Prog Rock So White, So What?

me_josh_ian_procol_harumThe cultural apparatchiks can’t figure out if it’s worse for white people to “culturally appropriate” the styles, customs, and musics from various racial and ethnic groups or to avoid them. If you do the former, you’re diluting them with your lack of understanding and context, and thus you’re racist. If you do the latter, you’re showing in-group preference, and thus you’re racist.

So, when the very Anglo Saxon sounding James Parker writes for The Atlantic that “prog rock is the whitest music ever”, what is his point, other than he doesn’t like progressive rock very much? He begins by talking about a prog rock themed cruise that’s taking off from the port of Miami.

“We are the most uncool people in Miami.” So begins, promisingly enough, David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Weigel, along with 3,000 fellow Yes-heads, Rush-oids, Tull freaks, and votaries of King Crimson—cultural underdogs all, twitching and grimacing with revenge-of-the-nerds excitement—is at the port of Miami, about to embark on a five-day progressive-rock-themed cruise: a floating orgy of some of the most despised music ever produced by long-haired white men.

Despised by who exactly? He goes on:

Do you like prog rock, the extravagantly conceptual and wildly technical post-psychedelic subgenre that ruled the world for about 30 seconds in the early 1970s before being torn to pieces by the starving street dogs of punk rock?

Absolutely. Blame Hawkwind, Can, and Van der Graaf Generator for that. I suppose you could also blame Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath if you think they scrape against the progressive rock genre; Sabbath DID hire Rick Wakeman to play keyboards on Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, and the album has the weird sounding, Moog filled “Who Are You?” on it, while Alice Cooper blatantly said that he and his early band wrote the eight minute, multi-part epic “Halo of Flies” to impress the prog crowd. But you know who you should REALLY blame? Johnny Rotten. That’s right, the former Sex Pistol, who reverted back to John Lydon when he launched Public Image Ltd. in 1978, talked about how his favorite pre-1975 bands were all of the above mentioned. Hawkwind, the band Lemmy was in before he started Motörhead, was my gateway drug into all things nerdy and progressive. Their songs are long and jammy like progressive rock, but driving and aggressive like punk rock or metal; check out “Brainstorm” if you wanna hear thirteen straight minutes of spacey, Stooges-style, proto-punk aggression.

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of rock history knows, John Lydon was spotted in the Summer of 1975 walking down a London street wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt, which lead to his landing the Pistols gig. But, if he HATED Pink Floyd (in actuality, he doesn’t), and Hawkwind COVERED Pink Floyd – “Cymbaline” – then that’s a bloody contradiction, innit? On top of THAT, Lydon openly and often talks about how he loves the very progressive Van der Graaf Generator. Listen to Peter Hamill’s singing, such as in the song “Killer”, and you know where post-Pistols John Lydon got his caterwauling vocal style from.

And so, I realized it wasn’t 1977 anymore, and my punk/prog tribalism was torpedoed FOREVER!!! There isn’t THAT big of a leap from Sabbath to the King Crimson track “21st Century Schizoid Man”, with its heavy metal riff and bonkers jam out section. And, although Crimson use a saxophone in “Schizoid Man”, Hawkwind, X-Ray Spex, and the Butthole Surfers incorporate saxophone into their sound as well. Pretty soon, I was aurally scarfing down the music of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Gong, Nektar, Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, Greenslade, Egg, Kayak, Fuzzy Duck, and Atomic Rooster, along with German progressive rock acts like Eloy and Birth Control – which shouldn’t be mistaken for kraut rock bands like Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, Amon Duul 2, Cosmic Jokers and Tangerine Dream – Italian bands like Goblin, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, New Trolls, Area, Maxophone, and Premiata Forneria Marconi, and of course the extremely weird French band Magma. I also really dig the fantasy art of Roger Dean, which decorates the album sleeves of Yes, Uriah Heep, Budgie, and Osibisa. That’s right, James Parker, I listen to Osibisa, an all black group of African expatriates! How’s THAT for virtue signalling?!

So, to answer your original question, yes, I like prog rock. But go on…

Do you like the proggers, with their terrible pampered proficiency, their priestly robes, and their air—once they get behind their instruments—of an inverted, almost abscessed Englishness? I don’t.

You don’t say…

At least, I think I don’t. I like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is a kind of wonderful satirical compression of prog rock, a fast-forward operetta with goofy existentialist trappings and a heavy-metal blowout in the middle; I like the bit of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that became the theme music for The Exorcist.

Actually, Mr. Parker, the Jethro Tull album Thick as a Brick is a spoof of self-important progressive rock conceits; that’s the album with the newspaper sleeve, which features a phony story about a nine year old boy, who wrote a poem that the Jethro Tull members thought was so brilliant, they used it as the lyrics for their album. In case you couldn’t guess, that was a joke. But you ARE right; “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a very good song, if a bit overplayed, and I like Tubular Bells as well.

Hated, dated, sonically superannuated … One could enjoy prog ironically, I suppose—listen to it with a drooping and decadent ear, getting off on the fabulous obsolescence, etc.

“Hated, dated, sonically superannuated”? What, are you Bob Dylan now?

Prog as a wild chamber of experimentation, a sci-fi trespass across the limits of popular music, driving clear of fashion and orbiting the Earth forever. Awesome. The problem comes, for me, when I actually listen to the stuff. Is it not a form of aesthetic dissipation to praise something for its ambition and its bold idiosyncrasy when that something is, objectively speaking, crap?

Okay, so you don’t like it. Nobody’s forcing you to listen to it, but when exactly did musical taste become “objective”?

Gentle Giant, in 1972, took a poem from Knots, a book by the great heretic psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and turned it into an intricate, multivoice chant: It hurts him to think that she is / hurting her by him being hurt to think / that she thinks he is hurt by making her / feel guilty at hurting him by her thinking / she wants him to want her. The idea is great on paper. But listen to the song, to its scurrying, fidgety instrumentation, its fussy avoidance of anything like a melody. It is not enjoyable. At all. Magma, the French prog band, invented not only its own L. Ron Hubbard–style cosmic origin story but its own language (Kobaïan, which reads like a sequence of Gothic expletives: Nebëhr gudahttKöhntarkösz). Again, very creative. But run, oh run, from the music.

Blah, blah, blah… Gentle Giant is actually VERY enjoyable. In fact Sherman Hemsley LOVES ’em, and you’re not going to argue with George Jefferson, are you?! More on point; Magma IS a very weird band. But their weirdness is fun, jackass. I remember driving around with my friend in our little burg near Detroit, blasting Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh just to annoy people.

Eventually James “so Anglo Saxon it hurts” Parker attempts at cycling the piece away from his personal bias and back to what is allegedly the point of the article.

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.” Indeed. Thus did prog divorce itself from the blues, take flight into the neoclassical, and become the whitest music ever.

Well, ACTUALLY, that’s not entirely true, and even if it was, who cares? Soft Machine (why didn’t I mention them above?) incorporated jazz into their sound, and if Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Uriah Heep were as metal as they were progressive, then there’s no way in hell they abandoned blues. On top of that, Deep Purple, who I guess also straddles the fence between early heavy metal and progressive rock, started playing goddamn soul music on albums like Burn and Stormbringer. In fact, this musical change annoyed original Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore so much, he quit the band because of it and started Rainbow. Oh, and you have heard “Money” by Pink Floyd, haven’t you?

Parker goes on to complain about Procol Harum incorporating elements of Bach into “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and then spends the rest of the paragraph bitching about Keith Emerson making cool sounds with his Hammond organ before replacing it with the Moog synthesizer, as if that violates some sort of anti-Hammond/anti-Moog code of honor. To be fair, Keith Emerson’s playing in ELP gets a little dense, leaving little space in the music for my taste, and it turns out Vincent Crane, former keyboardist for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and band leader for the criminally underrated Atomic Rooster (how underrated, you ask? Check out the groovy ass “Break the Ice”, and see for yourself!), agreed. So, Parker, there IS a system of checks and balances in prog. On top of that, I don’t like how Emerson, Lake and Palmer couldn’t think of a better name for their band than just their last names separated by a comma and an “and”, but hey! At least H.R. Giger did the artwork for Brain Salad Surgery. And no, “brain salad surgery” isn’t an ethereal and philosophical concept; it’s slang for a blowjob.

Fiending for technology, vivid with turbulence, he went from the Hammond organ to the freshly developed Moog synthesizer. (The proper pronunciation of Moog, I recently discovered, is “Mogue,” like “vogue.” Perhaps prog should be pronounced “progue.”)

QUIT YOUR DAY JOB RIGHT NOW AND GET ONTO A COMEDY STAGE, YOU COMEDIC GENIUS!!!

Money rained down upon the proggers.

Horrible!

Bands went on tour with orchestras in tow; Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Greg Lake stood onstage on his own private patch of Persian rug. But prog’s doom was built in. It had to die. As a breed, the proggers were hook-averse, earworm-allergic; they disdained the tune, which is the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain. What’s more, they showed no reverence before the sacred mystery of repetition, before its power as what the music critic Ben Ratliff called “the expansion of an idea.” Instead, like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts. To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective—a healing, if you like.

Bitch, bitch, bitch… I’m guessing Parker hasn’t heard “Roundabout” by Yes. It’s got plenty of that “sacred repetition”, which makes a song hooky, enjoyable, and memorable. On top of that, I wonder if Parker has heard prog/punk hybrid groups like Nomeansno or the Jesus Lizard, who combined “the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts” with “the relative crudity of punk rock.” Though, he’s got a point; neither of those bands ever used dual neck guitars.

Also, economics intervened. In 1979, as Weigel explains, record sales declined 20 percent in Britain and 11 percent in the United States, and there was a corresponding crash in the inclination of labels to indulge their progged-out artistes. No more disappearing into the countryside for two years to make an album. Now you had to compete in the singles market.

So, music has to sell a lot of records for you to like it? But, punk rock records NEVER sold as much as progressive rock albums… unless we’re talking about Nirvana, the Offspring, and Green Day, and I know we’re not, so what’s your point?

Some startling adaptations did occur. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp achieved a furious pop relevance by, as he described it, “spraying burning guitar all over David Bowie’s album”—the album in question being 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

Okay first all, Fripp had already played some fuzzed out licks on the Brian Eno album Here Come the Warm Jets, which, like a Bowie album, is full of succinct and catchy pop rock tunes, only better (yeah, Eno is better than Bowie, blow me.). But, if Parker wants to talk about “adaptations”, then he fails to mention the 1981 King Crimson album Discipline, in which Fripp and his group absorbed the neurotic, jittery, and deliberately stilted new wave influence of David Byrne, along with the Talking Heads’ synthetic businessman attire. Check out their Fridays performance of “Elephant Talk” if you don’t believe me! It’s AWESOME. Now, I’m no Fripp apologist; King Crimson have done their share of unlistenable, pretentious crap (Lizard, Islands), but when they nail it, hoo boy, do they nail it (In the Court of the Crimson King, Red, Larks’ Tongues in AspicDiscipline, The ConstruKtion of Light, The Power to Believe).

Yes hit big in 1983 with the genderless cocaine-frost of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And Genesis, having lost ultra-arty front man Peter Gabriel, turned out to have been incubating behind the drum kit an enormous pop star: the keening everyman Phil Collins.

Okay, yeah, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” IS a pretty catchy song, but is Parker actually praising the artless, easily listening muzak of Phil Collins OVER the weird and experimental Peter Gabriel?! Dude, if you want to LARP the 80s, coke-snorting yuppie lifestyle, there is FAR better music to do it to; for instance, Avalon by Roxy Music.

These, though, were the exceptions. The labels wanted punk, or punky pop, or new wave—anything but prog.

Except that, with the exception of a few noteworthy new wave or crossover acts like Devo, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Stranglers, or the Police, punk rock never sold any records, and labels stopped wanting it after three years of watching it fail commercially. Sire only kept the Ramones on as a tax write-off.

“None of those genres,” grumbled Greg Lake, retrospectively, “had any musical or cultural or intellectual foundation … They were invented by music magazines and record companies talking together.” Fake news!

Parker can’t resist taking a swipe at Trump supporters with his “fake news” quip, as if Greg Lake said something that’s SO preposterous. EVERY genre or sub-genre is invented by the journalists and record labels, who group bands together into made-up tribes. For the journalists, it creates a sense of cultural or, I guess, sub-cultural cohesion, and for the labels, it helps sell records.

But the change was irreversible: The proggers were, at a stroke, outmoded. Which is how, to a remarkable degree, their music still sounds—noodling and time-bound, a failed mutation, an evolutionary red herring. (Bebop doesn’t sound like that. Speed metal doesn’t sound like that.)

Damn, dude… did you catch your girlfriend cheating on you while Close to the Edge was playing in the background? Speaking of Close to the Edge, have you heard the nutty first two minutes of “Close to the Edge”? If you don’t like THAT, then you know where you can stuff your “red herring.” By the way, if you’re using speed metal (or its close cousin thrash metal) as some sort of barometer with which to measure musical “evolution” by, then I’m guessing you’re not aware that most thrash kinda sounds the same. And this is coming from a fan of Motörhead, Venom, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Voivod, Exciter, Exodus, Overkill, Sodom, Kreator, Destruction, Sepultura, Onslaught, Possessed, Celtic Frost, Suicidal Tendencies, Corrosion of Conformity, and S.O.D. (but NOT Anthrax, sorry).

I feel you out there, prog-lovers, burning at my glibness. And who knows? If the great texts of prog had inscribed themselves, like The Lord of the Rings, upon my frontal lobes when they were teenage and putty-soft, I might be writing a different column altogether. But they didn’t, and I’m not. The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.

You do realize that the music of the Ramones is AS white, if not whiter, than virtually any prog band? According to Johnny Ramone’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Ramone once described his guitar style as “pure, white rock ‘n’ roll, with no blues influence.”

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