Progressive rock in the 80s (part I)

by Paris Gravouniotis

Translation: Alexandros Mantas

Progressive rock and 80’s. Two terms that when combined in the same sentence mean nothing but the downfall of the genre in the better part of the collective conscience of progressive rock fans. By the end of the 70s, prog was deemed as dinosaurish by some critics, mostly because of the trap of the excessive showing-off that most of the successful bands fell into, as well as the fact that this particular music meant less and less to the audience. It is not a coincidence that it was pigeonholed as music for the sake of music. This resulted in the boom of punk rock and post punk / dark wave which were more straightforward but they lacked of course musicality and technique which sometimes were replaced by cheap aesthetics. But this is half the truth because if we take a look at the prog releases during the punk outbreak (1977-1979) we will conclude that this decline was more commercial than artistic. Nevertheless, this view was shared by the audience and critics alike, to the point that the word progressive was equivalent to hubris during the 80’s. Let’s take a closer look then to the “lean years” of the genre, starting off with the works of the great bands of the 70’s and afterwards we will delve into the underground.


The aforementioned negative view about progressive left no other choice to most of the bands than modifying their style, add synths to their sound and become more commercial in the negative sense of the word. On the heels of the economic disaster of The Wall tour, as well as the tensions between band members, Pink Floyd entered the studio to record The Final Cut without Richard Wright, who parted ways without fuss because he didn’t put forward any material. As a three-unit band, Roger Waters was the man on the helm and that was crystal clear on the outcome, which would make no difference if it was released under his name, a record that was consisted of leftovers shelved from The Wall.

All the same, the outcome is less than impressive with some bright exceptions (The Fletcher Memorial Home, Two Suns In The Sunset, The Final Cut, Your Possible Pasts). Waters’ split came after that as well as the legal proceedings he took out to prevent Gilmour and Mason from using the name Pink Floyd. He lost the case and his ex-colleagues with Richard Wright as a guest musician released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason in 1987, a record with 80’s plastic production where their style had nothing to do with their glorious past, with On The Turning Away, Learning To Fly and Sorrow hardly making the cut.

cover_329182512008After Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1974 and Steve Hackett’s in 1977, Genesis released in 1978 And Then There Were Three which foreshadowed the things to come with regard to the direction that they would take to more commercial areas. Just Duke (1980) keeps up somewhat appearances, while the rest of their three releases (Abacab, Genesis, Invisible Touch) have absolutely nothing to do with progressive rock and taint the history of this huge band. Nevertheless, their two ex-members set out on diametrically different course. On the dawn of the 80’s, Steve Hackett recorded Defector, his best by far work out of the six he did during the decade. His style remains sweet and melodic but less adventurous, defining the guitar style of a sub-genre we will analyze down the line.

As regards Peter Gabriel’s career, there is nothing to say… His legacy during the decade was three studio records, a live album and two soundtracks (the sublime Passion for the film The Last Temptation Of Christ among them). The exceptional 3: Melt is probably his best work.

Peter Gabriel choosing the cover for his solo album.

Having recruited killer musicians, Gabriel gives weight to the straightforwardness of the feelings and the braininess of the songs in this album, composing great tunes like Games Without Frontiers, Biko and Family Snapshot. The follow-up 4 : Mask or Security in 1982 was along the same lines, with Peter Hammill roped in to contribute in three songs: Shock The Monkey, The Family And The Fishing Net and Lay Your Hands On Me. So (1986) was, in essence, a pop record, yet the commercial breakthrough aside it contains some of his most important compositions like Red Rain and Sledgehammer.

Yes in 1980

In the Yes’s fold, things didn’t look too bright. After the average Tormato, the dawn of the 80’s brought a handful of changes in the group’s line-up, namely Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson stepped out to be replaced by Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn respectively. The revamped line-up debuted in 1980 with Drama, which was an unexpectedly good record and ranks among the band’s best works. The symphonic prog they delivered was accessible but also adventurous, where Steve Howe and Chris Squire played a starring role once again. Unfortunately the line-up changes didn’t stop; Jon Anderson rejoined and Tony Kaye and Trevor Rabin replaced Geoff Downes and Steve Howe in keyboards and guitar respectively. The purely pop direction of 90125 and Big Generator was disappointing through and through, in spite of the dough that rolled in due to the hit single Owner Of A Lonely Heart.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator did collectively two records, an average one (as Emerson, Lake & Powell no less) and a disappointing one (Civilian-1980), but Peter Hammill was prolific and did eight studio albums in the 80’s. Out of this lot, The Black Box (1980) deserves some extra attention because of its experimental material and darkwave aesthetic. Yet, his most remarkable works as a whole in the decade were Enter K (1982) and, all the more, Patience (1983), two sublime records that chimed in with the zeitgeist of the era where Hammill invests in introversion while keeping true to its progressive roots. His unique tone embellishes the less-is-more compositions, compared to the stuff he did back in VDGG, and the result is impressive once again. Do yourselves a favour and listen to the song Patient.

Kansas, probably the top prog band from the USA, struck out in a completely different direction, aiming clearly for a radio-friendly approach and as a result the AOR course they charted had nothing to do with the grandeur of the 1974 – 1978 era. The mighty Jethro Tull reached an all-time low too, where synth experimentations, drum programming and guitars à la Dire Straits were out of place with the band’s DNA. The only record out of the five they did that somewhat saves the day is Crest Of A Knave, mainly thanks to the outstanding Budapest.


Camel went through the worst days of their career too. The compositional decline that began in Rain Dances, went on in Nude (1981), the first record they released in the 80’s. Quite melodic but lacked of inspired songs and its best moments were reduced to the ever-touchy solos of Andrew Latimer. The downfall spiral went on with The Single Factor, perhaps their worst record of their catalogue. Stationary Traveller turned out to be a gulp of fresh air into the lungs of the band. In spite of its commercial disposition, oddly enough this time it worked with the vestiges of their symphonic prog of their legendary era (1973 – 1977) and the final outcome is deemed as successful. After that, a legal battle between Latimer with their ex-manager Geoff Jukes took place, which was the cause for the band’s hiatus for seven years.

The fall of the decade we are talking about had some very happy news in store for the most representative band of space rock, Hawkwind. The addition of Tim Blake on the keyboards and Ginger Baker on drums, breathed new life in the band and the revamped line-up recorded the amazing Levitation, their best effort since  Warrior On The Edge Of Time and up to this day.

Captain’s Dave Brock crew blended tastefully garage rock with space atmosphere and exquisite melodies into nine flawless compositions. Unfortunately Blake and Baker split and the rest of five records (Sonic Attack-1981, Church Of Hawkwind-1982, Choose Your Masques-1982, The Xenon Codex-1988) don’t match up to the grandeur of Levitation and they cannot be seen as anything but average, excluding the quite heavy for their standards and based lyrically on Michael Moorcock’s book Elric Of Melnibone, The Chronicle Of The Black Sword.

To say that the German scene went through a protracted period of decay is an understatement, to say the least. It was non-existent right from the end of the 70’s and the bands that kept recording with consistency and quality were thin to the ground. Especially krautrock had vanished and synths had invaded and prevailed almost everywhere. Things got worse during the 80’s and great bands didn’t just let their fans down but they also caused justifiable bitter laughter (Amon Duul II, Can, Klaus Schulze, Lucifer’s Friend, Birth Control, Embryo, Kraan, Jane, Cluster, Passport, Triumvirat, Novalis, Grobschnitt). Aside from the bands that are about to be mentioned below, the Swiss/Germans Brainticket paradoxically stood out by releasing Adventure and Voyage, two knee-deep spacey and jam-perfect /experimental records that keep the spirit and aesthetic of the unique Celestial Ocean unaltered.

Eloy - 1983
Eloy in 1983

A bright exception to this disappointing rule were Eloy, who, quantity-wise at least, were as prolific as they were in the 70’s, namely they did seven records (six studio albums and one soundtrack). Colours introduced them to the new decade but in spite of its impressive cover and its heaviness didn’t pull off to excite fans and critics with a few exceptions like Illuminations and Child Migration. Synths took the lead now and in this context they released in 1981 the album Planets, their best one since Silent Cries And Mighty Echoes. Ambience and imposing melodies is what this record is all about and cuts like Mysterious Monolith, At The Gates Of Dawn and Carried By Cosmic Winds jog our memory why so few prog bands were worshipped as much as they were. Unfortunately, the uninspired follow-ups Time To Turn and Performance failed to live up to the high standards, even though the AOR touch and the more straightforward approach of Metromania did succeed to give them a new lease of life in a time where their reputation had fizzled out. At the end of the decade they reached the all-time low of their career when they released the pathetic Code Name: Wild Geese OST and Ra, two albums that signified a protracted crisis which the band hasn’t overcome up to this day.

The photo in the back cover of Sei Still Wisse Ich Bin

At some point, the History of Music should restore the injustice and commemorate Popol Vuh as one of the greatest acts of the 20th century and Florian Fricke as a unique originator who pioneered, experimented and sought his influences through traditional music and at the end of the day he did great things. His close relationship with the director Werner Herzog which blossomed with the unique soundtracks of Aguirre The Wrath Of God, Herz Aus Glas and Nosferatu, rendered him responsible for the film score of the latter’s music. Therefore, Popol Vuh took on two more soundtracks of this renowned director, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, where the final product deviates considerably from the prog sphere. Apart from that, with regard to studio releases, they delivered three records, Sei Still Wisse Ich Bin, Agape-Agape Love-Love and Spirit Of Peace, of which the first one is their best work as a whole. With the addition of Renate Knaup as a permanent member, the German pioneers mix the meditating religious music with a good dose of ethnic and world music elements. Tantric Songs deserves a mention, an amazing compilation (with English titles this time) of the best moments from the records Bruder Des Schattens – Sohne Des Lichts and Die Nacht Der Seele. Wrapping up the chapter of 80’s German scene, it would be omission to make no reference of the titans Tangerine Dream, the group that, in essence, formed electronic music. During this particular decade they were above and beyond prolific and the total harvest (studio, live, soundtracks) was no less than 28 records! We will focus on the best of them, since the analytical presentation of each one is impossible for practical reasons. Aside from the two core members Froese και Franke, the third one changed fickly and TD after the more traditional prog rock orientation of Cyclone and Force Majeure, went gradually back to the synth/age ground, releasing the magnificent Tangam and the very good Exit and after that the honourable and typical of the 80’s spirit, Hyperborea and Underwater Sunlight. The two impeccable live albums, Logo and Poland deserve citation where they play live material inexistent in any other studio record, as always.

Since we talk about the progressive electronic genre thanks to Tangerine Dream, it would be shameless to wrap this up omitting the one and only record that Manuel Göttsching released in the 80’s, the guitarist and leader of the mighty Ash Ra Tempel. E2-E4, though granted more electronic than prog, is considered as a fulcrum for electronic music, causing awe how innovative it still sounds.

When the talk leans towards the bands that preserved unaltered their prog attitude but at the same time they fit in with the trend without cheapening their sound, then King Crimson is always one of the two groups that will be first mentioned. p55502wgd16After seven years of draught, that is the release of Red and the ending of their first break-up, Robert Fripp decided to re-energize the band, planning not to mimic his musical past but rather pioneer and create something new and fresh. With a retooled line up/dream team consisting of the “veteran” Bill Bruford on drums, Adrian Belew of Talking Heads (vocals, guitar – the first time ever that Fripp engaged a second guitarist in his band) and Peter Gabriel’s permanent member and the master of the chapman stick bass Tony Levin, they recorded Discipline in 1981. To describe this particular historical release is not an easy task. Belew’s experimentations, who brought along a clearly new wage verging-on-pop aesthetic to King Crimson’s prog, were built upon Fripp’s mathematically precise riffs and the rhythm section’s unrepeatable achievements. Discipline’s bacchanal includes influences ranging from jazz/fusion to funk or even afro rhythms beneath the progressive cloak they never got rid of. 

Cuts like Elephant Talk, Frame By Frame and The Sheltering Sky are gold pages in the history of prog. The critics of that time were baffled, having no idea whatsoever how to receive this very masterpiece but in the meantime the British released Beat just the next year, a really good record which on the one hand is more melodic and on the other hand is along the same lines as its predecessor but not just as good. Their 80’s trilogy, before the second split, was completed in 1984 with Three Of A Perfect Pair, a quite uneven record where the first four tunes lean towards 80’s new wave style, whereas the rest of the album is extremely experimental, nonstructured music. Of all three, it is probably the weakest one, nevertheless in this experimental stuff there is plenty of good music. Fortunately, some years later Absent Lovers was released, a unique live document that fully captured this very era of the band.

To wrap up the first part this special feature on 80’s progressive rock in the best possible way, we left on purpose for the end the band with the most important legacy with regard to this era, and this band is no other than the gang of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. Rush on the back a phenomenal string of exceptional albums consisting of 2112, A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres, entered ideally the new decade by releasing Permanent Waves. Rush+Signals+473871The Canadians had their fingers on the pulse while composing this record and they enriched their heavy prog they had delivered on previous albums with new wave elements and the synths took a more energetic role. The hit The Spirit Of The Radio with its almost reggae finale is the album’s money shot, whereas the shorter Freewill and Different Strings put on display their simpler yet beautiful side. Jaccob’s Ladder awes with its dark atmosphere whereas it is not far-fetched to say that the DNA of progressive metal lies in the main riff of Natural Science. Even the outsider of the record, Enter nous, is a little lost gem of their catalogue. Naturally Rush didn’t ride on the coattails of the success of Permanent Waves but instead they released Moving Pictures a year later. The fact alone that a big proportion of Rush fans holds it as their best ever, is a testimony to its greatness. Rush refined the new direction they struck out a year before with seven flawless compositions. The Canadian trio makes jaws drop with its compositional and performance skills, reaching probably the peak of their chemistry which is depicted whether on the instant-classics Tom Sawyer and Limelight or their most representative instrumental cut YYZ or the prog anthem The Camera Eye or the unique Witch Hunt and Vital Signs. Moving Pictures brought the rear of a string of no less than five “tenners”, earning them the summit of the progdom of the time. Their next step was Signals loaded with even more keyboards and exemplifying even more simplified song structures, giving weight to songwriting. The results were impressive, since tunes like Subdivisions, The Analog Kid and Digital Man, have a place of their own in Rush’s history.


In the same vein was Grace Under Pressure, where influences from The Police (who were at the top of their career back then) crept heavily. The sound was more radio friendly something that didn’t take the edge off their prog direction and the record’s first side was one of the best that Rush ever did which featured Distant Early Morning, Afterimage, Red Sector A and The Enemy Within, worthy representatives of the prog rock which was not at its best back then. Even though Power Windows was maligned by the core of Rush’s fans due to its commercial 80’s approach, it is a very nice record which requires multiple listens to fully appreciate its content and songs like Manhattan Project and Mystic Rhythms. Their true nadir was the average Hold Your Fire and Presto. The former was in the same vein of the synth-oriented direction but no song stood out, the latter attempted to bring back the guitars up front but the result doesn’t vindicate their decision, it’s no coincidence that many of their fans think of it as the worse of their career. Nevertheless, the greatness of what they did during the era 1980-1984 that included four studio records plus the live killer album Live Exit…Stage Left sufficed to be labeled as the most successful 70’s group whose 80’s work didn’t falter.

In the next part of this special feature we will dig into underground progressive stuff and we’ll take a look at the subgenres that blossomed at that time, the introduction of neo-prog that breathed new life into our favourite music and the audience took an interest in it once again and the qualitative representation of symphonic, fusion and avant-prog by relatively unknown groups that their works deserve better than the obscurity they are in.

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