In a recent piece in The Atlantic titled “The Whitest Music Ever,” James Parker trashes prog-rock in what is ostensibly a review of David Weigel’s book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. (Spoiler alert: Weigel likes prog-rock.) From that atrocious and erroneous headline onward, Parker coughs up an array of misguided assertions to dismiss a genre that is responsible for some of the greatest rock ever. Taste is subjective, obviously, but flawed arguments cannot go unchallenged. Not on my watch.
Now, as with all musical styles, prog has generated tons of garbage. But when it’s great, it’s mind-blowing. Cast aside your biases and ignore screeds written by detractors who only skim prog’s surface; follow trusted guides and explore for yourself, and you will discover a treasure trove of works that will tingle your synapses for a lifetime. As a champion of prog-rock, I would like to address what I perceive to be Parker’s critical/aesthetic wrongdoings in “The Whitest Music Ever.”
First, that headline: Prog-rock is far from “the whitest music ever.” Come on, man—you’re not even trying. There are several strains of European folk music, German schlager, grindcore, and the twee indie pop of a hundred small Anglo-American labels, to name a handful, that one could safely say are “whiter.” Parker—and his enabling editor—is just going for shock value here.
Of course, a posse of dead white European men’s classical music influenced prog, but if you get out a magnifying glass and scan the credits of releases by DJ Shadow, Kanye West, Madlib, and many other hiphop producers, you’ll find samples from loads of prog records. Or, more conveniently, you could log on to whosampled.com and type in any prog-rock band’s name and see how widely this so-called “whitest music ever” impacted a genre dominated by black artists.
You want some instant examples? Go YouTube McDonald & Giles’s “Tomorrow’s People” and gawk in amazement at one of the fattest funk breaks that will ever penetrate your everloving ears. Hit up a B-boy contest and peep dancers busting moves to Can’s “Vitamin C.” Check out French proggers Shylock’s elastically funky rhythm on “Himogene.” Go stream Egg’s “Fugue in D Minor” (a funked-up Bach cover, yo) and Arzachel’s “Queen St. Gang” and witness what sounds like the birth of triphop. Whom are you gonna trust on this matter: some of history’s most ingenious producers or a contributing editor for The Atlantic?
Let’s move on to Parker’s second paragraph, in which he outlines the few prog tunes he does like: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (of bloody course); that portion of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells heard in The Exorcist (of bloody course); Tool (what a tool); Meshuggah (okay, I did not see that coming). Parker closes the graf with an elegant explanation about his bias: “Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans is an experience to me unintelligible and close to unbearable, like being read aloud a lengthy passage of prose with no verbs in it.” Translation: I have a short attention span and hate deviations from traditional song structures. Fine. So does 98.7 percent of the world. But do you have to preen about it in the august pages and pixels of The Atlantic/theatlantic.com?
Later in his review, Parker quotes Weigel quoting a member of the Nice: “‘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.” This description may apply to some prog-rockers, but it reveals a shallow knowledge of the genre, a glossing of strictly English and American acts. Explore the prog made by musicians from South America, continental Europe (even Scandinavia—see especially Bo Hansson, Pärson Sound/Träd Gräs och Stenar, and Pugh), Southeast Asia, and Africa, and you’ll hear a different story.
Let us now feast upon the most egregious passage in Parker’s essay, which I will annotate with caps lock retorts.
But prog’s doom was built in. It had to die. [IT’S STILL LIVING. YOU’RE JUST NOT PAYING ATTENTION.] 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. [ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I COULD GO ON FOR DAYS REFUTING THIS STATEMENT, BUT HERE ARE A FEW EXAMPLES: MCDONALD & GILES’ “FLIGHT OF THE IBIS”; THE ENTIRETY OF POPOL VUH’S LETZTE TAGE – LETZTE NÄCHTE; CARAVAN’S “GOLF GIRL”; SENSATIONS’ FIX’S “MUSIC IS PAINTING IN THE AIR”; SOFT MACHINE’S “MEMORIES”; KING FUCKING CRIMSON’S “I TALK TO THE FUCKING WIND”] 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.” [DUDE, YOU EVEN DISCUSSED MAGMA, BUT APPARENTLY YOU DIDN’T LISTEN TO THEM CLOSELY. THEN THERE ARE HELDON, SOFT MACHINE (E.G., “WE DID IT AGAIN”), TANGERINE DREAM, CAN, GONG, PÄRSON SOUND, ETC.] Instead, like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts. [THE SPICE OF FUCKING LIFE! WHY DO YOU HATE INNOVATION AND EXCITEMENT, JIMMY?] To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective—a healing, if you like. [YES, ONE OF THE MOST SONICALLY CONSERVATIVE, RIGIDLY DEFINED GENRES SAVED US ALL FROM THE HORRORS OF PROG. HALLELUJAH. FUCK ANY SONG THAT GOES OVER THREE MINUTES AND HAS MORE THAN THREE CHORDS.]
Parker closes his piece with a fugly flourish. “The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.” HOO BOY. A one-trick pony—admittedly, it’s a good trick—is your trump card? Enshrine Parker’s sentences—and hell, his whole essay—into the Oversimplification Hall of Fame. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon to dissipate Parker’s inanities.