Progressive rock, or prog rock as it is more commonly called, evolved primarily in England from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. In some respects, the genre was a symphony-suffused offshoot of psych rock, but prog rock also included elements of jazz and musical theater, with long guitar and keyboard instrumentals that routinely broke the short-form molds of top-40 radio, and albums that often revolved around themes and concepts.
Collectors of prog rock gravitate to the original vinyl for numerous reasons. In some cases, it’s the album’s cover art that’s the draw, but in many more cases it’s the opportunity to get one’s hands on this extraordinary music. Some of the most collectible titles can only be found in its original LP format, while many albums have not been remastered properly in the conversion from analog LP to digital CD.
One of the earliest progenitors of the form was The Who, whose mini-rock opera from 1966, "A Quick One, While He’s Away," suggests the direction the band was heading in on its way to its 1969 classic, Tommy.
A Los Angeles band was also influential. Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention (1966) is widely considered to be the first concept album, which is a format that numerous prog-rockers would whole-heartedly embrace. By 1969, head Mother Frank Zappa would leave behind tunes about the fictional Suzy Creamcheeses of the world to record the jazzy, proto-prog-rock masterpiece Hot Rats.
Back in England, 1969 was shaping up to be quite a year for prog rock. King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King introduced the world to "21st Century Schizoid Man." The Moody Blues, who were shaking off some of their early psychedelic sound in favor of music that was more thematic and orchestral, released On the Threshold of a Dream in the spring, followed by To Our Children's Children's Children in the late fall. The Soft Machine released its second album, titled Volume Two, and, as has already been mentioned, 1969 was, above all else, the year of Tommy.
1970 saw the release of Egg’s self-titled debut as well as Van Der Graaf Generator’s much collected The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other—a CD version was released in 1991, but the sound quality is considered far inferior to the original vinyl, making this one of many prog-rock albums from this period that have not been successfully updated. The French psych-prog-rock band Gong released Camembert Electrique in 1971, one of three albums they recorded that year.
Yes was not quite that productive, but its place in rock history has been more lasting. In 1971, Yes recorded and released both The Yes Album and Fragile, followed, in 1972, by the incomparable Close to the Edge...
If 1967 was the key year for psych rock, 1972 was certainly one of the most productive years for prog. In addition to Close to the Edge, prog-rock classics from 1972 include Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Triumvirat’s Mediterranean Tales (Across The Water), Gentle Giant’s Octopus, and 666: The Apocalypse Of Saint John by Aphrodite's Child, a Greek group that featured Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (better known as the composer Vangelis) on keyboards.
But the biggest prog-rock stars of 1972 were Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who came out with the synthesizer-saturated Trilogy in 1972 and followed that up with Brain Salad Surgery in 1973. This supergroup featured Keith Emerson on keyboards—when Emerson was with The Nice, he played on 1967’s The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, which some consider the first true prog-rock album. Bassist Greg Lake’s resume included time as a member of King Crimson. And drummer Carl Palmer had survived a few intense years with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster.
As the 1970s lumbered along, pre-pop Genesis gave the world Selling England by the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Dead on Broadway (1974). Mike Oldfield had a difficult time convincing anyone in the music industry to distribute his all-instrumental, heavily overdubbed Tubular Bells until he met Richard Branson, who released it as Virgin’s first album in 1973—to date the record has sold more than 15 million copies.
In 1974, a pair of German groups added electronica and synthpop sounds to prog rock, although Kraftwerk’s Autobahn was more pop oriented than Tangerine Dream’s ambient Phaedra. The next year, Pink Floyd followed up on their enormous hit Dark Side of the Moon (1973) with the prog-rock treasure, Wish You Were Here.
As the decade waned, two bands from North America tried to lay claim to the prog-rock crown. Canada’s Rush released two albums in 1975, but Caress of Kings is the one most collected by prog-rock fans—2112, from 1976, is also considered a classic. In the States, Kansas also released of pair of albums in 1975, but Leftoverture (1976) is the one to get, if you don’t already own it.
Fittingly, the English had the last word when prog-rock reached its apex in 1977. That’s the year The Alan Parsons Project came out with I, Robot, an album that seemed to pull together all the various elements of prog rock in one perfectly produced package. The album was a smash, but for prog-rock collectors, a self-titled LP by a Canterbury, England group called National Health is probably more collectible.