In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll was music to dance to, with upbeat 2- to 3-minute records that were easy for disc jockeys to schedule, whether on radio or at sock hops. The in the mid-1960s, the Beatles sought enlightenment and evolved from "She Loves You" to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The latter, more complex music spread and became the stadium sound of the 1970s.
In April, 1971, Rolling Stone reviewed the début album by a band with a name better suited to a law firm: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The reviewer liked what he heard, although he couldn’t quite define it. “I suppose that your local newspaper might call it ‘jazz-influenced classical-rock,’ ” he wrote. In fact, a term was being adopted for this hybrid of highbrow and lowbrow. People called it progressive rock, or prog rock: a genre intent on proving that rock and roll didn’t have to be simple and silly—it could be complicated and silly instead. In the early nineteen-seventies, E.L.P., alongside several more or less like-minded British groups—King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis, as well as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd—went, in the space of a few years, from curiosities to rock stars. This was especially true in America, where arenas filled up with crowds shouting for more, which was precisely what these bands were designed to deliver. The prog-rock pioneers embraced extravagance: odd instruments and fantastical lyrics, complex compositions and abstruse concept albums, flashy solos and flashier live shows. Concertgoers could savor a new electronic keyboard called a Mellotron, a singer dressed as a batlike alien commander, an allusion to a John Keats poem, and a philosophical allegory about humankind’s demise—all in a single song (“Watcher of the Skies,” by Genesis). In place of a guitarist, E.L.P. had Keith Emerson, a keyboard virtuoso who liked to wrestle with his customized Hammond organ onstage, and didn’t always win: during one particularly energetic performance, he was pinned beneath the massive instrument, and had to be rescued by roadies. Perhaps this, too, was an allegory.
What's not to love about that? But critics called progressive rock pretentious, radio programmers did not want to play entire concept albums, record companies wanted to sell singles, and younger listeners wanted to dance. That led to the disco fad. Now it's cool to hate progressive rock, especially among musicians, although it will always be a part of our cultural legacy. Read about the rise and fall of progressive rock and its critics at The New Yorker. -via Metafilter
(Image credit: Dr. Ronald Kunze)