What Was "The Whitest Music Ever?" ELP or the Ramones?
August 05, 2017, 08:01 AM
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Veteran political journalist Dave Weigel (who interviewed me in the Washington Post last year) has a new book out about his real passion: old-fashioned progressive rock of the Emerson, Lake, & Palmer / Yes / Genesis / King Crimson ilk: The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.

From The Atlantic, a hostile review:

The Whitest Music Ever

Prog rock was audacious, innovative—and awful.


… some of the most despised music ever produced by long-haired white men. …

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? …

“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.

Procol Harum fiddled around with Bach’s Air on a G String and came up with “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Interestingly, Bob Marley’s famous live version of “No Woman, No Cry” (which is much better than his trite studio version) sounds rather like the earlier “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (and “When a Man Loves a Woman”).
… 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 …
Presumably, prog rock fans tended to have more musical intelligence and thus got bored faster. Punk rock fans tend to have more verbal than musical intelligence. Punk is musically repetitive but fast, so it appeals to people who aren’t that good at music, but whose brains are set to a higher megahertz rating, which includes many critics.

As I said in my review of Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk, there’s a lot to be said for redundancy. On the other hand, I can’t watch much of prestige television series because the slow pace gets me mentally itchy. Okay, I get it, let’s move on.

Similarly, I liked the first rap song I heard on Top 40 radio back in 1979, “Rapper’s Delight,” but the subsequent 37 years of repetition of what’s basically a novelty hit style, kind of a cross between Boris Karloff’s “The Monster Mash” and the “Buffalo Gals” square dance call, had me pretty bored by about 1983.

… And then, like justice, came the Ramones.
Actually, “the whitest music ever” of the later 20th Century was punk rock. Johnny Ramone explained his style as “pure, white rock ‘n’ roll, with no blues influence.”

I championed the Ramones in the 1970s, giving all the reasons articulated in this 2017 article (here’s my 1979 review of their concert in Houston for the Rice U. Thresher). But, jeez, that was a long time ago. To expand on something I said in 2013:

Johnny came up with a sort of ideological explanation for the Ramones’ linear, utterly unfunky style: the blues had dominated electric guitar music for so long that it was getting boring, so it was time for white people to come up with their own form of rock stripped of black influence. As The Clash’s first single, the extremely Ramonesish “White Riot,” explained: “I want a riot of me own.”

Strikingly, Johnny’s ideology of stylistic racial separatism proved hugely influential and remains relatively dominant even today. It fit in well with black grievances over whites “stealing” their stylistic innovations. Very few blacks have ever accused the Ramones of “cultural appropriation.”

Johnny’s breakthrough was a pretty good idea in the 1970s, but here we are in 2013 and people are still wearing Ramones t-shirts.

While pop (made for girls and gays) continues to be a mixture of black and white elements, serious (i.e., masculine) popular music tends to follow the white rock v. black rap divide that had become evident by the end of the 1970s. This enduring racial division probably accounts in sizable part for the slowing of American popular music innovation over the last few decades in contrast to the astonishing creativity unleashed by black-white interaction in the first three quarters of the 20th Century.

P.S., If Johnny Ramone were alive today, he’d be Trump’s Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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