5 Influential Prog Albums by Non-Prog Bands

Prog Albums by non-Prog Bands

Yesterday we wrote about 10 Prog songs by non-Prog bands, but after some thinking we’ve set another challenge before us—what about full-length Prog albums by non-Prog bands?

Below we are giving you five albums that flirted with Progressive Rock by bands that are usually associated with other, more commercial genres.

The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Legend has it that, from 1966 to 1967, the Rolling Stones were nothing but a poor imitation of the Beatles. During that time, they softened their music, became more pop-oriented and started mimicking everything the Beatles did. Surely, this has to be true since even Lennon stated that “everything we did, they did six months later.” So why should anybody care even in the slightest about the Stones‘ psychedelic outing? That’s all good on paper and, on a quick look, 100% true. A close listen to this album, though, reveals that the Stones owe more to bands like Pink Floyd or Jefferson Airplane for their musical direction in this album. It is more spaced-out and trippy than the ’67 records of the Beatles, which were more in the music-hall direction. So, why all the fuss? It probably has a lot to do with the covers of the albums that are actually similar and the music-hall album closer. In any way, everyone made music like this in 1967 and the Stones were simply no exception to the rule.

Their Satanic Majesties Request

The most impressive thing about this record is the magnificent songwriting; the Stones by the end of 1967 were already masterful songwriters and this album is ample proof. First of all, it boasts two psychedelic classics in “She’s A Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years From Home.” The former is perhaps the most beautiful, in the traditional meaning of the word, tune the group ever penned. Right from the very first piano lines the song grabs the listener with its ethereal, optimistic nature and the band’s tremendous harmonies and never lets go. Mick is at his most innocent while singing “She comes in colors ev’rywhere, She combs her hair, She’s like a rainbow” and the rest of the band is spot-on in coloring a charming, graceful soundscape behind the lead singer. The strings that appear in the instrumental passage only add to this lovely experience. The latter is a dark, mystifying experience, with the band sounding as magical as they have ever been; Brian enters alone, plucking creepily his piano until Keith accompanies him with a dark riff. Then, Charlie hits loudly his drums and welcomes the listener into the futuristic, space-fueled atmosphere of the tune. On top of that, Mick is as out-of-this-world as possible, singing like a prophet the lines “It’s so very lonely, you’re six hundred light years from home.” A unique excursion, perfectly suitable for someone who wants to know what the Stones were able of beyond Rock’n'Roll.

Roxy Music – Roxy Music (1972)

The story goes like this: young and gifted Bryan Ferry knocked on the King Crimson‘s door, who had been looking for vocalist. The guys from KC were sure that Bryan‘s voice was not suitable for them, but were impressed by Ferry‘s vocal abilities. They helped to secure a contract and produced Roxy‘s first and eponymous record. With the possible exception called “For Your Pleasure,” this is Roxy‘s most daring and experimental album. No other producer but prog rock doyen called Peter Sinfield from King Crimson would allow to the debutants such an artistic freedom.

Roxy Music

But, to be honest, Ferry, Eno, Manzanera, MacKay and Thompson deserved such a freedom. Mackay had a classical background, Manzanera was already a competent guitarist, just like Eno, who was a creative keyboards player and Thompson was a very good drummer. Their music here is pure technicolor, playful, psychedelic, and magical. First five songs (including “Virginia Plain”) are conventional and catchy psychedelic pop songs, although noisy, filled with unusual but very accessible sax/oboe/synth parts that are icing the cake. “Re-make/Re-model” is a great proto-punk tune (innovative using the sax as a rhythmic instrument), “Ladytron” is a seductive and gentle ballad with superb instrumental break (Eno, Manzanera and MacKay made a great tapestry of riffs, distorsion, psychedelic solos), “If There Is Something” has one of the greatest Ferry‘s cry-outs (“I would do anything for you, climb on the mountains…“) and includes a good guitar work from Manzanera in the first half and then Eno and MacKay take over, while Thompson‘s drumming is precise, passionate and dynamic. “Virginia Plain” is a perky psychedelic keyboard-led single, three minutes long but also very complex and again very accessible.

Ten years after this they would record Avalon. This album has really nothing to do with Avalon, but this album is indispensable for anyone seriously interested in progressive rock, art rock or psychedelic soul.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

In 1965, London teenager Jimmy Cooper had enough. He hated his job, his parents, and struggled to maintain the support and appreciation of his superiors. Jimmy seemed to be mindlessly living in a world that he felt he had no connection with. He continued to go through the motions during the day, but with his friends he became a nihilistic and reckless drug abuser; attempting to escape his clinically depressed life with substance use. Soon enough, Jimmy’s life began to spiral out of control as he became dependent on the drugs and isolated from his society, his family, and even his friends. Jimmy was suffering from quadrophenia, which refers to a type of schizophrenia in which segregates the victim’s personality into four parts. His schizophrenic personalities of hypocrisy, romanticism, insanity, and toughness ultimately lead to his tragic demise; when he commits suicide. The Who’s Quadrophenia is a direct depiction of his catastrophic downfall, the first disc representing his home troubles. By “I’ve Had Enough” Jimmy has been kicked out of his house, and his drug problem becomes more apparent, “Out of my brain on the five-fifteen.” The second disc is the intensified version of his collapse, as his demise draws closer.

Quadrophenia

The Who’s Quadrophenia is a concept album for the ages. It would be easy to hype the album due to the fact that it is a concept record alone, but is one that could not have been developed any better. Following their 1971 hard rock classic Who’s Next, The Who were able to create something so incredible, that concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall pale in comparison. The most obvious theme of the album is the fictional, yet very realistic story of Jimmy Cooper, but is not the only notion buried in the record. The four-part schizophrenic personality that is the term quadrophenia, represents the behaviour of each of the members of the band. Not only are these themes contained in the double-album, but specifically refer to four of Quadrophenia’s tracks. These four tracks identify the different musical movements of the record as well. As the front man, Roger Daltrey was the band’s “Helpless Dancer”; the hot-tempered one who always seemed to come out on top during inter-band scuffles. In fact, during the preparation of the Quadrophenia tour, Daltrey landed a punch that would injure Townshend for a brief time. “Helpless Dancer” expresses the anger of the record with an ominous and furious piano part and brutally honest vocals by Daltrey. “Doctor Jimmy” most accurately depicts the personality of bassist John Entwistle as the romanticist. The lyrics, “Is it me, for a moment?” can be directly related back to Entwistle, who was the thinker and hushed member of the band. The line “Is it me, for a moment” is a recurring theme that is featured throughout the record including during the roaring tide in “I Am the Sea.”

Keith Moon’s behavioral schism in the band may have been the most tragic, for it was his reckless lunacy that led to his death in 1978. Moon takes on the theme of “Bell Boy”; the wild and careless drummer who had overdosed on drugs on several occasions, finally catching up with him just five years after Quadrophenia was recorded. Moon’s death is almost eerie considering Townshend had written the rock opera prior to the incident, and in a way predicted his downfall.

Townshend’s theme in Quadrophenia could very well be the deepest, and most significant out of the entire band. Despite being arguably the least musically talented member of the band (which says a hell of a lot), Townshend was the heart and soul and the musical genius of the group. He wrote Quadrophenia almost entirely by himself, which may be his greatest achievement of his illustrious career. The musical movement associated with him is the most powerful, “Love Reign O’er Me” standing as the present day as arguably music’s most emotional song. Townshend is essentially begging for love and appreciation, something that the main character Jimmy had been pleading for throughout the album.

The Who live in 1973 (photo by Neal Preston)

The Who live in 1973 (photo by Neal Preston)

Each of these themes are infused into the climax of the record, “The Rock,” which is intended to symbolize the rock that Jimmy is narrating the story from. By this time, the personalities of the band have been expressed multiple times, and “The Rock” is where they clash. Just reading this without listening to the record may make “The Rock” seem to be a complete and utter mess, although it is quite the opposite. These themes are battling back and forth, developed beautifully by the orchestra, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Jimmy by this time can no longer deal with Keith’s insanity, John’s reflective nature, Roger’s aggressiveness, and especially Pete’s cry for love. Jimmy commits suicide, “Love Reign O’er Me” being his final beg for some sort of understanding. Returning at the close of the record are water sounds that can be found in opening track “I Am the Sea,” but in a different form. Rather than the roar of waves on the ocean, “Love Reign O’er Me” concludes with the sound of pouring rain, which perfectly closes out what could have been Daltrey’s greatest vocal performance.

The concepts and themes of Quadrophenia are not to overshadow the music however, which is inconceivable on its own. Each member of The Who is at their absolute finest, and are complemented virtuously by an orchestra that features both horns and strings. The title track may be the record’s best track musically, for Townshend’s leads are both technical and emotional, and the ambience is something to admire. Entwistle has been most prominently known for his incendiary basslines throughout Quadrophenia, and absolutely tears up one of the record’s most famous tracks, “The Real Me.” Moon’s underscore is that of his theme song “Bell Boy,” in which he most convincingly delivers his immense talent.

Quadrophenia is the band’s most memorable and incredible accomplishment in their hall of fame career, and is more than just a concept album. It is the conflict of personalities in The Who, and a likely and extremely tragic story of a misunderstood teenager. The rock opera is flawlessly delivered with four movements, many themes, unbelievable talent, and full-fledged emotion.

Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)

As a band, Queen simultaneously came of age and sharpened their skills during the age of glam rock in Britain, a period in music when being androgynous was common place, the costumes and guitar riffs were wild, and the instrumentation was nothing short of being over the top. In their native country, Queen competed for chart attention alongside the likes of Ziggy Stardust era-David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and T. Rex, and shared a similar penchant for theatrics. But, as it turns out, Queen took as much influence in their sound from bands firmly in the burgeoning hard rock scene, including Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. It was by combining these two musical worlds together that Queen created their best known and career-defining album, A Night At the Opera.

A Night at the Opera

At the time of its creation, A Night At the Opera was the most expensive album ever created – on paper, this could come as a relative shock to some given that the band had still had not reached their commercial potential as the glam era (and some would say their window of opportunity for further commercial success) was coming to a close by the time 1975 rolled around, but, it should come as no surprise that, aurally, A Night At the Opera sounds like a million dollars. From the building piano arpeggios at the beginning of the sharp “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” to the acoustic science fiction skiffle of “39,” to the closing sky-reaching guitar of “God Save the Queen,” A Night At the Opera is produced to the very limit without muddling any of the arrangements or dynamics. As was typical of Queen throughout their career, Brian May’s guitar playing stands out as the instrumental highlight, with producer Roy Thomas Baker layering and doubling his guitar tracks together to the point that the reel of tape being used was famously completely see-through. Needless to say, May’s theatric and melodic playing on this album are what air-guitarist’s dreams are made of. Of course, the real highlight of any Queen album is the incomparable Freddie Mercury, who was at the top of his game during this period. Mercury sweetly croons his way through the more accessible moments on this album; the sublime, “You’re My Best Friend,” and the operatic ballad “Love of My Life,” while showing the true range of his vocal talents during more progressive, hard-rock based songs such as the spit fire kiss-off “Death on Two Legs,” the driving “Sweet Lady.” But, Mercury really shines on the two epics on this album, “The Prophet’s Song,” and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” songs that were more in line with their earlier work. Regardless of the tone of the song, every note that Mercury has the chance to sing is pure, melodic, and perfect, and it is difficult to think of a better overall, wide-ranging vocal performance in the history of rock than Mercury’s vocal contributions on this album.

Because of their glam rock influences, Queen was also substantially more camp, and more fun than other heavy metal and hard rock bands of their era, a fact which can be traced back to the album that proceeded this one, Sheer Heart Attack. On A Night At the Opera, there are many appearances of the camp sense of style that the band possessed – perhaps most famously during the operetta section of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but there are also many tracks on this album which take direct influence from music hall, including “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” and “Seaside Rendezvous.” Even the May-penned ukulele jam “Good Company” is certainly not meant to be taken seriously in comparison to his other work. All of these tracks add a much needed sense of depth to the album, and ultimately make the more serious songs hit even harder. You would think that all of these different styles of music on the same album wouldn’t work, but the sheer strength of each individual song, alongside some wildly innovative and, in retrospect, genius production techniques, make the album cohesive, despite it not being anything close to a concept album.

Queen

Since its release, many members of Queen have stated that if A Night At the Opera had failed commercially, the band may have called it quits, and we may have remembered them as nothing but a glam-rock one hit wonder. Luckily, the six minute manifesto, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” became as unlikely a number one hit as there ever has been, “You’re My Best Friend” became a radio hit, and Queen enjoyed many more years of success dabbling in various genres such as pure radio pop, dance, and rockabilly. As it turns out, A Night At the Opera, while not as seamless in construction as their previous three albums, ultimately became their most electrifying and memorable work, and holds up to this day because of the band’s fearlessness in exploring different musical styles, but also because of superb songwriting and arrangements, production, and fantastic individual performances from each member of the band. Long live the Queen.

The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)

After the bad vibes of the sessions recording what would eventually become Let It Be, it seemed that an another Beatles album may never happen, but remarkably just three weeks after those torrid sessions Paul phoned producer George Martin to arrange the beginning of  new recordings. The first session for Abbey Road began in February 1969, but the bulk was done months later over that summer (mainly to allow Ringo to film The Magic Christian).

The sessions were far more productive and lacked the tension the Get Back/ Let It Be recordings did, possibly due to McCartney and Lennon having a great time creating the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in April which helped ease tensions between them. Yoko would say that recording was important for John as he was facing continual criticism from the press for his famous peace bed-in stunt, “Paul knew that people were being nasty to John, and he just wanted to make it well for him. Paul has a very brotherly side to him.

Abbey Road would be the last album the Beatles ever recorded, but there is still some debate over whether they knew it at the time or not. George Marin would say later, “Nobody knew for sure that it was going to be the last album – but everybody felt it was. The Beatles had gone through so much and for such a long time. They’d been incarcerated with each other for nearly a decade, and I was surprised that they had lasted as long as they did.” And this appears to be the consensus of feeling at the time.

Abbey Road

Martin, Ringo, George and Paul all said they were very happy with the album and the band showed unity not seen for some years. Harrison said of the recordings, “we did actually perform like musicians again.” And Lennon seemed far more focused and engaged this time round, compared to Let It Be, contributing much more material.

However, Lennon was more dismissive of the album afterwards calling it junk etc. This may have just been his post-Beatles bitterness coming through as he spoke very positively of it in interviews during the recordings, and may have been influenced on reflection by tensions between Yoko and the rest of the band due to her insistence of having input to the songs, including after needing to be bed-ridden after a car crash demanding a bed be brought into the studio so she could oversee the recording sessions. Paul was even quoted as saying, “We just had to work around her – and walk around her. It was the madness of the times: you just had to put up with it. What could you do? You couldn’t say, ‘Get that bed out of here.’ She was John’s girl.

But despite this, the album went without a hitch and the Beatles managed to record some of their best material giving the band a proper last hurrah. It was released in September in the UK, debuting at number 1, where it remained for 11 weeks before being displaced for one week by the Rolling StonesLet It Bleed, then returning there for a further six weeks before being replaced by Led Zeppelin II. What a period for music that was!

Abbey Road sold four million copies in its first two months of release, and remains to this day their best-selling album.

Abbey Road exemplifies a pinnacle in a career that consistently busted the barometer for seven glorious years. To get the album made, a number of disagreements and differences of opinion had to be sorted out and dealt with. To begin, Lennon was more interested in recording individual, straight ahead rock songs with minimal production value. McCartney, on the other hand, had grander illusions. Having successfully taken the band through the whimsy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, McCartney wanted to piece together a medley of songs with a heavy, conceptual bend. Fortunately, a compromise was agreed upon, and the album consisted of both individual songs and a medley. Lennon‘s chart-topping, Timothy Leary/Chuck Berry inspired “Come Together,” as well as “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the Beatles‘ longest song aside from “Revolution 9″ (if you want to call that a song), certainly drove the point home. But the balance achieved with McCartney‘s string of songs that includes “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” mixed in with Lennon’s “Sun King” and “Polythene Pam” is only half the story.

The Beatles in 1969

In the end, the victor of Abbey Road is undoubtedly George Harrison, whose emerging compositional skills resulted in no less than two of the album’s strongest cuts: “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun.” The former, of course, would go on to become one of most revered tunes in the Beatles‘ songbook. And just to make sure everyone got his due, Ringo Starr contributed a song of his own, sprightly entitled “Octopus’s Garden,” as well as playing a simple, yet sufficient drum solo during the album’s closer, “The End.”

Without much analysis, it’s easy to see that Abbey Road is a joyful celebration about everything the Beatles did right — magical harmonies, first-class songwriting, and tight interaction instrumentally, vocally, and everywhere else in between. Forgoing Everest or Billy’s Left Boot, the album more or less earned its title when no one in the group or their immediate circle felt motivated enough to come up with anything else. In short, it was a tribute to the studio where they had grown into the world’s biggest band. All it took was a half hour photo shoot on a crosswalk a few yards from the studio, and the front cover was a done deal. It would go on to become one of the most parodied photographs in pop culture, while bustling with supposed clues to McCartney‘s eminent demise. In reality, it was the last word from a phenomenon that still echoes with each generation.

2 Comments

  1. Bill

    April 26, 2017 at 10:38 am

    How about “Love over gold” by Dire Straits?

  2. Scott

    May 10, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Really, Queen not a Prog band? You have not listened to their first 3 albums. If anything, they were a Prog band that evolved into something else. Even when they were playing more “pop” music in their later career, they were still smashing genres and putting together complex arrangements.

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