Art rock

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Not to be confused with Rock art.
Roxy Music performing in Toronto in 1974

Art rock is a subgenre of rock music that originated in the 1960s with influences from art (avant-garde and classical) music.[2] The first usage of the term, according to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, was in 1968.[2] Art rock was a form of music which wanted to "extend the limits of rock & roll", and opted for a more experimental and conceptual outlook on music.[1] Art rock took influences from several genres, notably classical music, as well as experimental rock, psychedelia, avant garde, folk, baroque pop, and, in later compositions, jazz.[3]

Art rock has often been used synonymously with progressive rock;[1][4] nevertheless, differences have been identified between the genres, with art rock emphasizing avant-garde or experimental influences and "novel sonic structure," while progressive rock has been characterized as putting a greater emphasis on classically-trained instrumental technique, literary content, and symphonic features.[4] Art rock, as a term, can also be used to refer to either classically driven rock, or a progressive rock-folk fusion,[1] making it an eclectic genre. Common characteristics of art rock include album-oriented music divided into compositions rather than songs, with usually complicated and long instrumental sections, symphonic orchestration,[1] and an experimental style. Art rock music was traditionally used within the context of concept records,[1] and its lyrical themes tended to be "imaginative",[1] philosophical,[5] and politically oriented.[1]

While art rock developed towards the end of the 1960s, it enjoyed its greatest level of popularity in the early 1970s through groups such as Roxy Music, David Bowie, Jethro Tull, Electric Light Orchestra, 10cc, the Moody Blues, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Procol Harum.[1] Several other more experimental rock artists of the time were also characterized as art rock, including the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and Frank Zappa.[1] Art rock's success continued to the 1990s. Several pop and rock exponents of the period, including Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, incorporated elements of art rock within their work.[1] Art rock, as well as the theatrical nature of performances associated with the genre, was able to appeal to "artistically inclined" adolescents and younger adults,[1] especially due to its "virtuosity" and musical "complexity".[1]

Relationship with progressive and experimental rock[edit]

The concept of art rock has also sometimes been used to refer to the progressive rock bands which became popular in the 1970s. AllMusic states that "Progressive rock and art rock are two almost interchangeable terms describing a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility."[4] The latter has been described by Allmusic as "more challenging, noisy and unconventional", and also less classically influenced than the former, with more of an emphasis on avant-garde music.[3] Additionally, art rock shared much in common with experimental rock, especially with regard to experimental themes,

Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman's American Popular Music defines it as a "Form of rock music that blended elements of rock and European classical music. It included bands such as King Crimson; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Pink Floyd."[6] Bruce Eder's essay The Early History of Art-Rock/Prog Rock states that "'progressive rock,' also sometimes known as 'art rock,' or 'classical rock'" is music in which the "bands [are] playing suites, not songs; borrowing riffs from Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner instead of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley; and using language closer to William Blake or T. S. Eliot than to Carl Perkins or Willie Dixon."[7]

David Bowie performing in 1978

The Guide to the Progressive Rock Genres lists "art rock" under the subheading "Forms Tangential and Peripheral to Symphonic Rock/Progressive Rock." The guide states that "art rock" is "another term often used interchangeably with progressive rock, [which] implies rock with an exploratory tendency." The guide also gives another definition of "art rock", which "describes music of a more mainstream compositional nature, tending to experimentation within this framework", such as "Early" Roxy Music, David Bowie, Brian Eno's 70s rock music, and Be-Bop Deluxe.[8]

Connolly and Company argue that the "creation of the 'art rock' subgenre, whose members were identified by music played with artistic ideals (e.g., Roxy Music, 10cc)... was in many ways a response to prog rock's long-winded concepts, an attempt to condense progressive rock's ideas into shorter, self-standing songs." He argues that "Art rock's lifespan was brief, generally contained to the '70s."[9]

Art rock may be considered "arty" through incorporating some elements of classical "art" music or literature, or simply through eclecticism. Examples of the former include Roxy Music & Bryan Ferry, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Moody Blues, the Who,[10][11] the Nice, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Kate Bush, the Beatles, Peter Gabriel, and Love (Forever Changes) and examples of the latter include Peter Hammill, Genesis, and early Queen.[12]



Spector (center) in the studio with Modern Folk Quartet in 1966

The first figure of art rock has been assumed to be record producer and songwriter Phil Spector, who became known as an auteur for his Wall of Sound productions that aspired to a "classical grandiosity".[13] According to biographer Richard Williams: "[Spector] created a new concept: the producer as overall director of the creative process, from beginning to end. He took control of everything, he picked the artists, wrote or chose the material, supervised the arrangements, told the singers how to phrase, masterminded all phases of the recording process with the most painful attention to detail, and released the result on his own label."[14] Spector transformed rock music as a performing art to an art which could only exist in the recording studio, which "paved the way for art rock".[15]

Similarly in style, the Beach Boys' concept album Pet Sounds (1966) has also been stated as pioneering the genre with its artistic ambitions.[16][17][18] Reflecting on this in 1971, Cue magazine wrote: "In the year and a half that followed Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys were among the vanguard in practically every aspect of the counter culture – psychedelia, art rock, a return to roots, ecology, organic food, [and] the cooled-out sound ...".[19]

AllMusic states that the first wave of art rock musicians were inspired by the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and believed that for rock music to grow artistically, they should incorporate elements of European and classical music to the genre.[3] Music critic George Graham argues that "... the so-called Art Rock scene arose" in the 1960s, "when many artists were attempting to broaden the boundaries of rock." He claims that art rock "was inspired by the classically-influenced arrangements and the elaborate production of The Beatles Sgt. Peppers (1967) period" and states that the "style had its heyday in the 1970s with huge commercial success by Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and later Genesis."

However, Graham notes that art rock "quickly faded when punk rock and then so-called alternative rock arose at the end of that decade, exactly as a reaction to the sophistication, and in many cases, pretense of big, elaborate rock productions, be they art rock or slickly-produced pop singers." Graham claims that since the late 1970s, "art rock has remained at the fringes and become one of many venerable styles...that attracts small numbers of avid fans, and continues to be perpetuated by a combination of some of the original artists and new generations of players."[20]

Guitarist John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service

In the UK in 1966, the Scottish band 1-2-3, later renamed Clouds, began experimenting with song structures, improvisation, and multi-layered arrangements which led directly to later bands like Yes, King Crimson, and the Nice.[21]

In the US, a number of late-1960s bands experimented with "long compositions", with each band "trying to out-psychedelic the other" with unusual sonic experiments. "The Golden Age of Art Rock" lectures state that the "piece that caused the explosion of Art Rock more than any other, starting in 1968" was Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". In response, many other bands sought to emulate this art rock style, such as "Jefferson Airplane, the Steve Miller Band, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, H.P. Lovecraft and It's A Beautiful Day." The Steve Miller Band "had quite a lot of Art Rock in the early albums." The lecture argues that the "two main long pieces" by the Doors ("The End" and "When The Music's Over") are "good examples of Art Rock."[5]

However, in the 1970s, US rock music "moved away from Art Rock", as southern rock bands became popular in America. Art rock reached its commercial height with the popularity of the aforementioned progressive rock bands, such as King Crimson, Yes, Rush, Genesis, and Pink Floyd. After punk rock put DIY simplicity back in style, and as openly progressive bands drifted toward the mainstream with hit singles and more commercial productions, their art rock designation fell away. Brian Eno has been called the "experimental end of the [art rock] spectrum" for his early 1970s recordings.[5] Bands such as 10cc also reached commercial success with their own brand of art rock.

Wire pioneered art punk on their 1977 debut Pink Flag, while post-punk went underway in 1978 with bands such as Public Image Ltd who incorporated noise rock and dub to the punk sound onto albums First Issue and Metal Box. In New York, an underground scene, no wave, went underway around 1978 which incorporated the punk sound into styles such as funk, jazz, blues, avant-garde, and experimental. Brian Eno's compilation No New York was released in 1978 and is often considered a good document on the scene.


Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson were described as art rockers as well as described and marketed as other genres in the United States during this period.[5][22][23][24] Genesis achieved their greatest commercial success during the 1980s. One of their most commercially successful albums of the decade, Genesis (1983), contains art rock which "functions as coloring to the pop songs".[25] Similarly, the band's former frontman Peter Gabriel's best-selling solo album, So (1986), blended "African music, jangly pop, and soul into his moody art rock".[26] Chris de Burgh was another 1970s art rock musician who crossed over into achieving mainstream pop success during the 1980s.[27]

Acts from the burgeoning "gothic" scene in the 1980s were likewise termed as playing a dark form of art rock by certain journalists. The "Guinness Who's Who of Indie and New Wave Music" uses the moniker to refer to both the Virgin Prunes and Christian Death. Indeed, the latter are labelled therein as an American "art rock group" who found that they fitted in "perfectly with the Gothic style and fashion" upon their relocation to Europe.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Art Rock". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  2. ^ a b "Art-Rock". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  3. ^ a b c "Explore: Art-Rock/Experimental". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 3 February 2013. Retrieved 3 February 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c "Prog-Rock". Allmusic. Archived from the original on 9 December 2010. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d The Golden Age Of Art Rock: Part One: Making It Last 2. "Cosmik Debris Magazine Presents The Golden Age of Rock, January 2002". Archived from the original on 12 January 2009. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  6. ^ "Key Terms and Definitions". Retrieved 16 March 2008. 
  7. ^ Eder, Bruce, "The Early History of Art-Rock/Prog Rock", All-Music Guide Essay, Vanguar Church .
  8. ^ A Guide to the Progressive Rock Genres, GEPR .
  9. ^ What is prog?, Connoly Co .
  10. ^ Stuessy, Joe. Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, 5th ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 0-13-099370-0
  11. ^ "Art & Progressive Rock". Archived from the original on 6 May 2010. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  12. ^ "Art Rock and the Bohemian Rhapsody". Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  13. ^ Bannister 2007, p. 48.
  14. ^ Williams 2003, pp. 15–16.
  15. ^ Williams 2003, p. 38.
  16. ^ Carys Wyn Jones, The rock canon: canonical values in the reception of rock albums", ISBN 0-7546-6244-6 , p. 49.
  17. ^ David Leaf, The Beach Boys, (Courage Books, 1985), ISBN 0-89471-412-0
  18. ^ Theodore Gracy, Listening to popular music, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love Led Zeppelin, (University of Michigan Press, 2007), ISBN 0472069837, p.15.
  19. ^ "Pet Sounds". Cue 40 (27). 1971. 
  20. ^ George Graham Reviews Tom Taylor's "The Crossing"
  21. ^ Brian Hogg, The History of Scottish Rock and Pop. (BBC/Guinness Publishing); '1-2-3 and the Birth of Prog' Mojo, Nov. 1994
  22. ^ Kate Bush Allmusic bio
  23. ^ Laurie Anderson Album review of Mister Heartbreak by Robert Christgau
  24. ^ "Big Science | Laurie Anderson Album". Yahoo! Music. Archived from the original on 24 May 2011. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  25. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Genesis". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  26. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "So". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  27. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Chris de Burgh biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  28. ^ Colin Larkin et. al. (eds.) The Guinness Who's Who of Indie and New Wave Music (Guinness World Records Ltd., 1995), see entries on The Virgin Prunes and Christian Death respectively


Further reading[edit]