The A-Z of progressive rock

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It was meant to have ended with punk. But the much-maligned musical genre, with its protracted guitar solos and pretentious album titles, is back. So do you know your Atomic Rooster from Van Der Graaf Generator? Let Jonathan Brown be your guide

A – Album: Or, more accurately, the concept album. It may seem alien to the iPod generation, but for prog rockers, the ritual of the long player – single, double or even triple disc – was sacrosanct. And no self-respecting LP in the mid-70s came without a decent saga attached. Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tells the story of a Puerto Rican delinquent named Rael, who embarks on a nightmarish subterranean adventure in search of his brother. Yes's preposterously entitled Tales from Topographic Oceans was written around a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, while Tarkus, by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP for short) tells of a battle between a mythical manticore and an armadillo – not a theme yet pursued by JLS.

B – Blokes: Maybe some women did like prog, but it was basically music by men for men, normally with beards. Female personnel were few and far between in the leading acts of the day and non-male fans tended to shun the allures of King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Parts I and II) in favour of glam-tinged quasi-proggers such as David Bowie and Roxy Music.

C – Canterbury: Cathedral city in the garden of England, best known for its cream teas and cricket ground was, for a short period in the late 60s and early 70s, the unlikely crucible of British psychedelic talent that was to pave the way for the progressive rock scene a few years later. Famous sons include Soft Machine, Caravan and Spiro Gyra.

D – Dungeons and Dragons: No one could really sit through those long albums and their never-ending guitar solos without some distraction. First released in 1974, the fantasy role-play game – known to aficionados as D&D – provided the perfect bedsit amusement.

E – Excess: Whereas conventional rock'n'roll prided itself on its visceral simplicity, proggers took the basic chord structure and added their own fancy-pants sixths, sevenths and eighths and further confused matters with a series of baffling time signatures. Ever more pretentious and magniloquent, tracks swelled with sprawling, pseudo-classical movements and overtures.

F – Flares: Progressive rock was about music, not fashion, but a pair of testicle-crushingly-tight flared trousers was de rigueur for the Genesis generation. Typically worn with a slightly too-small shirt, a denim jacket (complete with badges and patches) or an Italian combat jacket with Marillion's harlequin on the back, the look was artfully set off with a pair of platform shoes and a rolled-up cigarette.

G – Gatefold cover: One of the saddest consequences of the demise of the vinyl record has been the loss of the album cover as art (not to mention it as being an invaluable platform for rolling spliffs). The gatefold sleeve had been popularised by The Beatles among others, but in the spirit of excess it became a near compulsory feature of prog albums providing a conduit for lyrics, band photographs and other general musings. Artists including Roger Dean – who worked with Yes – produced extraordinary fantasy-inspired images that set the scene for the musical odyssey that awaited the listener within.

H – Hawkwind: With 26 studio albums – the most recent, Blood of the Earth, released only last month – and 11 live albums to their name, Dave Brock's Hawkind have been the doughty perennials of the British rock scene, straddling genres from progressive to psychedelic. Among their more colourful collaborations was teaming up with the sci-fi author Michael Moorcock.

I – Instrumentals: Prog didn't invent the instrumental, but it certainly produced the best selling example of the (largely) vocal-free album. Mike Oldfield had been rejected by all the major labels before he presented Richard Branson's nascent Virgin with a cassette recording of his two-movement magnum opus Tubular Bells in 1973. The musician played all 20 instruments himself (including the tubular bells) and his record went on to sell nearly three million copies in the UK and become a dinner party – as well as a chill-out – classic.

J – Jerusalem: Proggers had a natural affinity for Blake's elegiac poetry and Carl Palmer's adaptation of Hubert Parry's rousing hymn, taken from ELP's fourth album Brain Salad Surgery (said by fans to be a euphemism for oral sex) scandalised classical music buffs, who resented the long-haired trio's venturing into the "serious" sphere. The BBC accused the band of degrading the original and banned the track from being played on air.

K – Krautrock: We might like to think of prog as a very British phenomenon, but in Germany a similar movement was gathering pace, too. Among the most celebrated exports to be championed by John Peel (who famously dismissed ELP's overblown 1970 Isle of Wight performance as a "waste of electricity") was Tangerine Dream. The Berliners liked to test their fans' endurance to the limit by playing extremely loudly (134 decibels) and sometimes for several hours at a time often in complete darkness.

L – Line-up changes: No self-respecting prog band would stick with the same members – it was a badge of honour for musicians to switch allegiances and depart on solo projects. Both Rick Wakeman and Peter Gabriel took leave from the mother ship selling millions of albums, while bands such as Atomic Rooster evolved from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and went through 12 members in their two incarnations.

M – Minimoog: Workhorse analogue synthesiser invented by Dr Robert Moog, who earned his PhD in engineering from Cornell University. It was elevated to front-line instrument alongside the guitar by prog rockers such as Yes and Tangerine Dream.

N – Nineteen seventy four: The year of President Nixon's Watergate resignation, the start of Ceefax and the return of the first Skylab crew to Earth was also the high-water mark for prog rock. There were two albums from Yes and King Crimson, Hatfield and the North's debut and works from Rick Wakeman, Supertramp and Genesis. A vintage year.

O – Orchestra: Many prog bands simply refused to believe they were not orchestras. The Electric Light Orchestra even called itself one. Fancy fretwork on the guitar and keyboard players who could read music – such as Royal College of Music-educated Rick Wakeman – put most of the bands one up on their rock'n' roll counterparts. ELP famously recorded versions of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.

P – Punk: If video killed the radio star at the beginning of the 1980s, it was the turn of Johnny Rotten and the drainpipe trouser brigade that took the wind out of the prog rockers' voluminous flares. Some now doubt that prog ever really went away. Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 1984 triple-platinum selling Welcome to the Pleasuredome was a double concept album in a gatefold sleeve with an 18-minute title track based on a poem by Coleridge. How prog is that?

Q – Magazine: In 2005 the influential music magazine published its top 40 of the best prog rock albums ever. Number one was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon while Radiohead's OK Computer controversially ranked at 10 though the band hated to be described as prog.

R – Rotters Club: Author Jonathan Coe took the title of his best-selling book from Hatfield and the North's second album. A group of Birmingham school boys battle to comprehend the heartbreak of adolescent love alongside the semiotics of a Robert Fripp guitar solo.

S – The Stranglers: They may have styled themselves punk bully boys who cared little whether they offended the politically correct attitudes of the day with the occasional misogynistic lyric and on-stage stripper, but for the origins of the band's synthy-bassy sound one needs only listen to Rick Wakeman's 1975 Merlin the Magician. Proggers by any other name.

T – Theatricality: Despite – or perhaps because of – the occasionally torpid propensities of the music, many prog outfits relied heavily on stunning visual displays and atmospheric settings such as ancient amphitheatres or historic ruins to spice up their work.

U – Utopia: Just to prove that the Americans were able to get in on the act too, Todd Rundgren enjoys a place of honour in the pantheon of proggers. His self-titled debut album contained only four tracks and ran for almost sixty minutes in total. Side two contained just a single 30-minute track – The Ikon.

V – Van Der Graaf Generator: Endorsed by no less a figure than hippy-hating punk emperor Johnny Rotten – who considered himself a proper fan – the dark melancholy of Manchester's finest proggers has endured the contempt of punks and continues to influence. Still gigging and recording a new album.

W – Wondrous Stories: Taking its name from the Yes track of the same name, this compilation album charting the rise of prog was a surprise hit this year.

X – Brand X: Prog supergroup/ jazz-fusion session band that included Phil Collins on drums.

Y – Yodelling: Dutch flautist Thijs van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkerman's classical-inspired band Focus scored two hits in the early 1970s with Hocus Pocus and Sylvia. The former introduced the pop world to the delights of yodelling and falsetto singing and was used by sports firm Nike in its 2010 World Cup advertisements.

Z – Zappa: Musician, composer, conductor, commentator, libertarian, director, Frank Zappa once described rock journalism as "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read" and though he may have well have shown disdain for the label, his album Hot Rats is considered one of the genre's masterpieces.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?