There is a necessary simplicity in good pop songwriting. And that simplicity might make you think that transitioning from progressive rock to pop is something you’d do if you’re just tired of creating more complex music.
But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Pop music can offer — should offer — every opportunity to songwriters and performers to be just as creative and imaginative as they experience with more complex subgenres like progressive rock.
Most bands and songwriters transition from one compositional/performance style to another throughout their careers (the Beatles being a prime example), and in so doing, they gain followers and lose some. The successful ones usually gain more than they lose.
The Redefining of Genesis
Genesis was one of the world’s most popular progressive rock acts up to the late 70s. Most of their songs up to that time were longer than what you’d hear on Top-40 radio, and often consisted of multiple movements or sections, complex lyrics, imaginative chord changes, and ambitious instrumental techniques, and somewhat less-than-traditional subject matter.
All of these elements combined made them unlikely to get much comercial radio airplay, though their albums usually rode high in the charts, and everyone knew who they were. And, like other prog rock acts like Yes, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull, Genesis was highly respected.
You could hear elements of commercial pop music sneaking into their music by the mid-70s, first by the design of their melodies (“Your Own Special Way” – from “Wind & Wuthering” – 1976), and then by chords, beat, lyrics… the full package, with “Follow You Follow Me” (from “…And Then There Were Three” – 1978)
With their 1980 album “Duke”, while still incorporating some elements of prog rock, like long song multi-sectional forms, they had almost completely transitioned to pop music as their genre of choice, with hits like “Misunderstanding”, “Turn It On Again” and “Please Don’t Ask”
And the thing is… they were good at it. In an interview with keyboardist Tony Banks, he was asked about that transition, and he made a comment along the lines of “Well, back in our prog rock days we were always trying to write more accessible songs. We just weren’t very good at it.”
You might think of a switch to simpler pop music songwriting as a kind of last gasp: a prog rock group trying to squeeze a final few dollars out of the music world before bidding it adieu. But they were just beginning an entirely new phase, building an entirely new audience, and keeping many older listeners. They became one of the 80s most successful bands.
Why were they so successful at this switch? Chiefly, they retained many of the powerfully creative elements that made them successful as a progressive rock band and incorporated those elements into their pop music style:
- Imaginative chords. Even deep into their pop phase, you could still tell when you were hearing a Genesis tune: the chord choices were inventive and at times pleasantly unexpected. Mike Rutherford was still using lots of bass pedal point (holding the same note in the bass while the chords changed above it), and the upper structures of chords were still incorporating lots of altered and non-chord tones. (“Alone Tonight“)
- Instrumental skills. Rutherford reminds interviewers often that when they started out back in the 60s (pre-Phil Collins and pre-Steve Hackett), they really weren’t very good players, and in fact the original plan was for Genesis to be a songwriting collective, getting others to play their songs. But out of necessity (they couldn’t find others to sing their songs) they became better. By their pop phase, they were simply excellent at what they did, virtuosos in their own right.
- Lyrics as stories. In their prog phase, Genesis were storytellers. Every song related a tale, sometimes from mythology (“The Fountain of Salmacis“, from “Nursery Cryme (1971), sometimes from the news (“The Battle of Epping Forest“, from “Selling England By the Pound” (1973). Though many of their pop hits were typical love songs (“Follow You Follow Me“, 1978), they still very much relied on the story — even if simplified — as a way of pulling audience into the song (“Turn It On Again“, 1980)
- Diversity of musical styles & structures. Throughout any one Genesis album from the early 70s, you could encounter many different compositional styles that would lean toward different subgenres of popular music: rock, country, R&B, heavy rock, classical, folk, etc. Though their ventures into different styles became less adventurous, you could still hear it happening even in their later albums.
- Self-respect for their songs. Sometimes when a music group moves into the pop music world, the members of that group may not have a lot of respect for their new sound, and it really does sound as though they’re simply trying to cash in when they can. But Genesis were believers in what they were doing. They never put out a song they didn’t like. They tended to be very critical of how they performed and recorded their music, but they loved every song that made it to the recording (though Phil Collins’ song “Me and Virgil“, from their “3×3” EP from 1983 didn’t make it to their Genesis Archive 2 collection because he didn’t like it.)
Genesis was an excellent progressive rock act with a considerable following in the 70s. When they moved into the pop music world, they retained the respect and admiration of many of those old fans, and built an enormously large audience for their new approach.
Mainly they were able to do that by retaining the elements that made them successful in the first place, all headed by excellent songwriting.
What Songwriters Can Learn from Genesis’ Transition to Pop
No matter what your style of writing is, we can all learn from Genesis’ success. As you find your own writing style changing over time, you simply need to ask yourself three questions — probably questions similar to what the members of Genesis were asking themselves:
“Do I still care about what I’m doing?”
“Am I putting the same care into my musical choices?”
“Am I proud of what I’m now doing?”
If you can say yes to those questions, you’ve still got the capacity to be relevant and you’ll still build an appreciative audience. And you’ll continue to love what you do.
If you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.