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Head back to 1973: Prog rock's perfect storm

1973 was a time of great political turmoil and musical upheaval. Despite, or perhaps because of, world events, rock music had become more ambitious and creative than ever.

1973 was a time of great political turmoil and musical upheaval. U.S. President Nixon, in his second term, was embroiled in political morass, the Vietnam War had escalated to frighteningly new heights (despite peace talks), and the hardcore spirit of activism of the ’60s had tapered off, hindered by a creeping feeling of indifference.

Despite, or perhaps because of, world events (and the repercussions of U.S. foreign policy around the globe), rock music had become more ambitious and creative than ever.

It seemed the more helpless we felt in the face of world events, the more artists of the early 1970s were motivated to create music of grand scope, just as fans clung to it for wisdom and even escape.

“I think the music being made then had something to do with the political climate at the time and rise of the counterculture,” says Spock’s Beard guitarist Alan Morse, who grew up loving the music of the early 1970s (including prog rock and jazz-rock fusion). “The ’60s were about rejecting the norms and progressive music grew out of that.”

What we now call “progressive” or “art rock” and “prog rock” (traditionally seen as having originated simultaneously in Britain and the U.S. in the mid 1960s) — post Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, The Doors’ debut, Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, The Moody Blues’ symphonic Days of Future Passed, and the San Francisco Sound — gave shape to, and expanded upon, ’60s psychedelic music’s wanderings through a compositional approach and the ability and willingness to incorporate disparate, and cutting-edge, musical elements (and instrumentation), such as classical, folk, R&B, blues, jazz, and experimental/found sounds (sometimes generated by newly invented technology).

“It was interesting times then, because everybody was young,” says guitarist/vocalist Dave Brock of the “space-rock” band Hawkwind. “The British music scene changed with skiffle music; then from skiffle bands it changed into jazz and blues. Then, blues artists started coming over [from America] and later a great psychedelic movement happened. Within a space of 10 years a great change happened musically.”

“Everybody who came out in the wake of The Beatles had the same mentality: ‘We can incorporate any kind of music we want to,’” says Jay Keister, assistant professor, Ethnomusicology at the University of Colorado Boulder, who teaches a class in the history of prog rock. “Everybody was interested in pushing boundaries.”

Contributing factors

By 1973, a convergence of contributing factors — a music industry “perfect storm” — had coalesced.

The musicians of this adolescent rock genre recognized its unlimited artistic potential, and the music business was not totally controlled by “the suits.” The hippie dream of a utopian society had yet to be abandoned (or retracted). Music technology was growing at a rapid pace. The FM radio format had emerged as an outlet for adventurous rock music, and, at least on the surface, labels were not looking only for the “next big thing” but interesting, “progressive” and genre-defying music.

And musicians seized a rebellious stance of experimentation — an outgrowth of the musical leaps and bounds made by ’60s pioneering artists.

“The perfect storm analogy is a good one,” says engineer/producer Barry Diament, who remastered the Emerson Lake &am