Progressive pop is a form of pop music which attempts to break with the genre's standard formula. Originally termed for early progressive rock music, some stylistic features of progressive pop include changes in key and rhythm, experiments with larger forms, and unexpected, disruptive, or ironic treatments of past conventions. Performers commonly produce their own material while opposing the influence of managers, agents, or record companies.
Since 1967, "progressive" pop has stood in contrast to "mass/chart" pop. Following the economic boom of the mid 1960s, record labels began investing in artists and allowing performers limited control over their own content and marketing. Groups who combined rock and roll with various other music styles such as Indian ragas and oriental melodies ultimately influenced the creation of progressive rock (or "prog"). After the 1970s, prog began selling poorly, opening a vacuum for a new, milder brand of progressive pop. During the 1980s, the New Pop movement attempted to bridge the divide between "progressive" pop and its mass/chart counterpart. By the 2000s, progressive pop gave rise to a host of popular, uncommonly large bands with an aversion to formal hierarchies.
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The term "progressive" refers to the wide range of attempts to break with standard pop music formulas through methods such as extended instrumentation, personalized lyrics, and individual improvisation. Its initial premise involved popular music that was created with the intention of listening, not dancing, and opposed the influence of managers, agents, or record companies. In general, progressive music was produced by the performing artists themselves.
Similar to rock and roll, the tonal structure of progressive pop overthrows harmony as its basic organizing structure. However, unlike rock and roll, progressive pop inverts received conventions, playing with them ironically, disrupting them, or producing shadows of them in new and unexpected forms. Some stylistic features include changes in key and rhythm or experiments with larger forms.[nb 1] Electronic techniques such as echo, feedback, stereo, loudness, and distortion may be used to give the music the impression of space and lateral extension.
"Progressive pop" was originally termed for progressive rock music. The latter genre was influenced by the "progressive" pop groups from the 1960s who combined rock and roll with various other music styles such as Indian ragas, oriental melodies, and Gregorian chants, like the Beatles and the Yardbirds.[nb 2] In December 1966, Melody Maker attempted to define the recent developments in pop. In this article, titled "Progressive Pop", Chris Welch categorised artists using terms previously associated with jazz; in the most advanced of these, "Avant-Garde", he placed the Beatles, Cream, Love, the Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, while "Modern", the next category, comprised the Byrds, Donovan and the Small Faces. After the release of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, magazines such as Melody Maker drew a sharp line between "pop" and "rock', thus eliminating the "roll" from "rock and roll" (which now refers to the 1950s style). The only artists who remained "rock" would be those who were considered at the vanguard of compositional forms, far from "radio friendly" standards, as Americans increasingly used the adjective "progressive" for groups like Jethro Tull, Family, East of Eden, Van Der Graaf Generator, and King Crimson.
In 1970, a Melody Maker journalist described progressive pop as music appealing to the masses, but less disposable than the "six weeks in the charts and the 'forget it' music of older pop forms." By the late 1970s, "progressive pop" was roughly synonymous with "rock music". Authors Don and Jeff Breithaupt define progressive pop in the 1970s and 1980s as a "leaner breed of pomp rock" that was derivative of the Beatles. Producer Alan Parsons, who worked as an engineer on the Beatles' album Abbey Road (1969), remembered that even though he considered some of his songs "pure pop", others continued to categorize his band (the Alan Parsons Project) under the "progressive rock" label. Parsons thought "progressive pop" was a better name, explaining that "what made [our music] progressive was the epic sound and the orchestration which very few people were doing that at the time."
During the mid 1960s, pop music made repeated forays into new sounds, styles, and techniques that inspired public discourse among its listeners. The word "progressive" was frequently used, and it was thought that every song and single was to be a "progression" from the last.[nb 3] The Beatles' Paul McCartney intimated in 1967: "we [the band] got a bit bored with 12 bars all the time, so we tried to get into something else. Then came [Bob] Dylan, the Who, and the Beach Boys. ... We're all trying to do vaguely the same kind of thing." Before the progressive pop of the late 1960s, performers were typically unable to decide on the artistic content of their music. The Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson is credited for setting a precedent that allowed bands and artists to enter a recording studio and act as their own producers.
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Author Bill Martin recognises the Beatles and the Beach Boys as the most significant contributors to the development of progressive rock, transforming rock from dance music into music that was made for listening to.[nb 4] Citing a quantitative study of tempos in music from the era, musicologist Walter Everett identifies the Beatles' 1965 album Rubber Soul as a work that was "made more to be thought about than danced to", and an album that "began a far-reaching trend" in its slowing-down of the tempos typically used in pop and rock music. In 1966, the UK release of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was accompanied by advertisements in the local music press saying that it was "The Most Progressive Pop Album Ever!"Clevelands Troy Smith believes that the album "established the group as forefathers of progressive pop, right from the beginning chords of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice', a Wall of Sound style single".[nb 5]
In the opinion of author Simon Philo, the Beatles' progressive pop was exemplified in the double A-sided single "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" (1967). In a further example of the reciprocal influences between themselves and the Beach Boys, the Beatles demonstrated "paradoxical lyrical content matched by music that was at once 'young' and 'old', rock and Tin Pan Alley, LSD and cocoa, progressive and nostalgic" - all features that were shared on Sgt. Pepper's. Musicologist Allan Moore writes: "At that time, Sgt. Pepper seemed to mark rock music's coming of age ... Now, of course, with jaded memories, we think of it as ushering in an era of pomposity, with varying degrees of seriousness ... The question after 1967 was whether 'progressive' pop/rock was to be trusted, because it was dealing with issues 'deeper' than simply interpersonal relationships. In the long run, the answer turned out to be 'no' (at least, that is, until a later generation of bands discovered the delight of pastiching the Beatles)."
Towards the end of the 1960s, progressive pop music was received with doubt and disinterest. The Who's Pete Townshend reflected that "a lot of psychedelic bullshit was going on", referring to "garbage" being promoted in the charts, and that many artists who were doing ambitious works were instantly being labelled "pretentious". He believed: "Anybody that was any good ... was more or less becoming insignificant again." In 1969, writer Nik Cohn reported that the pop music industry had been split "roughly eighty percent ugly and twenty percent idealist", with the eighty percent being "mainline pop" and the twenty percent being "progressive pop [developed to] an esoteric feel". He predicted that in ten years, the genre would be called by another name (possibly "electric music"), and that its relationship to pop music would be similar to the one between art movies and Hollywood. While progressive pop did not "shrink to a minority cult", as Cohn wrote one year later, "in England, I wasn't entirely wrong ... But, in America, I fluffed completely - the Woodstock nation has kept growing and, for all his seriousness and pretensions to poetry, someone like James Taylor has achieved the same mass appeal as earlier stars."
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Progressive rock (also known as art rock) was ushered in the 1970s, directly following the combination of classical grandiosity and pop experimentalism from the 1960s. Although it reached widespread popularity, from 1976 onward, the genre declined in sales and was played with less frequency on FM radio. According to Breithaupt and Breithaupt, this created a vacuum for "a host of new, milder 'serious' bands, whose humor (Queen), pop smarts (Supertramp), and style (Roxy Music, mach two) would ensure their survival into the eighties. ... they met the melodic requirements of AM radio while still producing thoughtful, original work." Bands like Queen and ELO played a type of progressive pop that was grounded in prog-rock without compromising their chart success.
The Buggles' Geoff Downes, who considers his band to be a continuation of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and 10cc's progressive traditions, says: "Those early 10cc records such as [1973 debut] 10cc and Sheet Music were pretty out there, and Godley & Creme took that even further. Even Abba had sections in their music that were quite intricate. We loved all that studio trickery and experimentation. Parallel to that were bands like Yes, who were experimenting in the studio in a more progressive rock format."
Author Edward Macan views British symphonic pop as a splinter of the progressive rock genre that relied on straightforward songwriting, rich vocal arrangements and quasi-orchestral fullness, citing Supertramp, ELO, 10cc, the Alan Parsons Project, and Al Stewart as examples. By the late 1970s, the era of record labels investing in their artists, giving them freedom to experiment and limited control over their content and marketing had ended. Corporate artists and repertoire staff began exerting an increasing amount of control over the creative process that had previously belonged to the artists. Some of the major progressive bands transitioned to a more commercial sound and deemphasized the evocation of art music. By the early 1980s, the prevailing view was that the progressive rock style had ceased to exist.
In 1985, Simon Reynolds noted that the New Pop movement attempted to "bridge" the divide between "progressive" pop and its mass/chart counterpart, describing their general relationship as "one between boys and girls, middle-class and working-class." In 2008, The New York Times John Wray discussed "the return of the one-man band", observing a recent progressive pop trend that involved large bands or collectives "with a disdain for clearly defined hierarchies", noting examples such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Animal Collective. In 2017, musician Steven Wilson opined that there were few modern albums comparable to "the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved from [the 1970s and 1980s] ... quite accessible on the surface, but if you [chose] to engage with them on a deeper level, you [could] find layers in the production, musicianship and some thoughtful lyrics."