The British Invasion of 1964 and 1965 was based on two musical forms: the pop song and the blues song. Each song form had a basic musical structure; the pop song was built around an “intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus” format while the blues song typically followed a twelve-bar, three chord, AAB lyric structure.
As the opportunities to be more creative in the recording studio grew, however, bands were beginning to investigate the possibilities that lay outside the confines of the existing boundaries. The Beatles began to experiment with tape loops, electronic sounds and exotic instruments such as the sitar in late ’66. By the arrival of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in ’67, the song forms were less structured and the instrumentation included orchestral instruments on several cuts. The 900 hours and over $100,000 of studio costs represented a higher expectation and greater desire to go beyond the simple “live” experience into a new realm of multilayered productions.
Jefferson Airplane on their ’67 album Bathing at the Baxters included a nine-minute musical collage entitled “Spayre Change” which was subjected to hours of experimentation following the recording of musical tracks. The Grateful Dead, when finally liberated from the confines of their record companies shackles, began recorded the extended free form psychedelic blues that their fans expected.
It was this freedom from the limitations of existing song forms and the willingness to give non-traditional rock instruments a more vital role in the music that created the second British Invasion of the late ‘60s and ’70s.
The legitimization of rock ‘n’ roll as art music was furthered by the acceptance of rock music as cerebral art, not merely a utilitarian craft. When it was first formed, rock ‘n’ roll was created as a form of dance music; teenagers had their own set of rhythms, instruments, melodic ideas, lyrical themes and personalities that provided unique dance sounds from those of their parents.
The impact of Dylan on rock ‘n’ roll can be seen in the mid-’60s with rock musicians beginning to become more aware of message in lyrics. The Beatles began to shift away from fluff lyrics and dance rhythms with their Sgt. Pepper’s album and other groups soon followed. By 1967 many rock groups were beginning to develop “listening” rock music separate from the “dancing” rock music. Perhaps the rise of the commercialized “bubble gum” rock was further impetus for serious rock artists to desire to draw a more severe line of demarcation between the cartoon rock groups and themselves.
The Beatles, “A Day In the Life” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, 1967 shows the experimentation that lead to ’70s Art-Rock
Almost without exception, the art rock groups of the late ‘60s and early ’70s originated in England. Some believe this is due to the longer tradition and higher visibility of classical music in Britain than the U.S. Others point to the large number of later art-rock band members who started with classical training, a more accepted method of musical study in England than the “buy a guitar and start playing” method used by many fledgling rockers in America. Whatever the reason, almost every band gaining success in the art rock genre were formed in the late ‘‘60s in England.
Two of the first pioneers of art rock were the groups Moody Blues and Procol Harum. The Moody Blues were established as a R&B band, even having chart success covering “Go Now” in ’65 (#1 UK, #10 US), but under the direction of their new recording label, the band went into the studio to record a rock version of Dvorak’s classical Symphony No. 9. To assist with the project the band purchased a Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that allowed them to access tape loops of flutes, strings and choirs. This primitive synthesizer, or more accurately, sampler, opened new doors of studio creativity for the Moody Blues, the Beatles and many other art-rock groups. Instead of working on the Dvorak project, the group left the studio at the end of the week with the album Days of Future Passed that contained the most significant song of their career, “Nights in White Satin”. “Satin” went to #3 in the U.S. and remained on the charts for the next two years. The album attributes the strings, flute and choir to the performance of the London Festival Orchestra, but the classical “ensemble” was actually the mellotron instrument. Since the first recording, the Moody Blues have created numerous versions lasting between 6 and 12 minutes in length.
Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin”, 1967
Procol Harum, formed in 1967, had a similar experience with “A Whiter Shade of Pale” from their first album. Using a melody borrowed from Bach’s Suite in D major, a soul vocal singing mystical metaphor laden lyrics, a heavy rock beat and dominant harmonies and countermelodies by the electronic organ, the work was an immediate and spectacular success worldwide. While Procol Harum, like the Moody Blues, never matched the meteoric success of a single song, their concept of an extended song form using classical references, expanded instrumentation and ponderous lyrics opened the doors for others.
Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale“, 1967:
By 1970 several other rock bands were bridging the expanse between rock ‘n’ roll and “legitimate” art music. Genesis was formed around singer Peter Gabriel and created surrealistic musical adventures into fantasy worlds of multi-movement works. By the end of the decade, Phil Collins would help move the group into a more pop-oriented path for the eighties.
Jethro Tull, named after the British author of a book on agriculture, built a following by merging elements of jazz, rock and classical music together. The lead singer/flute player used a humming/playing style punctuated by flutter tonguing that was more jazz than classical, and yet borrowed heavily from classical works such as J.S. Bach’s Suite in E Minor, Bourree for their second album.
The Electric Light Orchestra, in contrast with the Moody Blues, actually used orchestral instruments in their performances. Similar to some of the Beatles’ late works, the ELO used a standard rock format: electric guitars, bass and drums; augmented by a violin, two cellos, double bass and synthesizer providing woodwinds and brass sounds. The end of the 70s saw ELO expanding to use an entire orchestra, choir, costumes and laser light show.
The super-group Yes, which was comprised of five highly qualified, classically trained musicians, gained critical (if not commercial) success with songs like “Roundabout” in 1971.
The Who, often placed on a spectrum between the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were most often known for they’re on and off stage antics. They broke art-rock ground with their classic 90-minute rock-opera Tommy, which hit #4 on the album charts in the U.S. containing singles “Touch Me, Feel Me” and “Pinball Wizard”. The Who performed the rock-opera live on several occasions including in June 1970 when they took it to the stage of the prestigious New York City Metropolitan Opera House. A 1975 film version starred their lead singer Roger Daltrey as well as Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson. Their second rock-opera Quadrophenia was also made into a film in 1979 with Sting in one of the roles.
Pink Floyd began in the mid-’60s as a blues based rock group and recorded nine mildly interesting albums before creating Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. Dark Side, which took nine months to produce, combined elements of psychedelic rock with synthesizers and was built around dark, brooding lyrics of despair. Their live performances included elaborate stage props (such as a 60-foot inflatable octopus) and a unique 360 degree sound system that immersed the audience into the final product. Six years later, The Wall came out to critical success. The 29 live performances of The Wall (there were only three locations: London, New York and Los Angeles) involved the band performing the work while gradually assembling a 30-foot high, stage wide wall, brick by brick, between them and the audience. The work, which also involved additional singers, instrumentalists, film, plastic inflatable pigs and jets and complex lighting culminated with the wall being destroyed at the end of the work.
Pink Floyd, documentary on the making of their 1973 album, Dark Side of the Moon
Of all the rock legends and myths, perhaps none are so intriguing as the connection between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the 1939 MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz. Supposedly, viewing the movie while listening to the album (track one needs to start after the third roar from the MGM lion) reveals many intriguing coincidences. Since Pink Floyd participated in film soundtracks in the time period from 1969 to 1972, it’s not totally inconceivable that they would use these experiences to create their own classic multimedia work.
Perhaps no group personified the essence of art-rock as did the group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Like many of the groups in this genre, ELP rarely had success on the singles charts, but fans made their albums extremely popular. Though their first nine albums only charted one single (“From the Beginning” #39, 1972) all of them went to gold status. The group’s extensive lighting and complex sound systems (36 tons of equipment) combined with the highly classical nature of their work made ELP one of the largest touring entourages in the mid 70s. A 1977 world tour involved 115 people, including a full orchestra and choir, technicians, musicians and road crew. Though lasting for only eight years (1970-78), the band redefined the concept of rock as high art, reproducing expansive original works as well as recreating rock transcriptions of classical works such as the Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Montreal Olympic Stadium, selections from Works: Orchestral Tour, August 26, 1977
The thread that connected ELP, ELO, Pink Floyd, The Who, Procol Harum, Moody Blues, and others together was a passionate desire to expand the rock-song format in order to make a bigger artistic and personal statement. This longing to go beyond the bounds of the 3-minute single was facilitated by the availability of new sounds like the mellotron and the newly invented synthesizer and the access to entire symphony orchestras and choral ensembles. Though the lyrics, when present, reflected the deep inner reflective metaphors of Dylan or the personal angst and feelings of alienation of the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, the structure, instrumentation and complex stage setups moved progressive art-rock away from AM radio, chart recognition and rock ‘n’ roll’s mainstream fan base. When it was successful, art rock created timeless classics, when it failed, the result was pompously self-absorbed.