Did punk really kill prog?

This is a rant published a few years ago in Classic Rock, my big idea that I continue to bang on about at length.

Pistols 76

Pistols 76

IN all of the interminable books, memoirs, articles and TV documentaries contemplating the meaning and legacy of punk rock, there’s one thing that they all seem to agree upon: punk rock killed progressive rock. “Almost overnight, after the Sex Pistols, prog rock came to a halt,” declaimed one pundit on a recent BBC documentary. A neat assessment, very well phrased, the final word on the subject. Apart from the fact that it is totally untrue.

In the same period that saw the Pistols shoot and burn, not only did prog not die, but in fact it enjoyed one of its golden ages. Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP and Genesis all released some of their biggest albums and played some of their most gargantuan UK tours. New bands like Rush, Kansas and Happy The Man were starting to break through. And in the immediate aftermath of punk, former three chord bands like Simple Minds, Ultravox, Magazine, Wire and Public Image Ltd were playing something that was definitely progressive rock in all but name.

hawksThe fact that Johnny Rotten once wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the words “I HATE” scrawled in Biro above the band’s monicker is always held up as evidence that punk rock was some kind of reaction to prog. Yet Rotten nee Lydon was a huge fan of Hawkwind, Van Der Graaf Generator, Can and various other bands whose progness was never in any doubt. Punk was more about a burning desire to join in and make music. There are aspects of the music scene in the mid 70s that were loathsome to many fans, not least the fact that many bands never really bothered to play here, but none of these were particular to prog rock.

Prog, then as now, was just one of many competing strands of post-psychedelic rock. It wasn’t a particularly dominant one: despite the fact that some prog bands enjoyed huge sales, you virtually never saw bands like Gnidrolog, Renaissance or Jethro Tull on TV or heard them on the radio. And the attitude of the music press at that time was almost wholly as sneery as that of the mainstream press today. It was perfectly possible to be a young music fan and actually remain completely unaware of the very existence of prog. The idea that punk “had to happen” because a whole generation was idly fuming away at the complexity of King Crimson or the overblown theatricality of Rick Wakeman’s – admittedly daft – staging of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice is just absurd.

r4ickAnd as a crop-haired angry young man myself, I can’t recall ever wasting a minute of 1976 , 77 or 78 thinking about how much I hated prog. Like most of my contemporaries I was having too much of a good time to really give a toss about prog, disco, rockabilly, pub rock or chart pop one way or another. There were too many other things in the world to hate. If there was anything, musically, that I couldn’ts stand it was the constant diet of crap novelty records and golden oldies and smug DJs that ruled Radio One and Top Of The Pops in those days.

It was in the pages of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds that we were told that prog was the class enemy and encouraged to feel hatred. This was a revolution and, to paraphrase VI Lenin, what use is a revolution without firing squads? The thesis was that punk was a product of the salt-of-the-Earth discontented proletariat while prog was made exclusively by evil right wing toffs and consumed only by Tory voters, fox hunters and those addled by false consciousness. The reality, of course, was that while prog certainly had its share of former public school boys, it was probably no more a preoduct of poshos than of punk: the difference seemed to be that at least the prog rockers were honest about their origins while public schoolboys like Joe Strummer felt that it was important to fake a prolier than thou past for themselves. At my comprehensive school, as well as a small smattering of punks, the popular artists of the day in 1976 were Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra and – for some reason – The Incredible String Band. Conversely, the boys from the nearby fee paying school were always trying to convince you that they were “too street” to listen to anything more compicated than The Ramones and that their spare time was spent sniffing glue, getting nicked by the pigs (maaaan) and smashing the state.

The attitude of prog musicians to punk was sometimes pretty condescending: Rick Wakeman signed a letter to the head of his label A&M asking to have the Sex Pistols dropped; Roger Waters made it clear that he hated punk; the lack of musicianship was decried. You could sense that they felt threatened though obviously they needn’t have. Outside of the fantasy world created by the music press, it was prog that really ruled.

In the official history, 1977 was the year of Anarchy in the UK, the Clash, no future, maaaan. But it was also the year of Rush’s A Farewell to Kings, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Yes’s Going for the One, Genesis’s Wind & Wuthering, all Top 10 albums (Yes, reunited with Rick Wakeman, going in at Number one and also enjoying a Top 10 single with Wonderous Stories), all accompanied by massive tours, their biggest ever.

In the last years of the 70s, they still continued to outsell punk bands both on album and live: the decade culminated with one of the most massive prog albums ever, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

It wasn’t just the same old faces: in the late 70s and early 80s new bands like UK, IQ, Pendragon, Twelfth Night, Marillion, After The Fire and Pallas all formed at this time, while a realignment of prog’s superpowers created bands like Asia. It says much about the hubris of the media that having failed to notice these bands, there is a sort of collective assumption that it doesn’t exist. With practically no press, radio or TV coverage anywhere, these bands regularly sold out shows and sold millions of albums.

What’s more, away from the stadium level bands, the thriving UK progressive underground continued to make challenging and innovative music: Soft Machine, Henry Cow (and successor band The Art Bears), Van der Graaf Generator and Bill Nelson (formerly of Be Bop Deluxe and later Red Noise) made some of their best albums around this time.

Ultravox (pre-Ure!)

Ultravox (pre-Ure!)

Perhaps even more interesting were the bands who emerged in the immediate aftermath of punk who tried to make music that did more than repeat the same three chord formula. Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield incorporated electronics, sampling and Hawkwind-like light shows; Glasgow’s Simple Minds, particularly on their Steve Hillage-produced 1981 double album Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Cal’, incorporated many elements from classic Genesis along with krautrock, disco and the avant garde; Ultravox, on their third classic album Systems Of Romance, made an album that seemed to continue the direction that Roxy Music abandoned after For Your Pleasure.

Indeed the fact that many of the post-punk generation were making a new kind of progressive lost was not lost on some more conservative commentators: “It’s bloody Curved Air,” sneered Nick Lowe when asked about Siouxsie & The Banshees, whose first three albums definitely pushed the boundaries of punk rock to their limits. And when Wire – arguably a synthesis of Ramones-style minimalist punk and high prog complexity – recorded a 15 minute track called Crazy About Love for a John Peel Show session in 1979, he grumbled that it was a step backwards.

Rather than punk seeing prog off there’s a case for saying that it was prog that ultimately triumphed: there were effectively two separate and distinct schools of progressive rock active in the 80s and 90s. A nice argument, yet punk too continued to thrive throughout the 80s and 90s when its one-time champions had abandoned it too.

Today, prog is almost all pervasive: there are so many bands, from the Dream Theater prog metal school to the experimental post-indie rock of Radiohead to leftfield superstars Tool, who can all be termed prog and are indeed comfortable with the tag. The influence of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes is ridiculously all pervasive and King Crimson themselves still make incredibly cutting edge music. Not bad for something that supposedly “came to a halt” 30 years ago.

This is all a rather neat demonstration that things are never so simple as to be choices of either/or. You write off entire genres, styles, bands and subcultures at your peril.

One thought on “Did punk really kill prog?

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