Although many musical genres divide opinion, some musical genres that tend to divide opinion way more than others. Everyone can think of their own example, but for me, three immediately spring to mind. These are disco, punk and prog rock. Of these three musical genres, when it comes to opinions, not many people tend to occupy the middle ground. You’re either for or against each of these musical genres. Prog rock, however, tends to divide the opinion the most. Even forty years after the genre’s birth, the merits or otherwise of prog rock are still debated. For prog rock’s accusers, they perceive the music as overblown, overindulgent and pompous. To them, prog rock is a musical genre that belongs in firmly in the past. That however, only tells one side of the story.
Proponents of prog rock point to a musical genre that’s inventive, innovative and complex. Influenced by art rock, jazz and classical music, prog rock drew inspiration from a many other influences.It eschews traditional time signatures, song structures, rhythms, instruments and influences. In many ways, prog rock was an innovative genre, one that railed against the blues’ influence in rock music. Groups like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes and Gong were among prog rock’s pioneers. They lead the way, and now, four decades later, new generations of prog rock groups are following in their footsteps, during the latest resurgence in prog rock’s popularity. To mark this resurgence in prog rock’s popularity, a new five-disc compilation Prog Rocks has recently been released by EMI.
Each of the five discs that compromise Prog Rocks! celebrate five of the genre’s most important and influential labels. This includes Harvest, Charisma, Virgin and Liberty and United Artists. On the fifth disc, Inside Out Music, one of the labels promoting a new generation of prog rock bands is celebrated. Much of the music on Disc Five is from the last few years, and demonstrates that there’s no shortage of new and quality prog rock. Talking of quality, there’s no shortage of quality on Prog Rocks! There’s contributions from Deep Purple, Syd Barrett, Barclay James Harvest, The Nice, Van Der Graaf Generator, Steve Hackett, Gong, Faust and The Bonzo Dog Band. In total, there are seventy-two tracks over the five discs on Prog Rocks! which I’ll now tell you about.
Disc One of Prog Rocks! celebrates the Harvest label, which was setup by Malcolm Jones and Norman Smith, who produced Pink Floyd’s psychedelic debut album Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Harvest was setup to compete with labels like Decca and Vertigo, which had two of the best rosters of progressive bands. Eventually, Harvest would’ve an unenviable roster of artists. Having said that, prog rock purists may dispute some of the artists on Disc One’s prog rock credentials. Among Harvest’s roster were Deep Purple, Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett, Electric Light Orchestra, The Move, Babe Ruth, Barclay James Harvest and Be-Bop Deluxe. As I said, some of these artists don’t seem to fit comfortably into the prog rock category. However, there’s no disputing the quality of music on Disc One.
Among the highlights of the seventeen tracks from the Harvest label, are Deep Purple’s The Bird Has Flown, from their 1969 third album Deep Purple. To me, Deep Purple were always more of a heavy metal or hard rock band. Then there’s Kevin Ayers The Lady Rachel, from his 1969 debut album Joy Of A Toy and Syd Barrett’s Baby Lemonade, from his 1970 sophomore album Barrett. There are two bands on Disc One that feature Jeff Lynn in their lineup. The first is Electric Light Orchestra, whose Queen Of The Hours was taken from their 1971 album Electric Light Orchestra. Jeff Lynn penned that track and wrote The Move’s The Words Of Aaron, which is from their final studio album, 1971s Message From The Country. My final selection from Disc One is Babe Ruth’s The Mexican, which is a track from their 1972 album First Base.
While you can’t fault much of the music on Disc One, my only criticism is whether each of the seventeen tracks can be categorized as prog rock. I certainly wouldn’t refer to Deep Purple as a prog rock band. They’re more heavy rock. Similarly, Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers I’d describe as psychedelic singers. Other people, I’m sure will dispute this. Despite this, Disc One is crammed full of quality music. The seventeen tracks are a combination of some of the biggest names on prog rock, rock and psychedelia of the late sixties and early seventies. As an added bonus, some lesser known are added, resulting in in an intriguing collection of some of the highlights of Harvest’s illustrious back-catalogue.
On Disc Two of Prog Rocks, there are sixteen tracks which were released on the Charisma label. This includes contributions from The Nice, Lindisfarne, Jackson Heights, Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill and Steve Hackett. Unlike Disc One, there aren’t as many familiar faces on Disc Two. Having said that, given some of the artists I’ve mentioned, there’s no shortage in quality prog rock.
The Nice were one of the most innovative of the British prog rock bands. SInce their early days, they’d been experimenting musically, marrying fusion, classical music and art rock. Country Pie was a track from their 1970 album Five Bridges and features the considerable talents of keyboardist Keith Emerson. Jackson Heights released four albums on Charisma between 1970 and 1973. Doubting Thomas was a track from their 1970 debut album King Progress.
Describing Lindisfarne as a prog rock band is something that I’m not comfortable with. I’d describe their music as folk rock. January Song, which was written by Alan Hull, was a track from their 1971 sophomore album Fog On The Tyne, which was one of their finest albums.
Not only was Peter Hammill a cofounder of Van Der Graaf Generator, but enjoyed a prolific solo career. Red Shift is a track from Peter’s 1973 album The Silent Corner and The Empty Stage. While this provides an introduction to his solo career, Theme One, which was written by George Martin, was the title-track of Van Der Graaf Generator’s 1972 album. They were one of British prog rock’s most innovative and influential bands. Just like Peter Hammill Steve Hackett has enjoyed a career as part of a successful band and then as a successful solo career. He released eight albums with Genesis, then in 1977, decided to concentrate on his solo career. Whilst he was still a member of Genesis, he released his debut solo album Voyage Of The Acolyte in 1975, which featured Hands Of The Priestess (Part 1).
While many people won’t have heard of the majority of artists on Disc Two, one thing is unarguable, the quality of music. It’s as if the compilers have dug deep to find the best tracks possible, their mission being to change people’s perception of prog rock. To do this, they’ve come up with sixteen tracks where familiar faces and hidden gems sit site by side. Granted there are still a few tracks that I wouldn’t refer to as strictly prog rock, but that’s just a minor point. What matters is the quality of the music, which is peerless.
DISC THREE-VIRGIN RECORDS.
During the seventies, Virgin Records had an unenviable roster of prog rock artist. This included Gong, Faust, Kevin Coyne, Henry Cow, Egg, Tangerine Dream and Steve Hillage. On Disc Three, there are fifteen tracks from Virgin Records’ back-catalogue. These fifteen tracks epitomize the finest prog rock of the early to mid seventies.
Gong were formed in 1969, and by 1973, had released four albums. Their fourth album was Flying Teapot (Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1), which featured The Pothead Pixes. This was their Virgin debut and the first of five studio albums they’d release for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records.
German band Faust were another of Virgin Records’ biggest acts. Just A Second Starts Like That! was a track from their fourth album Faust IV, which was their second release for Virgin. It would prove to be their final album for Virgin.
My favorite track from Disc Three is Kevin Coyne’s Marlene. Not only was Kevin Coyne one of the most enigmatic artists of his generation, but he was hugely underrated. Marlene is a track from his 1973 album Marjory Razorblade was a career defining track, that sends shivers of emotion down your spine, thanks to Kevin’s otherworldly vocal. While he might not be a prog rock artist, Kevin Coyne was one of the most talented British artists of the past forty years.
Egg only released a trio of albums between 1970 and 1974. They kept their best album to last. This was 1974s The Civil Surface, which featured Wring Out The Ground (Loosely Now). Sadly, Egg should’ve enjoyed a longer and more successful career, given their abundance of talent.
By 1976, Tangerine Dream were one of prog rock’s elder statesmen. Their 1976 album Stratosfear, was their eighth album. It featured the title-track Stratosfear, which demonstrates just why Tangerine Dream were one of prog rock’s most successful bands. After Stratosfear, Tangerine Dream’s recording career would continue for another three decades, during which time they carried the torch for prog rock.
Earlier I said that Virgin Records had an unenviable roster of artists during the early to mid sixties. That’s no exaggeration. Their roster was comparable to Harvest’s during the late-sixties and early seventies. With Gong, Faust, Kevin Coyne, Henry Cow, Egg, Tangerine Dream and Steve Hillage no one would rival Virgin’s supremacy when it came to prog rock. Many of these artists have left behind some of the richest musical legacies of the prog rock era.
DISC FOUR-LIBERTY AND UNITED ARTISTS.
The fourth disc in the Prog Rocks! box set contains music released on the Liberty and United Artists labels. So, this includes Bonzo Dog Band, Idle Race, Hawkwind, Groundhogs, Brinsley Scharz and Flaming Groovies, Again, this is best described as an eclectic selection of artists. However, some of the artists don’t quite fit into the prog rock category, as you’ll realize.
There are many ways of categorizing the music of the Bonzo Dog Band, but whether prog rock would be one of them, is debatable. Their music has been influenced by art school rock, psychedelia, avant garde and music hall, but maybe not prog rock. Mr Apollo was the title-track from their 1969 album and was penned by Neil Innes and Vivian Stanshall. A similar argument could be made of Jeff Lynne’s Idle Race. They were more of a psychedelic group than prog rock. They released three albums between 1968 and 1971. Their second album was Idle Race, released in 1969 and which featured Come With Me.
Unlike the two previous groups, there’s no denying Hawkwind’s prog rock credentials. Master Of The Universe is a track from their 1970 sophomore album X In Search Of Space. Written by Dave Brock and Nik Turner, this epitomised the early Hawkwind sound, a sound that’s proved popular over several decades.
You wouldn’t expect a track that Nick Lowe cowrote to feature on a box set of prog rock music. There is though. It’s Brinsley Scharz’s Happy Doing What We’re Doing. He cowrote it with Robert Andrews, and it featured on their 1972 album Nervous On The Road. Quite simply, regardless of whether this is prog rock or not, it’s the best track on Disc Four or Prog Rocks.
The Flaming Groovies were a San Francisco band whose career had started in the sixties and lasted into the nineties. In 1976, they’d signed to Sire, where they’d released the first of two albums. This was their fifth album Shake Some Action, which featured the title-track. Shake Some Action is seen as the finest album of their career, and marked the next step in their career.
Eclectic is a good word to describe the music on Disc Four of Prog Rocks. There’s everything from the vaudevillian sound of Bonzo Dog Band, the space rock of Hawkwind, the pub rock of Brinsley Scharz and the garage rock of Flaming Groovies. Having said that, many of the fourteen tracks on Disc Four are prog rock through and through. Regardless of whether the fourteen tracks on Disc Four of Prog Rocks! are or aren’t strictly prog rock, none of the tracks disappoint and will change many people’s perception of prog rock.
DISC FIVE-INSIDE OUT.
While the four previous discs featured music from the seventies, the music on Disc Five of Prog Rocks! is much more recent. Indeed, the ten tracks on Disc Five range from 1994 right through until 2012. This includes Enchant’s Nighttime Sky, from their 1994 album A Blueprint For The World and Pain Of Salvation’s Undertow, from their 2002 album Remedy Lane. Among the other highlights are Beardfish’s Sunrise, from their 2007 album Sleeping In Traffic and It Bites’ The Last Escape from their 2011 album Map Of The Past. The most recent track is Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s Lost In The New Real, the title-track from his 2012 album. These ten tracks show that prog rock is a musical genre with a future ahead of it. It’s not content to stand still, and bask in its rich musical legacy. Instead, prog rock is a musical genre that’s constantly reinventing itself and looking to the future, rather than just the past.
Having spent some time immersed in the five discs that comprise Prog Rocks! I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just people who enjoy prog rock that’ll enjoy this box set. After all, not every track on Prog Rocks! can be categorised as prog rock. Indeed, many tracks could just as easily be categorized as rock, folk, psychedelia, garage or rock. However, I often think we spend too much time putting music into categories. That’s often an unhealthy obsession that gets in the way of what’s important, discovering new and old music. For many people, there’s so much great music awaiting discovery on Prog Rocks! Indeed, there are seventy-two tracks over five discs awaiting discovery on Prog Rocks!
What I do hope that Prog Rocks! does, is change people’s perception of prog rock. After all, prog rock far too often, gets a bad press. Sometimes, prog rock is the butt of cheap jibes and sarcastic comments. Hopefully once people have heard the music on Prog Rocks! they’ll change their opinion on prog rock. Maybe then they’ll realize that it’s an innovative and inventive musical genre, one that’s been Influenced by art rock, jazz and classical music. Prog rock drew inspiration from a many other influences. It eschews traditional time signatures, song structures, rhythms, instruments and influences. That’s what makes prog rock and the music on Prog Rocks! not just unique, innovative and groundbreaking, but captivating and intriguing. Standout Tracks: Kevin Ayers The Lady Rachel, Lindisfarne January Song, Kevin Coyne Marlene and Brinsley Scharz Happy Doing What We’re Doing.