Progressive rock was a direct inheritor of the psychedelic music movement, especially in its use of electronic music and other unusual musical instruments, and its extended works for album recordings. It is traditional in the early 21st Century to note that the album In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, released in America in October 1969, marked the beginning of the progressive (or “prog”) era in popular music, not because it was the first of its kind, but because it was completely a progressive music project in contradistinction to psychedelic. It wasn’t an extraordinarily popular album at the time in the U.S., reaching only #28 on the charts, but had a distinct underground influence in changing the public taste. It was a bigger hit in the UK, where it charted at #5. The Court of the Crimson King album makes heavy use of the mellotron, as did the Moody Blues, but King Crimson’s lyrics were dystopian, “gothic”, Tolkien-like in feel. The music was dominated, as George Starostin wrote in his blog Only Solitaire of the King Crimson song Epitaph, by “sweeping, mastodonic arrangements of a cathartic character”. Many prog albums shared psychedelia’s aesthetic of the “concept album” but whereas psychedelic music had been about changing perception and altered consciousness through kaleidoscopic lens, In the Court of the Crimson King sought to overwhelm with a storm of emotions, and produce a work as whole as a Beethoven symphony or a Wagner opera. Human scale was often left behind in the pursuit of complex musical forms. “Classical music” overtones were everywhere, and became one of the signatures of prog rock, which insisted on being treated as serious art. Sometimes prog performers would actually interpret a classical piece in a rock context. A frequently cited example of this is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s (ELP’s) version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, released in November 1971. Exhibition reached #10 on the U.S. charts and #3 in the UK. Greg Lake of ELP had been the vocalist for King Crimson.
Prog rock hadn’t started out with a big sound. To my ears, the pioneers of Progressive Rock were the Zombies. The bloodless name of the group is unfortunate and doesn’t indicate the effect of their music. As early as 1964 the Zombies were already producing sophisticated pop tunes She’s Not There (released July 1964, #2 in the U.S. pop charts) and Tell Her No (released December 1964, which reached #6). Pop music chose to follow other sounds as the Beatles progressed into psychedelic experimentation, and the Zombies sold poorly. Their album of the psychedelic period, Odessey and Oracle, released April 1968, only managed to reach #95 in the U.S, and did not chart at all in the UK. However, one of the tracks on that album, Time of the Season, was a sleeper, and as prog rock became more acceptable on the radio, in March 1969, it became one of the genre’s first big hits, reaching #3 in the U.S. Also, about this same time, the group Jethro Tull, featuring flute work which took off from Chris Wood’s reed playing for Traffic, made an early prog rock appearance on the singles charts with Living in the Past which reached #11 in the U.S. during February 1969. The song charted even better in the UK, reaching #3 in May 1969.
After In The Court of the Crimson King, the prog era began to open up. One of its first successes was the aforementioned Jethro Tull. (Unfortunately, the Zombies had dismantled by the time their kind of music had become popular.) In April 1970, the group released the album Benefit which reached #11 in the U.S. (#3 in the UK). Emerson Lake and Palmer released their first, eponymous, album in January 1971, which climbed to #18 in the U.S (#4 in the UK). A single from that album, Lucky Man, only got to #41 in the U.S., but as I recall, received significant airplay. Yes started to smell success in America with the release of their third, eponymous, album in February 1971, which charted at #40, and climbed to #4 in the UK. In March 1971, Jethro Tull released another album, Aqualung, which charted in the U.S. at #7 (#4 UK).
The first prog album to reach #1 in the U.S. was by Jethro Tull in March 1972, with the title Thick as a Brick, which consisted entirely of one song that parodied the “concept album” aesthetic. (The album didn’t do as well in the UK, reaching only so far as #5.) The most popular of all prog rock records however, the movement’s Sgt. Pepper, was the tremendously successful concept album Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, released in April 1973. The album shot to #1 in the U.S. (#2 in the UK) and remains one of the best-selling of all popular music. The single from that album, Money, released a month later, got so far up the U.S. charts as #13. Dark Side of the Moon was a stoner album, full of sonic surprises, but instead of taking you to another land as psychedelic music strived to do, Dark Side of the Moon left its audience, as one of Pink Floyd’s songs (from the #1 album The Wall released June 1980) is titled, Comfortably Numb. This was the state of mind the progressive audience seemed to prefer, and Pink Floyd enjoyed a decade as uncontested masters of the realm.