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Chris Anderton - Neo-progressive rock in early 1980s Britain


Neo-progressive rock in early 1980s Britain

Progressive rock’s ‘golden age’ is usually posited as a decade beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the late 1970s (see Covach 1997; Macan 1997; Martin 1998). It is agued that by the late 1970s progressive rock’s most visible and successful acts had run out of steam, broken up, or begun to adopt a more mainstream, radio-friendly style. Progressive rock then either disappeared or went ‘underground’, and entered what is sometimes referred to by fans as the ‘dark ages’ of the 1980s – a time when relatively few albums were produced in comparison to either the 1970s heyday, or since the early/middle 1990s when the current resurgence of record company and fan interest began in earnest in Europe and the USA. Jerry Lucky (2001) suggests that this is a simplistic interpretation of history, and that there is more of a continuum between the ‘classic’ progressive rock of the 1970s and the progressive rock produced in the 1980s. Similarly, John J. Sheinbaum argues that the music produced by the ‘classic’ progressive rock bands (such as Yes and Genesis) in the 1980s should not be written off as a dissolution of the progressive style or as straightforward and overt commercialisation by these groups. Instead, it may be better to consider their 1980s output through Adorno’s discourse of ‘late style’ in which conventional formulae and contemporary commercial tendencies are utilised in order to interact with the changing musical and industrial culture of the era (Sheinbaum 2008: 30-33).  Edward Macan (1997: 201) also notes some continuity with the 1970s in terms of the clubs that helped launch neo-progressive rock bands; and of the influence of the publicist Keith Goodwin and of record company owner and publisher Tony Stratton-Smith (of Charisma Records). It is to the supposed ‘rebirth’ of progressive rock in the early 1980s, the ‘genre world’ (Frith 1996) that was constructed around it, and its continuities with, and disjunctures from, 1970s progressive rock that this paper will address.

In the late 1970s, record company support for progressive rock had waned considerably in Britain, which made it difficult for new bands to get recording deals, and for old bands to renew existing contracts or find new ones – unless they changed their style and wrote potentially radio-friendly singles. In part this was because of record company restructuring, the emergence of narrower radio formats, and the burgeoning punk and disco scenes which created low cost entertainment alternatives (see also Ross 2005 and Holm-Hudson 2008). This made it difficult for new progressive rock bands to find gigs and develop their acts on the live circuit, or to be taken seriously by the music press. However, the flame of progressive rock did not altogether disappear, as new bands continued to form and seek opportunities to perform and record. Some recorded and released albums independently in the early 1980s; others gained recording contracts by writing radio-friendly songs in order to elicit record company interest, before using their studio time to deliver additional songs of a more ‘progressive’ nature. British music magazines such as Kerrang! and Sounds began to support these new artists in the early 1980s as did the Marquee Club in London, which had hosted many of the original progressive rock acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In part, this exposure led to a number of bands gaining major label recording contracts. It was a wave of new music and new bands which evolved alongside the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), with bands often playing the same venues and festivals – in particular the Marquee Club and the Reading Festival (which had a dedicated stage for Marquee Club bands in the early 1980s).  [NOTE: there is more on the relationship and crossover between neo-progressive rock and NWOBHM to be considered]

This paper examines the ‘neo-progressive rock’ of the early 1980s (history, music, lyrics, artwork, business practices etc), with particular attention to Marillion, Pallas, and Twelfth Night, though there were several more bands in the 1980s which might be described as neo-progressive rock and be of interest. These include IQ, Pendragon, Solstice, Haze, Multi-Story, Abel Ganz, Quasar and It Bites. Many of these bands were strongly influenced by the classic symphonic bands of the 1970s (especially Genesis and Yes); however, rather than simply clone those bands they sought to add new musical and lyrical influences and to adopt and adapt rock music to the potentialities of new and / or digital synthesizer technologies. A comparison between the musical styles of 1980s neo-prog and 1970s symphonic progressive (Yes, ELP, Genesis et al) suggests a number of similarities and differences which are summarised below, which draws in part on the work of Macan (1997), Lucky (2000) and Moore (2001): 

? Similarities with the symphonic bands of the 1970s include:

o Stylistic mixing

o Use of unusual or shifting time signatures

o Use of keyboards to provide lush textures

o Long song formats

o Some lyrics draw on fantasy, science fiction and literary sources 

o Creation of concept albums

o Art-based album covers and stage shows

? Differences from the symphonic bands of the 1970s include:

o Use of digital synthesisers rather than mellotrons, string synths and organs; sometimes drawing on contemporaneous developments in new age, electronic and synth-pop music

o Use of guitar as a textural instrument alongside the keyboard – only occasionally coming to the fore to play solos

o Use of electronic drum sounds

o Lack of flashy virtuosity, although the music is usually well performed

o Strong melodic sense and use of hooks

o Little use of formal or harmonic structures associated with jazz or concert music

o Simpler arrangements

o Relatively little use of harmony vocals

o More common inclusion of short, potentially radio-friendly, tracks

o Lyrics which may more directly tackle social issues and politics of the day

[NB The above will be developed and discussed in more detail in due course.]

Jerry Lucky (2001) asserts that the term ‘neo-progressive’ was coined by Sounds magazine in 1983, though a later interview with Fish (then lead singer of Marillion) initially refers to the band as ‘heavy rockers’, before later referring to them as part of the ‘new rock’ (Morley 1984). [MORE TO COME…]

Three neo-progressive bands, each of which could be tagged as ‘the first’ are worthy of further attention here: Pallas, Twelfth Night and Marillion. [Nb. the following sections give profiles of each band, which will need further development and discussion in due course – for example, of strategies used to gain record deals, changing attitudes of the press, musical innovations and what these bands can say about ‘progression’ and ‘progressiveness’ in relation to the longer history and context of progressive rock as a developing and evolving network of genres/styles. It will examine the continuities with the late 1970s as the market for progressive rock changed, and may also look at contemporaneous and parallel developments in Europe and beyond.] 



Pallas formed in Aberdeen in 1977 and performed music in the style of Yes and Genesis. When punk music became fashionable, Pallas adopted punk into its style, as the following press release from late 1977 states:

"Their new adventurous approach to music led to a genetic mutation of old and new wave music in the form of a cynical futuristic 1984 setting. Their menacing Thought Police appearance on stage smacks of new wave, 2nd generation Rock Music minus obligatory safety pins. Their music, driving energetic, at times overpowering, is structured with the skill and cleverness of the old wave and has been described as "Symphonic Punk""

However, in the following two years they returned to a more progressive rock style, and performed their own songs alongside covers of heavy rock classics such as ‘Burn’, ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ The band toured successfully in Scotland and in early 1981 documented their act on one of the earliest neo-prog live albums, Arrive Alive, which was self-released on cassette. Lead singer Euan Lowson adopted facepaint as part of his act, in much the same way as Peter Gabriel (while in Genesis and as a solo act), and Fish (lead singer of fellow neo-progressive act Marillion). However, facepaint was, perhaps, surprisingly common in musical culture of the time. Examples include David Bowie, Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke, Steve Strange of Visage, and the whole of the rock band Kiss. 

Pallas employed Keith Goodwin as the band’s publicist, who had previously worked with Yes, Gentle Giant and Black Sabbath, and who was soon publicist for all of the key British neo-progressive rock acts of the early 1980s (Montfort 2004). He managed to get Pallas reviews, interviews, features and front covers of key rock magazines such as Kerrang! and Sounds. The band also recorded three short tracks for a demo tape: one was hard rock, one in the nouvelle chanson style of Roxy Music, and the last an electronic rock song reminiscent of Ultravox. They did this in order to gain record company attention, as did Twelfth Night and Marillion, but it didn’t secure the band a deal. Instead, the band contacted Marillion to arrange a deal whereby Pallas would support Marillion in London in return for Pallas arranging a Scottish tour for Marillion. As a result, Pallas performed at the Marquee Club where they were seen by EMI’s A&R and signed to the Harvest label. They subsequently recorded The Sentinel (1984) which was produced, at the band’s request, by Eddie Offord who had previously engineered records by Yes and ELP in the early 1970s. The record was a mix of grandiose symphonic numbers and shorter pop-rock tracks relating a mythological fantasy story which had analogies to the Cold War. 

Public response to the album was poor, so the band approached Mick Glossop (who had produced UFO and The Waterboys) to produce second album, The Wedge in 1986. The band argued that they were a heavy rock group with keyboards and that ‘If progressive rock has a place in the Eighties, it has to be accessible’ (Graeme Murray quoted in Music magazine March 1984). In the same article Murray argues that Yes and other progressive rock bands of the 1970s had dropped from favour because their 1970s music had become irrelevant to a mass audience which could not understand what the musicians were doing.

Despite using a new producer The Wedge failed to produce a hit single which, alongside the concurrent success of label-mates Marillion, led to the band being dropped by EMI/Harvest. The band remained in the wilderness until 1998, when it reformed and became a leading light in the British progressive rock scene once more.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night formed at Reading University in 1978, and while the band had strong Genesis influences, it also featured musicians with a background in punk. During the first two years, the band wrote largely instrumental music to which various vocalists would add lyrics. They performed regularly at the Marquee Club in London, self-released two cassette-only albums in 1980, and in 1981 were the first local band to play at the Reading Festival. The band spent much of 1982 in the studio, during which time fellow Marquee Club regulars Marillion secured a contract with EMI. Twelfth Night’s first vinyl album Fact and Fiction was released in October 1982 and was, like the two cassette albums, self-released. It is probably the first neo-progressive rock studio album on vinyl, and garnered favourable reviews in both Sounds and Kerrang! despite its poor production. It mixes the aggressive attitude of punk and heavy metal with Genesis and Pink Floyd influences, digital synthesizer textures, and Steve Hackett/Steve Hillage style guitar work from Andy Revell. Geoff Mann’s unusual anarchist lyrics offer a strong social commentary on the Cold War, individuality and display an Orwellian angst which is critical of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government.

In 1983 Twelfth Night played the Reading Festival alongside fellow neo-progressive pioneers Marillion, Pallas, Pendragon and Solstice on what was essentially an outdoor stage for bands who played regularly at the Marquee Club. The band then signed to Music For Nations (primarily a heavy metal label) which released one studio and one live album in 1984, but gave them little promotional support. Another, more commercially-orientated album was released by Virgin in 1986 before the band broke up. A new version of the band reformed for concerts in the mid-2000s, and a number of archive releases have followed.


Formed in Aylesbury as Silmarillion in 1978, they made demo tapes in 1980 before Derek Dick (known as Fish) joined the band at the start of 1981. Record labels were uninterested in the band, so they decided to cultivate a live following instead:

‘Every record company was saying, “we don’t want a band like you, we want singles” and the only way we could sit opposite them and not be dictated to, was to build up a big live following’ (Fish quoted in Sounds in 1983, cited by Collins 2002). Fish was particularly active in getting the band gigs, while a fanclub and newsletter set up in February 1982 helped maintain regular contact with fans which encouraged them to come to the band’s concerts. A headline gig at the Marquee Club at the start of 1982 led to a recording session for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show (the producer of the show, Tony Wilson, had been in the Marquee audience), and then to EMI signing the band. The debut EP ‘Market Square Heroes’ was released in October 1982, followed by the album Script for a Jester’s Tear in March 1983. Neither was well received by the critics of magazines such as Sounds, who regarded the band as a Genesis rip-off. This was due to the sound of Fish’s poetic storytelling lyrics, vocal delivery and use of facepaint on-stage (all reminiscent of Peter Gabriel), and to Mark Kelly’s keyboard playing which, at that time, was rather derivative of Tony Bank’s style. The EP also included an epic track of nearly 18 minutes called ‘Grendel’, which included the distinctive ‘Apocalypse in 9/8’ riff from Genesis’s classic ‘Supper’s Ready’ track. However, the lyrical content of the album Script for a Jester’s Tear was quite different from that of the classic bands of the 1970s, as it dealt with lost love, depression, drug abuse, desperate wannabes, and the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The band used the fanbase it had developed through live performance to good effect in 1983, as they were mobilised to help the band win Best New Act of 1983 in a Sounds magazine reader’s poll – which led the magazine’s reviewers to start supporting rather than criticising the band. In 1985 Marillion were voted number 2 Band of the Year by heavy metal magazine Kerrang!, while the band’s third album Misplaced Childhood (1985) topped the UK album chart and spawned the hit single ‘Kayleigh’ which sold half a million copies (Holdship 1986). Lead singer Fish departed in 1988 for a solo career, but was soon replaced by Steve Hogarth, who has since recorded a dozen studio and many more live albums with the band. Marillion now runs its own record company and continues to have a very active and supportive fanbase, which has allowed the band to stage a number of three-day music conventions for fans in Britain, the Netherlands and Canada.


Collins, Jon (2003) Marillion/Separated Out: the complete history 1979-2002. London: Helter Skelter Publishing.

Covach, John (1997) ‘Progressive rock, “Close to the Edge,” and the boundaries of style.’ In John Covach and Graeme M. Boone (eds.), Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, pp. 3-31. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Frith, Simon (1996) Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Holdship, Bill (1986) ‘Marillion Conquer America’, Creem July 1986. Available at:

Holm-Hudson, Kevin (2008) Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Lucky, Jerry (2000) The Progressive Rock Files, 2nd edition. Collector’s Guide Publishing. 

Lucky, Jerry (2001) ‘Neo-Prog and the Bad Rap’, 29 January 2001. Available at:

Macan, Edward (1997) Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Martin, Bill (1998) Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock, 1968–1978.  Chicago: Open Court. 

Montfort, Eric (2004) ‘Keith Goodwin. Early professional music publicist’,, 23 February 2004. Available at:  

Moore, Allan (2001) Rock: the Primary Text. Developing a Musicology of Rock, 2nd edition. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Morley, Paul (1984) ‘Marillion: Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back Into The Water’, NME 28 April 1984. Available at:

Ross, Peter G. (2005) ‘Cycles in symbol production research: foundations, applications, and future directions’, Popular Music and Society 28/4: 473-487. 

Sheinbaum, John J. (2008) ‘Periods in progressive rock and the problem of authenticity,’ Current Musicology 85: 29-51

Chris Anderton – July 2011

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