The sound that goes on and on... After 30 years in the wilderness, prog rock is back
For music's guardians of cool, the endless solos, Middle Earth concept albums and wizardly capes of Progressive Rock were an aesthetic disaster. Now the '70s genre which refused to die is to be recognised with its own award ceremony, where – raising some eyebrows – Radiohead will be honoured as one of "prog's" leading lights.
Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) will lead a line-up of "prog rock gods" who will attend the first Progressive Music Awards, to be held in the verdant surroundings of Kew Gardens, next month.
The awards, created by Prog magazine, one of the few expanding publications in a declining print music market, will celebrate the pioneers, innovators and present-day torchbearers of the once-derided scene. Gavin Esler, the Newsnight anchor, who has confessed to a deep love of the flute-powered titans Jethro Tull, will present the awards.
The nominees include legendary prog names such as Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Rush. But the Visionary category, recognising the "spirit of prog independence", contains a surprise nomination for Radiohead, the Oxford band formed in 1985 whose fans may recoil at their association with the likes of the Moog-soloing ELP.
But Radiohead are prog, whether they like it or not, says Jerry Ewing, Prog's editor. "When their OK Computer album came out, people said it sounded like Genesis," he said. "Radiohead have a very progressive approach. They do what the hell they want, rather than what the fans want to hear. Prog is not just a sound, it's a mindset."
Rick Wakeman, the former Yes keyboardist famed for performing in a flamboyant purple cape, agreed. He said: "Radiohead have taken bits of prog. It's about not conforming to the way pop music is done. These awards are overdue because prog has been adopted by every other genre over the years. It's one of the few genres left which is led by musicians."
The prog bands assumed stadium-filling popularity by the mid-1970s, but the movement was killed stone dead by the punk rock backlash against its indulgences and technical proficiency. "It got to the stage in the early '80s where prog was the hard-core pornography of the music industry," Wakeman admitted. "You'd go into a record store and whisper 'got any prog?' and you'd be given an album in a brown paper bag. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still refuses to acknowledge the existence of prog. I'm always stunned when I do concerts now at the amount of young people there."
The awards also claim Kraftwerk, the German electronic innovators, as prog and include a surprise nod for Kate Bush, who competes against Wakeman for the Prog God award. Last year, Bush released a seven-track concept album, 50 Words For Snow, seen as a very prog move.
Muse, who openly proclaim their grandiose, classical-inspired leanings, are also nominated.
However Ewing said the glittering array of prog talent would not be invited to flex their musical muscles by playing live. "That's where it all starts to go wrong," he said. "We want a smooth running event which doesn't last three weeks." Will Radiohead attend? "We sent them an invitation but we haven't heard back."
Prog Rock Awards: The nominees
Radiohead (nominated in the Visionary category)
A six-and-a-half minute song, in four sections, bemoaning alienation from capitalist society, "Paranoid Android" announced Radiohead as inheritors of the prog mantle.
ELP (Lifetime Achievement)
Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (bass guitar) and Carl Palmer (drums) created a collision of rock and classical powered by Moog synthesiser. Some critics derided them as pretentious.
Muse (Guiding Light)
The modern master of bombastic concept albums about state mind control and laser-driven live shows, Matt Bellamy revelled in NME's description of Muse's Resistance album as "a prayer to the prog gods".
Genesis (Lifetime Achievement)
Classic line-up fronted by Peter Gabriel peaked with 1974 double concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Abandoned 12-minute epics for pop hits when Phil Collins took over singing duties.
Kate Bush (Prog Rock God)
Mentored by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour as a teenager, Bush's hybrid of pop, art rock and theatre, explored in concept albums, makes her a worthy entrant in the prog pantheon.
Jethro Tull (Lifetime Achievement)
The sight of flautist Ian Anderson perched on one foot summed up prog. Mixed Bach, blues rock and folk, conquering the US with 7 million-selling Aqualung in 1971.
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