The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 4: 40-21

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  1. Jethro Tull: “Heavy Horses” (from Heavy Horses)

Meanwhile back in the year… 1978? It’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they’ve probably never even heard this song. Of course, the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ‘70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history. Back to basics? How about back to the 18th century? That is the vibe Jethro Tull was emanating circa 1978. The band that dropped not one, but two single-song album suites had evolved into a proficient troupe of professionals that incorporated strings, lutes, fifes and harpsichords into their repertoire. To put it more plainly, the same years the Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were establishing a radically new and brazen rock aesthetic, Ian Anderson appeared on an album cover flanked by two Clydesdales. The title track is a typically literate—and unironic!—tribute to the working horses of England that, much like prog rock, were soon to step aside, their demise having less to do with trends and tastemakers than technology.

  1. Colosseum: “The Valentyne Suite” (from Valentyne Suite)

Vibraphone and saxophone? Yes! Dave Greensdale, who supplies the vibes as well as some remarkable organ work, gets the drop on ELP, delivering keyboard-dominated prog before Keith Emerson made himself a household name. A bit jazzy, a tad trippy, it’s still incredibly tight and multi-dimensional; at one instant frenetic and the next almost tranquil, this is mood music for those uninterested in paint-by-numbers performance. Released the same year as In the Court of the Crimson King, this album and especially the title track seem influenced by no one, but set a standard that would be frequently imitated but seldom surpassed.

  1. Renaissance: “Song of Scheherazade” (from Scheherazade and Other Stories)

One need not know who Scheherazade is or what One Thousand and One Nights is, but being aware of this famous character and text will help the listener appreciate what’s going on –and perhaps marvel at Renaissance’s audacity for putting their spin on this, well, epic tale. And what better way to condense an epic than create an epic, multi-part track? As usual, vocalist Annie Haslam provides vocals and lends a very appropriate feminine voice to the “story” of Scheherazade. Renaissance seldom lacked for purpose, but this track, more than any other, represents the triumph of ambition met with worthy material.

  1. Camel: “Rhayader Goes to Town” (from The Snow Goose)

One more from Camel’s masterpiece. “Rhayader Goes to Town” is mostly a showcase for the criminally unheralded guitar virtuoso Andrew Latimer. On this track he shreds like vintage David Gilmour, but with soul to spare and a technician’s control of his instrument. Some (okay, a lot) of music from the prog genre was conceived as anti-commercial, as challenging to digest as it was to execute. And for the most part, this was laudable, and in accordance with the savvy and discipline the music required (for both bands and fans), but too much of the music, either not discovered in the first place, or lumped in with all the good, bad and ugly, warrants a second (or first!) listen. The Snow Goose is certainly not easy listening, but it’s easy to be enraptured by; for anyone seeking fresh insight about how prog sounded, when it was lean and mean, “Rhayader Goes to Town” could not be more strongly recommended.

  1. Yes: “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Regardless of intent or method, prog rock could be quite dark and often heavy, as a cursory examination of cover art and song titles will confirm. That said, there was, of course, a vast amount of gentler, even elegant music. Few bands worked together in unison the way Yes did during their prime, each individual an imperative part of the whole. And while, at various times, Bill Bruford, Chris Squire and especially Rick Wakeman made unforgettable contributions, the classic sound was mostly defined by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitar god Steve Howe. “Starship Trooper” is perhaps the definitive showcase for Howe, allowing him to illustrate his utter mastery of the instrument (both acoustic and electric), and when he and Anderson multi-track their guitar/vocal interplay, it’s as close to heaven as prog rock ever got.

  1. Traffic: “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (from The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Traffic will never be known as a prog rock band. This is a testament to the fact that Traffic can’t be easily defined—or dismissed—as part of any particular genre; their interests were too wide-ranging, their abilities too matchless. Having mastered psychedelic rock in the late ‘60s and a more jam-based jazz-rock on the masterful (but not-proggy) John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic became a bit of everything on their masterpiece The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. One look, at the title, and the hipper-than-hip album cover tells you all you need to know: these were some cool cats. Steve Winwood, of course, was the resident prodigy, but the sax and flute contributions from Chris Wood are crucial. On this super laid back track, Jim Capaldi turns in some of his finest drum and percussion work, proving that prog could, on occasion, be groovy, if not entirely fashionable.

  1. Soft Machine: “Moon in June” (from Third)

From the Canterbury scene in the late ‘70s to full-on freak jazz in the early-to-mid ‘70s, in between Soft Machine got their prog on. Third is at once experimental in the extreme, but a very controlled and deliberate sort of experiment. The jazz and fusion influences are undeniable, but even with extended instrumental workouts, the results seldom seem like aimless jams or braggadocio. The passages with vocals have perhaps not dated so well, but there’s a pulsating energy that drives the piece. This is music from the underground and it’s probably best understood, and appreciated, as art that makes no apologies, but welcomes all who come to it with open ears, and minds.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Us and Them” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

Originally an instrumental intended for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (and rejected for the eventual soundtrack), this Richard Wright composition found new life a few years later. The lyrics by Roger Waters not only provide a “story” but evidence a stunning maturity in the band’s approach. Associations with outer space, which were always superficial in the first place, are now ancient history as Waters & Co. are setting their sights on the hearts of our darkness. Continuing a growing preoccupation (which would later become an obsession) with war and soldiers, like his father, killed in conflict, Waters exhibits a concision that’s able to leave a permanent mark: “’Forward!’ he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/And the General sat as the lines on the map/Moved from side to side.” Wright’s piano solos and organ provide a solemn but beautiful foundation, and Gilmour’s world-weary delivery is by turns hopeful and heartbreaking.

  1. Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies” (from Foxtrot)

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 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’s 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.

  1. King Crimson: “Fracture” (from Starless and Bible Black)

Percussionist Jamie Muir, whose wonderfully ragtag percussion contributions gave Larks’ Tongues in Aspic its proper right-at-the-precipice atmosphere, departed, leaving King Crimson a quartet. Always up for a challenge, Bill Bruford simply expanded his repertoire, adding his own, more refined, percussive touches. These are put to ideal effect on album closer “Fracture”, particularly the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for The Simpsons. John Wetton locks in with Bruford to establish a sludgy groove, and David Cross subtly counters Fripp’s ominous grinding, which builds Crimson’s patented quiet-to-chaos dynamic before all Hades breaks loose courtesy of what may stand as Fripp’s most ferocious solo. Everyone doubles down (the beautiful brawling between Bruford and Wetton would continue to excellent effect on the subsequent recordings for Red), and Fripp—as if it’s even necessary at this point—makes his case for all-time prog guitar guru. When one realizes most of the material from this album was recorded live or grew out of improvised jams, it only adds to the import of what Fripp, the ultimate perfectionist, was capable of when he shifted into high gear.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the tune (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing. The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Take a Pebble” (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer)

The centerpiece, and masterpiece from ELP’s debut is Greg Lake’s twelve-and-a-half minute “Take A Pebble” which, as well as any song from the era, epitomizes the all-in ethos these bands were running up the flag pole. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps (that you can almost dance to) and an extended piano-led excursion that stands alongside any progressive music ever made. If certain bands seemed to try a bit too hard, or were so serious they sucked any joy (or life) out of the music, this was seldom an issue with ELP: they positively revel in their shared purpose and can barely check their enthusiasm. As a result, the passion is at once refreshing and exhilarating.

  1. McDonald and Giles: “Birdman” (from McDonald and Giles)

If, in a sense, King Crimson never fully recovered from the loss of founding members Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. Still, hindsight has confirmed that everything about In the Court of the Crimson King was sui generis; it couldn’t be duplicated and it would have been silly to try. More importantly, the departure of McDonald meant, from that moment forward, Fripp was the prime mover and the personnel changes and various stylistic shifts that ensued were inevitable, and quite welcome. More still, Crimson’s temporary attrition led not only to McDonald and Giles presenting the world with their quiet masterpiece, but also gave us Emerson, Lake & Palmer!

In any event, McDonald’s playing and artistic flair were all over In the Court of the Crimson King and that prodigious talent is apparent throughout McDonald and Giles. By necessity, and perhaps to retain the control he coveted, the duo was content to soldier on mostly alone (there is support from brother Peter Giles on bass and a brief contribution, on organ, from Steve Winwood), but in addition to drums and vocals from Michael, Ian handles guitar, piano, organ, saxes, flute, clarinet and zither. To their lasting credit, the results are anything but minimalist; indeed, the same type of color and flair that brightened Crimson’s debut are in abundance throughout these proceedings. Lacking neither determination nor drive, McDonald and Giles made their stab at a near-obligatory side long statement. It’s an unqualified success, and the presence of friend and lyricist extraordinaire Peter Sinfield helps up the ante. While In the Wake of Poseidon is a stunning and almost entirely satisfactory follow-up to the debut, McDonald and Giles provides an opportunity to hear Crimson 2.0, or what the other half (McDonald, with Sinfield, being the alternate visionaries), given their druthers, could achieve.

  1. Rush: “La Villa Strangiato” (from Hemispheres)

Fans, of Rush in particular and prog in general, already understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is endlessly enjoyable slice of perfection. Better still, it’s the ideal option for anyone who can’t stomach Geddy Lee’s voice or Neil Peart’s lyrics. Even (or especially) when they were crafting suites about fountains and necromancers, few would deny the collective musical prowess of this trio. Still, where certain proficient acts (ranging from Zappa to, in later years, Rush themselves) could on occasion be accused of being a tad too clinical, a tad too perfect, it may surprise non-believers to know that Rush always had both humor and restraint, when the situation called for it. While there’s nothing especially restrained about “La Villa Strangiato”, it never tries to be anything other than what it is. What is it? Foremost, a showcase for Alex Lifeson, who everyone knows can shred, but not enough people appreciate as the skilled and dynamic player he is. It’s possible that the band never exhibited this much joy on a studio album before and certainly after; it’s a ten-minute celebration of partners in crime who possess superhuman ability, but also healthy enough egos to understand they’re all better working together than with anyone else.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Melancholy Man” (from A Question of Balance)

It’s Justin Hayward’s voice on most of the hits (and many excellent non-hits), but The Moody Blues were very much a collective in every sense of the word. Presenting the other extreme to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction (showcased on the brilliant “Question”, from the same album), Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint, it might be the best thing the band ever did. The the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

  1. Camel: “Lady Fantasy” (from Mirage)

Whether or not this signifies Camel’s finest moment is less important than the fact that it’s probably the most successful distillation of their singular aesthetic. All the crucial prog elements are in place: tricky time shifts, an irresistible lull from mellow to frenzied, and a sound that’s at once non-commercial but immediately pleasing. What separates even the better bands who can write and play mind-blowing music is the feeling; some can’t conjure it, others can’t help but do so. It’s pointless, with words, to try and pin down precisely what it is, but on “Lady Fantasy”, guided as usual by Andrew Latimer’s guitar wizardry (and, on this track, vocals), Camel makes one of the more compelling cases for why prog rock matters and, at its best, how it needs no excuses or elaboration.

  1. Gentle Giant: “The Advent of Panurge” (from Octopus)

It’s unadvisable to teach someone to swim by tossing them in the ocean during a thunderstorm. Likewise, it’s foolhardy to hope anyone would take to prog rock by sampling practically anything by Gentle Giant. As the band itself boasted, they were an “acquired taste”, and some of the time went out of their way to prove it. So what? If there had to be one band that put a line in the sand and effectively defied people to dig them, Gentle Giant was consistently up to the task. So, while it’s tough to determine where even a listener amenable to prog rock might begin to tackle the Gentle Giant catalog, Octopus is as safe a bet as any other album. Not for nothing, it might also be their most consistent and satisfying release. Perhaps the most unheralded aspect of this band’s contribution –aside from the outstanding string of albums—is the way they set a bar for other, better-loved bands to follow, and aspire to; Gentle Giant were the unacknowledged legislators of the progressive movement and, if enough fans weren’t paying proper attention, it seems safe to suggest many of their fellow acts were. It really can’t be said enough that Gentle Giant deserves extensive respect and kudos for remaining utterly uncompromising and committed to their demanding but gratifying objectives.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother)

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 didn’t 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, The Dark Side of the Moon: the multi-tracked voices, reprises, odds, sods and half-assed grandiosity are shot out of a cannon 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.

  1. Genesis: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout Selling England by the Pound is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. For this opening number (did any prog band begins albums with more of a bang than Gabriel-era Genesis?), Gabriel pulls out all the stops, with poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time. Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. Everyone involved is en fuego, at the height of their individual and collective abilities. For people who want to know where Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping technique originated, look no further. For people who don’t understand, or would never believe Phil Collins was, at one time, a first-rate drummer, check this out. And, well, nobody is daft enough to doubt the glory of Peter Gabriel, right? The angst, anger and, finally, euphoria his voice channels is (once again) all-time, for the ages.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (from Pawn Hearts)

Every prog band wanted to add at least one undisputed classic to the canon; some failed, some came close, and some made multiple contributions. Van der Graaf Generator (the name itself almost a dare) tried and, depending on one’s level of faith, succeeded. But no one who knows anything about this genre would dispute that this album is their masterpiece, and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is their crowning achievement. On this sprawling and elaborate composition, crucial contributions are made by all, but keyboard wizard Hugh Banton and vocalist Peter Hammill are way out in the stratosphere. This as music as drama, as statement, as vocation.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/30/17.

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