Entry 1: Before it was a joke, prog was the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
The death of real rock ‘n’ roll began one morning in 1964, at the Organ Center in the southern England city of Portsmouth. Keith Emerson, 19, had 200 pounds to spend on a keyboard. He had options. But he got distracted by something bigger, more beautiful, and beyond his means.
“There it was,” he remembers in his autobiography, “resplendent in beautiful shining mahogany—the Hammond L 100 electric organ. I played it.” He heard the warm tones, engineered to sound like they came from pipes, but with distinctive warm hums. “That was the sound.”
Emerson had noodled around with the Hammond before. The L 100, rolled out in 1961, imitated the sound of a church organ by placing 96 metal tonewheels in front of 96 electromagnetic pick-ups. The tonewheels rotated, charging the pick-ups, generating the sound. Two keyboards shared space with nine “drawbars”—move the bars, change the sound of your notes. Jazz musicians used this, as did (somewhat less inspirationally) the nice old ladies who played during the dull sections of ballgames.
Some people could afford to put the cost of a small car into an organ. Emerson couldn’t. He had all the training, years of piano and music lessons. The Royal Academy of Music had offered him a place, which he’d turned down, working instead for a bank, gigging with jazz and rock groups. Emerson contemplated what the Hammond could do for him. Could he quit the bank, gig full-time? His father, who’d joined him on the shopping trip, broke in—“You’ve got to have it”—and paid the price difference.
By 1967, Emerson was touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Pink Floyd, and composing the first long classical-rock symphony. By 1970, he was one-third of a super-group that could sell out Madison Square Garden and summon 350,000 people to the Ontario (California) Speedway, possibly the biggest single concert of the 1970s.
Marc Bonilla / Keyboard Magazine
And by 1977, Keith Emerson was, to critics and a new generation of fans, the wince-inducing icon of progressive rock. Prog. And prog, thanks to the heroic efforts of the culture-gatekeepers, was deader than Elvis locked in King Tut’s sarcophagus and spit out of an airlock.
You can’t completely kill an art form. Even if a musical genre becomes despised, it endures—on master tapes, on cut-out LPs, on Spotify or MP3-trade fora. Simon Reynolds describes how the “massive, super-available archive” gifted to us by the Internet allows anyone to rediscover anything, and pop music to gnaw its own tail. Hip-hop artists, our cultural magpies, comb through prog’s greatest hits to sample its stranger riffs and lost organ bleats. Modern, prog-influenced acts like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree can sell out midsized venues.
But if ever a form of popular music dropped dead suddenly, it was prog. Progressive rock essentially disappeared, and has remained in obscurity for 35 years, ridiculed by rock snobs, ignored by fans, its most famous artists—Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull—catchphrases for pretentious excess.
Rock historians wished it all away. The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, originally serialized in Vanity Fair, defined prog as the “single most deplored genre of postwar pop music.” Rolling Stone’s quasi-annual “best albums ever” lists include some Pink Floyd albums, but disregard all other prog. When a Funkadelic or Foghat or Blondie song appears in a movie, it says “1970s.” Prog doesn’t often appear in movies unless they’re directed by Vincent Gallo, and when it does it’s as a goof—think of Dr. Venture playing prog for his son in The Venture Brothers, then panicking when the kid gets stuck in a “Floyd Hole.” Also, please ask a fan how he (yes, usually he) feels about Yes and ELP and Jethro Tull being stonewalled from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while the Red Hot Chili Peppers —the Red Hot Chili Peppers—make it in.
But prog was fabulously popular for years—and for years, critics liked it. It was more arty and ambitious than anything else in rock. Rolling Stone panned Led Zeppelin’s output and raved about the first Emerson Lake & Palmer record—“such a good album it is best heard as a whole,” wrote Loyd Grossman.
Time to declare my bias. I like this music. I also understand why it’s an easy punch line. When I talked to prog artists and producers for these stories, I learned that they, too, understood their reduced role in pop history. Keith Emerson has seen the sketch that portrays him as a keyboard-toting medieval warrior who travels with 200 mules. “It was like they knew me,” he says. Hubris is funny.
But hubris is also compelling. We praise enormous, magisterial novels informed by the classic literary canon. We love huge movies that attempt never-before-accomplished technical feats. In music, though, many fans prize “authenticity”—the gritty allure of the untrained, instinctual rock star—more than they prize virtuosity or ambition. Say what you want about Icarus, but he was making an innovative use of wax and feathers. We’re too hard on the artists who try big things, show off their prowess, and occasionally screw it all up.
The laugh-and-gawk-and-parody approach is fun but doesn’t explain why this music was popular, much less why critics liked it. Progressive rock, in its various forms, evolved out of psychedelia, out of classical music, and out of jazz fusion. In every case, its practitioners became obsessed with sounds and technologies and song structures and took them as far as they could. Pop songs became four- or five-part pop symphonies, with preludes and codas and repeating themes. Wasn’t this where music was supposed to go?
That brings us back to Keith Emerson and the birth pangs of prog. In the mid-1960s, owning your own organ—and being able to play anything on it—was enough to land steady long-term gigs with bands. He signed up with the T-Bones, then the VIPs, capable bluesy outfits that gave him plenty of show-off time. A 1966 video of the T-Bones captures the band working out a rudimentary, mini-shirt-moving groove. (A sample lyric: “I know, baby!/ Come on, baby!”)
The band chugs along from guitar solo to trumpet solo, until Emerson gets to play. He’s got the fastest hands of anyone up there. He bobs and dances, and two girls behind him start dancing to catch up. When the full band returns, Emerson’s basically written a faster, bolder song.
Was he inventing anything in the mid-‘60s? Melodically, no, not yet. The jazz pianists that he really admired, like Dave Brubeck, played just as fast. Emerson innovated in other ways. At one show on their 1966 tour, as the VIPs toured northern France, a fight broke out in the audience. Another band might have stopped. The VIPs, though, heard Emerson messing around with the mechanics of his Hammond to make unearthly, violent noise. The band’s music was replaced by “air raid sirens” and “machine gun sounds,” the products of Emerson’s experiments with his poor tortured device. Soon enough the fight was over.
from the private collection of Davy O'List
Emerson found work next with the soul singer P.P. Arnold, an American who’d stuck around Britain and found a poppy, freak-beat sound. This was where Emerson put together the band that Arnold would name “The Nice”—Emerson, Lee Jackson, Brian “Blinky” Davison, Davy O’List. Their timing was perfect. In February 1967 ,the Beatles released the “Penny Lane”/ “Strawberry Fields Forever” double A-side single, with Paul McCartney on Mellotron and George Martin on cello. In May, Procol Harum put out “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” carried along by organist Matthew Fisher’s warm, overwhelming rip from Bach’s “Air on the G String.” In November, the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, a temporal concept album (“Lunch Break, Peak Hour”; “Twilight Time”; “Nights in White Satin”) blown up to circus size by the London Festival Orchestra.
From our vantage point, in 2012, the “rock record with classical ambition” is a cute experiment. You do it when you’ve already made your money. Metallica, meet London Philharmonic. But in those days, selling the public on this stuff was easy. Procol didn’t rescue Bach from music school; as organist Fisher pointed out to me, in 1967, “Air” was in ready rotation on British TV, as the theme from a Hamlet cigars commercial. Emerson could plug classical and jazz themes into the Nice’s songs because the crowds loved them. The centerpiece of band’s first record, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, was “Rondo,” a cover of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” The Nice turned it into a rock song, by switching from a stutter-start 9/8 time to 4/4.
“We were lucky,” remembers O’List. “Jimi Hendrix came to one of the gigs and invited us on tour.” The “first psychedelic tour” of Britain came in 1967—40 minutes for Hendrix, 17 minutes for Pink Floyd, 12 minutes for them—turned the Nice into headliners. “Rondo” killed.
How to classify the original sound of the Nice? It was psychedelic, with suitably space-cadet lyrics and Hendrix-esque guitar solos by O’List. But Hendrix was bluesy. The Nice had no use for that. “The basic policy of the group is that we're a European group,” explained lead singer Jackson in a 1968 International Times interview. “So, we're improvising on European structures. Improvisation can be around any form of music, so we're taking European work. We're not American Negros, so we can't really improvise and feel the way they can.”
Jackson was describing one of the reasons that critics would turn on prog. This was English music. English music wasn’t rock. The Nice’s live show, though, was absolutely rock. Emerson, still fooling with the Hammond, realized that a flat object, if wedged between the keys, could hold them down, playing notes that grew more and more distorted even as Emerson played another instrument. Emerson used spoons at first, then knives. One Nice roadie, he remembers in his memoir, “had a great collection of German army knives and gave me two Hitler Youth daggers, saying, ‘Beats the shit out of the British Boy Scouts. If you’re gonna use one, use a serious one.’” (The roadie, Lemmy Kilmeister, would go on to join Hawkwind, then to found Motörhead.) The effect: Emerson seemed to be murdering his instrument onstage.
“There’s a new group called the Nice—who are,” quipped Nick Jones in the September 1967 issue of Rolling Stone. “The group is led by organist Keith Emerson who plays like a groovy astronaut orbiting around everything. … If your eyes are open, you’ll soon be digging these guys.” Melody Maker gave readers lengthy read-outs on the band’s look—“leather and suede, fringed leather jackets, and trousers that disappear into tight thigh boots”—and pronounced 1968 “the Year of the Nice.”
The band took itself seriously. On June 5, after Robert F. Kennedy was shot, Emerson thought about the allegorical power of the song the band was rehearsing – Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” from West Side Story. “If Bob Dylan could make protest songs, why shouldn’t we?” he asked himself. “It could be the first protest instrumental.”
In the hands of Emerson, Jackson, Davison and O’List, “America” lasted 6 minutes and 21 seconds. The first sounds on it: dark organ chords, wailing chorus, muffled gunshots, screams. The last sounds: A 3-year old girl nervously saying, “America is pregnant with promise and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable!” Folded right in the middle of all that was a staccato figure from the 4th movement of Dvorak’s New World symphony. Here was Broadway, here was classical, wrenched into 1968 and given pomp and purpose. On June 26, when the Nice played the Royal Albert Hall, Jackson screamed the “America is pregnant” line—the cue for Emerson to set fire to an American flag.
How do you top that? Emerson decided to write a symphony. It would be called “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” —Latin for “Art is long, life is short,” and the motto of Lee Jackson’s grammar school. It was built out of pieces collected from here and there: a section of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, an eight-minute psychedelic freak-out titled “Ars Longa Vita Brevis,” an excellent seven-note hook from Davy O’List’s guitar. But O’List, so key to the old Nice sound, was fired while recording the album after forgetting to show up for a gig. (At one point, remembered Emerson, O’List had been so out of it he’d started “crumbling a chocolate bar over tobacco in mistake for the real thing.” List does not dispute this.) The band was more serious now. Seriousness meant a piece with a prelude, four movements, and a coda.
The first sound on “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” is a minor chord, played by the British Chamber Orchestra. The second sound is a six-note run up Emerson’s Hammond. Two more doomy chords from the orchestra. Back to the Hammond. The notes run together, fast, as the guy in the leather pants races the men in bow ties. He’s louder than them, but he has a reason. While recording “Ars Longa,” Emerson ducked into the bathroom and overheard two members of the orchestra whining about the indignity of the gig. “I can’t believe the tempo they’re taking on the Brandenburg,” sighed one of them. “It’s way too fast.” Emerson finished his business, returned to the organ, and cranked up the volume.
The prelude ends after two minutes, rung out by a gong. The first movement, “Awakening,” is a nearly three-minute drum solo. It’s ambitious and totally misguided—the listener falls right out of the melody, into a confusing world of timpani hits and repetitive rolls. Critics of prog would eventually point to the interminable drum solos in making their case, and this one is a helpful reminder why.
Then comes the O’List guitar lick, salvaged even though he’d been fired from the band. The second movement, “Realisation,” is a pop song with vocals, and a lyric that Jackson practically spits out.
Ars Longa Vita Brevis
A caption to a life of bliss
A rose too beautiful to see
Jumped off the bush to speak to me
Of life that's an ill-cast comedy
That’s more bitter sarcasm than listeners signed up for when buying a “psychedelic” record. But there’s not much more of a lyric to analyze—after three minutes Emerson’s organ and keyboard take charge again, playing out the seven-note theme, until he replaces it with the Bach melody in “Acceptance (Brandenburger).” The concerto excerpt is played by organ, bass, and drum—and then, by elements of the orchestra. It’s tough to discern where this ends and the final movement, “Denial,” begins. But the original theme re-emerges. Emerson et al. have tied the song together, and completed their symphony.
Immediate Records, the Nice’s label in the United Kingdom, decided to sell this as a serious work of art—with Keith Emerson as the genius behind it. He wrote his own ultra-serious ad copy. “Newton’s first law of motion states a body will remain at rest or continue with uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by force,” he proclaimed in bold white text on black background. “This time the force happened to come from a European source. Ours is an extension of the original Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.” “If Bach were alive today,” Emerson told Melody Maker, “he would be playing like Keith Jarrett.”
Davy O’List, perhaps not entirely over his firing, sees the band’s pretentious later incarnation as evidence they’d lost their touch. His guitar had once filled out their sound. Jackson couldn’t sing “rock,” O’List thought, as well as he could. “The part of ‘Ars Longa’ that worked was the part we wrote together,” he tells me. “The Nice had reached the pinnacle of their success all over the world by the time America was a hit in the charts,” he told another interviewer in 2007. “I don’t think I missed anything.”
But the post-guitar sound of the Nice was new. When the band played “Ars Longa” live, that ropey first-movement drum solo would get standing ovations. The Nice were playing bigger crowds in further corners of Europe and the States. It’s true that “Brandenburger,” released as a single, didn’t reach the Top 10 like “America” had. But single sales were mattering less and less: 1968 was the first year that album sales outpaced them in Britain and the United States. Listeners had bought plenty of pop; now they were ready for pomp, played by people who threw knives at Hammond organs, then picked them up to stab the instruments.
“Ars Longa” became the title of the Nice’s second record. The cover portrayed Emerson, O’List, and Jackson as interlocked skeletons with brightly colored organs. To get that photo, the three were injected with mildly radioactive solutions, then X-rayed. When Emerson got photographed, he learned that he’d broken two ribs.
“You break ribs playing keyboards?” asked his doctor. “I wouldn’t have considered it such a hazardous occupation.”
“Depends how you play ‘em,” said Emerson.
SlateV imagines the definitive collection of progressive rock, for any (semi) serious fan: Now That’s What I Call Prog!
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.