The prog year 1971 - A genre takes off

7. November 2021

Prog Progressive Rock

Das Progjahr 1971 - Ein Genre startet durch

1971 marks a caesura in the history of progressive rock music: in that year, many of the bands that today are counted among the essential founders of this musical genre found their musical vision. At the beginning of a decade in which progressive rock was to play a prominent role, numerous albums were released that are today not only considered classics of the genre, but also laid the foundation for the careers of some of its central protagonists - be it "The Yes Album", "Fragile", "Aqualung" or "Pictures At An Exhibition".

Here we take an in-depth look at this important year for the development of prog and its famous and lesser-known protagonists, from Europe to South America. In particular, we will take a close look at the third Genesis album "Nursery Cryme" and the fourth King Crimson album "Islands". Current statements by Steve Hackett, Steve Howe and Peter Hammill round off the journey through time.

By the end of the 1960s, rock music was becoming increasingly complex and, in the wake of the '68 movement, was increasingly developing into a respected art form in parallel with its growing socio-cultural significance. Progressive musicians became increasingly aware of the possibilities that rock had to offer them. In this respect, the view that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles was the first prog album is not so far-fetched - after all, it was primarily the Fab Four who increasingly incorporated influences from the classical and avant-garde movements into their music.

In addition, there was the idea of an album as a stand-alone work of art - and on the one hand in contrast to the single, which only served to market a song (and as a bonus of a B-side), and on the other hand as an autonomous artistic statement that was to be received like a book or a film. The concept album, which has been unfairly criticized time and again, therefore stood less for the desire to tell a coherent story, which is often cited as a shortcoming, than for the desire for conceptual unity - and it was precisely this criterion that was fulfilled by pretty much all the classics of progressive rock.

The initial situation

At the beginning of the 1970s, numerous bands, who were musically quite differently socialized, began to form their own progressive identity. Interestingly, the beginnings of very few of them lay in music that would be called prog today: Genesis played folkloristic, psychedelic pop songs on their half-baked debut in 1969 (similar to Pink Floyd or David Bowie, who was to go in a different direction, however), Van der Graaf Generator struck a similar note. The Yes debut in 1969 was already a bit more symphonic and in the spirit of the Moody Blues, but this band was also still in the discovery phase.

Jethro Tull, on the other hand, after two blues-rock albums, struck a darker note on 1970's "Benefit", which anticipated some of what was to follow on their 1971 masterpiece "Aqualung". Gentle Giant also released their first album in 1970, which itself was blues-influenced and sounded much more earthy than the prog rollercoaster rides that would distinguish later works. In short, prog didn't come out of nowhere at the beginning of the decade, but had slowly evolved from a variety of popular styles. It's fair to say, however, that - even though several important albums of the new genre had already been released in the previous two years - it didn't experience its breakthrough until 1971.

Remarkably, the increasing appreciation of progressive rock music and its rapid international spread were also based on its great commercial success. The progressive social images that accompanied the '68 revolt also found their way into the arts - into film, for example, with New Hollywood or German auteur cinema, and into literature with the US underground writers as well as the German pop literati. The high literariness of the lyrics as well as the groundbreaking cover art, which mostly characterized the great works of Prog, were not least an expression of this progressive claim to art. But what is actually astonishing from today's point of view is: People started to get enthusiastic about this music

The breakthrough

Suddenly a mainstream audience welcomed pop music that was sophisticated, intelligent and at times extremely challenging, not only musically but also lyrically and in terms of overall artistic design - think of Genesis' theatrical stage shows. Thus, albums by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Jethro Tull or Atomic Rooster suddenly found themselves at the top end of the British charts, while the extremely unwieldy Van der Graaf Generator suddenly topped the list of best-selling albums in Italy with "Pawn Hearts". Many critics, on the other hand, were still reticent about the progressive works at this time, because they still adhered to the ideal of an immediate rock music based on blues patterns, as Steve Hackett also states in retrospect: "The coverage of Genesis in 1971 was mostly very critical. I think journalists at that time wanted to see rock'n'roll very much rooted in the blues..."

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