When Prog and Pop United
Progressive Rock after the Classic Era (1978 - 1989)
In the late 1970s, the progressive rock music landscape changed considerably, and that change lasted until the late 1980s. Was it the influence of punk getting popular? Was it the record companies demanding a change? Was it the bands adapting to a changed musical world? DPRP's Patrick McAfee tries to investigate.
It was 1978 was when my love of progressive rock began. That was when I turned 14 and, at the start of the calendar year, I hadn't yet established a significant musical identity. Like much of the rest of the world, I was enjoying Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and had begun listening to some of the popular metal bands of the day. Overall though, my taste in music was rather bland.
That changed one day while perusing the record collection of my friend's older brother. From the moment that I heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer, I knew there was something different and special about this genre of music. I would save up every possible cent to buy albums, and it didn't take long before I was fully entrenched in the 70s discographies of Yes, Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, and others. Coincidentally, 1978 was also the year that progressive rock hit a fork in the road and the classic era of prog came to an end. The debut from the band U.K. was released in March and to many fans, that album marks the closing chapter of the original phase of progressive rock.
The change was swift, and many of the established prog bands were quickly scrambling to determine what their next move would be. The most popular theory is that the emergence of punk rock caused the situation. From a music industry perspective, that probably did have a play in things. Punk was making a splash, and the labels were looking for the Next Big Thing. It seems a bit hard to fathom though, that the same people who loved albums like Close to the Edge and Selling England by the Pound, would gravitate to the simple and aggressive nature of punk rock. Regardless, the record labels were convinced that the era of prog was over. There is also the belief, by some, that prog rock began to flounder under its own excess. Whatever the reason, the need for change was inevitable.
The next few years were confusing times for the progressive rock faithful, as some of their musical icons began releasing albums that were definite head-scratchers. Still in the early stages of my enchantment with the genre, I can recall my befuddlement upon hearing albums like ELP's Love Beach and Gentle Giant's Giant for a Day for the first time. Time has been somewhat kind to these recordings, but like most fans at the time, there was no way for me to favourably compare them to their previous work. It was also not surprising that these albums marked the beginning of the end for both of these great bands.
Other bands like Yes, Camel and Jethro Tull released albums in this early period of transition that were perhaps a bit more artistically successful, but still showed signs of uncertainty. U.K. changed their line-up, and though their follow up album, Danger Money was still progressive, it was also more commercial.
Yes' Drama has aged extremely well, with some fans now calling it a classic. At the time, though, it was looked at by many as the band saddling up with two new-wave musicians to stay relevant. It helped that those two new members, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, were long-time fans of Yes. Though the band was welcomed with mostly open arms on their 1980 USA tour, the reaction in the UK was not quite as gracious. The line up disbanded soon after the tour ended.
As the new decade began, disco and pop predominantly ruled the music charts, whilst new wave and punk was favoured in the music press. For the most part, progressive rock had faded from view. It was frustrating to watch all of these talented prog musicians scrambling to somehow cater to the changing musical landscape. As a new fan, it was like arriving at a party when everyone else is leaving. In a relatively quick manner, progressive rock had become unfashionable.
The first two bands to enter this new phase with significant success were Pink Floyd (The Wall) and Genesis (And Then There Were Three, Duke and Abacab). In particular, Genesis seemed to embrace the change, with Duke seemingly closing one chapter and opening another within the same album. Also, Rush was a relatively new band at the time and they were gaining many fans with their prog-infused hard rock/metal.
The good news was that by the beginning of the 80s, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Some prog bands were having significant successes, that proved to record executives at the time that these musicians could still be bankable. Regardless, even the most optimistic music mogul would have had a difficult time predicting the extreme popularity that the first prog 'supergroup' of the decade would soon obtain.
1982 saw the release of the debut album from Asia, which initiated what is the most debated era of music amongst the progressive rock community. Consisting of Steve Howe, John Wetton, Geoff Downes and Carl Palmer, I was beyond excited at the time upon hearing the news of the uniting of these great musicians. Like most fans, I awaited an adventurous return to the long-form prog of the past. What arrived instead was an impeccably produced rock album with prog leanings and heavily-layered choruses. Some long-time fans were stunned, and their initial shock has resonated for over 30 years. Others saw the album as a fresh new start for the musicians and the genre in general.
The commercial response, particularly in the USA, was massive and resulted in a top-selling album and several hit singles. The band instantly became a staple on MTV and FM rock radio. Their popularity grew so quickly that the accompanying American tour moved from small theatres to arenas. Though it was perhaps surprisingly commercial at the time, the album masterfully introduced these musicians to new fans, in a new decade of music. It deserved its success and listening to it more than 30 years later, the quality of the material and the confidence displayed by the band still resonates. If the members of Asia were out to prove that they could still be relevant, they did so, abundantly.
Along with the increasing popularity of Genesis, Asia's success represented a somewhat odd period of time for me as a fan. Having discovered prog only four years prior, I hadn't experienced the extreme popularity that bands like Yes and ELP had in the early to mid 70s. I only knew the period of time when many of these musicians were being unfairly described as dinosaurs by some in the mainstream music press.
Thus, to suddenly see Genesis and Asia in a major spotlight was somewhat confusing. Friends and acquaintances that I had zero previous musical connection with, were now calling themselves fans. It was strange, and I initially went through a period of disenchantment with both bands. Call it immaturity, but the fact that their music was more commercial and could be heard everywhere, just didn't feel right. It was like having a great secret that everyone suddenly knows about.
Luckily, I was able to quickly move beyond those reservations and enjoy the resurgence of prog that it represented. It is true that albums like Asia's debut and Abacab were very different than their previous output, but it was impressive to hear how well these musicians were adjusting to the changing musical landscape.
Asia's reign at the top of the charts proved to be relatively short-lived. They released a rushed second album in 1983 and, though it was successful, the cracks were beginning to show. Band tensions were having a significantly negative effect and Greg Lake was soon subbing for a departed John Wetton in their heavily publicised 'Asia in Asia' TV concert. He did an admirable job, but it seemed a shame that the band couldn't better ride the wave of their success. Wetton would return, but it was under the condition that Steve Howe leave. The band's third album, Alpha was a commercial disappointment. Regardless of their brief prominence, the importance of the first Asia album for prog musicians and the overall genre cannot be overlooked.
The impact of Asia and Genesis was certainly not lost on their peers, and other bands continued to try and transition successfully to a more mainstream form of progressive rock. While Camel initially released the more adventurous, mostly instrumental Nude in 1981, they followed it up with the far more commercial and appropriately titled Single Factor a year later. The Alan Parsons Project hit a career zenith with Eye in the Sky and spawned the little known band Keats, which featured Pete Bardens and Colin Blunstone. King Crimson returned to the music scene with a new line up and released the excellent Discipline. Displaying a progressive style that embraced new wave overtones, Crimson was able to strike a chord with college-aged music fans. Greg Lake moved from ELP into a solo career by releasing his streamlined and accessible self-titled debut, and the equally commercial follow-up, Manoeuvres two years later.
Steve Hackett somewhat followed the direction of his previous bandmates by releasing the more straightforward, Cured and Highly Strung albums. In this same period, The Moody Blues recruited former Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz and embarked on a string of popular albums starting with Long Distant Voyager. Though the success of these and other related albums varied, prog musicians of the 70s were proving that they weren't going away. From a fan perspective, it was exciting to see the flurry of activity that was happening at the time.
In 1983, a new incarnation of Yes was announced, that included a little-known South African guitarist named Trevor Rabin. Though Drama had previously modernised the Yes sound to a certain extent, but nothing could prepare long-time fans for the first time that they heard 90125. With the album opener, Owner of a Lonely Heart, the band quickly established that this was a very different Yes. A then modern, catchy and radio friendly single, the song and the album both became instant hits. Suddenly, Yes was appealing to a whole new audience. Many fans and critics announced the album as a creative rebirth of the band.
Much like the response to Asia though, others were not nearly as complimentary. Some fans seemed to be almost personally insulted by the direction that the band had taken. Steve Howe himself acknowledged the creativity of 90125, but stated that it just wasn't Yes music as far as he was concerned. Considering that the band had originally formed under the moniker of Cinema, he may have had a point. It was certainly not Yes as it had been before, but whatever they were called, the album was a definitive statement.
I felt then as I do now. 90125 was a game changer and is one of the most exciting examples of a band re-inventing itself. It was amazing to see the name of Yes again making such a mark on the industry.
By this point in the decade, MTV had become a predominant force in music, and bands like Yes, Genesis and Asia were featured regularly on the channel. Just a few years after the prog genre had been counted out by many critics, these bands were seriously impacting the music charts and reaching a new generation of music fans. Though some naysayers felt otherwise, these artists didn't abandon their prog roots, as much as refashion them in a more accessible way for a new era.
The prominence of the classic progressive rock musician in the 80s continued when Keith Emerson and Greg Lake reunited for Emerson Lake and Powell. Their only album, released in 1986 was an excellent nod to ELP's past, in a then-modern casing. Hearing the first notes of album opener, The Score was like welcoming back an old friend (pun intended). The trio completed a badly managed, but extremely entertaining tour for the album.
In the same year, Steve Howe and Steve Hackett combined for the successful, yet short-lived GTR. Like many long-time fans of both guitarists, the band's only album initially left me a little underwhelmed. Over time though, I came to appreciate some of its charms and When the Heart Rules the Mind was a great single. GTR is perhaps, the most criticised album of the 80s amongst prog fans. It seems that most expected something completely different from this collaboration, but in retrospect, the album fell in line with what Howe and Hackett were doing in the decade. Their live shows seemed to impress even the critical, and GTR brought Steve Hackett a level of mainstream recognition that he hadn't seen before. The band didn't stay together for long, but the popularity of their one and only album further cemented the marketability that progressive rock artists had during the decade.
Phil Collins' solo career sky-rocketed, and to hardened prog fans he became the man that ruined Genesis. The band was seeing its most significant commercial success with Invisible Touch, and Mike Rutherford struck gold with his successful Mike & The Mechanics solo project. The dominance of Genesis and Phil Collins in the era was astronomical. The former lead singer of the band, Peter Gabriel, also had his biggest career success in the 80s with the release of his album, So. The video for the first single, Sledgehammer was revolutionary for its time and was in regular rotation on MTV.
Throughout the era, Mike Oldfield's albums combined his classic 70s instrumental composition style, with pop/rock songs. In the USA, Mike was still best known for the use of Tubular Bells in the film, The Exorcist. After the success of the Crises and Discovery albums in Europe, his 1987 release Islands was marketed significantly in the United States. As a fan, it was refreshing to see his Magic Touch video receiving regular airplay on American television. By this point, it was no longer just a matter of some 70s prog artists doing well in the 80s. Many of these musicians and bands had become a prominent part of the music scene and were experiencing their greatest commercial successes.
Former Camel keyboardist, Pete Bardens received regular MTV airplay with the song In Dreams, and Yes continued its popular run with the 1987 album Big Generator. The same year saw the release of the Yes-related and somewhat forgotten Esquire debut. The band was fronted by Chris Squire's ex-wife Nikki Squire, with some help from Chris, Trevor Horn and Alan White. The album was a gem, but for some reason, it got little to no promotion from Geffen Records upon its release.
The following year, Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer partnered with Robert Berry under the moniker, 3 for one album that was not particularly well received. Unlike the earlier ELPowell release, the uneven To the Power of Three strongly embraced an AOR pop sensibility that didn't fully click. The album has its moments, but soon after a tour of small theatres, it was not surprising when the band called it quits. As it was with GTR, 3 was also a strong live outfit, and material from their debut album was more effective in a concert setting.
Along with the work of the classic artists, the era was also exciting for a prog fan, due to the emergence of several younger bands whose output delivered a respectful nod to the past in a modern way. Marillion, It Bites, IQ and Pallas are just a few of these bands who released excellent albums in the 80s. In particular, Marillion's Misplaced Childhood and its hit song Kayleigh, helped to establish that prog wasn't a dirty word to younger musicians. Many of these bands became quite popular and, in the case of Marillion, they earned a second-to-none fan base that remains loyal to this day. The success of these bands further verified the strength of progressive rock and ensured that a whole new generation of musicians and their supporters would carry the torch forward.
Perhaps appropriately, the era closed out with the 1989 release of the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe self-titled album. Interestingly, it aspired to set aside the more commercial aspects that came with the era, for a style that more reflected the classic Yes sound of the 70s. Though it may have appeared that way on the surface, the newer sound established in the 80s was still apparent within the epic song structures. Several singles were culled from sections of the longer songs. Regardless, the album was an exciting way to end the decade, and the tour promoting it was memorable. The album hasn't aged as well as others from the era due to the keyboard and percussion choices made by Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford. Overall though, it is a vibrant recording and it was great to hear these musicians playing together again.
The album was a commercial success and a possible indication of great things to come from the band in the 90s. Regrettably, the next move for ABWH was to get involved with the disappointing Yes Union album in 1991. The 80s had ended and, with it, another chapter of progressive rock had to come to a close.
This period of time that started after the release of the U.K. debut album and ended in 1989, is the most debated era in the history of progressive rock. It was a time where reinvention was a necessity, and the resulting output alienated some but won over many.
Looking back after all these years, the music often reflects the production values of the time. Much of it though, contains a vitality that some of the musicians have not duplicated since. The conflicting dialogue that has existed between prog fans over the last 30 years is a testament to how drastic the musical change in direction was for some of these artists. Regardless, the best of the progressive rock of the 80s is, in its own way, as exciting as the classic music from the previous decade. As different as it was, it was also at times, every bit as enjoyable.
The importance of this period in progressive rock can't be underestimated. From a mainstream commercial perspective, it was the last era of major success for progressive rock musicians. As a fan, it was exciting to see my musical heroes in the album charts and prominently featured on MTV and commercial rock radio. To this day, I remember radio DJs triumphantly announcing the debut of songs and albums by Asia, Genesis, GTR, Yes, ELP and others.
Tours were prominently marketed and the crowds that attended were significant in numbers, and enthusiastic. Prog musicians and bands were regularly interviewed on TV talk shows, radio programmes and seen as 'Guest VJs' on MTV. It was a great time to be a fan.
Instead of the genre grinding to an unceremonious halt, it continued to strive in grand fashion. For that reason, the argument could be made that it was the most important period in the history of progressive rock (although perhaps not in terms of originality or creativity, as it is tough to compete with the unbridled magic that was the prog scene of the 70s). The 'post-classic period' was equally as important though for maintaining, and in some cases, heightening the stature of the genre and its players.
From a music industry perspective, the 90s were not as kind to prog musicians or their output. Progressive rock albums rarely dented the top of the charts, and in the world of rock, grunge was making the biggest impact. It hardly mattered though, as with the emergence of independent record labels and the internet, the prog scene continued to strengthen.
With this growth, the influence of the 80s prog scene became more apparent. Many of the modern-day prog musicians and fans not only credit albums like Asia's debut and 90125 as their introduction to progressive rock, but also as the reason that they then searched out the classic albums of the 70s.
Therein lies the lasting impression of the period of prog that started in 1978 and ran through the 80s. Today's vibrant prog scene is not only a reflection of the great 70s progressive rock that started it all, but also of the musical flame that continued to burn brightly in the following decade.