Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976

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The Role of the Media in the Emergence of Progressive Rock

The high fidelity market was still based on technology from the late 1940s. After a “speed war” between Columbia, who had submitted a patent for the 33 speed vinyl record, and RCA, holder of the 45 speed patent, it was decided to adopt both speeds with an implicite acceptance of 45s as a medium for popular music and 33s for a more classical repertoire. The appearance of rock added a new dimension, since the music industry were able to tap into a middle-class intellectualised segment of the market, through sales of its 33s. The lack of success of popular music in penetrating this new market can be analysed in the light of the development of the hit parade.

The Hit Parade

The single was the principal means of achieving fame in the mid-1960s, and formed the basis of the hit parade, in which the 33 long play hardly figured. In “New Musical Express” (NME), four out of five of the hit parade categories were devoted entirely to 45s. A “top 30”, reflecting sales in Great Britain, was presented as the “First ever chart in Britain”, a “Top 30… [of] Best selling pop records in US” and two “Top 10”s reflecting the situation five and ten years earlier. LPs were given only a British “Top 10”. In “Melody Maker” the situation was similar, albeit with a more pronounced national bias. The “Pop 50” (45s) took up nearly a whole page, above, in small characters, a “US Top 10” and a “UK Top 10” of 33s. A change can be witnessed from December 17 1966 when the NME’s British Top 10 LPs became a “Top 15”, but it was not until 1971 that the “Top 30” of 33s acquired the same status as the “Top 30” of 45s. This development was also reflected in “Melody Maker", though with some significant chronological distinctions. In April 1967 the “Pop 50” of 45s became a “Pop 30” in an effort to limit wilful manipulation of sales figures, according to the magazine’s editor. And in October 1968, without explanation, their LP “Top 10” became a “Top 20” , the printed characters grew in size but remained inferior to those of the “Pop 30”. It was not until February 14 1970 that the editor adopted a “Top 30” of LPs equal to that of the 45s. This system remained in place for six years, from when changes were of a more stylistic nature. From January 1 1976 new hit parades would list music by styles, for example “Top 20 Soul”, “Top 20 Reggae” and “Top 20 Country”.
The issues here were thus mixed. The transformation of hit parades in the mid-1960s suggests that what was an offer was as much a new technology as new music. Could it be suggested then that, as with the evolution of jazz music before the Second World War, the technology gave rise to the musical form? In other words, did the music adapt to advances in technologies, or conversely, was technological innovation itself accelerated by the output of musicians. It is worth pointing out that, in the pop music domain, the pre-eminence of the album over the single had already been widely discussed for some time. Eric Clapton complained of the influence of the 45 over the British media, by highlighting two major inconveniences. Firstly, the 45 represented a commercial system in which glory was conferred on the basis of an artist’s hits, and secondly it held back creativity. “To get any good music in a space of two or three minutes requires working to a formula. (s.n., 1967: 12) Such a view was taken up by a major part of so-called counter-culture artists. (5)
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album without doubt gave a decisive push to an attitude which, up to that point, had remained largely theoretical. Their approach, in common with The Beach Boys or Frank Zappa, was to consider the 33 LP in a creative context independent of material requirements of the era. This was essential for the development of progressive rock since the 33 LP was no longer simply a means for promoting the big single, with the addition of a few songs of varying quality.

Instrumental Technology

There is clearly no unilateral network of influences between progressive rock and its context. This is shown by the development of synthesizer technology. When Robert Moog used a recording called Switched on Bach by Walter Carlos to promote his Big Moog, his goal was evidently to find favour with the larger record companies and the world of classical music. The record was released on CBS Masterworks and contained only works from Bach, with sounds aiming to imitate classical music instruments. However, even though the studios showed some interest in this instrument, the majority of orders came from rock or jazz-rock keyboard players.

“Something went wrong. Switched on Bach was meant to be an artistic experiment, a learning and testing vehicle, an example of a contemporary composer trying to find himself - not the marked commercial success it has so clearly become. (6)

400 000 copies of this record were sold in the first year, primarily to fans of rock and jazz, while the principal clients of Moog (as well as the early EMS and ARP synthesizers) came largely from the pop music milieu.
(7) This leads us to the conclusion that progressive musicians were at the origin of a revolution in musical instrumentation, reflected in the changing client base for electronic instruments, following the success of synthesizers, which had shifted at least in part from the world of classical music to the lucrative market of pop. This was confirmed at the beginningof the 1970s when the doyens of rock keyboard playing took steps towards classical music, particularly in their style of interpretation.
The synthesizer’s development was influenced by the need to find a reliable instrument, not too large, which could easily be reconfigured during the course of a concert. The best example of this was the marketing of the Mini Moog in 1970. This influence of progressive rock on the development of synthesizers must however be tempered, since although it became one of the emblems of the genre, its arrival was somewhat late. Keith Emerson acquired his first modular Moog in July 1970 (three years after its appearance on the market), and his first Mini Moog at the end of 1971 which he subsequently used on the recording of Trilogy, the fourth ELP album, available to the public only in July 1972! Another emblematic figure of the genre, Rick Wakeman, introduced the Mini Moog to the music of Yes in the middle of 1971, but on the album Fragile was often limited to giving pastiches of classical musical. It is thus possible to claim that the progressive keyboard player’s typical instrumentarium was only in place from the middle of 1970s. Another essential point is that the late intervention of polyphony suggests that the glory days of progressive rock coincided with those of monophonic synthesizers.


An analysis of the development of radio, hit parades and of synthesizer technology should not be viewed from an Adornian or Marxisant perspective. There is no question of suggesting that musical output arose entirely out of the prevailing context, but rather to demonstrate how the interaction between music and environment was complex and widespread. Amongst a wide range of influences it is possible to affirm that:
1. The enormous success of progressive rock betwwen the end of the 1960s and the mid-1970s can be directly attributed to the emergence of FM radio stations, pirate radio, and the commercial activities of multinational record companies in promoting the 33 LP.
One of the aesthetic characteristics of progressive rock is its evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature, as confirmed by its technological and mediatised development. Its uniqueness comes in part from the incitement it gave to the commercial and media sectors to reconsider the use of technology dating back to the 1940s (FM radio and 33LPs). One of its great contributions was that it forced a rethinking of the whole sector, and in this way it truly was, for a brief moment, progressive.

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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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