Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976

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The Role of Radio, 33 Records and Technologies in the Growth of Progressive Rock


For amateurs of progressive rock the title of this article probably seems somewhat sacreligous. An implicit acceptance exists of this genre as a kind of romantic place in which artists, faced with the demands of an increasingly superficial and materialistic world, reaffirm their strength and creative autonomy. Thus to credit their success and viability to the attentions of the media and to the goodwill of the record industry is not without its dangers. Yet this is precisely what I aim to do, in showing  that , in certain aspects, Pink Floyd, Yes, and the others, were were not in fact independent of the contingencies of their time.

The Role of The Radio in the Emergence of Progressive Rock

Great Britain

In Britain, it is possible to argue that the backward structure of radio gave rise to new forms of alternative programming destined for teenagers and young adults. By the mid-1960s radio programmes were still structured around a tripartite model dating back to the Second World War. The BBC offered basic entertainment shows to its “lowbrow” audiences; musical programmes, interspersed with practical advice shows, destined for a “mediumbrow” consumer; and programmes with a high cultural content for the “highbrow” end of the market. Within this strict canvas, pop music held only a very limited place, having to make do with short time slots. In fact, music transmitted by antenna was generally played by live resident orchestras performing cover versions of the current hits (both indigeneous pop music and latin american-style tunes), rather than through the playing of vinyl records . (Chapman, 1992) Thus what was on offer was in effect a pastiche of the real thing, increasingly anachronistic in a musical environment in which teenagers were demanding creative commitment and a pure sound as a condition for supporting pop musicians.
This lack of interest and marginalisation of sub-cultures by the BBC and official national radio stations left a vacuum to be filled by pirate radio. If Britain was at the core of this issue, the idea of installing pirate radio stations on board ships navigating in international waters emerged in Scandanavia. In Denmark, there was Radio Mercur (1958-1962) and Danish Commercial Radio (1961), then in Sweden Radio Nord (1960-1962) and Radio Syd (1962-1966), and later others in The Netherlands and Belgium. "From 1964, the trend hit Britain with the establishment of Radio Caroline, then Radio England and Radio Canada right at the mouth of the Thames; Radio 270 in the south of Middlesborough; Radio-City; Radio 390 a few miles from The Isle of Man […] They flooded the country with pop music and made a mockery of the BBC’s monopoly”. (Rault, 1966: 33-39) The pirates were able to profit from loopholes in government legislation and from the slowness of the retaliation to such an extent that, between 1964 à 1968, 21 offshore stations were in operation.
However, these stations had varying objectives and means at their disposal, and were even somewhat naive as to the potential of the teenage market. It was only by 1966, after two years of largely conventional programming, and following the lead taken by Radio Caroline, that pirate radio stations started to adopt a more intuitive approach. The new disc-jockeys at these radio stations became the true experts of pop music and were able to connect with a generation of teenagers who considered pop's ephemeral nature to be a quality and whose tastes and moods dictated which records they chose. Kenny Everett and John Peel, who started working at Radio London in 1967, became part of this revolution by featuring on their shows a hub of around thirty groups and artists including Frank Zappa, Captain Beefhart, The Velvet Underground, The Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, The Byrds and, of course, the Beatles. (Chapman, 1992: 127)
This free programming had two particular consequences; firstly, the underground scene was made available to British listeners; and secondly to propagate the idea of a coherent underground scene with similar aspirations whereas, in fact, if it existed at all, this was more a loose collection of trends and creative impulses, as much political as mystical.
Once the threat of legislation had gathered momentum, the pirate radio adventure ended abruptly, as their lifeline was essentially cut off by government. Rather than simply banning pirate radio, it became illegal for a British citizen or company to supply or give publicity to an offshore radio station. This was made law on August 14 1967, leading to a gradual silencing of pirate radio stations. However by this time another revolution was underway, since legislation also allowed the BBC to create their own popular music service, as well as local radio stations. Thus in the same year on September 30, BBC Radio 1 was launched.


In the United States, the situation was very different, but equally revealing. From March 1968, the phrase “ progressive rock format “ started to emerge to describe those FM stations which were dissociating themselves from AM radio by targeting a different public (aged from 18 to 25) and by playing progressive rock, interviewing or broadcasting live performances The expression progressive rock format refers both to the aesthetic and to the technology technology. (1) According to accounts of the time, this practice first emerged during the early months of 1967.

“Progressive rock programming which started as a sort of fluke more than a year ago is suddenly blossoming into a format that is giving to some FM stations much needed attention.” (Hall, 1968a: 20)

This new type of programming was not simply a reflection of a new aesthetic, but rather the fruit of technological development and judicial decisions. The progressive rock format was linked to the multiplication of FM (Frequency Modulation) stations, and to the rapid expansion in the number of radios equipped with an FM band, which expanded from 10%, at the beginning of the 1960s, to 36% in 1966, a year in which 13.6 million radio sets were sold (figures supplied by “Billboard Magazine”). (2) Why such an enormous success? FM sets were cheap, easy to operate, and had a vastly superior sound quality. Up to the mid-1960s, the programmes broadcast on the FM band were the same as those on Medium Wave (MW). What should be noted, within the context of progressive rock, is how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decreed that the FM band should be used for broadcasting entirely different programmes from those on AM stations. Thus, as a result of this decision, FM stations directed their ouput towards ethnic minorities, as well as jazz and classical music enthusiasts, while in the suburban areas of the West Coast, they played a part in the birth of underground radio.
The rest of the story is well known. In 1967, the presenter Tom Donahue started a non-stop rock radio show on the San Francisco FM station, KMPX. He subsequently did the same at a rival station, KSAN, (3) in 1968. His formula was simple. Instead of playing on rotation the current hits of the moment, based on sales figures supplied by the record industry, he relied largely on his own tastes.
He would therefore focus attention on local groups whose music was not necessarily attuned to the radio format, some of whom existed in obscurity without even a discography. Within a few months of the end of 1967, this programming model had spread across the US. (4) What became known as “progressive rock music”, by so-called “anti-establishment” groups, was transmitted by young and popular presenters who wouldn’t hesitate to play two or three album tracks, and, on some occasions, the entire album. This new style of programme accentuated the gulf between artists belonging to the show business circuit and those considered alternative. The “progressive rock format” became a banner under which FM radio stations engaged in propagating a counter-culture were grouped, thus setting themselves in opposition to “pot pourri pop”, described as “a format based on both rock’n’roll and easy listening music. (Hall, 1968b: 1) Disparate elements were therefore brought together, creating contact between artists of many different backgrounds, at more or less the same time as European pirate radio, which also suggested the idea of a community sharing the same aspirations.
It should be underlined here that, in the context of a radio industry in full expansion, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, and generally all the underground styles of music of this era, represented a cultural alibi. Whether legal or not, the new radio stations of the US, UK or Europe, justified their existence by the need to defend the repertoires of marginalised, ignored or scorned artists. This media reconnaissance played a major part in the promotion and ultimate success of progressive rock at the beginning of the 1970s, for which there is ample proof. In February 1968, Genesis’ first single The Silent Sun was first aired by the BBC, but it was Radio Caroline who played it the most regularly. The first song played on Radio 1 at their launch was Flowers in the Rain by Move, official proof that mainstream radio was finally conscious of the needs of the young.

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1. Introduction / The role of the radio in
the emergence of progressive rock

2. The role of the media in the emergence of progressive rock / Conclusions


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