The Death Of Progressive Rock: Addendum

Following my post 1979: The Death Of Progressive Rock & The Jazz/Folk/Acoustic Amalgam, I began to think more about what I’d written. Was I being too hard on the Prog scene by saying it was virtually dead by 1979? Surely there was some life in it yet? But then I thought, what does the sentimental side of me say about this? It said ‘no, you were not’. And my logical side, of course, agreed. But perhaps I needed some more examples of its fatality to convince the punters? So here is a list of a few progressive bands and their albums through this difficult time period:

Yes: Tormato (’78) – Drama (’80)

Genesis: And Then There Were Three (’78) – Duke (’80)

Rush: Hemispheres (’79) – Permanent Waves (’80)

ELP: Love Beach (’78)

Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses (’79) – Stormwatch (’80)

Camel: Breathless (’79) – I Can See Your House From Here (’80)

Pink Floyd: Animals (’77) – The Wall (’79)

Gentle Giant: Giant For A Day (’78) – Civilian (’80)

King Crimson: Nothing… from 1974-81

The list says a lot.

Yes made Tormato, then the main sequence line-up splits and brings in Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes to make Drama. Now, I quite like both these albums, but prefer Tormato, simply because its got tracks on it like Future Times/Rejoice, Release, Release, Onward and On The Silent Wings Of Freedom, which are still classic Yes numbers. Sure, there’s a bit of filler here, but as far as being part of ‘main sequence’ Yes, they fit right in. On Tormato Jon Anderson is still vocalist and main lyricist, but Drama is a different kettle of fish (Squire pun intended). On this LP there is, of course, no JA (and as writer/bassist Bill Martin said in his excellent Music of Yes book, Anderson’s exit was not just 1/5 of the group – wise words). Wakeman has gone too, but I’ve always felt his prescence to be largely vestigial to the Yes compositional side of things. I still maintain there has not been a Yes album of any great substance since Tormato. And I feel this is due to the breakdown of the collaborative relationship between Howe and Anderson. And from here on in the lineup changes in Yes are more frequent, and not just in the vocal department or the keyboard seat. Following Tormato, members of Yes gradually drift off into other projects, more solo albums appear etc. Each member using up writing ideas in these projects instead of bringing them to the main group. Yes have changed their course, and not for the better. And if you’ve believed any the press info over the past 30 odd years about the band ‘updating the Yes sound’, or ‘returning to the original Yes style’ then you deserve everything you get…

I mean, really… was this necessary?

The same can be said for ALL the bands above, except perhaps for Rush, who then go on to make Moving Pictures, their best-selling album, but I’ve always felt that MP is not as good as either  Farewell To Kings or Hemispheres, despite the sales figures. It might happen be their most commercially successful album but that goes for nothing in this argument.

And the others? Well, ELP have already lost their way with the extremely patchy (and that’s being kind) Love Beach. Gentle Giant are hanging on by a thread with the uneven Civilian, to say nothing of The Missing Piece and Giant For A Day, their two previous albums. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is an OK album, but not nearly as good as Animals. Again, the breakdown of the personal relationships in the Floyd are well documented, and it is through this that the marginalisation of Gilmour and Wright occurs and makes The Wall a lesser effort than anything from Dark Side onwards. Tull and Camel make two ‘reasonable’ albums with Stormwatch and I Can See Your House From Here, and Genesis is on their last gasp with the just OK Duke, but the slide has begun…

Simply put, the progressive nature of prog is receeding here. Tracks are shorter, there is less instrumental interplay, arrangements are less complex, lyrically the topics have resorted to relationships or liberal world view stuff and, perhaps most tellingly, acoustic instruments are no-longer part of the the sound world. Where are the acoustic guitars, recorders and brass instruments? Madrigal on Tormato has some harpsichord and classical guitar, admittedly, and there are some chords strummed briefly on Machine Messiah, so only Tull is hanging in there with their usual instrumentation of flutes and steel-strings on Stormwatch, But by the time they get to A the synths have taken over. The acoustic guitar also disappears from Rush records for a while with there not being any on Moving Pictures.

I should mention that Gentle Giant were still using acoustic instruments in their live show, as this image from their BBC In Concert TV show from 1980 clearly exhibits:

GG keep it real with recorder, violin and cello!

But it is strange that there is a correlation between the acoustic aspect taking a backseat and the disappearance of the progressive element. I would venture that, as touring becomes more stadium oriented, the need for volume and broad brushstrokes of gesture increases accordingly. There is no room for subtle chamber arrangements using instruments that are difficult to transport and subsequently mic’ up on stage. Bombast is much easier to recreate live than intimacy.

Similarly, we know that early synths and keyboards, such as the mellotron, were heavy tempermental things not built for the road, and this leads to a compromise of sorts as the digital stuff came in and the original patches/sounds from earlier albums were recreated rather than used.

Having said all this there are a few great Prog albums from 1979: Hackett’s Spectral Mornings, UK’s Danger Money,  FM’s Surveillance, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America… but the list is a short one.


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