The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Five

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t quite bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog-rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog-rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’ most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

Writing last year about my search for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of ecstasy that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog-rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it is a gold standard that was never surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On exceptional tracks, like the previously discussed “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise” there are individual moments—and musicians—that stand out and shine; on “Close to the Edge” everyone assembled works in service of the song and the result is a tight, unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick As a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

2. Pink Floyd, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics —- so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

1. King Crimson, “In The Court of the Crimson King”

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid are the same kind of simpletons who hear Charlie Parker and envision a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

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  1. I started to comment. A thousand words later, it struck me I *might* have gotten carried away. *sigh*

    Let’s try the abbreviated version.

    First Impressions: It is an interesting and provocative list. But—84% of the songs from a mere six bands? I just can’t see that. Floyd did not make five (!) pieces good enough to be on such a short list. Crimson *might* have 4 if you extend the time frame. Rush…well…people do love them, I guess….

    You Done Good: Your top two, except I’d swap them. I fully understand why “Court…” could be The Best, but Wish You Were Here represents the epitome, the Mount Everest of what Crimson initiated. It is unsurpassed in any genre of rock, IMHO. Also “A Passion Play”, “Awaken”, “Echoes”, “Underture” but in different places. I waver between “Red” and “Starless” (yeah I know it’s not on your list, but I’ll bet it came close!) and really can’t decide.

    Say What?: Way too much Rush. “Lizard”? “Songs from the Woods”?? Judas Priest??????

    Better Alternatives: All your Genesis picks are…strange. And three is too many. “Supper’s Ready”, while definitely one of The Usual Suspects for any such list, truly is one of the great progressive songs for all that. “The Cinema Show” is a better piece than “Epping Forest” in all respects. “Karn Evil 9” instead of “Pictures at an Exhibition”. “One White Duck…” or “Minstrel in the Gallery” from that criminally underappreciated album—Anderson and the boys at their most sophisticated.

    Missing In Action: Van der Graaf Generator. I’m sorry, but a list of the best ever prog songs that does *not* include something from VdGG simply cannot justify its title. If “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is too overblown (and I tend to think so) then “Sleepwalkers” from Godbluff. The dark, jagged edge of prog, and neither of the Andersons can come close to Hammill in terms of lyrics. Renaissance and Camel are definite contenders. Some might argue for Gentle Giant as well (but not me).

    The Alternative Factor: No list is complete without Robert Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” from Rock Bottom. Absolutely incandescent, transcendent, unique (it’s a musical palindrome!) Is it prog? Why not? It’s sure not Yes or Floyd, but not all progressive is. Something from Eno’s Another Green World as well, as long as we’re at the boundaries.

    Final Thoughts: anything that makes me listen to stuff I’ve neglected is a good thing. (OMG I had forgotten how good Awaken truly is, because I generally just don’t like Yes. That alone is worth the price of admission). :)

  2. Sean Murphy says:

    Deb:

    First off, I wouldn’t have minded the long version!

    I knew, undertaking this task (though a suggestion from my editor at PopMatters, one I was happy to undertake, especially since people like me/us have mentally made lists like this for years) was bound to instigate controversy and disappoint.

    I am acutely aware that, while I’ve been an ardent “prog guy” for more than three decades, there are lots of people out there who are more knowledgeable and passionate than me…but my goal for this piece was to attempt to list what I thought are “THE BEST” while also not losing 90% of the readership. I thought, to myself, if I were to do a similar list for bebop, would there be a steady stream of Monk, Miles and Trane? Absolutely; both because they all did some of the best, but they also manage to be accessible and are gateways to deeper grooves.

    I knew I’d get hit for not having Gentle Giant, VDGG and a few others, but it pained me to leave certain Floyd, Crimson and Yes (and Genesis, and Rush…) songs off, even with their generous representation. What are you gonna do?

    (btw, I totally disagree that Floyd did not make 5 songs good enough; they defined and perfected prog as much as any band, including Crimson. I could *easily* have included “A Saucerful of Secrets”, “Quicksilver” and live or studio versions of “Set The Controls for The Heart of the Sun”.)

    I struggled, as you may imagine, with the Top 5; some can/do claim “Close To The Edge” is *IT*, others like yourself make a powerful claim that “Shine On” is the apex. I even toyed with the idea of giving “A Passion Play” the top slot, just on principle. In hindsight I could/should have gone with “Starless” instead of “Red” but I figured the title track sort of represents the whole. “Starless” has to be on that list; that is the one I really agonized over. (My hope is that someone not familiar with that album hears the irresistible title track and gets the album, and discovers that majestic track.)

    I think more Rush easily could have been included (“Xanadu”, “Cygnus X-1 Book One”, “The Fountain of Lamneth”….). “Epitaph” by JP was the only one where my objectivity is legitimately under fire: I included that one because I wanted to, but also b/c I do believe it shows how a lot of bands TRIED to get into the prog game and were not successful; on this one track, Priest did their best Genesis imitation and it worked. It needed to be on there except for the fact that about 1000 others songs could/should have been in its place. The other one I knew I’d get brutalized for was “Supper’s Ready”. It seems to be the consensus number one, which strikes me less as the wisdom of crowds and more of the groupthink I tend to despise. It ain’t number one, at least on my list. And similar to “Red”, perhaps I should have gone with “Supper’s Ready” instead of “Watcher of the Skies” except….well, I didn’t.

    I went with “Epping Forest” mostly b/c I think it represents a height of what Gabriel was after and he (arguably) perfected on “Lamb Lies Down” and then he became *PETER FUCKING GABRIEL”. Trust me, I love every song on ‘SEBTP’ and EASILY could have gone with any of the other ones (except the two short ones) so it was more a matter of the embarrassment of riches that is that album. I do, however, fail to get the hatred for “Epping” (look at the comments on the PopMatters site where this list dropped last week). I have to say, I think too many people don’t “get” it which confirms my suspicions about “Supper’s Ready”.

    Tull….now you’re talking. I almost put “Baker St. Muse” on there but Tull is an even harder sell than Yes, so I didn’t want to go too deep. Having two Tull in the Top 10 seemed borderline heroic and I think I pulled it off (and was frankly looking rather forward to anyone throwing down a gauntlet; surprisingly –and somewhat pleasingly– no one did).

    You’ve given me some songs to revisit, so right back at ya. So glad you read and responded, and I look forward to more of your thoughts anytime. I will be working on a top prog albums list soon, and I know that will get people riled up.

    Cheers!
    Murph

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