Top 10 Prog Rock Albums…Of All Time!

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As 6 Towns DJ on the (sadly) defunct Prog Rock Show, I thought I’d have a go at one of these Top 10 lists. Yes, let’s explore the mad bad world of PROGRESSIVE ROCK, and where it all went right/wrong/bananas.

It’s obviously subjective and “from hindsight”, but as I lived through a lot of this craziness, hopefully it’s also insightful. Insightfully subjective?! Hm. I’ve tried to go for what I would call “crossover” Prog albums, which probably is a contradiction in terms, but there you go.

    The only rule is…only ONE album per artist.

10 Argus by Wishbone Ash (1972)

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It is hard to believe but back in the early 1970s, Carlisle United were briefly top of the Premier League (then called Division 1), above Arsenal, Spurs, United, and Liverpool. Equally hard to believe was that back in the early 1970s, Wishbone Ash were briefly top Prog Band when their third album went to the top of the album charts (arguably kept off the No.1 slot by K-Tel’s “20 Dynamic Hits!”). The Ash went on to make loads more albums, and still exists in one form or another, but for this one moment in time they were taken seriously by Prog fans. Really, they were just a rock band with twin lead guitars, then seen as quite a novelty as they supposedly twanged away in harmony. They just seemed a bit more “out-there, man” (well, they were from Cornwall) than your standard rock band like Quo, Nazareth and Free. But how could they not be Prog with tracks  like “The King Will Come”, “Warrior”, “Throw Down The Sword”, and “Leaf & Stream”…yeah, you get the general idea.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Sniffing joss-sticks, Starbucks coffee, “Jailbreak” by Thin Lizzy, The Moody Blues.

 

9 Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra by Procol Harum (1972)

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What a fraud! A LIVE album? Yes, but not any Live album. This was recorded by fading psychedelic bluesmen just after losing their star guitarist, Robin Trower. They turn up to the middle of Canadian wilderness with some rough orchestral arrangements on scraps of paper for a few quick rehearsals with the local orchestra. It’s a Spinal Tap moment waiting to happen, surely. But they have the genius producer Chris Thomas in tow. (He would later go on to create the sound of Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, The Pretenders, INXS, and many others.) Somehow they create a classic orchestral Prog album, possibly THE classic orchestral album. It opens with the fiery “Conquistador”, which puts them back on US radio, and features the majestic “A Salty Dog”, as well as “Whaling Stories” (a song with every line featuring a different melody). Keith Reid’s twisted lyrics puts this firmly in weirdo Prog wonderland, particularly for the 20 minute “In Held Twas In I”, which is all about a pilgrim’s search for enlightenment up a mountain, in a circus, in madness, in somewhere or other,,,God only knows. It’s a masterpiece. Orchestras were never safe from Prog bands after this!

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Big waves crashing on the shores, Rock bands with organs (electric ones like Deep Purple), “Grand Hotel” by Procol Harum, “Live Tapes” by Barclay James Harvest

 

8 Bursting At The Seams by The Strawbs (1973)

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Controversial, this one. The Strawbs were folk-rockers turned Proggers. They’d gained and lost Sandy Denny to Fairport, and Rick Wakeman to Yes, and somehow didn’t always know where they were going and what they were doing. Vocalist Dave Cousins certainly sounded like a traditional folk-singer, but with pomp-rockers and pop-song writers in the band, they could turn their hand to anything; and here they do. It’s all over the place. The brilliant hit-single “Lay Down” is one of the great folk-rock songs of all time. “Down By The Sea” has a sound the size of a cliff-face, particularly forwarded (or followed, depending on which version you bought) by “The River”. But all you want to know is whether the glib “Part Of The Union” is on here. Well, yes it is. Weird, eh?! Commercial bite-sized Prog for all the family. C’mon, what’s not to like?

(If you like this, you’ll also like:)  Carpentry, vinyl records, Fairport Convention.

 

7 Aqualung by Jethro Tull (1971)

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An album about a leering tramp and the hypocrisies of the church and…trains, possibly. Jethro Tull – personified by Ian Anderson a jester-like character playing the flute on one leg – were just…different. Their background had been blues, but where it went to is anyone’s guess. But it was a lot more melodic than most Prog, rockier and folkier, and the lyrics occasionally made sense. It was beautiful to listen to and exhilarating to watch live. The title track would struggle to get airplay today as the tramp (briefly) leers at little girls in the park. “Locomotion Breath” is the train metaphor song, and “Cross Eyed Mary” is about someone just as odd as Aqualung the tramp. I think she might know him socially. As for digging at religion, most of Side 2 risks the wrath of the deep American south, with “Wind Up” hitting the spot about God: “He’s not the type you have to wind up on Sundays.” Tull made many great albums in their long career, and it could be argued that some are better than this. But this is the one that touches all bases, and is iconic above the likes of “Thick As A Brick”, “Songs From The Wood”, and albums with even weirder titles. Why’s it called Aqualung? Because it is!

(If you like this, you’ll also like:)  Running your body up against a combine harvester, Real Ale, and (of course) “Thick As A Brick” by Jethro Tull.

 

6 Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake & Palmer (1973)

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The totally indulgent supergroup trio just about peaked with their 5th album, mainly due to the 30 minute Karn Evil 9, famous for the “Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends…!” bit. Keith Emerson (formerly with The Nice) noodled endlessly on organ (which he used to stick sharp daggers into); Greg Lake (formerly King Crimson) sang & played bass on a rug (to make sure he didn’t get electrocuted, as a lot of people did then); & Carl Palmer (formerly Atomic Rooster) drummed (often on a revolving drumkit) with all his might to cover for the fact that they didn’t have a guitarist (shock horror). Here the lunatics take on the hymn “Jerusalem” and “Toccata”, before charming us with the sweet “Still..You Turn Me On”. They thought they were geniuses, but were in fact as mad as toasters. We began to see through the kings-new-clothes after their next studio outing “Works (Volume 1)”, which had the superb “Pirates” & “Fanfare For The Common Man”, but also three sides of truly awful solo material. No one took them very seriously after that.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Listening to a child throttle a violin for several hours, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or (more seriously) Barclay James Harvest’s Early Morning Onwards.

 

5 Going For The One by Yes (1977)

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Whereas ELP were a trio, Yes were a quintet, with even more opportunity for self-indulgence. After the classic LP “Close To The Edge”, Bill Bruford (drums) was off; and after the ultimate WTF album “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” so was keyboard genius Rick Wakeman. With rock music changing in 1977 (mainly towards punk), the idea that Yes could re-unite with Wakeman & make a killer album were one in a million. Imagine our surprise when the 5 wizards rocked out on the title track & “Parallels”, hit the charts with “Wonderous Stories”, & charmed fans old and new with the biting but noodly “Awaken”. Bewildering. Famously, Sounds Magazine began their review of it with the words: “Go on, guess how the first Yes album for three years begins. I tell you, you haven’t got a hope. The fact is, someone spits out a ‘One, two, three, four’ and Steve Howe’s guitar goes hell-for-leather into a hot rock’n’roll lick supported by Chris Squire’s bumping bass line. I really couldn’t credit it. But it was so.” Hm, maybe I should have chosen the more prog-y “Close To The Edge” instead, if only for its dreamy Roger Dean cover art, rather than Hipgnosis’ cryptic nude-man “Going…” concept. What the hell was that all about? Not a clue.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Er, “Close To The Edge” by Yes, “A Farewell To Kings” by Rush, “Hounds Of Love” by Kate Bush, very high dog-whistles,…

 

4 Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (1973)

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Richard Branson trusted a precocious 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist in his new recording studio. What lunatic would do that? But the album launched Branson & Virgin on to an unsuspecting public, so now we know who to blame. It’s two heavily multi-tracked 20 minute instrumental pieces – yeah an obvious hit. But it’s Side 1 that matters (sorry, Side 2, but it’s true – you’re just a hanger-on). The first part is a repetitive riff (famously used in The Exorcist movie), and the last part is a repetitive riff, with Vivian Stanshall announcing the many instruments that Oldfield gets through (including Marc Bolan’s Telecaster guitar). Mesmerising. With it’s iconic “bent bit of tube” album cover, it sold by the million, giving rise to Virgin Trains & Virgin Broadband. Oh, and “Tubular Bells 2”.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Watching the traffic going by from a café window. Soft Machine. Oh, and “Tubular Bells 2”. But not “Tubular Bells 3”, which was ghastly.

 

3 Selling England By The Pound by Genesis (1973)

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It’s hard to believe that the classic line-up of Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Michael Rutherford, Steve Hackett, & Tony Banks (listed here in order of solo career sales) made FIVE brilliant albums between 1971 and 1974, all eccentrically English fodder. “Selling England…” is the most explicable. I use the word “explicable” very loosely here, in that it doesn’t have songs about Lambs Lying On Broadway, Victorian girls knocking heads off with crocket mallets, Winston Churchill dressed in drag (The Daily Mail would have something to say about that today, I can tell you), and Giant Hogweeds. Nope, instead it has a song about a lawnmower called “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”; a manic view on Green Shield Stamps & Whimpey Bars; and the hopelessly nonsensical “Firth Of Fifth”. The album actually starts with Gabriel singing “Can you tell me where my country lies?” when really we should be asking “What planet are you on?” The oddity here is “Cinema Show”, which relates a tale of going on a date with…a girl! Like Caravan’s “Golf Girl” this is ridiculous. No one involved in any way with Prog could ever hold down a conversation with…a girl. This album should have led to further success, but instead they made the sprawling “Lamb Lies Down…” album, and promptly lost Peter Gabriel down the sofa. Pity.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Playing with Dyson vacuum cleaners, Van Der Graaf Generator (the machine, not the band), “Foxtrot” & “Nursery Cryme” by Genesis, and the Isle Of Man.

 

2 In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson (1969)

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History now claims that THIS was the first proper Prog album, and everything evolves from this. All before this (Cream, Hendrix, early-Floyd, Val Doonican) was Psychedelic Rock or Blues (or both). A bunch of misfits from Dorset suddenly produced this heavy mellotron-dunked masterpiece from nowhere. OK, Robert Fripp was a genius guitarist, Greg Lake was an awesome vocalist, Ian McDonald was a cracking composer & keyboard player, and Pete Sinfield could write weirdy lyrics all day long, but it’s still a million miles from the whimsically barmy “Cheerful Insanity of Giles Giles & Fripp” album. It launches into the terrifying “21st Century Schizoid Man” (now being used to advertise perfume, I note), towers over us with the epic “Epitaph”, and goes true-gothic with the title-track. Jazz-fusion, pomp, noodling, nonsense, tracks with sub-titles…it had it all. The band naturally fell apart, with Lake forming ELP whilst Fripp staggered on with a limping Crimson till they made the awesome “Red” album in 1974…and promptly broke up.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Having your brain welded to a lemon, country fairs, “Red” by King Crimson.

Honourable mentions to:

“Crime Of The Century” by Supertramp (too poppy)
“SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things (too psychedelic)
Peter Gabriel 1 (1977) (too Genesis (see above))
“Live At Leeds” by John Martyn (Not actually recorded live in Leeds, er…)
“Free Hand” by Gentle Giant (too clever)
“HQ” by Roy Harper (too real)
“Hindsight” by Final Conflict (too local to Stoke(?))
“The Original Soundtrack” by 10cc (too wistful)

 

1 The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)

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It’s hard to believe that the band whose three previous albums were “Ummagumma”, “Atom Heart Mother”, & “Meddle” could suddenly produce THIS stunning blueprint for life itself. “Breathe”, “Time”, “Money”, “Us & Them”, “Brain Damage” – that just about covers it all. But how did they become so melodic from being so avant-garde? God knows. With early synthesisers, sound affects, and a number of Abbey Road employees talking nonsense in the background, Floyd created the ultimate Prog album. Roger Waters’ cutting lyrics and Dave Gilmour’s souring vocals & guitar dominate, and it seems a million miles from “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” (the crown jewels of the Ummagumma album). It ends with a heartbeat fading away and a voice muttering, “There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it’s ALL dark.” which sorts of squares the circle nicely.

(If you like this, you’ll also like:) Self-help books, yoga, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (that difficult follow-up to “Dark Side Of The Moon”), and BBC4.

So, there you have it, a right garden-party chock-full of heavy nuggets of Prog.
If you think I’ve missed one, let me know. But until we meet again,
I’m taking a ride in my silver machine….because I’m still feeling mean.
(DL 31/12/15)

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