“The proggers got away with murder, artistically speaking. And then, like justice, came the Ramones.” – “The Whitest Music Ever” by James Parker, The Atlantic Sept. 2017
I want to write a little bit about the article I quote above, and I want to start at the very end of the piece. The final two sentences are quoted above. I want to point out that this is the standard history of punk: once upon a time, rock n roll was stale and boring; all the bands played noodley garbage and then the Ramones released their debut album in 1976 and changed everything. I’m not really interested in whether or not this story is true – it’s a narrative I’ve heard before and can recognize as common to a particular cultural subset with which I am familiar.
The article from which I am quoting is technically a book review. Political reporter Dave Weigel recently published a book about Prog Rock, apparently because he likes it. And the author of the piece does not share Weigel’s enthusiasm. My suspicion is that the author indentifies with the punk ethos and therefore subscribes to a narrative where Prog represents an elitist rock n’ roll establishment to rebel against. It seems equally likely that the editor recognized in the article something for people to get worked up about as only people do about articles posted on Facebook. Some people will defend Prog rock as important cultural subgenre, and other’s will celebrate the author’s scorn for it. What attracted me to the piece was the line – used as a pull quote – about the Ramones, because I like the Ramones. The other thing I liked about the article is that it pointed out how Prog rock really went out of style at the end of the 1970s when record sales began to deline (11% in the US, and 20% in the UK in 1979) and labels stopped funding extravagent tours for the Prog groups. It’s an interesting statistic.
The thing about talking about music in the US is that it often revolves bands who make records, the success of which are based primarily on the sales of those records. The Ramones, for example, are unusually famous for the amount of records they sold. The Beatles are famous because they sold a lot of records. They did lots of other things too, but the most important thing was selling millions of records. Fleetwood Mac is a famous rock n roll band. Why? Because their album Rumors sold forty million copies. Peter Gabriel made all kinds of great Prog rock with Genesis in the 1970s, but nobody cares, because in the 1980s Phil Collins would sell way more records fronting the band than old Pete ever did.
Alright, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But the point is that what ultimately is at stake in the world of recording artists is record sales – and therefore it’s never really about the product. It’s about the consumer. Who’s buying all those records? Mostly young white people, especially in the 1970s. If you want to sell big time quantities of records, you’ve got to appeal to those young white people. Hence, most sucessful bands were also white. Not necessarily because they were better, but because that’s what most consumers wanted. Prog rock bands and fans alike are overwhelmingly white, although so are punk’s.
There’s a whole universe of music beyond Prog rock. Beyond rock. You could spend your whole life listening to beautiful music and never hear rock once, and you wouldn’t be any the worse for it. What matters about music is what brings an audience together to experience it.