Pomp Up The Volume
a history of progressive rock - is there a new day dawning for the dinosaurs?
For more than a decade, pomp has been the most unfashionable musical style in rock. But there are murmurings of a revival: could you be the next Peter Gabriel?
IT HAD TO HAPPEN. Fans of pomp rock have appeared in the august pages of 'The Face', as part of a feature headlined "Progressive Rock Hip Shock". Fed up with the tuneless inanities of Bros and the relentless beat of Acid House, today's great record-buying public has turned, inevitably, to the most unfashionable style of music in the world: pomp rock, otherwise known as progressive rock or classical rock. Genesis are just about still in business, Rush are still releasing an album a year, and Pink Floyd are back on the road again. Blink and you'd swear it was 1972.
Pomp rock probably began its life the first time Keith Emerson had a piano lesson. It's certainly difficult to take credit away from him and his band, The Nice, for the introduction of the classical form (and classical dexterity) to the rock world in 1967. The Nice had an enormous effect on the young musicians of the day, and by the end of the '60s a number of previously unknown bands were making themselves felt. Foremost among these were King Crimson - a group that emerged on the live scene in 1968. Much compared to the Moody Blues (whose own 'Days of Future Past' had combined pop, the London Festival Orchestra, and lavish arrangements in 1967), King Crimson achieved fame on the strength of their stage show rather than any recorded output. King Crimson supported The Nice on tour, and these two bands blazed a long, complicated, but always bright trail.
By the end of the '60s the progressive movement was well under way. The Nice had been hailed as flag-bearers of a whole new musical style: King Crimson had released what was to be their most successful LP, 'In the Court of the Crimson King'; and a new band, Van der Graaf Generator (named after a piece of physics laboratory equipment), had released a stunning album, 'The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other', which combined sound, mood, and imagery in incredibly innovative ways. And two new groups, one named Yes and another comprising a group of public-school friends who hadn't even chosen a name (they eventually decided to take their name from the title of their first LP, 'From Genesis to Revelation'), had also released first albums in 1969 which, while weak by modern standards, pointed the way that they and many others were to follow.
The thing that made these groups stand out was the introduction of a "symphonic" style to rock music - or, put simply, long pieces with lots of different bits in. They refused to confine themselves to the standard 4/4 time signature of contemporary pop, and wrote pieces stretching up to 40 minutes long. (To put this into perspective, in 1968 it was suggested that the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' could never be a hit because it was over four minutes long.) To go with their long compositions and dramatic changes in tempo, pomp bands adopted huge arrangements also reminiscent of classical symphonies. Fundamental to these arrangements were banks of electronic keyboards: Hammond organs, electric pianos, and an early sample player called the Mellotron which provided such things as choir and strings effects.
Although not all pomp followed the above formula, it remains the quickest way to identify yourself and your band as a classical rock outfit.
By the start of the '70s, the rise of the progressive movement was irresistible. Genesis and Yes were getting into their stride with albums like 'Trespass' and 'Time and a Word', and the standard bearers of pomp had just played a triumphal debut at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival; Emerson Lake & Palmer, which included bassist Greg Lake from King Crimson, was Emerson's successor to The Nice. Not only did they play music of dazzling proficiency and complexity, but they did so without having a lead guitarist, proving to the world (yet again) that exciting rock could be produced by a keyboard player. The synthesizer had just become affordable with the introduction of Bob Moog's MiniMoog (followed shortly afterwards by the ARP Odyssey) leading to an explosion of keyboard-dominated bands. The guitarist was rarely excluded altogether (Renaissance were just about the only other example of a successful pomp band entirely without a guitar) but the keyboard player was, for the first time, a frontman in the band. Suddenly keyboard players could summon whole orchestras by coupling the MiniMoog to the mighty Hammond and the Mellotron. The result was incredible. Almost overnight, the so-called "serious" rock-buying public went "classical".
By 1971 there was no shortage of bands and albums to choose from. As well as Emerson Lake & Palmer ('ELP'), King Crimson ('In the Wake of Poseidon'), VdGG ('H to He'), Genesis and Yes, previously pop-oriented bands like the Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest became part of the "progressive" movement. The hippy movement embodied in the so-called Canterbury Scene threw up a progressive/folk band named Caravan, who embodied the light-hearted element of the new style. Other bands moved from electric folk into classical rock - Jethro Tull and the formative Renaissance joined the throng. Psychedelic rockers Pink Floyd jumped on the bandwagon with their 1971 album 'Meddle', with side two entirely devoted to the seminal 'Echoes' (rapturously received last year on the band's world tour). Even the band accredited with the invention of heavy rock produced an album that touched the heart of the "progressive" genre - Led Zeppelin's 'Four Symbols' is still one of the most successful albums of all time.
Throughout the mid-1970s, pomp dominated the album charts. Albums released around that time include Yes' 'The Yes Album' and 'Close to the Edge', Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon', the Moody Blues' 'Seventh Sojourn', Genesis' 'Foxtrot' and 'Selling England by the Pound', Led Zeppelin's 'Houses of the Holy' and ELP's 'Trilogy' and 'Brain Salad Surgery'. New bands continued to appear on the scene, and just as important, the symphonic form was migrating to other fields of rock music. Artists such as Mike Oldfield and Focus were producing long, multi-structured pieces, often taking up the whole of an album, but played on modern instruments for a young, rock-oriented audience. Bands like Camel and Kansas emerged who, while almost completely unknown outside of the classical rock clique, produced many great pomp albums of which Camel's 'The Snow Goose' (1975) is perhaps the best example. Both bands are still active today. Unfortunately, late 1974 also saw the beginning of the end for King Crimson, and the announcement of Peter Gabriel's departure from Genesis. Crimson had been declining since 1970, when they'd moved further and further towards avant-garde jazz, and following experiments with people like Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, founder and driving force Robert Fripp decided to give up the struggle of keeping the band together. Genesis, of course, shrugged off Gabriel's departure and achieved even greater success throughout the late '70s and '80s - though as we'll see, their output departed enormously from its pomp roots.
In 1975 Rush, who started life emulating Led Zeppelin, burst upon the scene and are still unique as being the only pomp band with no keyboard player. Their guitar-hero albums, reeking of swords and sorcery, were immediately accepted by the heavy rock fraternity as well as the progressive school; they too remain extremely successful to this day.
Yet amazingly, although Yes and Genesis could guarantee number one success in the album charts, they remained almost unknown quantities to huge masses of the record-buying public, who derived their taste from the singles charts and Radio 1. Periodic releases of singles usually came to nothing, but in 1975 pomp had what is probably its only number one single. Queen, remarkably gifted composers and arrangers but not noted for their love of keyboards ("No Synthesizers!" they proclaimed loudly on their early album sleeves) released the unique 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and achieved nine weeks at number one with a single that changed tempo and arrangement quicker than Tommy Docherty changes football clubs.
However, as the '70s rolled on a new word entered the rock dictionary: "dinosaur". A dinosaur was any artist that played pomp and had been around more than a couple of years. Almost overnight, the likes of ELP and Yes were relegated to a kind of distasteful backwater as the world readied itself for the coming of punk and the so-called "new wave". The very qualities that had so appealed to the post-hippy population were despised by the street-wise kids of the late 1970s. Curiously, this coincided with the greatest financial success the pomp bands ever achieved. Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes were filling the largest arenas in the world, and sales of albums such as 'Going for the One' and 'Seconds Out' were enormous.
But the tide was changing. The new audiences were pogoing or going to discos, not discussing 'Lord of the Rings' over a couple of beers and a joint. Pomp was on the wane. Guitarist Steve Hackett left Genesis, signalling their move into commercial rock. ELP went gloriously over the top and bankrupted themselves on an immense world tour. And internal problems within Yes caused the departure of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman. Pink Floyd, more and more dominated by Roger Waters' stark music and doom-laden lyrics, split in a shower of acrimony. The door seemed to shut on progressive rock. Occasional releases by the survivors - Camel, Kansas, and Renaissance among others - lacked the vision, daring, or virtuosity of the earlier stuff, and were not well received.
As the '80s arrived, classical rock had all but disappeared. Having dominated the album charts for a decade, the move to simpler, more direct music had brought pomp to an end. ELP were long gone, and Genesis were the same band in name only - producing highly successful but far more commercial pop/rock. Following the introduction of Trevor Rabin, Yes had discovered the American sound - pomp has always been a curiously British phenomenon, and the various members of Pink Floyd were suing each other. King Crimson, Caravan and Renaissance were all gone, and Led Zeppelin, following the tragic death of drummer John Bonham, also decided to call it a day.
But the genre refused to die. Largely unknown bands such as The Enid (whose founder, Robert John Godfrey, had been instrumental in the early success of Barclay James Harvest) kept playing to smaller but fanatical audiences, and the pomp movement struggled on.
After a few years in the wilderness, it was inevitable that a pomp "revival" would be prophesied and, right on cue, a crop of new bands with highly derivative names like Pendragon, Trilogy, Pallas, Solstice, and Silmarillion began to appear. Of these, only the last - renamed Marillion - achieved any lasting success, picking up the mantle of Genesis (circa 1974) with astonishing skill, and even scoring a couple of hit singles with some shorter, more disciplined songs. By 1983 the post-punk era was over and, while it never quite relived its former glory, classical rock was at least tolerated. Popular bands like Dire Straits flirted with the symphonic form ('Telegraph Road') and bands such as Pink Floyd rose phoenix-like from their ashes. Today's album charts are perhaps more diverse than at any other period in rock history, but look closely: at time of writing, you'll find Pink Floyd and Marillion doing quite nicely, thank you.
In retrospect, it's remarkable how stable pomp bands have been. In the fashion-dominated world of rock 'n' roll, they eschewed easy money and short-lived fame and worked hard at their art - sometimes finding financial success, more often not. Accused of being "pseudo-majestic", "convoluted", and "quasi-mystical" (and a whole lot worse besides), they have the longest track records of any groups in the world. Only the Rolling Stones can better the longevity of bands like Genesis (20 years), Pink Floyd (21), Barclay James Harvest (21), and the Moody Blues (23). Perhaps one of the secrets of this durability is the fact that the music is so unfashionable. Since it has never been "in" it can never really be "out", and is better equipped to survive the ups and downs of the industry than music that's tied to any particular fad or fashion.
Certainly, pomp rock as an art form will refuse to go away. But with 1988 seeing the demise of The Enid and possibly Marillion, and acts like Genesis and Pink Floyd now concentrating on music that is decidedly non-pomp, it's hard to see who'll carry the "progressive" torch into the 1990s. The die-hard classical rock fan has few enough bands to follow, and there's only a fraction of the pomp output on record that there was ten years ago. In contrast to the heyday of the 1970s, today's record industry doesn't differentiate between albums and singles, and the prospect of a pomp band notching up a hit long-player without a couple of hot-selling 45s seems remote. And by the same token, it's difficult to see how any record made in a symphonic style could gain a foothold in today's Top 40: if 'Bohemian Rhapsody' were released for the first time in 1989, Radio 1 wouldn't touch it with the proverbial.
Yet the time is again ripe for someone with enough technique, enough keyboards, and enough strange musical ideas to take up the flag of progressive rock. There is still a huge market for pomp. Dare you try to exploit it?
Feature by Gordon Reid
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