The first wave of British Progressive Rock opened doors in music that pop musicians had never previously opened. These bands pushed rock’s technical and compositional boundaries by going beyond the standard rock or pop verse-chorus based song structures. Additionally, the arrangements often incorporated elements drawn from classical, jazz, and world music with individual musicians priding themselves on their virtuosity with the intent of proving rock’s status as ‘high art’. At Fopp we’re celebrating the pioneers and absolute classic albums of the genre.
Camel never achieved the mass popularity of fellow British progressive rock bands like the Alan Parsons Project, but they cultivated a dedicated cult following. Over the course of their career, Camel experienced numerous changes, but throughout the years, Andrew Latimer remained the leader of the band. Formed in 1972 in Surrey, Camel originally consisted of Latimer (guitar, flute, vocals), Andy Ward (drums), Doug Ferguson (bass), and keyboardist Peter Bardens, previously of Them. By the end of 1973, the group signed with MCA and released their eponymous debut. In 1974, the band switched record labels, signing with Decca’s Gama subsidiary, and released Mirage. In 1975, Camel released their breakthrough album The Snow Goose, which climbed into the British Top 30. The band’s English audience declined with 1976’s Moonmadness, but the album was more successful in America, reaching number 118 — the highest chart position the band ever attained in the U.S. Following the release of Moonmadness, Ferguson left the band and was replaced by Richard Sinclair at the same time, the group added saxophonist Mel Collins. Latimer and Bardens conflicted during the recording of 1977’s Rain Dances and those tensions would come to a head during the making of 1978’s Breathless. After Breathless was completed, Bardens left the band. Before recording their next album, Camel replaced Bardens with two keyboardists — Kit Watkins (Happy the Man) and Jim Schelhaas– and replaced Sinclair with Colin Bass. By the time Camel released their 1979 album, I Can See Your House From Here, rock & roll had been changed by the emergence of punk rock, which resulted in less press coverage for progressive rock, as well as decreased record sales.
Essential Listening: Camel CD £7 Mirage CD £7 LP £28 Moonmadness CD £7 LP £28
Electric Light Orchestra
The Electric Light Orchestra’s ambitious yet irresistible fusion of Beatlesque pop, classical arrangements, and futuristic iconography rocketed the group to massive commercial success throughout the 1970s. ELO was formed in Birmingham, England in the autumn of 1970 from the ashes of the eccentric art-pop combo the Move, reuniting frontman Roy Wood with guitarist/composer Jeff Lynne, bassist Rick Price, and drummer Bev Bevan. Announcing their intentions to “pick up where ‘I Am the Walrus’ left off,” the quartet sought to embellish their engagingly melodic rock with classical flourishes, tapping French horn player Bill Hunt and violinist Steve Woolam to record their self-titled debut LP (issued as No Answer in the U.S.) Electric Light Orchestra sold strongly, buoyed by the success of the U.K. Top Ten hit “10538 Overture.” However, Wood soon left ELO to form Wizzard, taking Hunt and McDowell with him; Price and Craig were soon out as well, and with the additions of bassist Michael D’Albuquerque, keyboardist Richard Tandy, and cellists Mike Edwards and Colin Walker, Lynne assumed vocal duties, with his Lennonesque tenor proving the ideal complement to his increasingly sophisticated melodies. With 1973’s ELO II, the group returned to the Top Ten with their grandiose cover of the Chuck Berry chestnut “Roll Over Beethoven”; the record was also their first American hit, with 1974’s Eldorado yielding their first U.S. Top Ten, the lovely “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.” The platinum-selling double-LP, Out of the Blue, appeared in 1977, featuring some of their most accomplished work to date. 1979’s Discovery, which notched the Top Ten entries “Shine a Little Love” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.”. The next proper Electric Light Orchestra album, 1981’s Time, generated their final Top Ten hit, “Hold on Tight.” Following 1983’s Secret Messages, Bevan left the group to join Black Sabbath, although he returned to the fold for 1986’s Balance of Power, which despite the presence of the Top 20 hit “Calling America,” received little interest from fans and media alike. In 2015 Lynne revived ELO — this time the billing was Jeff Lynne’s ELO — for Alone in the Universe, his first album of originals in 14 years. It appeared on Columbia Records in November 2015. With new songs at their disposal the band went on tour, including dates in America, festival appearances, and a U.K. show at Wembley that was recorded for their 2017 live album, Wembley or Bust.
Essential Listening: Out of the Blue CD £11 LP £32 Eldorado CD £11 LP £23
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Emerson, Lake & Palmer were progressive rock’s first supergroup. Greeted by the rock press and the public as something akin to conquering heroes, they succeeded in broadening the audience for progressive rock from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of listeners. They created a major radio phenomenon as well, penning classic rock radio staples like “Lucky Man,” Still…You Turn Me On,” and “Karn Evil 9 1st Impression, Pt. 2,” and issuing hugely influential albums like Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery. Their flamboyance on record and in the studio echoed the best work of the heavy metal bands of the era, proving that classical rockers could compete for that arena-scale audience. Over and above their own commercial success, the trio also paved the way for contemporaries such as Jethro Tull and Yes, the latter of whom would become their chief rivals for much of the 1970s. ELP disbanded in 1979 but re-formed in 1991 and issued two more studio albums, Black Moon (1992) and In the Hot Seat (1994), before ceasing operations once again. In 2010 they performed their final show at the High Voltage Festival in London to commemorate their 40h anniversary. Keyboardist Keith Emerson and bassist/guitarist/vocalist Greg Lake passed away in 2016, leaving drummer Carl Palmer as the sole remaining member.
Essential Listening: Brain Salad Surgery CD £12 LP £25
Genesis started life as a progressive rock band, in the manner of Yes and King Crimson, before a series of membership changes brought about a transformation in their sound, into one of the most successful pop/rock bands of the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, the group has provided a launching pad for the superstardom of members Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, and star solo careers for members Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford, and Steve Hackett. The group’s studio release of note, Selling England by the Pound (1973), was also their biggest seller to date, reaching number three in England and number 70 in America. The release in late 1974 of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway also marked the culmination of the group’s early history. A concept album with a very involved story and a large cast of characters, its composition had been difficult, involving a story outlined and written (along with most of the lyrics) exclusively by Gabriel. With Peter Gabriel’s departure and drummer Phil Collins taking his place, Genesis returned to the studio as a quartet in October of 1975 to work on their new album, and the resulting Trick of the Tail was not a huge departure from their earlier work — there were still musically challenging progressive songs on the album. In 1978, Genesis released the appropriately titled And Then There Were Three due to the departure of guitarist Steve Hackett — with sales driven by the hit single “Follow You, Follow Me,” the album got the group its first gold record award. By this time, the group had become a pure pop outfit, and its subsequent albums Duke (1980) and Abacab (1981) both topped the charts in England while brushing near or reaching the Top Ten in America. In 1983, the band regrouped for the self-titled Genesis, which furthered the group’s record of British chart-toppers and American Top Ten hits, becoming their second million-selling U.S. album. Two years later, the group outdid itself with the release of its most commercially successful album to date, Invisible Touch, which — driven by a quintet of Top Ten U.S. singles, including a number one chart placement for the title song — went platinum several times over in America. It was seven years before the band released its next album, We Can’t Dance, which debuted at number one in England and got to number four in America. Genesis were hardly heard from except in an archival capacity for most of the first decade of the 21st century, however two reunion tours in 2007 and 2021/22 have truly cemented their place as one of the musical monoliths of their era.
Essential Listening: Selling England by the Pound CD £9 LP £28 Lamb Lies Down On Broadway CD £15 2LP £38 Trick of the Tail CD £9 LP £35
Formed at the dawn of the progressive rock era, Gentle Giant seemed poised for a time in the mid-’70s to break out of their cult-band status, but they somehow never made the jump. Somewhat closer in spirit to Yes and King Crimson than to Emerson, Lake & Palmer or the Nice, their unique sound melded hard rock and classical music, with an almost medieval approach to singing. In 1970, Gentle Giant signed to the Vertigo label, and their self-titled first album — a shockingly daring work mixing hard rock and full electric playing with classical elements — came out later that year. Their second effort, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, was slightly more accessible and their third, Three Friends, featuring Malcolm Mortimore on drums, was their first record to get released in the U.S. (on Columbia). The band’s fourth album, 1973’s Octopus, looked poised for a breakthrough; it seemed as though they had found the mix of hard rock and classical sounds that the critics and the public could accept. In 1974, however, Gentle Giant began coming apart. Phil Shulman decided to give up music after the Octopus tour and became a teacher. Then the group recorded the album In a Glass House, their hardest-rocking record yet, which Columbia’s U.S. arm rejected as too uncommercial. The two-year gap in their American release schedule hurt their momentum, and they weren’t heard from again until the Capitol release of The Power and the Glory in 1975.Gentle Giant issued Free Hand, their most commercial album, in 1976, but then followed it with the jarringly experimental Interview. After the 1978 double album Playing the Fool, the band went through a seeming change of heart and issued a series of records aimed at mainstream audiences, even approaching disco, but by the end of the 1970s their popularity was in free fall. Gentle Giant called it quits in 1980. Ray Shulman later became a producer and had considerable success in England working with bands like the Sundays and the Sugarcubes, while Derek Shulman became a New York-based record company executive.
Essential Listening: Free Hand CD £20 Octopus CD £16
Jethro Tull were a unique phenomenon in popular music history. Their mix of hard rock, folk melodies, blues licks, surreal, impossibly dense lyrics, and overall profundity defied easy analysis, but that didn’t dissuade fans from giving them 11 gold and five platinum albums. At the same time, critics rarely took them seriously, and they were off the cutting-edge of popular music by the end of the ’70s. But no record store in the country would want to be without multiple copies of each of their most popular albums (Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Living in the Past), or their various best-of compilations, and few would knowingly ignore their newer releases. For many fans, the group’s classic period is around their 1971 effort Aqualung and 1972’s Thick as a Brick. Frontman Ian Anderson’s writing had been moving in a more serious direction since the group’s second album, but it was with Aqualung that he found the lyrical voice he’d been seeking. The blues influences were muted almost to nonexistence, but the hard rock passages were searing and the folk influences provided a refreshing contrast. Late in 1971, they began work on their next album, Thick as a Brick. Structurally more ambitious than Aqualung, and supported by an elaborately designed jacket in the form of a newspaper, this record was essentially one long song steeped in surreal imagery, social commentary, and Anderson’s newly solidified image as a wildman-sage. Released in England during April of 1972, Thick as a Brick got as high as the number five spot, but when it came out in America a month later, it hit the number one spot, making it the first Jethro Tull album to achieve greater popularity in America than in England. Throughout the 1970s the group released numerous albums regarded highly by Tull fans including Songs From The Wood and Stormwatch.They continued to maintain a loyal following post their 70’s heyday with their most recent effort The Zealot Gene being released in January 2022.
Essential Listening: Aqualung CD £7 LP £40 Thick as A Brick CD £8 LP £32 Songs From The Wood CD £7
The Moody Blues
The Moody Blues, as they came to be known, made their debut in Birmingham in May of 1964 and they started out as one of the better R&B-based combos of the British Invasion. Although they’re best known today for their lush, lyrically and musically profound (some would say bombastic) psychedelic-era albums that acted as a precursor to Progressive Rock. Their first venture into psychedelic excess was 1967’s Days of Future Passed, the record’s mix of rock and classical sounds was new, and at first puzzled the record company, which didn’t know how to market it, but eventually the record was issued, first in England and later in America. It became a hit in England, propelled up the charts by the single “Nights in White Satin” (authored and sung by Hayward), which made the Top 20 in the U.K.; in America, the chosen single was another Hayward song, “Tuesday Afternoon.” All of it hooked directly into the aftermath of the Summer of Love, and the LP was — totally accidentally — timed perfectly to fall into the hands of listeners who were looking for an orchestral/psychedelic recording to follow works such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their follow up In Search of the Lost Chord (1968) put the Mellotron in the spotlight, and it quickly became a part of their signature sound. The album, sublimely beautiful and steeped in a strange mix of British whimsy (“Dr. Livingston I Presume”) and ornate, languid Eastern-oriented songs (“Visions of Paradise,” “Om”), also introduced one psychedelic-era anthem, “Legend of a Mind”; authored by Ray Thomas and utilizing the name of LSD guru Timothy Leary in its lyric and choruses, along with swooping cellos and lilting flute, it helped make the band an instant favorite among the late-’60s counterculture. That album and its follow-up, 1969’s On the Threshold of a Dream, were magnificent achievements, utilizing their multi-instrumental skills and the full capability of the studio in overdubbing voices, instruments, etc. Continuing into the 1970s to release ever more complex and progressive music, The Moody Blues had set the stage for the orchestral and harmonic developments that would come to dominate AOR in the early to mid 70s.
Essential Listening: Days of Future Passed CD £7 On the Threshold of a Dream CD £7
Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Mike Oldfield rose to global fame on the success of Tubular Bells, an eerie, album-length conceptual piece employed to stunning effect in William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist; it has since sold some 15 million copies and become an indelible entry in the history of popular instrumental music. Oldfield enjoys a special place in pop history not only for his most famous composition, but as a bridge between prog-rock, new age, mainstream pop, and cinematic music. His other ’70s recordings (Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn, Incantations) are widely considered prog-rock classics, comprised of sounds ranging from Celtic folk and guitar rock to jazz, spidery funk, and neo-classical. In addition to Tubular Bells, Oldfield’s music has been widely used in films. He composed the Golden Globe-nominated score for Roland Joffe’s Oscar-winning The Killing Fields in 1984, while selections from his other recordings have been used in feature films, on television programs, and in video-game soundtracks. While he pursued a direction that elucidated itself via pop during the ’80s and ’90s, his progressive rock and jazz leanings returned in the 21st century on albums such as Return to Ommadawn. In addition to his own recordings, Oldfield is a prolific session player and arranger. He has worked extensively with Kevin Ayers, David Bedford, Pierre Moerlin’s Gong, Robert Wyatt, sister Sally Oldfield, Michel Polnareff, and many more.
Essential Listening: Tubular Bells CD £7 LP £25
Some bands turn into shorthand for a certain sound or style, and Pink Floyd belongs among that elite group. The very name connotes something specific: an elastic, echoing, mind-bending sound that evokes the chasms of space. Pink Floyd grounded that limitless sound with exacting explorations of mundane matters of ego, mind, memory, and heart, touching upon madness, alienation, narcissism, and society on their concept albums of the ’70s. Of these concept albums, Dark Side of the Moon resonated strongest, earning new audiences year after year, decade after decade, and its longevity makes sense. That 1973 album distilled the wild psychedelia of their early years — that brief, heady period when they were fronted by Syd Barrett — into a slow, sculpted, widescreen epic masterminded by Roger Waters, the bassist who was the band’s de facto leader in the ’70s. Waters fueled the band’s golden years, conceiving such epics as Wish You Were Here and The Wall, but the band survived his departure in the ’80s, with guitarist David Gilmour stepping to the forefront on A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell. Throughout the years, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright appeared in some capacity, and the band’s sonic signature was always evident: a wide, expansive sound that was instantly recognizable as their own, yet was adopted by all manner of bands, from guitar-worshiping metalheads to freaky, hippie, ambient electronic duos. Unlike almost any of their peers, Pink Floyd played to both sides of the aisle: they were rooted in the blues but their heart belonged to the future, a dichotomy that made them a quintessentially modern 20th century band.
Essential Listening: The Dark Side of the Moon CD £11 LP £21 Wish You Were Here CD £13 LP £20 Animals CD £14 LP £20 Wall CD £14 2LP £32
The history of Renaissance is essentially the history of two separate groups, rather similar to the two phases of the Moody Blues or the Drifters. The original group was founded in 1969 by ex-Yardbirds members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty as a sort of progressive folk-rock band, who recorded two albums (of which only the first, self-titled LP came out in America, on Elektra Records) but never quite made it, despite some success on England’s campus circuit. Their first album in this incarnation, Prologue, released in 1972, was considerably more ambitious than the original band’s work, with extended instrumental passages and soaring vocals by Haslam. Their breakthrough came with their next record, Ashes Are Burning, issued in 1973, which introduced guitarist Michael Dunford to the lineup and featured some searing electric licks by guest axeman Andy Powell. Their next record, Turn of the Cards, released by Sire Records, had a much more ornate songwriting style and was awash in lyrics that alternated between the topical and the mystical. Scheherazade (1975) was built around a 20-minute extended suite for rock group and orchestra that dazzled the fans but made no new converts. A live album recorded at a New York concert date reprised their earlier material, including the “Scheherazade” suite, but covered little new ground and showed the group in a somewhat lethargic manner. The band’s next two albums, Novella and A Song for All Seasons, failed to find new listeners, and as the 1970s closed out, the group was running headlong into the punk and new wave booms that made them seem increasingly anachronistic and doomed to cult status.
Essential Listening: Ashes are Burning: CD £14
Over four-plus decades, Canadian power trio Rush (bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart) became one of rock’s most celebrated and enduring bands. Rush garnered a large and devoted following among hard rock, heavy metal, and prog audiences almost from the beginning. They sold over 40 million records and were nominated for seven Grammys between 1981-2010; they also netted 25 gold and/or platinum albums, and all but three entered the upper half of the Top 200. After 1981’s chart-topping Moving Pictures, they began a seven-year period where their recorded sound was dominated by Lee’s synth playing, which culminated on 1989’s Presto. During the ’90s, they shifted toward a hooky and radio-friendly brand of hard rock, best exemplified by 1996’s Test for Echo. During their final period, they delivered studio offerings that fused heavy and prog in new ways; the last was 2012’s conceptual Clockwork Angels. Rush amicably split in 2015 after Peart decided to retire from touring. He died from brain cancer in early 2020.
Essential Listening: Moving Pictures CD £7 2112 CD £7 Fly By Night CD £10
Though it ultimately must be considered an interim vehicle for singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist Steve Winwood, Traffic was a successful group that followed its own individual course through the rock music scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Beginning in the psychedelic year of 1967 and influenced by the Beatles, the band turned out eclectic pop singles in its native Great Britain, though by the end of its first year of existence it had developed a pop/rock hybrid tied to its unusual instrumentation: At a time when electric guitars ruled rock, Traffic emphasized Winwood’s organ and the reed instruments played by Chris Wood, especially flute. After Dave Mason, who had provided the band with an alternate folk-pop sound, departed for good, Traffic leaned toward extended songs that gave its players room to improvise in a jazz-like manner, even as the rhythms maintained a rock structure. The result was international success that ended only when Winwood finally decided he was ready to strike out on his own.
Essential Listening: Traffic CD £7 LP £20 Mr Fantasy CD £7 LP £20
Van Der Graaf Generator
An eye-opening trip to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the summer of 1967 inspired British-born drummer Chris Judge Smith to compose a list of possible names for the rock group he wished to form. Upon his return to Manchester University, he began performing with singer/songwriter Peter Hammill and keyboardist Nick Peame; employing one of the names from Judge Smith’s list, the band dubbed itself Van der Graaf Generator (after a machine that creates static electricity), eventually earning an intense cult following as one of the era’s preeminent art rock groups. After the release of the 1968 single “People You Were Going To,” Judge Smith left Van der Graaf Generator, which by then consisted of Hammill, keyboardist Hugh Banton, bassist Keith Ellis, and drummer Guy Evans. The group soon split, and in 1968 Hammill entered the studio, ostensibly to record a solo album; however, he ultimately called in his ex-bandmates for assistance, and when The Aerosol Grey Machine appeared, it did so under the Van der Graaf Generator name. Although Ellis was replaced by Nic Potter and woodwind player David Jackson, the reconstituted group continued on for 1969’s Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other. After 1970’s H to He, Who Am the Only One, Potter departed; the Generator recorded one more LP, 1971’s Pawn Hearts, before Hammill left for a solo career, putting an end to the group. After five solo efforts, however, Hammill again re-formed Van der Graaf Generator in 1975 for Godbluff. Following a pair of 1976 albums, Still Life and World Record, Banton and Jackson exited; as simply Van der Graaf, the band recorded The Quiet Zone with new violinist Graham Smith. After a 1978 live set, Vital, the group officially disbanded, although most members made appearances on Hammill’s subsequent solo records.
Essential Listening: Godbluff CD £7 H to He, Who Am the Only One CD £7
Yes didn’t invent progressive rock, but they helped bring it to mainstream audiences, steering the development and definition of the genre. Once their classic lineup of Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and Bill Bruford locked into place for 1971’s Fragile, the band crystallized all of the sonic and visual signifiers that eventually became synonymous with prog rock. Yes shifted between complicated time signatures, spliced pastoral folk, and Baroque classical in their muscular rock & roll, structured their songs as mini-suites, and wrapped the entire package in fantastical artwork by Roger Dean. This early incarnation of Yes didn’t last long, and once the band regrouped in the late ’70s, they embraced the steely, shiny sounds of album-oriented rock. They soared through the MTV era on the strength of their 1983 album 90125 and its dazzling, Trevor Horn-produced hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the band’s first American number one hit. Yes’ fame had diminished somewhat by the end of the ’80s, but the band remained active throughout the next decade and beyond, albeit amid multiple line-up changes and hiatuses. They maintained a loyal fan base through touring and the sporadic release of new albums, continuing to explore on releases like 2014’s Heaven & Earth and 2021’s The Quest.
Essential Listening: Close To The Edge CD £7 LP £30 90125 CD £7 Fragile CD £7 Tales From Topographic Oceans CD £9 LP £35
prices subject to change.