Atton/Anderton :The Term ‘Progressive’: Art, Politics, Commerce and the Ideology of Musical Progress


The Term ‘Progressive’: Art, Politics, Commerce and the Ideology of Musical Progress 

How is ‘progressive’ understood whether by critics, musicians and audiences?   When and where does it signify progress as a necessary part of musical advancement?  As overweening ambition?  As a commercial label?  As a marker of a genre culture?  As an historical category?  Any term can be seen as a ‘bounded discourse’ (Couldry, 2011: 6), one that provides a limit within which cultural practices might be examined.  Hence, as practices develop and the context around them develops, a term might become redundant or might ossify, capable of referring only to specific practices at particular times and places. Accordingly, it is our contention that the term progressive can be described through a variety of discourses over time, and that no fixed definition of the term can or should be offered. Instead, it is argued that a longitudinal exploration of the term ‘progressive’ (and its cognates) could illuminate moments of stability and episodes of transition from meaning to meaning, and it is the aim of this paper to uncover some of those discourses, contexts and transitions. 

A Partial History of ‘’Progressive’

In 1969 Decca released the sampler album, Wowie Zowie! The World of Progressive Music.  It featured songs by the Moody Blues, Genesis, Savoy Brown and John Mayall.  The same year also saw the release of Johnny Winters’ Progressive Blues Experiment.  Winter also played at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in 1970, along with John Mayall, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Colosseum.  There were two other festivals using the word progressive in their titles that year: the Nottingham Festival of Blues and Progressive Music, which included Taste, Family and Mungo Jerry, and the Scottish Blues & Progressive Festival held in Inverness, and featuring String Driven Thing, If and Atomic Rooster.  No other festivals using the term ‘progressive’ have been found thus far, though the leading festival of the time, organised by the National Jazz Federation in association with the Marquee Club, scheduled many bands (from 1969) which have come to be called progressive rock; for instance, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Colosseum, Van der Graaf Generator and Curved Air.  The genre terms used by the organisers of the NJF events from 1969 to 1973 included: jazz, pop, ballads, blues and rock.

Earlier, in 1968, the Small Faces were described by the NME as ‘big wheels in the progressive pop stakes’ in relation to the release of the album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.  Drummer Kenny Jones was interviewed in relation to the album and stated that: “We’re now free to do just what we want and … we are not going to make the mistake of getting in one bag and getting stuck there – that’s what happened to groups like the Searchers.”  In the same interview he refers to their older albums as being “turn[ed] out like sausages” such that they could not really take pride in their work: “we were standing still and that’s how you get stale” (quoted in Altham 1968).  Other early uses of the term progressive are Chris Welch’s (1968) description of The Yardbirds as a band ‘once hailed as the most progressive in Britain’ and Mick Farren’s review of the Edgar Broughton Band which he suggests has ‘gained a solid reputation as one of the most promising progressive blues bands’.  In the article, Edgar Broughton is cited as rejecting the term ‘blues’, arguing that the band is ‘adding something new, including improvisation and other influences’ (Farren 1969).  

In 1970, Brian Matthew introduced a Radio One session by the Groundhogs with the observation that, after starting out as a blues band, ‘they soon switched to progressive rock’.  Similarly, Mark Williams (1970) refers to Yes in International Times as ‘British progressive rock music par excellence’ in a review of the band’s concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, at which Yes played some songs soon to be released on Time and a Word.  Williams notes the ‘complexity of their arrangements and the inherent dynamics of their music’, but concludes that the band is ‘not really a concert band but still one of the most impressive of club groups around’.  In the same year, ITV broadcast a show called South Bank Summer subtitled All Shades of Pop, which featured live performances from The Settlers, Blue Mink, Continuum and Deep Purple.  The popular author Michael Moorcock (who also performed with the band Hawkwind) reviewed the programme for the Sunday Times.  He called Continuum a ‘progressive group’ which ‘included the usual flute (an instrument which identifies most progressive groups)’, and critiqued them for having the technique and range of a ‘junior school orchestra’ (Moorcock 1970: 125).  He went on to describe Deep Purple as ‘the other kind of progressive rock’ and lambasted the band for its ‘squeaky-voiced lead singer and tired instrumental noises – feedback, guitars sawed against amplifiers, stuck through legs – ending with a weary imitation of The Who, circa 1966’ (ibid.).  In contrast, an anonymous author for Beat Instrumental (November 1970) described Deep Purple as ‘one of the most progressive and forceful of all British hard-rock bands. Always experimental, always pyrotechnical…’  In the same feature, Jon Lord of Deep Purple refers to the band’s earlier use of classical music as ‘merely an experiment...’ and the band’s shift away from classical music as an attempt ‘to get a bit more freedom into the music’ through the use of improvisation and looser structures.  Finally, the music magazine Sounds launched in 1970 as the UK’s ‘progressive’ music paper, and by 1972, Roger Lewis could talk confidently of the ‘head clubs… [where] one could hear the best in progressive rock’ (p. 98).

There is an ideology at work in the above examples that brings together aesthetics and commerce.  The term ‘progressive’ seems to be deployed as a marker of aesthetic value to signify a species of modernity – in this sense, ‘progression’ appears to possess a cultural value similar to that of classical music’s avant-garde.  By contrast, however, to the exclusionary nature of much avant-garde composition, where popularity is treated as an index of failure (McClary 1989), ‘progressive’ popular music is presented as commercially significant.  The range of musicians encompassed by the term ‘progressive’ is suggestive less of a generic label and more of a set of cultural practices that are informed by an ideology of progress and that are spread across a diversity of musical forms.  (We might also consider the use of the term in a political context, for instance in Theodore Rozsak’s 1968 work on the counter culture.)

The notion of progression in popular music is hard won; it is often treated with suspicion by music writers who seem to prefer notions of classicism and authenticity as signifiers of value, as we find in the work of Robert Christgau, Nick Kent, Greil Marcus and Charles Shaar Murray.  (Interestingly, the advances made by the Beatles seem to have escaped such censure.)  By the 1990s, ‘progressive’ appears almost as a defensive term, to recapture musicians and recordings that their fans consider marginalised: the American magazine Progression begins publishing in 1992; the book-length studies of Macan (1997), Martin (1998) and Stump (1997) also appear in this decade.  The impetus behind these projects is to present a reassessment of music that has been unfairly ignored or misinterpreted by critics and by subsequent generations of musicians (‘Punk’ is held to be particularly guilty in this regard).  The 1990s, then, stands as a time when ‘progressive’ became an attempt at classification, where it was not only the quality of the music that was at stake, but what music counted as ‘progressive’.  

We might see this as an attempt at historical revisionism, where little connection was made between the authors’ own ideologies and the active, living cultures of what Martin argues was the ‘time of progressive rock’, 1968-1978.  (We might accuse the work of Macan and Martin as too focused on the retrospective classification of progressive rock.)  Even within the latter period, there is no consensus over the use of the term ‘progressive’.  Other terms used to describe what in the 1990s is termed ‘progressive rock’ include: ‘symphonic rock’ (Melody Maker, 1969); ‘techno-symphonic’ (New Musical Express, 1975) and ‘epic rock’ (ibid.).  These do not exhaust the lexicon but, if they signify anything beyond rhetorical invention, do point to either multiple interpretations or a developing instability of value judgments and critical claims.

Some ideas / discussion points towards an understanding of the term progressive rock: 

1) Progression measured in terms of musicological sophistication (as seen in Macan, Martin, Stump and others, and Critiques by Anderton (2010) as the ‘symphonic orthodoxy’).  Problem: under this formulation, some forms of progressive music could become excluded, such as Krautrock (see Anderton 2010) or neo-progressive rock (early 1980s onwards).  The former is relatively simplistic in its construction, while the latter rarely treads any new ground in harmonic, metric or structural terms (see Moore 2001), and might even be called regressive, since it relies upon and/or simplifies older models.  However, Moore (2001, p.64) notes that “a high state of development [in music] is no necessary indicator of progress”, and we would argue that the reverse is also true: that progress is not necessarily indicated by a high state of development.  In this sense, neo-progressive rock can be seen as progressive due to its application of new technologies and its incorporation of stylistic elements drawn from popular music styles which emerged around or after 1980.

2) Progressive rock as a ‘generous synthesis’. Bill Martin (1998) uses this term to refer to progressive rock’s explorative approach to stylistic combination, to which we can add, as Moore (2001) suggests, the exploration of new instrumental and recording technologies made available in the late 1960s and early-mid 1970s (multitrack recording, studio effects, electronic instrumentation etc).  Problem: A wide variety of other terms might also be used to describe and define music which is explorative in this way.  How and why do musicians, record companies, journalists and audiences come to characterise some music as progressive rock, but not others?


3) Progression as an artistic attitude. This refers to bands and artists who seek to progress, as individuals or as groups (rather than in broader generic terms) – to move on to something new rather than rest on their laurels.  This was noted in the quotes from Kenny Jones and Edgar Broughton above, but also seen in later acts. For example, Alan Reed (vocalist of Pallas) noted in an interview for Sounds in 1985 that Pallas was ‘progressive in the sense that we want to develop’ (cited in Picton 1985).  A variant is also seen in a quote from Robert Fripp (who prefers not to call King Crimson a progressive rock group in the genre/style sense):

‘…for any form to remain as a vehicle for anything of value, then the inside has to continually be recreated, rediscovered and reinvented.  And the difficulty working with professional musicians is, they do what they know and they do it very well.  So, it becomes a question of continually shaking things up so they refuse to fix, or, if they do fix, know how to unfix them’ (cited in Planer 1998).

Interestingly, the major progressive rock bands which survived beyond the 1970s did indeed recreate, rediscover and reinvent themselves – absorbing and mixing contemporary influences/styles rather than producing a clone of their old styles.  However, some have since reverted to their older, more successful styles, or have undertaken tours of old material (even whole albums at a time) and are benefiting from the contemporary resurgence of interest (or simply nostalgia?) in the progressive rock of the 1970s.  

4) Progression as a political aesthetic. Chris Cutler (percussionist and composer, most notably with Henry Cow and Art Bears) suggests that progression should have a political aspect, and not be based on the symphonic complexities lauded by Macan and others.  In File Under Popular, Cutler gives a tripartite definition of progression in music.  The first element is an exploration of ‘electric and electronic instruments, including the recording studio’ (Cutler 1991, p. 106), which fits with Moore’s (2001) discussions as noted above.  The second element is a shift towards ‘cooperative and collective work in the group, the unification of composition and performance, expressive improvisation and a direct community with listeners’.  In other words, a kind of ‘folk’ aesthetic or communal music making which makes connections with an audience rather than providing the ‘giganticism, money and show business’ which he associates with groups such as ELP, Yes and genesis.  The final element is a form of political progressiveness which involves ‘seizing control . . . over the processes of production and distribution’, which resonates with the Do-it- Yourself rhetoric of punk.  Cutler’s definition of progression is a left-wing approach which is fundamentally at odds with the business practices and lifestyles of the major ‘symphonic’ groups (Cutler 1991, p. 121).

5) Progressive rock as a category/label. This suggests that any band which works with or within the stylistic parameters explored by the progressive rock artists of the 1970s and 1980s can be labelled as progressive rock.  However, the term has, like ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ and others, become used to encompass broad swathes of sub-styles and sub-genres which can be quite different from each other (Anderton 2010).  Gatekeepers exist on websites such as who decide whether or not a band should be included at all (is it progressive enough?) or within which sub-genre it should be categorised (is it symphonic? Neo-progressive? Prog-metal? Crossover prog? and so on). The definitions and sub-definitions are likely to increase rather than decrease. For instance, the number of sub-genres at Progarchives in 2005 was 14, whereas it is over 20 today (ibid.).  Progressive rock fans are often active, curious and discriminating consumers (see Fiske 1992 on fandom in general) who seek out new sounds and/or new artists, searching for ‘lost’ albums, and exploring the progressive rock bands of countries beyond the British canon.  They are ‘colonisers’ in the sense that music which might be also categorised in other ways by other fans (jazz, world, folk, metal, electronic etc) have come to be incorporated within the meta-genre of progressive rock.  The motivations and rationale for this still need to be explored in order to understand the dynamics of the term progressive, but it points to a process of ascription or authenticiation, i.e. progressive rock is that music which a group of people – at a given time and in particular socio-cultural contexts – wants to define as progressive rock.  In this, the term is similar to that of authenticity, which as Moore (2002) has noted, must also be actively authenticated: it is not inherent to a musician or piece of music. 

More to come!


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Chris Atton & Chris Anderton

July 2011