Published in R&F Psychedelic Special, January 2016
Free Your Mind and Feed Your Head – How Psychedelia Went Prog
(There are a few passages in here that found their way into DOTU...)
Psychedelia completely changed the rules of rock’n’roll. It laid the foundations for folk rock, glam rock and heavy metal, but perhaps its most significant immediate offspring would be progressive rock. Many of the elements that would define prog were already present within psychedelia, but what are the essential differences between them? And how did both bands and audiences transition from one to the other?
To understand the evolution of psych rock to prog rock, we need to go back to the mid-60s, when old certainties were being questioned and new forms of artistic expression were emerging. For musicians, playing and listening under the influence of psychotropic drugs such as LSD suggested a myriad of new sonic possibilities. Bands started to experiment with reverb, phasing and flanging effects to create a heavier, more impressionistic sound. Non-Western scales and tunings were also introduced, along with instruments such as sitars, tablas, harpsichords and early electronic keyboards.
The impact of this new musical permissiveness was felt on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, The Butterfield Blues Band took an extended raga rock excursion on the suitably titled “East West”; The Byrds conjured the soaring, incendiary electric folk of “Eight Miles High”; the 13th Floor Elevators explored the power of repetition on “Roller Coaster”; The Beach Boys created a pocket fantasia in “Good Vibrations”; Jefferson Airplane combined a Bolero beat with drug-referencing lyrics inspired by ‘Alice In Wonderland’ on “White Rabbit”.
In the UK, it was The Beatles that took the lead, first with the sitar-driven ballad of “Norwegian Wood” and the hypnotic drone of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, then with the double A-side single that would define the sound of UK psych, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, a stunning mix of pastoral, music hall, orchestral and avant garde influences.
But in terms of the transition to prog, perhaps the most important group to emerge from the UK underground was Pink Floyd, who as well as releasing two classic psych pop singles in “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” also led the way in experimental, long-form improvisations on stage. Extended jams and freak-outs were a commonplace feature of concerts by the likes of West Coast luminaries such as The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but rather than building on basic blues scales, Floyd’s approach was more about sound manipulation and dynamics. This also started to drive their compositional philosophy, exemplified by 1968’s “A Saucerful of Secrets”, which was literally plotted out as a series of contrasting musical movements on a large sheet of paper.
Aside from the sound itself, the other major impact that the psychedelic revolution had on music was to promote the idea that rock could be a serious art-form. It was The Beatles’ conception of themselves as an autonomous creative unit who wrote their own material that really changed things. Quickly tiring of the role of lovable mop-tops, they instead built on their popularity to explore new sounds and recording techniques, their encounters with marijuana and LSD only emboldening them further. In the US, psychedelia’s impact on society was even greater, as it became the rallying point for a new type of counterculture. With America waging an increasingly bloody war in Vietnam, psychedelic music became the soundtrack to the protest movement, and demanded respect as a legitimate expression of political dissent.
Psychedelia’s new-found cultural cachet led to the emergence of the serious music fan. Central to rock’s elevation as an art-form and its cultivation of a new, more discerning audience was the growing importance of the album. Prior to the mid-60s, popular music was dominated by the pursuit of the hit single, with albums being just another product, a way of re-packaging and reselling singles by padding them out with B-sides and filler tracks. Psychedelia saw the album become a thing in itself, a collection of songs that demanded equal attention and acted as a cohesive statement from the band. Music appreciation also started to become a more private and contemplative affair, with albums designed to be listened to in their entirety rather than as three minute bursts of youthful energy for dancing to in coffee bars and clubs.
The Beatles pushed the boundaries of what an album could be with the release in June 1967 of ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’. As well as seeing the group move ever further away from being just a singles band, it created the foundations on which progressive rock was to build through its use of segues between tracks, musical reprises and multi-part songs, “A Day in the Life” being the most obvious example.
Psychedelia broke down barriers and created a completely different context for rock, but by the end of the 1960s, it was musically in decline. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ proved to be the high-water mark of The Beatles’ psychedelic period, and it wasn’t long before both they and other early pioneers of the new sound started to turn their backs on sonic adventurism and mind expansion and started instead to make music that was less self-consciously trippy. Psychedelia had become a victim of its own success, with a multitude of second-rate imitators – and much of popular culture itself – having co-opted its DayGlo aesthetic while ignoring its musical and social call-to-arms.
Crucially, a schism occurred at the end of the 60s between the US and the UK. For many of the American psych bands, a desire to get “back to their roots” saw the likes of The Byrds and The Grateful Dead adopting a more country-influenced sound, while a plethora of singer-songwriters – Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor etc – emerged as folk troubadours for the Woodstock generation. At the same time, bands such as Blue Cheer and Grand Funk Railroad turned the volume up to re-capture the visceral excitement of pre-psych rock’n’roll.
But in the UK, both the past and the future were on the agenda. If we use The Beatles as a bellwether once again, 1968’s self-titled ‘White Album’ can clearly be viewed as a deliberate retreat from the perceived excesses of psych, evidenced by tracks such as “Back in the USSR” and “Yer Blues” – but it also contains the proto-metal of “Helter Skelter” and the experimental “Revolution 9”. And while Britain had become the (perhaps unlikely) epicentre of blues rock, from The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, its ultimate gifts to the world would be Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, both of whom pushed the form into completely new territory.
More pertinently, getting “back to their roots” for British musicians often meant something else entirely to their American counterparts. Many players on the UK psych scene had first encountered music as part of a youth orchestra or church choir. For them, a re-engagement with the past meant combining technical proficiency with the European classical and ecclesiastical music traditions they had been brought up on. The way in which UK bands harnessed this cultural heritage is the final part of the key that unlocks the door leading from psych to prog.
One of the earliest and perhaps best-known examples of this collision between classical and psych is Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, based on Bach’s “Air on the G String”. An anthem of 1967’s Summer of Love, the baroque melody gives the song a haunting, allusive atmosphere, and with its surreal-though-possibly-quite-meaningful lyrics, suggested that rock could aspire to, and indeed become, High Art. (In fairness to America, Bach was also pilfered by The Doors in the same year for the introduction to “Light My Fire”. Other US bands such as Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly would similarly incorporate classical themes in their music, but perhaps in a less nuanced way than the prog bands to follow.)
Also in 1967, The Moody Blues would release ‘Days Of Future Passed’, one of the first albums to integrate an orchestra into a psych rock setting. The band’s extensive use of Mellotron, as heard on the album’s timeless single “Nights in White Satin”, also marks it out as important in the evolution of prog. Another band that quickly moved from psych pop beginnings to wholesale classical theft was The Nice, featuring future ELP supremo Keith Emerson.
Procol Harum, The Moody Blues and The Nice all put out albums that continued to push the psych sound into more artful and complex directions, but it wasn’t until 1969 that what many consider to be prog’s first definitive album was released, King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. From its opening blast of saxophone and guitar on “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the thunderous Mellotron of the title track, here was the alchemy between psych, jazz and classical writ large, producing a harder, more dynamic hybrid with its eyes fixed firmly on the future.
Many of the classic tropes of progressive rock had already been pioneered by the psychedelic bands of the 1960s: the breakdown of traditional pop structures; the incorporation of classical and non-Western musical influences; the introduction of new types of instrumentation, electronic keyboards in particular; the composition of multi-part songs, including extended instrumental sections; the broadening of lyrical subject matter; the development of the album as a cohesive statement. But there were also crucial differences that marked the appearance of a new type of music.
One of the big changes was a new emphasis on technical proficiency. While the psych bands contained many fine musicians, their focus was predominantly on creating a sound and a vibe, and reflecting the influence of psychoactive substances. But when the drugs changed, the sound started to change too. And while the fretboard skills of guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton had taken blues rock to a new level, they were still in the tradition of the gifted showman and soloist. For the emerging progressive groups, every player had to be a master of their instrument, and that proficiency was encouraged to be on full display.
This drive towards technical excellence was often led by a new generation of classically-trained keyboard players, for example, the aforementioned Keith Emerson, plus Tony Banks from Genesis and Rick Wakeman from Yes. While most bands previously had only a passing knowledge of musical notation, these guys were entirely comfortable with composing on a much grander scale, and liked nothing better than arguing with their bandmates about which diminished seventh made for the most harmonically pleasing transition from bridge to chorus. Consequently, electronic keyboards such as the Hammond organ, the Mellotron and the Moog synthesizer started to play a leading role in composition rather than just provide background colour.
Of course, this meant that the music itself changed dramatically, and the scope of the bands’ ambitions followed suit. While psychedelia had built on rock’n’roll, blues and folk, the prog pioneers saw themselves as part of a much grander musical tradition, with classical, jazz and the avant garde as key touchstones. This led to lengthy, labyrinthine compositions that could accommodate any number of time signatures and tonal shifts, from delicate, faux pastoral introductions to pounding, angular crescendos. Its expanded dynamic range was one of the main attractions of prog, with audiences taken on a picaresque sonic journey rather than just the most efficient route from A to B. This was also reflected in the music’s lyrics, with many bands aspiring to the poetic and fantastical as multi-part songs and concept albums became de rigueur. As such, the vocal delivery of the words became more important, with singers enunciating as though their lives depended on it.
Social class was also a big factor in shaping both progressive rock itself and the expectations of its audience. Earlier musical movements such as mod had always been regarded as a working class phenomena, which goes a long way towards explaining why the privately-educated critical establishment considered it worthless in cultural terms. Psychedelia had already seen a shift in the class of its audience, with many of those tuning in, turning on and dropping out coming from well-heeled backgrounds. Prog magnified this tendency, both among bands and their fans, with the emergence of a college-based live circuit. At its best, this led to exciting music that was unafraid to challenge its audience, both compositionally and intellectually; at its worst, it introduced an air of snobbishness and superiority, where singles-driven pop was looked down upon, in effect replicating the attitude that rock music itself had suffered under only a few years previous.
But for all that, progressive music quickly became both the happening thing and commercially successful, which suggests it wasn’t just being bought by the middle classes. ELP, Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd quickly became major concert attractions, while even edgier acts such as King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator played to big crowds in the US and Italy respectively. Whereas psych bands had concentrated on providing an immersive experience for their audience, aided by liquid slide shows and freely available drugs, the key prog acts believed in the power of spectacle, whether that meant an increasingly theatrical presentation or an armoury of instrumentation and lights. Prog wasn’t about tripping out and expanding consciousness – instead, it wanted you to pay attention and be impressed.
It’s easy in retrospect to chart the sudden rise and fall of particular scenes, when usually there’s a fertile period of cross-over as one genre gives birth to another (see box-out). Yet by 1970, the trappings of psychedelia had all but disappeared from the mainstream of rock. However, it didn’t completely die out – in the UK, Hawkwind adapted its cosmic, metronomic tendencies into space rock, while German bands such as Can, Amon Düül II and Tangerine Dream drew inspiration from its free-form, experimental side to create what would become known as krautrock. Prog remained the music of choice for serious fans until the mid-70s, and even then, its demise at the hands of punk has been greatly exaggerated, many of the key bands having already opted to simplify their sound.
Psych and prog have enjoyed a series of revivals since their original heyday, and in 2015, both styles continue to flourish. But it was during the incredible creative explosion from the mid-60s to the early 70s – when psych and prog were attitudes rather than just genres – that barriers were truly broken down. They may have come to different conclusions sonically and philosophically, but their legacy remains as potent as ever.
The Cross-Over Years
Some of the best music of the psych/prog period was made in the years when psych was becoming bolder and less whimsical, but prog hadn’t yet become the sole preserve of technically-gifted musicians. At the same time, ex-mod and blues rock groups were becoming heavier and more ambitious. Here are ten sonic snapshots from that period:
Electric Banana – “Eagle’s Son” (1968). The Pretty Things made one of the great late psych albums in S.F. Sorrow, but under the name Electric Banana, they also produced library music for exploitation movies. “Eagle’s Son” is a thrilling surge of proto-prog, its polemical lyric reinforced by wailing guitars and overdriven Vox organ.
Mighty Baby – “Egyptian Tomb” (1969). Rising from the ashes of soulful mod band The Action, Mighty Baby introduced a lithe, jazzy influence into their psych/blues pop. The lilting horns and high, clear vocal of “Egyptian Tomb” anticipates the sophistication and lightness of touch of prog’s Canterbury sound.
Arcadium – “I’m On My Way” (1969). Arcadium are one of the many obscure underground acts from the end of the 60s who recorded just one album then quickly disappeared, falling through the cracks of psych and prog. “I’m On My Way” is an 11 minute exercise in taking a simple musical idea as far as it will go, from spacey minimalism to gospel-like intensity.
T2 – “No More White Horses” (1970). T2 are the great lost band of the early prog era. Led by psych scene veteran and singing drummer Pete Dunton, they combined effortless musicality with serious muscle. “No More White Horses” is built on an explosive guitar riff and fanfare of horns, its mournful verses leading to a towering chorus.
Stray – “All In Your Mind” (1970). Stray were still teenagers when they made their debut album, its Traffic-influenced psych and blues rock pushed by youthful exuberance into a more expansive direction, captured perfectly by the vocal harmonies and driving rhythms of “All In Your Mind”.
Il Balletto Di Bronzo – “Meditazione” (1970). After the UK, Italy would become Europe’s next biggest prog market. Il Balleto Di Bronzo were a key band, and the baroque orchestral ballad of “Meditazione” is an early example of how the Italian scene in particular integrated ‘classical’ instrumentation in a rock context.
SRC – “Across the Land of Light” (1970). The emerging prog scene in the UK did have some effect across the Atlantic. SRC had started as Pretty Things obsessives and Detroit-based peers of The Stooges and MC5, but by 1970, they were making dramatic extended songs full of colour and nuance such as “Across the Land of Light”.
Atomic Rooster – “Death Walks Behind You” (1971). The conventions of prog were starting to solidify by 1971, but many bands remained hard to pin down, such as the broodingly heavy yet funky sound of Atomic Rooster, led by ex-Crazy World of Arthur Brown organist Vincent Crane. “Death Walks Behind You” is as unsettling and morbid as its title suggests.
Ache – “Equatorial Rain” (1971). Prog scenes started to spring up all across Europe. Ache were a Danish band who initially came to prominence in their homeland when they provided the soundtrack for a pioneering ‘rock ballet’. “Equatorial Rain”’s atmospheric opening gives way to a furious barrage of galloping drums and Hammond organ.
Frumpy – “Good Winds” (1971). While history chooses to focus on the krautrock scene, Germany also had many excellent groups on the psych/prog/blues rock faultline, with Frumpy in particular being more popular with local fans than the likes of Can and Neu! The forceful, Floyd-esque “Good Winds” is a fine showcase for the raw vocal power of Inga Rumpf.