10) 2112 - Rush
from 2112 (Anthem/Mercury, 1976)
“We were in a lot of debt going into make 2112,” says Geddy Lee, “so we figured, what the fuck – if we’re going to go out then let’s go out doing exactly what we want to do: a 20-minute song about priests!
“The good thing about it,” he says, “was that the album was so weird that nobody knew what to do with it at the record company, and because it was successful they just left us alone for the rest of our careers.”
From the otherworldly ARP sounds that usher it in to the Solar Federation losing control to the Elders (spoiler!), rock doesn’t come much proggier than the conceptual, seven-piece suite that takes us to the dystopian land of Megadon. This dramatic piece of music resonates deeply with a whole generation – just sit in an auditorium and watch Rush’s audience punch the air and ‘Hey!’ along to the Overture (then try to sing along to helium-high The Temples Of Syrinx). A timeless sci-fi story celebrating music and humanity, with supernatural performances from Lee, Lifeson and Peart – there’s nothing not to like.
“My memory is that Neil (Peart, drummer and lyricist) had this idea for 2112 and that was the starting point for the whole record,” says Geddy. “He wrote the story for 2112, based on Anthem by Ayn Rand – an anti-totalitarian science fiction story. Neil and I had also read another of Ayn Rand’s books, The Fountainhead, and that was an inspiration to us.
"The Fountainhead is a story about an architect who was determined not to compromise his aesthetic, his vision, and he would do just about anything, even radical things, to stand up for his art and his right to be an individual. That spoke volumes to us while we were making 2112. It gave us confidence, in a way. We felt we were being pressured to compromise our art. People don’t like it when you term hard rock or prog rock as art, but to us, as creators of that music, it is our art.
“For 2112, the 20-minute piece, we wrote all the parts in sequence, one rolled into the other and into the next. The exception, of course, was the Overture, which is something you always do last, because of the nature of what an overture is. You need the themes from all those other parts to put together in your overture. It’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come – kind of ‘the best of 2112’.”
“We wrote the bits and pieces of 2112 while we were on the Caress Of Steel tour,” says Alex Lifeson. “We’d play it in sound checks and at every opportunity we got. So we were pretty well versed with it before we recorded it. It was always challenging trying to find the time to do that on the road, but we were very motivated”
In the end, the band were very happy with 2112. “We felt that we’d made a good record,” says Geddy. “But we were not confident about how it would be received.”
He was right to be nervous. Sales were slow to begin with, not helped by an NME piece that called them fascists because of the Ayn Rand connection. “I was hurt by what the NME said about us,” says Geddy. “With the background that I have – my parents being Holocaust survivors – I was extremely angry and upset. Ayn Rand was the inspiration for 2112. We acknowledged that. But we had no connection to her rightwing politics. 2112 was an anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist story. And the ending of that story was purposefully ambiguous. What happens in that ending is either liberation or the invasion of another totalitarian state. It’s for the listener to decide which, based on their own sense of life.”
You say: “Perhaps the type of subject matter that earned prog its lyrical scorn but a chill still runs down my spine when we get to the ‘Attention all planets of the Solar Federation’ climax.” Kenneth Lowe
9) Starless - King Crimson
from Red (Island, 1974)
The closing track on Red, the final King Crimson album of the 70s (and at the time, thought to be their last ever), Starless is a tour-de-force. Written initially by John Wetton as the title track for Starless And Bible Black, the 12-minute opus returns to the Mellotron-led balladry of In The Court Of The Crimson King, before beginning its descent into the free form metal jazz then favoured by leader Robert Fripp. With just a minute left to spare, the main theme of Starless returns as a powerful coda, as if to play out the end credits on Crimson’s film.
Suffused with woebegone Mellotron, the melancholic ballad leads, via an ominous bass line, across the tightrope-walking one-note guitar solo to dive into a thunderous, majestic finale. Starless was also a chance for Wetton to prove that his vocal nuances were an able part of the Crimson canon. His lyrics were evocative, fitting confidently into the flowing musical passages. And his bass lines rose from a rhythmic timbre to a much more upfront place in this epic treatise. It's on tracks such as this where Wetton brought a benign melodic inference to bear on the band.
An undisputed classic, never mind the best 70s King Crimson song, this epic contains some of the finest moments in progressive music as a whole.
You say: “If you don’t get this track, you don’t get progressive music at all. Particularly a version from the recent tour.” Keith Collyer
8) Thick As A Brick - Jethro Tull
from Thick As A Brick (Chrysalis, 1972)
One epic track over two sides of long-playing vinyl - is Thick As A Brick a song, or an album? And was it intended as more than mere prog foolery?
Irked that people were calling previous album Aqualung conceptual, Ian Anderson decided to send up the whole notion of the concept record. Thick As A Brick is based on a supposed epic poem from the fictional eight-year-old Gerald Bostock.
“It was written very much as I went along,” says Anderson, “and was a very natural, organically evolving piece of music. There was an almost Monty Pythonesque idea in my head of this pastiche approach to creating this idea – ‘the mother of all concept albums’, as I’ve come to call it. It was presenting such a preposterous notion that an eight-year-old boy had written this saga in some poetry competition.
“Of course, you can then suspend disbelief and just go with it. But there were a lot of countries where they just didn’t get the joke. They thought it was a real story, that this precocious schoolboy had written this stuff and somehow I turned it into an album. You have to preserve the fiction to some extent, because that’s your starting point – the absurdity of precocious youth and complex ideas; that somehow Thick As A Brick is an album about what this youth might become and the distortion of his ideas as a prepubescent child. Essentially it’s setting out future scenarios of what might happen.
“The whole idea happened very quickly. It was done in a fast and furious period of time. I’d just turn up at rehearsal every lunchtime with what I’d written that morning. Then the guys would dutifully grapple with it and we’d try to recap on what we did yesterday and the day before. By the end of 10 days we’d rehearsed to a performance level all the elements of Thick As A Brick. And we went in and recorded it, literally in a few days. The album cover actually took us longer than the music itself.”
By attempting to poke fun at the subject of the concept, Tull create one of the finest examples of this oeuvre. The music is peripatetic, constantly shifting the ground to suit multiple instrumentation. By taking away artistic road blocks, the band are free to open up their horizons. A parody that seriously works.
You say: “It is the embodiment of everything grand and exceptional, and expresses in spoken word the anxiety that fuels the very nature of progressive music.” Calvin Merseal
7) Awaken - Yes
from Going For The One (Atlantic, 1977)
Jon Anderson once said that all the extended compositions the group had been working in the 70s were leading to this track from '77's Going For The One. A sublime arrangement of several contrasting elements, the convergence around the Master of Light section builds into one of the most transcendent moments in the Yes catalogue.
“Awaken was the pinnacle of the 70s for me,” Anderson enthused. “It was the greatest energy of music that I’ve been involved in. I love it to death. After the success of Wonderous Stories, though, I was pressed by people to write more like that. Listen, I wrote Awaken about my children one morning when I woke up and saw them sleeping. It happens when it happens. You never know it’s going to be a commercial success. People wanted more sales, wanted more songs that were three minutes and 33 seconds.”
Yes had regrouped three years after Relayer – Wakeman returning to the fold – with a reaction to music’s late 70s evolution. Relatively short, sharp “pop” songs like Going For The One and Wonderous Stories delivered hits; the clean, modern, geometric lines of Hipgnosis replaced Roger Dean’s floating islands. All was shiny and new until the 16-minute closer Awaken, which is very much Yes doing Yes, and then some. Written by Anderson (inspired by Rembrandt and Vivaldi) and Howe (whose frenetic guitar interjections are dazzling), it cruises through piano pathos, harps and choirs, attaining a transcendent beauty. Yes were wide awake, but still dreaming.
You say: “A free-flowing, euphoric creation from start to finish… and all the better for sticking up a massive two fingers to the 1977 punk bandwagon.” Geoff Mather
6) Echoes - Pink Floyd
from Meddle (Harvest, 1971)
“The intro [to Echoes] with the Leslie piano and the great melody is the one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard,” says Blackfield’s Aviv Geffen.
Some Floyd aficionados might still feel their pulse race at the prospect of late-60s sound experiments such as The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party. But for others, 1971’s Meddle is the album where Floyd stopped noodling around and started pulling together as a group. Exhibit A: Echoes. Classic Pink Floyd begins with a ‘ping’, the sound that ushers in Echoes and sets the tone for such future Floyd standards as Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb. Echoes is the first great Pink Floyd ‘journey’ song.
The band’s vocal dream team, David Gilmour and Richard Wright, guide the listener through still and choppy waters: past Roger Waters’ thoughtful lyrics, a plea for greater human understanding, and into that eerie mid-section breakdown with its sinister ‘crying seagull’ sound effects. Echoes is early-70s Floyd in excelsis.
David Gilmour would subsequently describe Echoes as “the point at which we found our focus”, but this mojo-restoring track didn’t come easy. In January 1971, having signed a new contract with EMI that granted them unlimited studio time, the band moved from Abbey Road, to AIR, to Morgan, all the while amassing a so-called “rubbish library” of sonic doodles and half-formed song ideas with inauspicious working titles (Nothing One, Nothing Two, The Son Of Nothing etc).
In early 1971, Pink Floyd only broke their studio residencies to play live. That April, the band made a critical breakthrough, debuting a piece then known as The Return Of The Son Of Nothing live in Norwich, pulling structure from the madness, and returning with the bones of Echoes. “When they came back,” engineer John Leckie told Floyd biographer Mark Blake, “they’d got it into shape because they’d been playing it live. It was conceived as one big thing, bits in various sections, so it was recorded that way.”
Credited to all four members, this sprawling work represented Floyd at their most collaborative, and AIR’s 16-track technology running at full stretch. Rick Wright achieved the eerie U-boat ‘ping’ by running a grand piano through a Leslie rotating speaker. Waters supplied some of his most evocative lyrics (‘Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air’).
Leckie recalls Nick Mason coming up “with a lot of the crazier ideas”, while Gilmour’s guitar work was typically dazzling, morphing from the hanging notes of the introduction to the shrieks of the mid-section. “The seagull sound you hear on Echoes is the Cry Baby [wah-wah pedal],” the engineer told Guitar World. “Hendrix died in the middle of recording, which I think affected them a bit.”
Mason would later complain that Echoes “sounds a bit overlong”. True, this was certainly a colossal work, taking up the entire second side of 1971’s Meddle. But every measure of this 23-minute opus was solid gold. Expansive, otherworldly and brimming with atmosphere, it represented the gearshift away from the Barrett era, and gave the band the creative confidence that would take them into the stadium league.
You say: “From the leslied piano intro to the nightmarish middle section and the uplifting finale, this track has brains, brawns, feeling, imagination, everything. In fact, I’d like this song to play at my funeral.” Eric Beaudin
5) 21st Century Schizoid Man - King Crimson
from In The Court Of The Crimson King (Island, 1969)
King Crimson were only six months old when they played the Hyde Park Festival in July 1969 to 500,000 people on a bill with the Rolling Stones. In one of the defining moments of prog, they opened with 21st Century Schizoid Man. The aggressive, near metal verse contained barked-out warnings of dystopian nightmares, then the musicians hare off together playing a be-bop like theme, leading to guitar and saxophone solos over a 6/8 rhythm.
Robert Fripp had composed an intricate guitar figure, which ultimately became the high velocity, whole band unison ‘tutti’ section. Few would have heard anything remotely like it before. Even sax and keyboard player Ian McDonald found himself disorientated by the group’s new creation during the rehearsal process: “I took the tape of …Schizoid Man home and I thought, ‘What is this?’ It was new to me too.”
21st Century Schizoid Man had evolved as the band’s collective love of jazz, Fripp’s penchant for avant-classical music, McDonald’s army-band background and Greg Lake’s heavy rock leanings merged.
“I took notes as people shouted out scrambled phrases,” says lyricist Pete Sinfield. “The twiddly technical bits were mainly written by Fripp, but Ian took them on as well, the two of them playing flashy counterpoints at each other. When it came to a break, Greg said: ‘I can do ‘doom-doom-doom-doom’ on bass.’”
“Robert had already written these different sections,” says drummer Michael Giles. “I started having fun suggesting things to join them up, such as the accelerando into the six-four riff. For the second ending I borrowed from something I’d heard by Duke Ellington.”
Lyrically, Sinfield was getting a feel for what the band’s music seemed to express. “It fitted with nastiness of the human condition and war and stuff,” he says. “I wanted the words to sound violent and aggressive. ‘Cat’s foot, iron claw…’ – it’s the world tearing itself to pieces.”
The title itself was the last screw in the box. “I remember leaning against the mantelpiece and I suddenly got it. ‘Schizoid’, that’s a good word. Twentieth… no, we’ll take it into the future – 21st Century Schizoid Man. I was damned pleased with that. Then Greg’s big bass riff became even more important – like a clarion call.”
Which is exactly what it was.
You say: “Thundering in on a riff that would have been at home on a heavy metal record, even today, King Crimson landed with an intensity of will like no one else. This track is a masterclass in virtuosity and takes no prisoners in its ambitious march forward.” Dean Barrett
4) Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt 1 - Pink Floyd
from Wish You Were Here (Harvest, 1975)
Abbey Road studios, June 5, 1975, and there’s a guy in the studio no-one recognises. “I remember going in, and Roger was already in the studio working,” said Richard Wright. “I came in and sat next to Roger. After 10 minutes he said to me: ‘Do you know who that guy is?’ I said: ‘I have no idea. I assumed it was a friend of yours.’ And suddenly I realised it was Syd.”
Former frontman Barrett had turned up at the London studio anonymously. Although he was only 29 years old he had the appearance of a dishevelled, middle-aged man, obese and with a shaved head and eyebrows. He had turned, as Waters later commented, into “a great, fat, bald, mad person”.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the fact that he turned up precisely on the day the band began the final mixes of their extended tribute to him, Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Syd’s appearance that day was unsettling but weirdly appropriate: Roger Waters’s feelings of guilt, frustration and sadness towards his old school friend came to the fore on Wish You Were Here as he explored themes of loneliness, isolation and absence.
The song had been started two years before. Around Christmas 1973 the band booked time at a rehearsal studio in London’s King’s Cross.
“We started playing together and writing in the way we’d written a lot of things before, in the same way that Echoes was written,” Waters remembered. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond was written in exactly the same way, with odd little musical ideas coming out of various people. The first one, the main phrase, came from Dave; the first loud guitar phrase you can hear on the album [Wish You Were Here] was the starting point, and we worked from there until we had the various parts.”
If ever a piece captured a band at the peak of a creative curve, it’s this one. Roger Waters’ increasingly despondent lyrical themes loom ever larger, but at the same time, the opening bars of this album-bookending track are where we hear David Gilmour’s guitar playing truly coming of age. That inimitable warm tone envelopes melancholic figures before a chiming motif puts one of the key building blocks of the album in place. Finally, Waters’ vocal comes in, introducing the chorus, which, along with the title track, would crystallise the Syd-influenced theme of innocent inspiration and aspiration soured by ‘reaching for the secret too soon’.
It still resonates.
You say: “The most beautiful song Pink Floyd ever made and played. Much more than a swansong for Syd Barrett.” Aernout Bok
3) Firth Of Fifth - Genesis
from Selling England By The Pound (Charisma, 1973)
Genesis’ 70s catalogue offers an embarrassment of prog rock riches. But few are as rich as Firth Of Fifth. All Genesis life is here: Tony Banks’ patented classical piano runs; a yearning Peter Gabriel lyric (‘The mountain cuts off the town from view…’), and, around the 5:50 minute mark, the bit where Steve Hackett escapes his manacles and plays that guitar solo.
Tony Banks might never be hailed as a dark, Satanic, whiskey-glugging, drug-abusing, woman-bothering, bath-needing Lord Of Rock, but his piano playing here is a man at the peak of his powers. The intro to this evergreen fan-favourite is so exquisite that it’s plain odd the band had rejected it from the previous album. OK some of the time signatures here are just showing off, but like most Genesis, once you’ve learned the language it feels like home.
Like the best Gabriel-era Genesis songs and those from Phil Collins’s early years as lead vocalist, Firth Of Fifth has an irresistible melancholy. It’s beautiful and sad and, when Gabriel intones that final line, ‘The sands of time were eroded by the river of constant change’, it’s oddly profound. What’s it about? Whatever you want. It’s soul music, through the prism of a bleak English public school education, too many childhood piano lessons and too much choir practice. And Firth Of Fifth is deeply soulful – albeit in that strange Genesis way.
You say: “This, to me, is about as perfect a song there is. The stage is set by Banks’ piano intro. And there’s no better prog climax then Steve Hackett’s guitar solo.” Bill Pompilii
2) Close To The Edge - Yes
from Close To The Edge (Atlantic, 1972)
Although they’d had run-ups at extended pieces before, this was Yes’s first side-long effort. Inspired by the structural detail found in Sibelius’ 5th Symphony and the electronic textures of Wendy Carlos’ Sonic Seasonings, Jon Anderson’s eclectic listening habits form the basis for their grandest musical statement to date.
Charged with making his vision a reality, the band – operating at the pinnacle of their collective creativity – oblige. From the surging overtures, hymnal diversions and all the way to the transcendent coda, every second is vital and vibrant, every section a crowning triumph. Anderson observes that, “It had nothing to do with radio, nothing to do with rock’n’roll, nothing to do with the business… It had everything to do with music.” Even the departure of Bruford at the end of the recording sessions failed to take the shine from what remains one of the brightest moments in the entire Yes catalogue.
It started, says Steve Howe, back when “Yes used to live on rice, tuna and onions in a communal house”. He wrote the chorus, partly on a piano: “It’s an easy chordal thing in the key of C on a piano,” he says, and the words ‘Close to the edge down by the river…’ came because he was living right on the Thames at that time. “I think that what happened with our writing was that Jon would hear me singing, ‘Close to the edge down by the river’, and wouldn’t necessarily think of the Thames. He was more of a universal sort of guy so he took those ideas on and developed them.”
The opening guitar solo started from sitting around and humming ideas. “So we played it and it became the key to a lot of sections,” he says. “The keyboards were playing it twice as fast, like an arpeggio, and then Chris Squire was playing the ascending riff, which I was also sometimes playing. When I start with the climbing, jumping away notes, that seemed like a cool thing to start with.
“I’d never played anything quite like that before. I was really playing the same notes all the time but they were in four different octaves. They appeared to be ascending and descending for a while. That was the idea. There was a static moment but then I just went off and everything on that solo was played live with just Chris Squire, Bill Bruford and myself in the studio. So it began with an improvisation – that was the turning point to make this a very adventurous piece. Hence we went to a church organ in the middle with no drums. Having that expanse of space was really good.”
Bill Bruford said that Close To The Edge is a masterpiece, but that making it was torture. “Typical Bill!” he laughs. “I remember that when Bill left he said that Close To The Edge was about as commercial as he wanted Yes to be.”
Why does he think it’s lasted so well? “There’s a powerful quality in that music which I think started with The Yes Album and Fragile,” he says. “With Close To The Edge it was like, ‘You’re ready for us now so we’ll give you… this!’ It was a powerful feeling that we had in the studio. We were cocky and felt we could do what we wanted. We were getting into the pattern of success but we hadn’t all bought houses and smart cars. We were still at that transition. We had to show that Fragile wasn’t a one-off. We wanted to do something highly musical and adventurous.”
You say: “It is the centerpiece of the greatest album of all time, prog or otherwise. It is one of the best examples of rock musicians adopting symphonic ideals and really making it work naturally. It is incredibly emotional, and is really a timeless work of art that can stand on its own.” Matt Barnhill