I Should Have Known Better: Experiences with English Progressive Rock Prologue

by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor

Yes, yes, we all have our demons lurking in the back of our musical past. People have a tendency to either sanitize our histories (“Of course, when I was in high school I mostly listened to Pavement, but I got pretty into pre-Green REM too.”) or just lean into the adolescent horrors full-tilt (“I listened to the same C+C Music Factory Song for three entire years without listening to anything else”). But most of us are pretty good at taking the good with the bad, and acknowledging that your musical tastes are probably going to be considerably different when you’re a teen than they are now.


I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on the truly horrible parts of my adolescence (t.A.T.u., Mindless Self Indulgence, a surprising amount of generic J-Pop), and instead focus on a confounding subgenre I embraced wholeheartedly: English Progressive Rock.


Progressive rock is still respected in some musical circles, usually in appreciation of the virtuosity. Kanye West in particular seems to be a fan -- he’s used samples by King Crimson, Steely Dan, and (ugh) The Alan Parsons Project. But progressive rock is defined in pretty broad strokes (Steely Dan is progressive jazz-rock, King Crimson is classic English Progressive Rock, and The Alan Parsons Project is...garbage?), so let’s get a working definition going on English Progressive Rock for the sake of this article, because I am NOT planning on writing another word about The Alan Parsons Project.


English Progressive Rock: Rock music recorded in England between 1967 and 1976, influenced heavily by psychedelia, English folk music and traditions, jazz music, classical music, and featuring a high level of virtuosity. While most groups of the period remain driven by classic guitar/rhythm section focus, there is more focus on synthesizers and less-typical rock instruments. Songwriting uses forms more typical to classical and jazz music than pop or rock, and there are lengthy solo or instrumental sections. Lyrical content is usually more stylized and poetic, and will often reference fantastical or science-fiction themes.


There we go! That’s workable for now. So, right away we can identify some of the giants of this movement: the aforementioned King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Procul Harum, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Van der Graaf Generator, Roxy Music, and Caravan. That’s just a small list, of course, and I’m omitting tons of bands just because I can. Because this article is about my experiences.


Right away, it doesn’t look like the most embarrassing lot. I still listen to Pink Floyd constantly, and Genesis has some stone cold classics! This is true. I’d argue, though, that the embarrassment of getting into English Progressive Rock isn’t about the parts, cringeworthy as some may be, but it’s the wholehearted embracing of the genre that’s truly embarrassing.


I think I need to dive back into this genre. I need to find out what appealed to me so much about this music in the first place, and what changed or died inside me to make me view the entire genre with such scorn.


In this series, I will explore three different artists and albums: Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound, Jethro Tull’s early 70s output, and finally King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.


Nicholas Tristan is a Toronto-based writer, producer, composer, and podcaster. He is the Board Chair for Over Easy Airwaves, a digital broadcasting networking specializing in the weird and the wacky.