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Studying the British musical underground of the 1960s

Submitted by on 09/04/2018 – 17:59

Elena Stepanova

Abstract: The article reviews the concept of “progressive music”, emerged in the British musical culture in the second half of the 1960s — the sociological and musical features of this musical style, experiments with rhythm, arrangement and text, the influence of “fantasy” books on rock poetry. ISBN 978-5-6040201-2-8

Key words: psychedelic rock, psychedelic folk, Tyrannosaurus Rex, fantasy (literary style), rock poetry, hippies, counter-culture, underground music.

In modern musicology that studies popular musical genres of the second half of the 20th century, the term “progressive rock” (“prog rock”) is used widely, as many bands are associated with it, first of all
the British ones — Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Genesis, Yes, ELP (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Gentle Giant, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, etc. However, the meaning of the term gradually transformed during the course of the style development.

In this regard, it would be interesting to return to the sources and find out the original meaning of the term “progressive music” at the time of its inception in the second half of the 1960s. What were the musical, social and other components that defined the style? English sociologist Paul Willis in his book “Profane Culture” gives the following definition: first of all, this is original (authentic) music, radically different from commercial radio hits broadcasted at that time. By the early 1960s, commercial (popular) music entered into a state of stagnation, became just another kind of consumer goods (like soap, chewing gum, etc). A significant part of the youth audience (particularly those who shared the ideals of the hippies) refused to accept musical consumer goods. In their opinion, commercial music was lifeless, predictable and non-authentic — that is, not genuine. This audience preferred to listen to “progressive music “, and the most distinctive features of that music were creativity and authenticity [6, p. 154, 155-157]. As Frank Zappa said:

“If you want to come up a singular, most important trend in this new music, I think it has to be something like: it is original, composed by the people who perform it — even if they have to fight the recording companies to do it. ” [4]

The term “progressive music” also has a synonym — “musical underground”, i.e. non-commercial experimental musical art, an antipode of mainstream music. One should pay attention to the words “non-commercial” and “experimental”, as they are important characteristics not only of the musical style itself, but also of how it was perceived by its audience.

“Non-commercial”: a band does not strive for commercial success, does not dream to end up rich by selling their works. In particular, this implied that a band or solo artist does not release singles (EPs), preferring to record and release concept albums instead.

“Experimental” is an even more important component of the style: in the late 1960s, bands and solo musicians who could not be considered as ones who produced “masterpieces” according to musical criteria, still could find their audience and were automatically given a respect for ‘doing their own thing’ (that is, they created something authentic, original, something that stood out from the others’ works) [6].

It is necessary to explore a little more about the albums (LP records) vs. EPs. EPs were intended for entertainment, but albums demanded a calm, attentive listening. For the interested listener, a concept album meant adventure, experience, cognition, new impressions [6, p.156]. In fact, an encounter with such a thematic work could lead to answers to the philosophical questions of the individual. This could less likely happen when listening to background music, a record which is simply a collection of songs. (In addition, the playback of such a collection could be stopped at any time, because the songs were not related to one another or to any special idea.) Since albums became thematic, they were listened to from the beginning and to the end, and people usually did not dance. Among such albums are several works released in 1967, such as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed”, as well as many others that followed them.

// end of the article excerpt //

ATTENTION! The full text of the Russian version of the article (PDF file) can be viewed and saved by following this link: https://isi-vuz.academia.edu/1000tracks


1. Auslander, P. [2006] Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music.
2. Gonin, P. Fantastique et Science-Fiction dans l’œuvre des Pink Floyd de The Piper At The Gates Of The Dawn. URL: https://www.academia.edu/35664135 (Retrieved March 15 2018).
3. Macan, E. [1997] Rocking The Classics, English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture.
4. Marks, J., Eastman, L. [1968] Rock (Music) and Other Four Letter Words: Music of the Electric Generation. URL: http://www.afka.net/Books/rock4.htm (Retrieved March 15 2018).
5. Warner, F. [2017] A Trip Through Ladbroke Grove: The Life and Times of Underground ‘Hero’ Steve Peregrin Took.
6. Willis, P. [1978] Profane Culture.
7. Rozhansky, F.I. [1992] Slang of hippies (materials to the dictionary). – St. Petersburg. URL: http://www.philology.ru/linguistics2/rozhansky-92.htm (Retrieved March 15 2018).

The Russian version of the article was published in the ISI Proceedings (All-Russian scientific and practical conference “Art, Education, Culture: traditions and modernity”, Moscow, 2018).

© Elena Stepanova, 2018

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Елена Степанова — звукорежиссер, музыкант, автор статей и учебных материалов по звукорежиссуре, музыкальной аранжировке и композиции, истории музыкальных технологий.

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Elena Stepanova is a sound producer, musician, author of articles on sound engineering, musical arrangement and composition, history of musical technology.

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