Ten Songs From 1967 That Shaped Prog Rock

For the second installment of my column “The Amazing Pudding”, I appraised 1967 as the pivotal year in rock music. As the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band proved/signified, nothing was ever the same once pop music could be considered a legitimate form of artistic expression, worthy of serious scrutiny. If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music — for better or worse.

Here are ten songs, some quite familiar, others a bit more obscure, that served as transitional statements, signifying the new directions rock music would head toward for the next decade.


1. The Beach Boys – “Heroes and Villains”

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia (of the infamously aborted SMiLE sessions) is that Brian Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled, and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.


2. The Doors – “The End”

If not the Doors’ best song, it’s definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway to Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Jim Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is John Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents (certainly at the time of its recording) an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.


3. The Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin”

Strings! Poetry! Pretension! All of the above, and above all, the glorious vocals from Justin Hayward. There is such a uniquely British sensibility to this, something that still sounds like it should be heard over the radio. The Moody Blues would come to epitomize some of the worst excesses of the prog era (mellotron overload, mediocre poetry recitations on each album, a preciousness at times rivaled by an overbearing strain for profundity) but at their best — and for my money, there are at least one or two essential songs on each subsequent album — they pushed rock music in a more positive, enduring direction.


4. Procol Harum – “Whiter Shade of Pale”

This, like so many other classics of its era, has been overplayed on radio and overused in movies to the point where it’s lost much of its import. But it must be acknowledged for what it is: a brilliant, brooding masterwork of mood and economy. (The epic drum fills were game-changing.) And between the Bach references and the Chaucher name-checks, this has many ingredients that future prog-rockers would utilize, sometimes to excess.


5. Love – “The Red Telephone”

“The Red Telephone”, which ends side one of Forever Changes, is the album’s centerpiece; its brooding, apocalyptic imagery captures that three-month moment of 1967, while remaining possibly more applicable to the here and now: “They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” Those creepy chanted lines were prophetic when you consider that Arthur Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid-1990s as a result of his own recklessness as well as California’s controversial three-strikes laws. The lyrics anticipate the aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples, those that ingested and distributed the chemical vehicles to Valhalla, who would end up pulling harder time than our white-collar charlatans face for fleecing employees and the country out of millions of dollars. The lines are also a commentary on Americans acting un-American, looking back to the internments of Japanese citizens and forecasting the so-called enemy combatants rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy. As Lee sings in the same song, “Sometimes I deal with numbers / And if you want to count me: count me out.”

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6. Country Joe and the Fish – “Section 43”

This as much as any single song, distilled the whole LSD-in-a-bottle (or blotter) extended moment of ’67. It eschews saccharine, feel-good sentiment; indeed, it avoids lyrics altogether. It does not need them, it extends its vision of dread and release: a trip that could go bad or end up being the best thing that ever happened and, like too many acid trips to count, it is probably more than a bit of both.


7. Pink Floyd – “Interstellar Overdrive”

Syd Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on this extended jam (which would get twice as long, or longer, played live). This song, like several others on this list, is utterly of its time, but it still sounds fresh and vital: it really is the essence of psychedelic exploration (and whimsy) summarized in under ten minutes, and serves as a very hip, across-the-pond companion to the Summer of Love soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, this one (and “Lucifer Sam”) could almost be used as incidental music for a James Bond flick, assuming it was a stirred, not shaken 007.


8. Cream – “Tales of Brave Ulysses”

Now we’re talking. Allusions to Greek literature, the lysergic swirl of Ginger Baker’s patented drum rolls, some of Jack Bruce’s more impassioned vocals and, of course, the apotheosis of Eric Clapton’s wah-wah pedal pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that bands like Yes, Genesis, and ELP were paying careful attention: “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is, in a sense, the blueprint, succinctly rendered, for the more ambitious (and/or pretentious and long-winded) progressive epics that would follow.


9. Buffalo Springfield – “Broken Arrow”

Neil Young would, of course, go in entirely different directions (ranging from the folk-rock of his solo debut to garage-band glory with Crazy Horse to the acoustic stylings of After the Gold Rush and the perfection, if not invention, of country-rock on Harvest, and then into the proverbial ditch for a string of albums that may represent his best work), but his contribution to the prog-rock ethos is undeniable. Unbelievably ambitious, painstakingly assembled and full of sociopolitical import (an unblinking if oblique look at our treatment of Native Americans — a theme that would resurface in his later work — juxtaposed with an increasingly out-of-control contemporary world), “Broken Arrow” is, in its way, an inimitable document of what rock music could do (in ’67, or ever).


10. The Kinks – “Waterloo Sunset”

It’s impossible to overstate how important this song was, for both Ray Davies as a songwriter, and the many disciples who followed him. Of course, this song, and the Kinks, were/are much less popular and appreciated in the States, which is at once typical, sad and expected. The Kinks were not just a British band, they were the British band. More, they were Britain, and no single band has composed as many songs celebrating, explaining, lamenting, and personifying all-things UK. This is their charm and it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many lesser acts connected in the U.S.A. while the Kinks have always been (at best) a second-tier band, commercially and otherwise.

Everyone from Peter Gabriel to Pete Townshend was influenced by the formula Davies perfected here: local color relayed by an everyman, albeit a wistful, lonely, and exceedingly sensitive fellow. This is, perhaps more than the better known “A Day in the Life”, a true reflection of a typical day, an eyewitness account laced with melancholy, hope and acceptance. It manages to invoke the past, fear (or at least resist) the future and immortalize the present, however quietly or unintentionally. Lyrically and conceptually, you can take Davies’ strategy and anticipate the ways Genesis and Jethro Tull (to name two of the more successful) would expand on the autobiographical possibilities to create sprawling, literate and emotional works (think Selling England by the Pound and Thick As a Brick).