The Beatles did three things that changed the course of popular music: 1) they wrote their own songs; 2) they took control of the recording process; and 3) they gave us Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released at the height of the summer of 1967, the Beatles had been off the road for almost eighteen months and immersed at Abbey Road studios. That it is a conceptual album, and not just a collection of songs, makes Sgt. Pepper the landmark that it is. From the jacket photo, to the music on the vinyl, to even the cutout inserts inside, exercising their creativity was the Beatles end game, and here would it fully manifest. While others had attempted it, the Beatles delivered the object - a record album - that everyone wanted and would want to create. After the previous year's masterpiece Revolver, the first hint of the Beatles next move appeared on the "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever" single released in February. When Sgt. Pepper's arrived in June, it was their most intellectual statement yet, raising the bar for all of popular music. From the adult theme of "Getting Better" to the blatant psychedelia of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", the Beatles offer their most mature and cohesive effort, best encapsulated in the epic track "A Day In The Life". Equally important was the reception that their audience, indeed the world, had to the album. In addition to burgeoning awareness of psychedelia, the album coincided with the advent of stereo headphones, and was the first album to feature printed lyrics. All points connected: with Sgt. Pepper's, the Beatles and producer George Martin captured the minds and imaginations of an audience waiting to be captured. So enough has been written about this album and with good reason: British art rock starts here. This was the pretense under which most progressive rock was made.
In late 1966, London - ordained "swinging" by Time magazine - was undergoing a massive culture change. At the very heart of London's "underground" lay Barry Miles and Indica Books, the subject of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer". Along with John Hopkins, American Jim Haynes and others, Miles also launched the International Times, London's first newspaper dedicated to this new counter-culture. And it's roughly here that Peter Jenner and Andrew King, acting as the band's management, introduced the Pink Floyd Sound to that scene. The happenings of 1967 were genuinely novel, and the music would become much more than just the soundtrack. Built in large part upon their residencies at the Marquee and UFO clubs, Pink Floyd was the archetype of this new British psychedelic rock. Their live set, complete with light show, progressed from deconstructed R&B to extended instrumental freak-outs. The group composition "Interstellar Overdrive" documents the innovation of live Floyd; compared to anything from the era it's completely uncanny, just check out Peter Whitehead's film "Tonite Let's All Make Love In London" (its title taken from an Allen Ginsberg text). However, the album, The Piper at The Gates of Dawn, is pure Syd Barrett, as first previewed in singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play". His "Matilda Mother", taken in part from a children's book, best highlights he and his Cambridge bandmate's middle class aesthetic; highly literate and intelligent, the musical transcription is wonderfully inspired, and like "Bike", especially English. The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studio simultaneous to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, with their ex- engineer Norman Smith in the producer's chair. There's no cliché in calling the album a classic; creatively, it simply had no peer. It was also unique in that it offered no singles - they were separate from the album - in a tradition most progressive bands would follow. Produced by Joe Boyd, "Arnold Layne" rose to No. 20 in March despite being banned by "Wonderful" Radio London, while both "See Emily Play" and the album reached No. 6 in the summer. Unfortunately this would remain Barrett's only recorded testament with Pink Floyd. His psychological decline (precipitating an aborted US tour) led to his eventual eviction from the band and prompted his status as the preeminent poster child of the acid casualty.
The members of Procol Harum suffered most of the '60s as the Paramounts, whose minor claim to fame was a cover of “Poison Ivy” that hit the UK Top 40 in 1963. They finally broke up in 1966, yet by the following year had resurrected themselves as Procol Harum. Released in May, their first single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” shot immediately to No. 1 in the UK, selling over 4 million copies. Musically adapted from Bach's “Air On a G String”, Keith Reid's surreal lyrics were delivered by Gary Brooker's somber yet soulful voice over the swirl of Matthew Fisher's Hammond organ; in short, it brought a new sophistication to pop music and deservedly earned its fortune. Next, with guitarist Robin Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson, the band regrouped (more or less) to their Paramount's line up to record their debut album, also titled A Whiter Shade of Pale. Reid, the band's full time lyricist, and Brooker wrote most of the first album, though Fisher did contribute the excellent instrumental “Repent Walpurgis”. While none of the album could match the impact of the single, it did contain some great songs: “Ceredes (Outside the Gates of)” is quite ballsy, punctuated by Trower's lead guitar, while the splendid (and splendidly titled) “She Wandered Through The Garden Fence” featured more of Fisher's great Hammond organ runs. Procol Harum delivered mature R&B, not far from Traffic on the map, yet always 100% original. The album failed to chart in the UK, but did break into the US Top 50.
The Moody Blues were originally an R&B-inspired group who scored a No. 1 hit in 1964 with "Go Now". A few years later they recruited John Lodge and Justin Hayward, but it took a change to the Deram label and a purchase of a Mellotron before they'd find success again. To quote the liner notes from the album, "The Moody Blues have at last done what many others have dreamed of and talked about: they have extended the range of pop music ...where it becomes one with the world of the classics." Okay, whatever, rich cinematic productions were already a studio treatment du jour. Yet the Moody Blues were attempting something more: symphonic rock. A dubious distinction, but it reflects another tenant that would weigh heavy on prog rock: the attempt at musical respectability. Dropping the needle, the record plays out: lush orchestral accompaniments provide segue between songs, while a god-like voice recites poetry. Pretentious, of course, but one thing is certain, this isn't really rock-n-roll. Ultimately the Moody Blues wrote marginally psychedelic pop tunes, thoroughly rooted in the '60s. The second side cranks up the Mellotron and fares better, culminating in the classic "Nights In White Satin". It's a great song, and along with "Tuesday Afternoon", both rightly became FM radio staples. Moreover, the album's immaculate production is impressive for any era. So whatever the content, the right accoutrements would mean everything when speaking progressive. The album sold well, reaching No. 23 in the UK and No. 3 in the US. The Moody Blues would repeat this formula to continual success over the ensuing years, before taking a rest in 1973, only to return at the end of the decade for even more success.
Taking their name from Steve Marriott's (of The Small Faces) euphemism for being high, The Nice originally formed as a back-up band for Immediate label soul singer, P.P. Arnold. But the group's infatuation with Hendrix-like stage antics, in particular Keith Emerson's keyboard histrionics, led them quickly away and into London's limelight. Guitar heroes had been around for years already, but Emerson lashed out as England's first keyboard showman. Their first single "Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack" flopped, though the flip side "Azrial (Angel Of Death)" proved more inviting. Their debut album, Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, is atypical psychedelia: "Dawn" stretches out beyond pop, while "The Cry of Eugene" contains that prototypical melody that Emerson would come back to again and again. The lengthy "Rondo" took its theme from "Blue Rondo à la Turk" by jazz composer Dave Brubeck (without credit), and gives a better taste for what The Nice could offer. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison are a competent, if unnoticed, rhythm section, much like Hendrix's Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. In 1968, the Nice joined the Move, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix Experience on a tour of the UK, further cementing their reputation as a premier live act. Guitarist David O'List departed after the tour, and the band remained a trio thereafter, giving Emerson ample room to flaunt his considerable talent. Though the album didn't chart, its impact was not diminished: the keyboard would become the distinguishing trademark of prog rock, and Keith Emerson its first superstar.
Steve Winwood was known for his blue-eyed soul with the Spencer Davis Group, and songs such as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm A Man" were the last in a string of hits from the R&B inspired group. By 1967, Winwood was now solo, recruiting some friends from his native Birmingham for Traffic. They retired to the proverbial "cottage in the country" and created the first of two records that, along with Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, would best characterize Britain's answer to America's acid rock - psychedelic rock. Their debut album, Mr. Fantasy, takes the Beatles' approach for great pop songs and adorns it with a palette straight from the era: Mellotron, sitar, lots of acoustic guitar, children's voices, etc. But into all of that, the band infuses a wide spectrum of influences; whether the raucous honky-tonk of "Berkshire Poppies" or the bluesy jazz of "Giving It To You", Traffic is highly original and above all, rock-n-roll. Yet Winwood never loses sight of his R&B roots: just witness "Colored Rain" and "Smiling Phases". The title track is perhaps the highlight, a preview of what the band could (and eventually would) deliver. Drummer Jim Capaldi and flautist/saxophonist Chris Wood provide ample support throughout; however, Dave Mason would prove to be a foil to the progressive experiments. The album made the UK Top 10, as did the singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe" earlier during London's summer of love. 1968 saw the whole trip repeated with the band's self-titled second album, Traffic. Although the album included two of Mason's finest compositions, "You Can All Join In" and "Feelin' Alright", no singles were issued. However, the album would again reach the UK Top 10 and even breach the US Top 20. But by 1969, Winwood disbanded Traffic to join the super group Blind Faith with Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.