Most people think of prog rock as a British genre. When the subject of American prog comes up, it’s hard to name more than a few bands, most of which were more heavily influenced by the likes of Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson than anyone else: Kansas, Starcastle, Happy the Man, and maybe neoprog acts like Spock’s Beard and Djam Karet. Maybe prog-metallurgists like Dream Theater. Maybe Frank Zappa.
Yet there was an American band that recorded its debut album in 1969, five years before Kansas’s debut. Let’s call this 7-piece outfit Band X. Band X’s music was rock-based but explored jazz, chamber music, and free improvisation. Its first three albums were all double LPs. All of its first few albums featured multi-part suites, some of which went on for well over ten minutes. The band’s drummer studied with jazz legend Papa Jo Jones. The band’s grossly underappreciated guitarist recorded one track that consisted entirely of noise and feedback.
Band X’s debut album was an acknowledged influence on Soft Machine’s avant-rock masterpiece Third. A track on a later album was called “A Hit for Varese,” after the French avant-garde composer who was a huge influence on Zappa. Their 1972 quadruple live album predated Yes’s three-disc Yessongs by a year. They were known for playing stretched-out, drastically rearranged versions of British Invasion tunes their early live set, just like Yes did with Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel tunes.
Did Band X fade into obscurity, like many other progressive bands? Was their music too arcane for the general public, or devoid of catchy tunes, and therefore didn’t sell?
Band X’s first two albums contained massive hits that are played on classic rock and oldies radio stations to this day — and later albums contained many more hits. One of their multi-part suites produced two hits by itself. The band’s original lineup persisted until 1978, when their guitarist tragically died, but the group continued as a hit-making machine for several years afterwards. In fact, their career arc and eventual pop sellout roughly parallels that of Genesis, which started recording in the same year and is remembered as one of the most important prog bands ever.
Have you figured out who Band X is yet?
Ironically, the magnitude of this band’s chart successes and its descent into pure MOR schlock have long obscured their origins as an edgy, innovative, progressive, countercultural force in music. No one remembers songs from their first two albums… other than “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?”, “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “I’m a Man,” “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” and “25 or 6 to 4.”
That’s right, it’s Chicago.
The song lyrics say it themselves: “Don’t you put me down please/For creating beyond your mind/I said all you gotta do is listen.” (“Listen,” from Chicago Transit Authority, the band’s debut album).
P.S. my vote for all-time best Chicago album goes to Chicago II. If you’ve dismissed Chicago as pop schlockmeisters, listen to it all the way through (though feel free to skip “It Better End Soon,” a dated protest piece that fails to take its own advice) and see what I mean. Then check out the above-mentioned debut album, a close second. And the first disc of the double-LP Chicago VII, a first-rate fusion collection.