, only one band seems to have risen above the fray, Dream Theater. Dream Theater owes as much to Rush and Led Zeppelin as it does King Crimson and Yes. While derided by music critics (many of whom seem to think every prog band was involved in recording Genesis’ Foxtrot), rather than a ticket to oblivion, prog has become a way to make a living as a musician. It also seems to be more appreciated in America – Yes, hip hop and boy band and blonde girl singer obsessed America – than in Britain, which, twenty years after the first Oasis hit, is more enamored with the Beatlesque Brit pop movement than any psychedelic flights of fancy. Spock’s Beard, the best known American prog band of the past two decades, is on its third incarnation, with its original lead singer off in not one (Neal Morse as a Christian progressive rock singer), not two (Transatlantic, with members of Dream Theater and Marillion), but three such acts (The third being Flying Colors, with ex-Kansas and current Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse [No relation].) No one will accuse Spock’s Beard or Morse’s projects of being on a level with Rush or even the Gabriel-era Genesis, but again, they make a living at it.
It’s an odd form of rock I’ve had a love/hate relationship with (mainly because I’ve had it foisted on me as often as I’ve gone off to find new acts.) But it’s never boring. Except when it is. Even then what the band is trying is never boring.