By Cameron Pikó
Long, bloated, unnecessary, self-indulgent… the criticisms thrown at the progressive rock genre are well-established (and in a few select instances, completely accurate). I disagree with those sentiments in general, but it made me wonder – are there any songs by these bands that could encapsulate their sound, in a more standard length of time? I've given myself the restriction of looking at songs 4 minutes and under, that still manage to fully convey the ideals and musicality of the bands. You won't find 'Schizoid Man' here, no 'Supper’s Ready' or 'Close to the Edge'. This is progressive rock (and one jazz fusion track) condensed.
Genesis – 'The Broadway Melody of 1974'
A two minute primer on all things Genesis (at least for the Peter Gabriel-heralded era), ‘The Broadway Melody’ is deceptively simple: a single note pulse for its entire duration with Gabriel singing obscure lyrics over the top.
Despite this, it still manages to summarise all of Genesis’ work so far. The militant, driving pulse is such a typical Genesis rhythm; a main focus of their longer, more famous epics like ‘The Knife’ off Trespass, ‘Watcher of the Skies’ off Foxtrot, or ‘The Cinema Show’ from Selling England By The Pound. Gabriel’s lyricism is also on top form, channeling T.S. Eliot and combining ancient myth with the contemporary in his cryptic depiction of a decaying Hollywood. Balancing the epic with the everyday perpetuated Gabriel’s time with Genesis; for every ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’ - depicting the Greek tale of the attempted rape of Hermaphroditus by Salmacis - there is an ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ – a groundsman happy with his unexciting life as a lawn mower. ‘The Broadway Melody of 1974’ combines the two most memorable aspects of what made this era of the band so special, and it tops it all off with some beautifully sparse guitar work by the Steve Hackett, relatively forgotten on this album. It’s no surprise to say this is possibly my favourite Genesis tune, and the song that instigated this entire article.
Other Contenders: Anyway (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway)
King Crimson – 'Frame By Frame (live)'
It is nigh-on impossible to find a King Crimson track that is under 4 minutes. Even if you do, it’s even harder to find one which best encapsulates the line-up of the time. Ever the sonic chameleon, King Crimson’s sound changes every few albums or so, but no song better showcased the flirtation of pop sensibility with ever-more increasingly intricate guitar lines of the 80s lineup than Discipline’s ‘Frame By Frame’ – and there’s no better live version available than that off Absent Lovers. Adrian Belew, perfectly bringing his pop sensibility from time with David Bowie and Talking Heads with the complex music he learned in his brief time with Frank Zappa, grounds his and Robert Fripp’s entangled guitars with incredibly emotive vocals. Bookending the odd-timed, 7/8 riff is a 4/4 groove perpetuated by the great rhythm section of Tony Levin and Bill Bruford. Making the complex and intricate sound that King Crimson were known for and adding an almost Beatles-esque sensibility, it’s unsurprising Belew would be the voice of King Crimson from Discipline through to 2003’s The Power to Believe.
Briefly getting my music nerd on, the main 7/8 riff that constitutes the verses has some innovative guitar techniques by Mr. Robert Fripp. He drops a note whilst playing along with Belew, meaning the two are playing catch-up – this is what would create the entangled guitar sound that dominates all post 80s Crimson. Crazy to listen to, even crazier to play! (I’ve tried, failed).
What about earlier lineups? It’s far more difficult; all the shorter songs are quiet, generally acoustic, ballads that greatly contrast with the bands usual dominance over dissonance. If you’re willing to give a few seconds, 1974’s Starless and Bible Black has ‘The Great Deceiver’ (4:02) and ‘Lament’ (4:04) which are a great look at the Wetton-Bruford-Cross-Fripp lineup. Between these two tracks, angular and athletic guitar riffs nestle with quiet, emotive vocals before exploding into odd-time grooves that always threaten to collapse into a complete mess – but never quite do so.
Yes – 'Long Distance Runaround' / 'Roundabout (single-edit)'
Yes, or to be more specific bassist Chris Squire, really knew how to groove. The most accessible of the 70s Yes albums (i.e. the album that doesn't feature 18 minute sidelong tracks), Fragile has several shorter tunes. ‘Long Distance Runaround’ certainly covers most bases: the ethereal, elfin vocals of Jon Anderson, the keyboard noodling of Rick Wakeman and the grooves of Squire and drummer Bill Bruford (appearing on this list for the second time). In fact, the only one being uncharacteristically restrained is guitarist Steve Howe – and that’s not to say he’s not playing some great stuff here.
On the single edit of 'Roundabout' (something as an album purist I’m generally loathe to even consider) we get a better look at the entire band, and Howe particularly shows his classical guitar chops off here. The problem with trimming an 8 and a half minute song down to just over 3 minutes is…it’s missing bits. Specifically, the bridge to end all bridges – a personal favourite and one of the first riffs I play whenever I pick up a guitar.
Even more so than King Crimson before them, Yes have become known for the length of their tracks. As such, it’s difficult to find any single short tune that can contain the atmosphere, virtuosity and scope that they usually traverse. Having said that, these two tracks are probably some of the most easily listenable to a non-initiate as they contain some killer grooves that’s bound to get feet a’tappin…if you like your prog tappable, that is.
Gentle Giant – 'Cogs in Cogs' / 'So Sincere'
Well…these songs go everywhere. Which summarises Gentle Giant very well. A track off their lesser-known 1974 album The Power and the Glory, the schizophrenic jumping between grooves, odd time signatures and complex keyboard lines of ‘Cogs in Cogs’ is the perfect condensation of their work. All it’s missing are the chamber instruments – which you could check out in ‘So Sincere’ off the same album. Equally strange in structure, ‘So Sincere’ at least provides some room to breathe in the verses before going completely batshit crazy in his second half. There’s no ‘easy’ way to get into Gentle Giant, but between these two tracks you'll definitely be able to decide if it’s worth your time. This is quite timely, as The Power and the Glory has just been remastered by Steven Wilson, so the songs are sounding better than ever!
Camel – 'Rhayader'
For once, the song that the band is best known for is both under 4 minutes and is a great indicator of their sound. A joyful, bouncing tune propelled by excellent basslines and a memorable flute line by composer/guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer. Everyone in the band gets their time in the spotlight here, with a fantastic keyboard solo by the late Peter Bardens, simple yet uplifting drumming and one really, really cannot talk enough about how great those basslines are. Although fans of Latimer’s Pink Floydian guitar work will have to wait for the companion piece, ‘Rhayader Goes To Town’ (which alas that exceeds my 4 minute restriction), the piece still manages to convey the whimsy, complexity and melodicism that dominates so much of Camel’s classic material. A great song off a great album (The Snow Goose), it’s no surprise this piece would become a live staple.
Frank Zappa – 'St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast' / 'Father O’Blivion'
It is hard to find a single track that fully encapsulates the man that is Frank Zappa. The ludicrousness, the obscenity, the beautiful submerged in the utterly irritating and intentionally annoying…
This juxtaposition was important to Zappa, but more often than not he would still keep them separate: pop songs would remain excessively irritating and catchy, his “serious music” would be just that – highly complex material. But in a single, under 4 minute song? It’s a tough choice for an unabashed Zappaphile such as myself to make.
But sometimes, the best known work is the best choice. Off his 18th album - 1974’s Apostrophe(‘), -the third part in Zappa prog song-suite parody (often dubbed The Yellow Snow suite) ‘St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ does a reasonable job of portraying the technical insanity of the musicians Zappa surrounded himself with, as well as his more playful side. The first section is call-and-response in nature, with Zappa narrating the events of the aforementioned breakfast and the music doing an excellent job of conveying his words in musical form. The second section is an impressive feat of musicianship, a flurry of intricate notes played by keyboardist George Duke and bassist Tom Fowler, and between the two sections we’ve nearly covered a good deal of Zappa. It’s all topped off with the fourth and final section of the Yellow Snow Suite (which, when combined with St. Alphonzo, is still under 4 minutes!), ‘Father O’Blivion’.
A riff-heavy tale of the sexual activities partaken between St. Alphonzo and a leprechaun, the song jumps between complex guitar parts, Zappa’s odd vocal lines, church music and something border lining on bossa nova. Between these two tracks we are introduced to Zappa’s unique voice - literally and compositionally – his musical complexity, his off-colour lyrics and his poppier sensibility.
Other Contenders: ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down’ for further obscenity, or ‘Peaches en Regalia’ for instrumental beauty.
Rush – 'Circumstances'
Although Canadian power-trio Rush’s Moving Pictures may be their most well-known album, ‘Circumstances’ (off 1978’s Hemispheres) is a great way to get into their proggier side. Also, everything on Moving Pictures is over 4 minutes.
All up until the bridge, the song is pretty much how Rush are now and have always been. The track opens up with Alex Lifeson’s classic rock chords, and Geddy Lee sings in his love-or-hate falsetto whilst athletically playing ridiculous basslines, and drummer-extraordinaire Neil Peart pens lyrics about disillusionment and pounds away at his kit. It’s all classic Rush. The bridge near the end of the track definitely demarcates the differences between song-suite Rush and ‘poppy’ Rush, as they manage to start rocking out in 11/8 as if it’s completely standard behaviour, before easing back into the chorus as if nothing happened.
The more traditionally rock of all the big prog bands, ‘Circumstances’ is a great example of how Rush continued to tread the line of prog rock and hard rock without falling firmly on either side.
Other Contenders: The Twilight Zone (2112), Closer to the Heart (A Farewell to Kings)
Mahavishnu Orchestra – 'Celestial Terrestrial Commuters'
In 2 minutes and 55 seconds, guitarist John McLaughlin’s jazz fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra pull out all their tricks. ‘Celestial Terrestrial Commuters’ (from 1973’s Birds of Fire) showcases complex yet melodious interplay between McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin for the main motif, keyboardist Jan Hammer gets a brief but shining solo, and the ever-fantastic drumming of Billy Cobham. The fact they all manage to show so much agility, skill and just plain good music for a piece in 19/16 (!!!) is utterly remarkable. It all typifies the Mahavishnu model – the roaring ‘Birds of Fire’ off the same album or ‘Meeting of the Spirits’ from The Inner Mounting Flame all have their own variant of lightning fast guitar and violin that’s present here (albeit the latter also includes some pretty crazy polyrhythms). The only thing the track doesn't really reveal is Mahavishnu Orchestra’s quieter side – ‘Thousand Island Park’ or ‘Open Country Joy’ would be better contenders whilst still staying under 4 minutes. But when anyone mentions the band to me, it’s this uncompromising, relentless and intense musicianship that springs first to mind.
Other Contenders: ‘Awakening’ (The Inner Mounting Flame), ‘Hope’ (Birds of Fire)