Really Don't Mind If You Sit This One Out
Progressive rock came and went, but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing yet ultimately unsatisfactory moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?
The reason, at the end of the day, that so-called classic rock (in general) and progressive rock (in particular) endure is the most simple of all: they deliver the goods. Prog-rock satisfies the faithful and is entirely capable, on its own without aspiration or interference, of converting new acolytes every single day.
“You had to be there” does not apply when it comes to this music (or any music), and this is the elusive alchemy that best illustrates its staying power. Moments in time, whether artistic, political or social, that are defined or defended by those who took part in them, are necessarily exclusive—not that there is anything wrong with that. Expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down.
For the purposes of this list, the prog-rock era will include songs recorded between 1969 and 1979 (though, as will presently be made clear, the majority of the songs come from the first few years of the ‘70s). There are likely a song or two that some readers won’t recognize, but I endeavored to not make this an exercise in obscurity (a person willing to rank prog-rock songs does not—or should not—need to further bolster his ambiguous street cred by listing songs nobody is remotely familiar with). As such, most of the usual suspects are included, and several of those bands have multiple entries. I tried not to list two songs from one specific album, which made the project only slightly less impossible than it already was. I look forward to hearing which songs I missed (and I’ll honestly reply if the songs you would have picked were on my master list or if I overlooked them, intentionally or not).
25. Pink Floyd, “Atom Heart Mother Suite”
Pink Floyd was still an underground band of sorts (albeit a very successful one) circa 1970, mostly because they didn’t bother to write hit singles. For the fans that did not jump ship after Syd Barrett‘s departure, the efforts between 1968 and 1972 were transition albums from a prog-rock icon in progress. The title song from this 1970 work clocks in at over 23 minutes and has everything from trumpet fanfare to orchestrated choir. Originally and appropriately dubbed “The Amazing Pudding”, this opus crams in ideas (and serious shredding from Dave Gilmour) that would resurface on their ultimate breakthrough, Dark Side of the Moon: the multi-tracked voices, reprises, odds, sods and half-assed grandiosity are waved up a freak flag and remain unabashed and untamed today. It sounds very little like what Pink Floyd would shortly become; it sounds like a band from another planet which, after all, was more than half the point in the first place.
24. Genesis, “Return of the Giant Hogweed”
God bless Peter Gabriel. Appearing on stage dressed like a flower, or a fox, or with a faux-hawk, he had brilliance to burn. Still a tad rough around the edges, Gabriel’s earliest work with Genesis mixes heady ambition with elements of rock’s most admired iconoclasts: there are pieces of T-Rex, David Bowie and Roky Erickson in his approach, but the sum of his artistic personas is utterly unique. This song, about a giant hogweed (obviously) only hints at how wonderfully weird Gabriel was before he became Peter Gabriel. What is generally—and unforgivably—overlooked is how incredible this band was all through the early ‘70s. The song bristles with anger and energy, and while the vibe is unquestionably of its time, everyone seems (and sounds) dead earnest.
23. Judas Priest, “Epitaph”
Before they discovered the liberating ethos of leather and cracked the AOR code toward the end of the decade, Judas Priest was a bit of an enigma. While straddling the landscape of rock and metal, very much in the shadow of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Queen, they borrowed bits and pieces from their better-known brethren and released the not-at-all shabby Sad Wings of Destiny (in ‘76). If the lyrical ground on “Epitaph” was already covered, better, by Genesis (on “Seven Stones” from Nursery Cryme) even Gabriel did not have the vocal range of the young-ish Rob Halford. That falsetto! That pretension! That… genius! A song like this is a make or break affair: if you loathe it or worse, if you laugh, you are a helpless cause when it comes to progressive rock; if you love it or worse, find it more than a little moving... you are a helpless cause. Welcome to the machine.
22. Rush, “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”
This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.
21. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Pictures at an Exhibition”
That ELP had the audacity to not only invoke classical music (as King Crimson had done with Holst on “The Devil’s Triangle” from In the Wake of Poseidon) but to actually “cover” a celebrated masterwork was not surprising. This band had the ego and indifference necessary to conceive such sacrilege; they also had the ability and vision to pull it off. A band like ELP not only invited critical venom, they practically begged for it (when they titled a later album Works it signified, possibly, the shark-jumping moment of the decade). On the other hand, they did not pander and they could not be pigeonholed: none of their early albums sound especially alike, and they were really interested in satisfying nothing else but their own curiosity. It is debatable that the only thing that pissed off the purists and prigs in the “critical establishment” more than their homage to Mussorgsky was how wonderfully they made it sound.