Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull. In their day prog rock bands were able to hold their own at the top of the charts. But as journalist Dave Weigel sees it, the thing that continues to make these groups special among fans decades after the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1970s is their eagerness to experiment with a variety of influences.
“It’s basically rock music that brings in all manner of influences from outside rock, that’s classical music, that’s avant garde with different instruments,” said Weigel, author of “The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock.”
“It shares a little bit of DNA with what you’d see … in the United States … in like the Grateful Dead, but in the British context, these bands started … as kind of like the Beatles, as rock and Motown cover bands who then just became incredibly experimental around 1968-69, and kept moving in that direction,” he said.
These bands would release albums that weren’t just statements or concept albums, Weigel said, but were long, moody pieces that did something brand new.
“There was a big music audience in the United States and in the UK and elsewhere that wanted to hear it,” Weigel noted.
Still it’s a genre that has a complicated place in popular culture. It “essentially disappeared, and has remained in obscurity,” Weigel wrote a few years ago in a a five-part series for Slate. It was also “ridiculed by rock snobs” and its most famous artists became “catchphrases for pretentious excess,” Weigel wrote.
But, what’s striking is is how big the fan base has remained throughout time, Weigel told WPR.
“In the early ’70s, these bands are critically adored,” Weigel said. “Mike Oldfield, who’s most famous for ‘Tubular Bells,’ … when he’s releasing his follow-up, he is received as a genius and then by the late 70s, the critical community has turned on this music and basically said (it’s) worth replacing, and it does replace it with punk. But, … the fan base survives.”
Weigel said that while that fan base isn’t large, it’s enough to sustain new progressive bands, showcases, and mini-festivals.
“It’s also very influential in what is now heavy metal,” Weigel added.
For those interested in exploring prog rock, Weigel suggests checking out the albums “In The Court Of The Crimson King” by King Crimson, “Fragile” by Yes and “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis.
Another option: Weigel compiled a 20-song, three-hour playlist on Spotify as part of his 2012 series.