Essay Index

Prog-Rock: Pop or Not?

Progressive Rock (prog-rock) was a form of music that developed in the late 1960s and incorporated elements of those musical forms recognised as having "status" - that is, classical and jazz. Prog-rock was a predominantly British genre. While there were some groups in the Americas - Rush spring to mind - there were many European exponents, particularly in Germany and France, such as Gong, Can, Amun Duul, and Faust. The popularity of prog-rock as genre - and thus its place as an aspect of popular culture - cannot be denied: Pink Floyd's(1) Dark Side of the Moon had sold 19.5 million units, and spent 730 weeks on the Billboard chart to April 1989 (2), and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells is to be found in many a record collection.

For Andrew Goodwin "Progressive rock bands aspired to a cultural capital of Art..."(3) which might seem to disqualify prog-rock from the sphere of the popular. Yet Pierre Bourdieu has argued that in high culture, correct taste consisted in a "true appreciation of beauty"; this was in contrast to a popular culture that favoured realism, an appeal to the senses, and celebrated the vulgar and the bodily. Thus popular music would, according to Bourdieu, consist of simply constructed songs, with simple lyrics about love and sex, with easily remembered melodies which can also be danced to. Thus for Bourdieu, prog-rock bands might have seemed to belong to high culture. Yet while, say, Yes might not have been as popular as, say, the Bay City Rollers, they would almost certainly have been seen as a part of popular culture by those of the high culture. And prog-rock found as much favour among the working-class as the bourgeoisie.

The live experience of a prog-rock concert aspired - whether consciously or not - to bourgeois notions of art. Fiske notes that "...middle class cultural forms and the appropriate responses to them are characterised by distance, by critical appreciation. Bodily participation is confined to applause ... and occasional calls of 'encore'."(4) This was certainly true of prog-rock concerts; it was a critical listening experience, involving usually seated participants in large concert halls. It was not an event at which dancing took place. However, as prog-rock was a being a form of rock music - and rock music was a youth cultural form - the working classes were also participating in this bourgeois form of entertainment.

Prog-rock stole all kinds of musical forms - from classical, jazz, Latin-American, African and so on - and made them part of the rock genre. Prog-rock also used instruments of the classical orchestra - as well as instruments associated with folk or ethnic music - in a rock setting. Prog-rock appropriated elements of high culture for its own ends; King Crimson, for example, were not writing formally classical, jazz or brass-band music for the cornet. For Michel de Certeau, the meaning of dominant textual forms can be subverted by making them part of everyday living; in prog-rock the forms and structures of classical music are borrowed and put to particular uses for a rock audience. In a way, prog-rock cocked a snook at the dominant culture; by saying "I can understand and put to use your music and I can react to it in a similar way to you; but you cannot understand this music because you do not know how to react to rock music". In operation - how it created its form and content - prog-rock seemed the very model of de Certeau's idea of "textual poaching".

Prog-rock was a child of its time. Various changes in technology and society were influential in the rise to prog-rock. I will list some of these below. These are not listed in order of importance. I do not think this list is exhaustive:

But prog-rock no longer exists as a pre-eminent popular form. Its end came with the emergence of Punk and the New Wave. Stuart Hall noted that neither popular culture nor high culture have fixed boundaries. The two cultures act in opposition to each other. Prog-rock poached elements of high culture, but in doing so, moved from a form that might be defined as popular culture to a form that might be deemed high culture. It was evident in the criticism of the contemporary musical press that the aspirations of prog-rock were no longer in tune with critical interpretations of youth culture.(7) Prog-rock offered a revolution in listening and ways of listening - it made classical and "art" music part of the cultural currency of the popular. Yet it could not entirely fulfil other aspects of popular cultural needs; those practices identified by Bakhtin as "carnival pleasures": dancing, drinking, dressing-up and so on. Prog-rock was also becoming increasingly institutionalised, representing a large source of revenue for many record companies. It had ceased to threaten the status quo. Punk came along in 1975 and knocked prog-rock from its pedestal. It was a change from below as it were; a new musical form that was in revolt against the musical status quo.

By the mid-1970s prog-rock had run its course. Prog-rock had become, like classical music, a thing to listen to, if not in privacy then at least in the comfort of your home. It was not music for dancing to, nor music for parties(8). Prog-rock itself was diversifying into sub-groups: jazz-rock, avant-garde, pomp-rock, and the unclassifiable (such as King Crimson), and so on. It was increasingly associated with a style of listening and viewing associated with high culture. However, prog-rock never really went away. Bands like Yes and King Crimson continued, bowing to contemporary popular culture by becoming like jazz; that is, a "difficult" music for a particular and discriminating audience. In the 1980s, bands like Ozric Tentacles and It Bites, and in the 1990s, bands such as Levitation, have shown deep prog-rock influences. It could be argued that prog-rock has thus moved away from the categorisation of "popular". But Radiohead's last album OK Computer, while not being explicitly prog-rock, shows prog-rock influences. And prog-rock itself continues to influence musicians: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was influenced by King Crimson.

Until the mid-1970s, rock music was listened to by what could be identified as a youth-culture - those perhaps under 25 years old. However, with the institutionalisation of rock music and its relevance to an adult population (so that say Hootie and the Blowfish might be listened to as easily by a 17- year old as a 45-year), prog-rock has maintained its position as an element of popular musical culture, even if it is unlikely to regain the position it held in the mid-70s. Certainly, if we can define heavy metal, jazz or folk as a minority element of popular culture, then such a classification can also be afforded to prog-rock.


(1) Although Pink Floyd's guitarist, Dave Gilmour, once stated that he never thought of his music as anything other than traditional rock with a few embellishments.

(2) Guinness Book of Records 1995, ed. by Peter Matthews, (London: Guinness Publishing, 1994), p.150.

(3) Andrew Goodwin, "Popular Music and Postmodern Theory", in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. by John Storey, (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p.422.

(4) John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, (London: Routledge, 1989), p.90

(5) Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, (London: Pan Books), p.159.

(6) Ibid., p.253.

(7) Not only that; as music critics in the popular music press often had their own pretensions to understanding the texts and practices of high culture, they felt that prog-rock was simply "pretentious" in that it did not meet the critics' understanding of high culture. You could have Stravinsky, yes; you could have the Beatles, yes. But it seemed that contemporary rock critics abhorred the two worlds colliding, as they wanted to be intellectual collossi who could walk without embarrassment in both worlds.

(8) Although, of course, Tubular Bells was useful for that late-night chill-out period.


Fiske, John, Understanding Popular Culture, (London: Routledge, 1989)

Matthews, Peter, ed., Guinness Book of Records 1995 (London: Guinness Publishing, 1994)

Storey, John, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock, (London: Pan Books)