What if we told you that all those endlessly perpetuated tropes for decades about punks and prog rockers being mortal enemies were a load of hogwash from the very start? The press played up punk’s Year Zero stance and New Wave’s no hippies agenda, but the front lines of the late 70s rock revolution were actually full of prog admirers. And there was way more overlap between the two worlds than you might imagine.
In retrospect, maybe things couldn’t have been any other way. For the first-gen punks to achieve even half of their iconoclastic aims, they probably had little choice but to take a scorched-earth view of rock’s past, burning their bridges, gleefully stomping out the ashes with their Doc Martens, and declaring the contemporary musical canvas a tabula rasa. But that doesn’t mean it was all legit.
Punk’s prog-hate campaign kicked off early. One of John Lydon’s most attention-getting garments in The Sex Pistols’ early days was a Pink Floyd t-shirt on which he’d scrawled the preface “I hate…” But decades later, with the stakes exponentially lowered, he confessed to The Quietus’s John Doran, “you’d have to be daft as a brush to say you didn’t like Pink Floyd. They’ve done great stuff.” The erstwhile Johnny Rotten even came within a spiky hair’s breadth of singing with them. “When they came to LA,” he revealed, “they asked me would I come on and do a bit of Dark Side Of The Moon with them and the idea thrilled me no end…. I came so close to doing it.”
The Van Der Graaf Generator connection
But even in the Pistols’ heyday, Lydon was already coming clean about his prog influences. In a 1977 Capital Radio interview, he sang the praises of Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill to DJ Tommy Vance. “He’s great,” said Lydon, “a true original, I’ve liked him for years… I love all his stuff.” For his part, Hammill had prefigured punk rather remarkably with 1975’s prescient Nadir’s Big Chance, which likely helped set the table for the Pistols and was duly singled out by Lydon on the radio show. In 1979, when Lydon had already moved on to the artier environs of Public Image Ltd., Hammill told Trouser Press’s Jon Young, “When the whole new wave thing started up, I gave myself a long wink in the mirror.”
California hardcore hero Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys had a soft spot for Van Der Graaf too, telling The Word’s Jim Irvin, “They were a darker side of prog. With teeth… I liked good prog, space-rock. I still love Magma and Hawkwind.” The latter band was a formative influence on Pistols guitarist Steve Jones too.
Punk and prog in the UK
The Damned beat The Sex Pistols to the punch in the 70s by being the first UK punks to release a record, 1976’s “New Rose” single. But they went so far as to draft Floyd drummer Nick Mason to produce their second LP, Music for Pleasure. Guitarist Brian James told NME’s Charles Shaar Murray, “I listened to the Floyd’s albums, and they sounded as if he knew his way around a studio.” By 1980, The Damned unveiled undeniably proggy epics like the 17-minute “Curtain Call.”
The Stranglers were immersed in the early British punk scene but were a little older than their peers (frontman Hugh Cornwell played in a teenage band with Richard Thompson). So they had more opportunity to soak up the art-rock aura of the early 70s and the garage-psych sounds of the previous decade. Even on their first album, they were unspooling tracks like the lengthy prog-punk suite “Down in the Sewer,” and keyboardist Dave Greenfield’s old-school sound was a signifier from the start. Bassist J.J. Burnel later told Uncut’s Nick Hasted, “Dave hadn’t heard of the Doors. He was a prog-rocker, into bands like Yes. Playing like [Doors keyboardist] Ray Manzarek was just weirdly natural to him.”
Buzzcocks offshoot/post-punk heroes Magazine also came within a hair’s breadth of prog on their first album. The relatively rococo likes of “Burst,” “The Great Beautician in the Sky,” and “Parade” ran in excess of five minutes and felt closer to vintage Roxy Music than to anything their peers were putting out. Even post-punk poster boys Alternative TV’s second album, 1979’s Vibing Up the Senile Man, eschews in-your-face riffs and jackhammer beats for what can only be described as avant-prog experimentation. Today, streaming sites make no bones about it, categorizing the album simply as prog rock.
Blondie and prog
Across the fence, there was no shortage of the old guard leaping in to mix it up with the new crew, and both sides were the better for it. King Crimson main man Robert Fripp lent his liquid guitar tones to Blondie’s eerie “Fade Away and Radiate” on their 1978 breakthrough, Parallel Lines. In 1980, he told ZigZag’s Kris Needs, “at Hammersmith Odeon, Chris [Stein, Blondie guitarist] could say to me two minutes before going on, ‘Hey, Iggy‘s turned up, do you wanna play ‘Funtime’ with Iggy?’ I said I’d never heard the song, how does it go? He said, ‘B flat, C to D, and it goes to E a couple of times,’ and then went on stage. It didn’t matter I’d never heard the song, come on and do it.”
Peter Gabriel had already assimilated a New Wave influence into his late 70s solo work when he produced and co-wrote Sham 69 singer Jimmy Pursey’s solo single “Animals Have More Fun/SUS.” The UK punk hero suddenly sounded closer to Gabriel’s post punk/art rock amalgam than the power chord ramalama of Pursey’s old band.
But perhaps the quintessential example of the prog-punk connection came when Pursey was still a Sham man. The 1978 Reading Rock festival marked the first time the annual event had been dominated by punk and New Wave artists. In addition to Sham 69, the first day of the three-day festival included The Jam, Penetration, Ultravox, Radio Stars, and more. But there was an out-of-control skinhead element in the crowd who took it upon themselves to stomp any longhairs who crossed their path.
As it happens, Pursey had unexpectedly befriended Steve Hillage recently, when one of the British music papers brought them together for what they expected would be a confrontational interview. The opposite occurred, and they struck up a mutual admiration society, so Pursey invited Hillage to join Sham 69 for their upcoming Reading slot. As lead guitarist for psychedelic space cadets Gong and a rather trippy solo artist, the wool-hatted, hirsute Hillage was about as hippie as you could get. So when he began peeling off lacerating licks amid Sham’s endearingly out-of-tune assault on the latter’s anthem of togetherness, “If the Kids are United,” it sent a message loud and clear to the teeming masses.
That should have been the end of the whole punks vs. hippies canard right there, but once a falsehood’s been spread, it’s tough to wind it down. Hillage even went on to produce a slew of New Wave records, by Simple Minds, Robyn Hitchcock, Real Life, and others. Looking back decades later, he told Malcolm Dome in Record Collector, “I understood that a lot of punk musicians came from a psychedelic background, and I had respect for what they were doing. This was reciprocated. For instance, the first time I met Johnny Rotten, he came up and pointed at me… said, Flying Teapot, [a classic Gong album] and gave me the thumbs-up sign.”
By the early 80s, the inevitable began to occur. British kids who came of age being transported by their older siblings’ Camel and Gentle Giant records began forming bands like Marillion, Twelfth Night, and IQ, merging prog influences with a post-punk edge and claiming their own piece of the pie, as neo-prog became a subgenre to be reckoned with. But the connections were there before punk even existed. You could go all the way back to proto-punk godhead Lou Reed’s 1972 solo debut, where he was accompanied by Yes’s Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe.
The Ramones prog connection
And if we can agree that punk qua punk began with the roar of The Ramones (who never abandoned their longhaired look), the conflict is over before it’s begun. Not that CBGB’s original three-chord avatars ever dipped into odd signatures or Moog fanfares, but after Joey Ramone’s death, a fascinating bit of history surfaced.
Joey’s personal record collection went up for auction in 2013. It consisted of almost 100 pieces of vinyl he’d purchased over the years. There was scarcely a soupcon of New Wave or punk to be found. But nestled among a fairly eclectic assemblage of albums were classic LPs by Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, along with sprawling art-pop milestones like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
The image of Joey banging his head to “Roundabout” or air-conducting the synth orchestra on the 11-minute “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is impossible to resist. Punk aficionados bamboozled into anti-prog bias may not like it, but the facts can’t be denied: There’s hardly a grain of sand separating Tales from Topographic Oceans and “Rockaway Beach.”
Have another example of punk and prog colliding? Let us know in the comments below.