BY NATHAN CRANFORD
The years 1971-1973 encapsulate what many feel to be the “golden age” of prog rock. Aside from the sprawling “epics” we’ll be discussing in this article, several other progressive rock albums were released during these years and are considered by many to be hallmarks of the genre. However, despite the huge advancements in recording technology and musical complexity that resulted from the ingenuity of progressive rock musicians throughout the 1970s, one of the more controversial experiments of the era was the introduction of the epic “record filling” prog song.
“Tarkus” – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1971)
(A very short snippet from a 1972 live performance in Tokyo)
ELP begins this list simply because I feel their work marks the rise in popularity of the progressive rock “epic” during the early 1970s. The band’s sophomore album, Tarkus, is widely considered to be the first truly great album to highlight a rock song that ran for over 20 minutes–quite outlandishly taking up the whole first side of the record.
Aside from its length, the story of “Tarkus” is bizarre, given that it is about a mechanical, tank-like armadillo that hatched from an egg lodged inside a volcano (which Greg Lake proclaimed to be a metaphor for the “military-industrial complex”–too bad we didn’t listen more closely then). The early 1970s was truly a time of mind altering experimentation, and “Tarkus,” like so many other songs written during the period, is definitely a testament to the times. Despite its length and dubious subject matter, the song is very tightly constructed, and each of its seven (yes, seven) parts are catchy enough to keep the song from spiraling into the dreaded prog “sprawl” vortex.
Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull (1972)
(A truncated performance at Madison Square Garden, 1978)
“Tarkus,” in many ways served to inaugurate the “golden age” of the progressive rock “epic” that would see its fullest artistic expression during 1972– the year prog rock began to catch on with mainstream audiences. Beginning with Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick,” a two-part song which, in light of being a parody of sprawling progressive epics, takes up the whole album, as opposed to only one side of the record.
“Boo!” Haters of pretentious, overblown prog would shout out loud. But hold your tongue, for Thick as a Brick is truly a masterpiece, and is widely considered to be Jethro Tull’s greatest work in much the same way that “Tarkus” was for ELP.
Truly a tangled web for only the most dedicated of English majors to unravel, the song’s lyrics, written by Gerald Bostock (pseudonym for band front man Ian Anderson), do indeed have a place among some of the greatest poetry ever written in the genre. Bostock’s lyrics are indeed an example of storytelling on an epic scale, and those who merely brush off the lyrics as good prog parody (which it is), could stand to take a deeper look–as much of its meaning can be profound for the right set of eyes (or ears). The music is also Grade A for the period, and contains some of the most memorable tunes you’ll ever hear come out of progressive rock’s golden age.
“Supper’s Ready” by Genesis (1972)
(The first part of an admirable syncing of the track with live concert footage.)
While some might find this list is incomplete without the inclusion of Yes’ “Closer to the Edge,” another sprawling epic released in 1972, but this list is already too long. Also, “Closer to the Edge” is, quite frankly, inconsistent and boring. Therefore, we now come to our final selection, “Supper’s Ready,” which is Genesis’ epic adventure through Peter Gabriel’s acid-soaked vision of life and the Christian apocalypse.
That last bit may have caught your attention. Fans of Gabriel’s later incarnations might be interested in seeing how many of his later themes and symbols are rooted in this work, which, for all intents and purposes, stands as his first lyrical masterpiece. The song’s “meaning” is deeply rooted in a mish-mash of Christian apocalyptic symbolism, British social history and mythology–but in the end, “Supper’s Ready” is really just a progressively awesome psychedelic trip through Pete’s ingenious, albeit twisted poet/exhibitionist mind. Oh, and the music, written by the whole band, is progressive rock of the highest caliber.
These three songs truly live up to the lofty expectations many had (and have) for a rock song that lasts 20 minutes or more. This is no simple feat, given that only THREE such songs from the period manage to avoid the pitfall of turning into a sprawling morass of musical pretentiousness. That said, don’t let my picky judgement keep you from enjoying ELP’s expansive “Karn Evil 9” (I do love the first part), “Closer to the Edge,” or God forbid, A Passion Play, Jethro Tull’s yawn-inducing follow-up to Thick as a Brick. I just highly recommend you start with these three first.
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