Go out there and watch a documentary on Prog-Rock. Doesn’t matter which – any of them will do. You’ll notice one thing in common in all of them – the point at which they end, which is usually by saying that Punk came along and killed it. This really annoys me for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because it’s just lazy. What I intend to do in this post is to talk a bit about what happened after that – how the landscape changed through the 80s, 90s and up to the current day.
Having said that, it’s important to bear in mind that I am not a musician – not by a long stretch. I’d love to be, but I’ve never been able to find the time and means to learn to make intruments make the sounds I want them to make. I can play a few guitar chords, understand how piano chords work and have a rudimentary understanding of how rock drumbeats are put togther… but when it comes to putting any of that lot into any kind of structure or performance I just haven’t gained the necessary skills. What I can say, though, is that I’m passionate about listening to music and appreciating it. I’ll even go so far as to occasionally listen to music I don’t like, so that I can come to understand why other people do like it.
Definitions and Ethos
I don’t think anybody will ever truly pin down boundaries between musical genres, but for this post I’m going to have to explain my definitions upfront so that we can get onto the same page.
First up, lets think about what defines progressive rock, and the ethos behind it. There are plenty of variations on this around but here’s what I’m using.
- Prog sets to break out of the restrictions of the 3 minute pop song – When prog began, rock was dominated by short 3-4 minute songs, as only singles would get radio airplay, and that was all you could fit on a 7-inch 45rpm single. Some bands even set out to create long-form rock music, intended to have durations comparable with symphonies rather than folk songs.
- Prog sets out to have progression within a single piece of music – Rather than being in the standard “verse, chorus, bridge” format that everything fit into at the time, the idea was to have variation and progression within a piece, much like different movements in a classical piece.
- Prog sets out to explore beyond the prevalent norms of rhythym, melody and harmony – When prog began, rock was dominated by simple chord progressions and 4/4 time. There’s nothing wrong with those (there’s a reason they’re popular), but they’re not all there is.
For contrast, let’s think about punk:
- Punk set out to strip music back to the bare essentials – When punk began, prog had become very self indulgent and the music was often extremely complex to perform and wasn’t always easy to listen to!
- Punk set out to remove the distance between performer and audience – When punk began, prog musicians had set themselves apart from their audiences either by technical virtuosity, complexity of stage setup at concerts or just by sheer ego. It was also firmly rooted in the here and now, so you could relate to both it and the performers much more easily.
- Punk set out to make making music easily accessible – Punk set out with the idea that anybody could make music, regardless of talent, training or background.
There’s probably a lot more in both cases, but this is pretty much what I’ll be working with.
The first thing that this calls to mind is that both genres, at least initially, were about transgression – albeit in slightly different ways:
- Prog was about technological transgression first, and social transgression second – breaking technical limits on what could be performed and recorded, and pushing beyond what was popular at the time.
- Punk was about social transgression first – breaking social limits on who should be able to make, perform and record music, and (as with prog) pushing beyond what was popular at the time.
So they’re the same?
Only in that they were both about changing things away from what they had been before. Musically, you’d probably notice the odd difference here and there.
So Punk did kill prog?
No, but it did change it and change the way it was percieved. Not all prog bands survived, and as a genre it certainly had a rocky period for a while as it fell out of favour, but it continued. But it didn’t die out. Instead, it evolved and adapted to a new environment. The ideas didn’t die or go away, but instead branched out in different directions.