In The Beginning attempts to be a short history of the rise of prog rock in the UK. If I have missed out influential bands from the USA or more particularly Europe, then I apologise, for my formative years were spent immersed in glorious eccentricity of the UK music scene and my knowledge of other scenes is at best sketchy!
For a relatively short period of six years between 1967 and 1973 the UK underground rock scene developed at a frightening rate, with new bands being formed and dissolved in the blink of an eye, and going down hitherto unexplored aural backwaters to emerge squinting into the daylight exhausted but exhilarated, with seventeen new ways of playing the most elusive chord progression in the oddest time signatures imaginable.
The journey starts in 1967, the best year for debut albums ever, absolutely no question. There have been other years since where a slew of new music was unleashed into an unsuspecting world, but no year since then has thrown up such a diverse mix of innovative musics covering all styles, some known, some shiny and new.
The accepted opinion is that the album that changed music forever was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band by The Beatles. Undoubtedly unlike anything that had gone before in the world of pop, their own Revolver excepted, I would argue that this is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that has become a truism simply through unending repetition. The myth is that SPLHCB showed how musicians with ambition could work outside the 3 minute pop-love song format, well hadn’t Bob Dylan already done that? Secondly, innovative studio trickery was taken to a new level by this album, which I agree with to an extent, but a certain Are You Experienced by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was released some 3 weeks previous to SPLHCB, and you can’t tell me that the title track alone has as much weirdness going on as in the whole of The Beatles’ epic.
No doubt The Beatles and Hendrix were working on their respective sonic adventures simultaneously and probably unaware of what the other was up to. Also credit to the Merseysiders for starting the strangeness off with the previous year’s album Revolver. Don’t get me wrong I think SPLHCB is a fantastic slab of vinyl, but I consider that Hendrix “changed music forever” at least as much as the Fab Four.
Whatever your views on The Beatles or Hendrix, 1967 saw a worldwide seismic shift in popular music, the likes of which would never be seen again. The UK saw an upheaval of similar proportions ten years down the line, but it was far more localised than that of the “tune in turn on and drop out” generation.
In rough chronological order of release these are those amazing 1967 debut albums, errors and omissions excepted…
The Doors – The Doors
Cat Stevens – Matthew & Son
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead
Country Joe & The Fish – Electric Music For The Mind And Body
The Electric Prunes – The Electric Prunes
Are You Experienced – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
David Bowie – David Bowie
The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Moby Grape – Moby Grape
Procol Harum – Procol Harum
Kaleidoscope (US) – Side Trips
Vanilla Fudge – Vanilla Fudge
Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
Big Brother And The Holding Company – Big Brother And The Holding Company
Scott – Scott Walker
Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk
Ten Years After – Ten Years After
Nico – Chelsea Girl
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – Gorilla
The Amboy Dukes – The Amboy Dukes
Traffic – Mr Fantasy
Pearls Before Swine – One Nation Underground
Art – Supernatural Fairy Tales
Electric Flag – The Trip
The Nice – The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack
This list doesn’t include equally influential sophomore efforts from the likes of Love, 13th Floor Elevators, Cream, Tim Buckley, Incredible String Band and others, and mention must be made that some of these artists, like The Electric Prunes, Jimi Hendrix Experience and a few others released more than one album in 1967. In a way I’m glad I was far too young at the time to appreciate what was exploding all around me, otherwise I would have had to have got up to all sorts of nefarious activities in order to be able to acquire the cash needed to buy even the best of that lot!
Obviously some of these albums were far more influential at the time than others, which only rose to historical prominence later. All of these can be regarded as classics to a greater or lesser extent. Tell me a year that was more diverse and I’ll turn into a strawberry cheesecake, especially for you!
As for English prog rock, it was still merely an inkling in the lysergically altered minds of a few young and mostly middle class gents (and a few ladies) playing in sundry beat and psych pop combos struggling up and down the few motorways of Great Britain in various battered vans.
Pink Floyd were of course riding their first wave of success by 1967, but as the term Progressive Rock had yet to be coined, they were still firmly in the acid rock bag. Quite where fellow UFO club regulars The Soft Machine (as they were known at the time) were filed away ante-prog is anyone’s guess, for they made a very weird racket indeed that wasn’t quite space rock, pop or jazz but somewhere in between. Formed in 1966 they may therefore assume the honour of being the first prog band in the world! The band famously featured both Kevin Ayres and Daevid Allen, until the latter’s refused re-entry to the UK from a French TV appearance in October ’67. Allen stayed in France and formed Gong, as if you didn’t know, and not long after Ayres left to record his first solo album, and lo, the Canterbury scene was born.
Family also formed in 1966 but were more of a straight R&B group at the start, although they did manage to release the single Scene Through The Eye Of A Lens in October 1967. If you’ve not heard it, you can almost guess what it sounds like from the title I’d imagine!
Two out and out prog bands did form in 1967, the first being The Nice who just managed to release an album by December, and were the first band to fuse classical and rock with any commercial success. The other band was the first incarnation of Van Der Graaf Generator who didn’t get to release an album until 1969. Also formed in that year, though more as a school band than anything serious was a certain Genesis, hidden away within the posh confines of Charterhouse public school (American friends read “private” for “public”). Also just about scraping in by the lacings of their jockstraps, formed in December of that incredible year, were Jethro Tull.
Anyone wishing to add, subtract, or ridicule my musings, feel free to leave a comment!
Next in Part Two – What I consider to be the British proto-prog bands that were big influences on what was soon to follow.