A Brief History of Progressive Rock

Prog Rock is a musical genre that almost lives in its own universe. If you ask two people to define the style, you’re likely to get two very different answers. But everybody agrees on who’s Prog and who’s not.

Essentially, the genre draws on many other styles of music: Classical (mostly Symphonies and Baroque) and Jazz. As well as a touch of Folk. It is marked by these long songs which were usually limited to the amount of space on a side of a vinyl album. Although ELP’s Karn Evil 9 begins on side one and uses all of side two. Also, in many cases, the songs will start in one direction and end with something completely unrelated.

It often involves changes in time signatures and has been marked by some of the greatest musicians in the business: Steve Hackett, Steve Howe, Steve Morse, Andy Summers, Keith Emerson, Patrick Moraz, John Wetton, Tony Levin, Chris Squire, Carl Palmer, Chester Thompson and too many more to mention here.


Back in the 1960’s, everybody was looking for the new style of music. Innovations in instruments, gear and recording techniques were coming in leaps and bounds. New directions were tried with more or less success. Eventually, though, almost every time, the Beatles were the ones who came up with a new sound, showing that they were well ahead of the game. Until 1969, that is.

Prog Rock finds its sources in the latter half of the 60’s. In 1966, the Moody Blues came out with their third album, the first with Justin Hayward (1) and John Lodge, entitled “Days of Future Passed”, the first Pop or Rock album to be recorded in stereo and the first one to make use of a full orchestra. A very memorable album indeed, spawning two of their greatest hits, “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon“. “Nights” was a number one hit when it came out. It was re-released in 1971 on a compilation album and it once again climbed to number one. It was also re-released in the 80s after being featured in a film. It once again climbed to the number one spot…

Although this was still pop, it was a pioneer of the genre. In more ways than one.

In the late 60’s, Prog giants were born: Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis. They were all part of this new movement, along with bands like Procul Harem, Tangerine Dream and Van Der Graaf Generator. Though Floyd were doing what was called Psychedelic or “Acid Rock”, Genesis’ first album (From Genesis to Revelation) was an album, although it was a far cry from what other pop bands were doing at the time. Yes’ first try was a great album, but which borrowed a little from everyone and everything.

King Crimson

In 69, an obscure, unsigned band called the Gods (which, in a certain form, eventually became Uriah Heep) were having their regular personnel problems. The guitarist and singer, Greg Lake, left and formed a band with an old school friend by the name of Robert Fripp. To the lineup were added a couple of musicians from Fripp’s former band, Giles, Giles and Fripp: Ian MacDonald on wind instruments and keyboards and Peter Giles on drums.

Fripp figured the band didn’t need two guitarists, so Lake obliged by picking up the bass. They shopped around their demo which was immediately picked up by the Moody Blues who had their own label, Threshold. Furthermore, for the recording of the first album, the Moodies lent them their producer, Tony Visconti.

After the first day of recording, Visconti walked out. He couldn’t make heads or tails of what this band was trying to do. Lake stepped in to the producer’s shoes (2) and the sessions went on.

The final product was called “In the Court of the Crimson King”. The band was named after that song: King Crimson. And it took an unsuspecting world by storm.

It was a major seller everywhere. It was so shockingly different from anything else that was being done at the time. It took other bands, like Yes and Genesis, a couple more albums before they could claim to be in the same league.

Prog Rock was born!

But Crimson faced a lot of problems, mainly in their lineup. These guys had given so much of themselves on this album that it was causing personnel dissensions. While they were touring North America with Keith Emerson and the Nice, who were on their farewell tour, the band decided to split up after the tour.

MacDonald and Giles wanted to go their own way, while Lake and Fripp wanted to improve on what they’d done. Another factor that came into the picture was Keith Emerson who’d gotten to know Lake during the tour.

Lake eventually left and formed the first supergroup (3) of the 1970’s, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Originally the band was supposed to feature Mitch Mitchell of Jimi Hendrix fame on drums and Hendrix himself was supposed to audition, although he died a couple of weeks before it was to happen.

Crimson continued reappearing through different lineups and still exist today. The only common member being Robert Fripp. Over the years, the band has counted such people as John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, and Adrian Belew (4).


In the early seventies, Pink Floyd had refined their style, thanks mostly to David Gilmour. They could now be counted in the Prog family. Yes, with the acquisition of guitarist Steve Howe (who had originally agreed to form a band with Keith Emerson) and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, produced The Yes Album, followed by the glorious Fragile.

Genesis’ second album, Trespass, one of their best, can be considered a Prog album, although in a folkier way and with an innocent roughness to it which gives it all its charm. With the arrival of Steve Hackett on guitar, replacing an ailing Anthony Phillips and Phil Collins on drums (the bands fourth drummer), they refined their style with Nursery Crime.

The genre was so popular that entire record labels were being built around it. Chrysalis was put together specifically for Prog acts. ELP started Manticore and, with this label, discovered the legendary Italian band PFM (Premiata Forneira Marconi). Atlantic concentrated their efforts of Prog. New bands were arising everywhere.

Although the style is typically British, it was picked up around the world. Bands like Styx and Kansas in the US and Harmonium, Rush and FM in Canada.

Instrumental Works

In 1972, Virgin records was started. The label wished to enter the scene with a bang. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, at 18, was looking for a label who would back up his project of a revolutionary album where he would play no less than twenty-two instruments. Virgin loved the idea and signed him right away. Tubular Bells was released. It did get some success, but it’s only two years later when someone on the set of the film The Exorcist played this to Director William Friedkin that it would get its great push. Friedkin loved the music and thought it would be perfect with his film.

And so did most of the world. Tubular Bells has sold over 20 million copies world-wide. But Oldfield was not the only one to play instrumental Prog. Before him had been Tangerine Dream. Through various lineups, always with Edgar Froese at the helm, TaDream have been through various phases and have experimented with just about everything. And they’re still going strong today.

In 1976, the son of musician Maurice Jarre, famous for his numerous soundtracks, came of with his own brand of synthesizer-driven Prog. Jean Michel Jarre’s first album, Oxygen quickly rose through the charts.

John Williams (not the American guy who did the Jaws and Star Wars soundtracks, rather the Australian Classical guitarist) put together his own band. Williams was the first person to teach Classical guitar in a British college. But he also played for Kate Bush and various other Rock artists. He picked up other musicians such as Francis Monkman (Roxy Music) and put together Sky. Their second album, a double one and the first to be released in North America, mixing Classical and Rock was a huge success. Their version of Bach’s “Toccata” can still be heard today.

What’s interesting about these instrumentalists is that they don’t need to advertise their new albums. The don’t play very much on the radio (not today, that is), yet every release sells millions of copies.

These people, with others such as Vangelis, were the pioneers of another style of music: New Age. Yet their own music, usually found in the New Age section of record stores is, in reality, Progressive Rock. It just sells more if you put them in the New Age sections.

The Family Tree

As bands split-up, members joined other bands. It would be next to impossible to draw a chart of who has played with who (5). John Wetton, for example, has played with King Crimson, UK and Asia, among others. Bill Bruford has played with Yes, King Crimson and UK. Steve Howe has played with Yes and Asia. John Wetton played with Steve Hackett and Ian MacDonald. Hackett has played with Genesis and they had Bill Bruford doing the drums a few times. He also played with GTR with Steve Howe. Ian MacDonald has played with King Crimson. And on and on and on ¼

As this was mostly a complex style of music, it didn’t please everybody. Especially musicians who didn’t have the same talent as the Proggers.

The End of an Era

The style started to lose ground during the late seventies. This was due, mainly, to the arrival of Punk and Disco. Also due to the fact that, as much as these guys had given in the first half of the decade, they couldn’t go on forever. By the 80’s the style was all but dead to the general public.

There were, of course, exceptions. Jethro Tull were still making albums with moderate success. Marillion, a new band at the time, were on the rise. Then came Asia.

In 1982, supergroup Asia, consisting of John Wetton (King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music) on bass and vocals, Steve Howe (Yes) on guitar, Geoff Downes (Yes) on keyboards and Carl Palmer (ELP) on drums, took the world by storm. Their first hit, Heat of the Moment has become a classic. Everybody was singing that song. They made so much money they had to spend the next year outside of the UK for tax purposes. At the time, theirs was the biggest selling debut album in history.

The band’s history is rather chaotic. They still exist today, yet only Geoff Downes remains of the original lineup. Then it seemed all was over.

Except that through all of this, Pink Floyd consistently released major albums. They are the greatest exception in the genre.


Nevertheless, the style still survived in some form or other. Grunge is a great example. Although it’s a spinoff of what Neil Young was doing, it’s the addition of Prog structures that made the style what it is. Other bands, such as the Smashing Pumpkins who claimed to be “Alternative” were nevertheless nothing but commercial Prog. Everybody loves Tori Amos. And she is extremely talented. But Kate Bush came before her.

Behind the scenes, a lot has been happening. There are bands who have been making careers of Prog while no one was looking. Often referred to as “neo-prog” they are nevertheless in the same leagues as the classic acts.

Independent labels, such as Magna Carta, Galileo, Inside Out and Windstorm, specialize in Prog rock. In fact, there are more Prog acts out today than their were back in the seventies. Bands such as Pendragon, the Flower Kings and Spock’s Beard manage to make a decent living.

Others struggle more, but everyone struggles at some point in every genre. Most struggle all their lives.

The Second Coming

And the genre is selling, all things told, a lot of records. Although concerts are now mostly confined to nightclubs, there are still a lot of them happening. And it’s all more organized today than it was back then.

Tori Amos is huge, as are Radiohead. All the style needs is for artists like these to admit they’re doing Progressive Rock.

With all the attention which is gradually being drawn to it, it is in the process of become a major style again. Sony and other Major labels have started signing Prog acts…


1. Hayward had tried to audition for The Animals, but arrived too late. Eric Burden suggested that he try for The Moody Blues.

2. Although the album production is credited to the whole band, it was Lake who actually produced it.

3. A supergroup is a band formed by people who have all been in successful bands or have had successful solo careers. U2 is not, and never will be a supergroup. The Firm were.

4. King Crimson Chart

5. Family Tree Chart