Album cover partial of the Clash's debut record.

By the Book: Pick up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music

In this excerpt of '70s music, Pick up the Pieces, John Corbett puts his critique of Kraftwerk's Autobahn to poetry and pogos with his conflict for the Clash and their album, The Clash.

Pick up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music
John Corbett
University of Chicago Press
Mar 2019



Count to ten and say “krautrock.”

1) Düsseldorf myth-crushers, hippie reducers, synthetic transducers, and avatars of electronica.

2) First major campaign in my life against the false consciousness of sweat equity, which in music consisted of a preconception that visible exertion produces equivalent value.

3) Two unemotional men making sounds with machines. Clean, logical, workmanlike, mechanical, disinterested, mechanistisch, German: no sweat.

4) Crush also the myth that complexity equals worth—the banality of Kraftwerk melodies recalls Satie in inert ingeniousness, little jingles that go nowhere fast, most ironic in a song about driving: Fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn. Like Satie, furniture music, except furniture covered in vinyl.

5) Equivalent mesmerization of Pong, our first video game, which vied with the family air hockey set for attention. The latter: play of gravity, buoyancy, and velocity, a jazz game requiring finesse and elbow grease, floating puck subject to body English and nudge nuance, each exchange rapid-fire, thrilling, and thoroughly analog. The former: an electronic war of attrition, little computer ball moving from side to side, rebounding reliably off the top of the screen, all simple angles and predictable vectors, asking who will let their guard down after indefinite volleys, which attention jockey will psyche him- or herself out? Kraftwerk was just as monotonous as Pong. They turned monotony into a positive.

6) Initial forays into synthesizers turned them into music supercomputers, emphasizing their ability to do impossibly complicated things and make spectacular moves unthinkable by acoustic means—hyperbolic glissandi, for instance, leaping from sub-basement tone to piercing ultra-high frequency. Synthesizer was a virtuoso instrument, an automation or extension of manual virtuosity. Minimoogs and ARPs and Buchlas and Prophets: synth players were the keepers of number-crunching axes, lion-tamers in the rock circus, literally pushing the envelope. Wave-form acrobatics were the name of the game.

7) Kraftwerk made no pretense of virtuosity in their use of synth. Rather, they relied on them as dependable repeaters, ostinato generators, strings of sequenced tones recapped verbatim, slowly mutating, perverting the singing voice into a robotic drone, pre-saging the ATM talkback and the GPS guide.

8) Imagine a version of popular music that undoes many of its basic pleasures. It looks kindly on Muzak. It courts the generic. It mates with minimalism. It rejects individualism.

9) Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider helped set in motion the rationalization of pop, cooling off its overheated pyrotechnics, foreseeing a coming age of computerized emoticons—not unexpressive, exactly, but with its own peculiar plastiform-industrial-neoconstructivist-binary-videographic connotations. After Autobahn, Schneider even tossed his beloved flute. The stripping away of gratuitous sentiment, which had been so central to our investment in music, was thrilling and brave and new.

10) A new wave—later, the Neue Deutsche Welle—lapped at our feet, tickling our ears in electronic tones, saying: “Put down your guitars and drum sticks, cut your hair, quit contorting, don your uniform, man your sequencer, and oscillate, comrade, oscillate.”

​The Clash

The Clash

The seventies were many things. But they were many things divided into two: before and after punk.

We could be talking about the Sex Pistols, with their startling mix of nihilism and power pop. Or the Damned, a superior act with a sense of humor, great songs, and a vampire. Or Stiff Little Fingers, the ballistic Northern Irish band. We might have settled on any of the other big-time OG punk groups. But we haven’t. We’ve chosen the Clash.

I bought The Clash on the same day that I did Wire’s Chairs Missing. BJ’s Records was in its first location in a cargo container building on the edge of the outdoor pedestrian mall in downtown Iowa City. BJ’s was tiny and packed, neat and well stocked. They obtained new imports early, a few months after they’d been released in the UK. It was September 1978, and the Wire record had just been issued. The Clash LP had been out for a year, but their second was still a few months from hitting the shelves. I’d been reading about them in New Musical Express, which I bought from a drugstore around the corner from BJ’s. As with the records, New Musical Express and Melody Maker came my way about two weeks off date. I felt like I was living in London vicariously and in an alternate time frame, experiencing it all remotely, in print, and a little delayed.

I’d been following the Clash. I read reports of their Complete Control tour with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, perused reviews of their first single, “White Riot,” and the eventful tour that bore the same name, and scanned write-ups of the full-length LP, all of it tantalizing. None of the record stores in town had managed to bring in the LP, which only heightened its desirability. I remember walking into BJ’s and spying it immediately against the back wall, to one side of the rock stacks, in the new releases bin. A jolt hit my brain—the joy button had been pushed—and I grabbed the single copy of The Clash fast, as if someone else would rush in and snatch it away. Although I already had Never Mind the Bollocks and a few other punk and post-punk pieces in my collection, something about this one seemed mandatory and acute. A secret was about to be revealed, something dating back to a TV news report I’d seen on punk just before we left Philadelphia in 1977.

As a rule, imported records were more expensive than American productions. To my adroit little hands, they felt finer, more elegantly constructed out of better materials, including thinner cardboard, rough on the inside and smooth on the exterior. Domestic LPs seemed chunky in comparison, rough and disposable, like they were made of packing material. The British ones were more like precious small-press poetry books, their seams meeting in ingenious places, their inner sleeves coated in a waxy film that made them slip in and out as if they were made of silicone. Sometimes import inner sleeves even had a thin plastic liner, to protect the vinyl, or they were board stock, slightly lighter weight than the outside cover, and had the lyrics or other messages printed on them. I could imagine the person on the assembly line putting together my copy of The Clash. I pretended that while they were carefully folding and gluing, they had the record’s purchaser, me specifically, in mind.

Although I listened to punk, I never dressed the part. There were perhaps two or three full-fledged fashion-plate punks in town, one that teased up a stellar Technicolor Mohawk, wore a safety pin in his nose, and moon-stomped around in black Doc Martens. Meanwhile, I looked more like a soft-rock dude, more Eagles than Adverts, with feathered hair and a favorite T-shirt from my first job, “Pulling for Funk’s,” which referred to detasseling corn (I liked the musical reference to funk, though it was actually the name of the hybrid corn company), and another from my soccer team, the Iowa City Kickers. I guess that was sort of British, but it was also the only sport I really wanted to play.

The members of the Clash were fashionistas. They carefully crafted their image to emit a waft of volatility. In the gritty black-and-white images on the cover, the band marauded, staring unsmiling at the camera, suspects in a lineup; the staged photos were made to seem documentary. I loved the olive green of the cover and the violent orange of the CBS Records inner label. The Clash’s music was taut, choppy, just as I’d imagined it might be, and when a track ended, it was so abrupt it caught you off guard. But that explosive power was offset by a premeditated style that you could detect. Great as their music was, they seemed like poseurs.

I was attracted to the political dimension of their lyrics, and all reports suggested that the band was actually cool and supportive and helped out fledgling groups like the Slits. That’s a real political stand, quite unusual in the punk world, where respect for others meant you had to care, and caring, for most of them, wasn’t cool. In this arena—providing a leg up when they got some traction rather than kicking their colleagues in the face—I gave the Clash points. Nonetheless, something in their mussed-up pretty-boy stance never quite sat right with me. When Joe Strummer sang I’m so bored with the U.S.A.—a fascinating sentiment to which I could certainly relate, and a great song—their rockabilly affectations and sleeveless tees seemed to suggest something else, maybe the opposite. I didn’t quite trust them.

In spite of being dubious of the Clash, I loved The Clash. I think in part because “White Riot” was so unlike anything I knew. It was stiff and brash and totally un-groovy, turning an uptight beat into a positive attribute. With bassist Paul Simonon’s popping octaves and drummer Terry Chimes’s chugging 2/4, it would make a nice polka. The Clash made no bones about being white—really, really white, especially in the rhythm department. Musically, they embraced their whiteness, without anything supremacist about it. This set them apart from many Caucasian bands of the day, who in one way or another mooched off black music. I think of Robert Palmer, whose whole shtick was doing covers of soul and R&B songs, or white soulster Boz Scaggs, whose “Lowdown” bubbled with slap bass. The lyrics to “White Riot,” written after Strummer and Simonon were involved in the racially charged upheaval at Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, trade musical jealousy for activist jealousy. Black man got a lot of problems / But they don’t mind throwing a brick / White people go to school / Where they teach you how to be thick. Of course we know that thickness doesn’t keep skinheads from throwing bricks. Anyhow the point was made. Their visual aura seemed contrived, but the Clash’s glaring admission of whiteness, which was evident in most of their pogo-stick songs, struck me as unusually honest.

I also dug The Clash because there was one different song: “Police and Thieves.” This track attracted me for a reason that contradicted the other one. The firebug-thug quality of most of the album’s songs was one thing, and this song had that too, snarling intensity and working-class bluntness, but it had something else, a dreaminess, perhaps a fantasy of being elsewhere, somewhere relaxed, where singing about corruption was done through a smile. Grin across face, outlaw revolutionary, well stoned. Tucking into all the barricaded streets on the Clash’s blue-collar stage set, I found that momentary intimation of dreamtime brilliant. The little falsetto “oh yeah” choir, for one, was an endearing curveball, a delicate touch amid the tough-guy posturing. And there were some dub elements in the song’s arrangement, like an echoed-out guitar chord in the early going, sudden reduction to bass alone (executed not by engineering, but by all the bandmates sitting out), and even some gratuitous panning of Strummer’s sandpapery voice. It paid homage to reggae, to the ghosts of early mixology, but it retained its integrity as the Clash.

Junior Murvin was unknown to me. His vulnerable high alto filtered Smokey Robinson through a cloud of spliff smoke. When I heard his version of “Police and Thieves,” I decided the Clash were horseshit. They’d stolen the best parts from Murvin, tried to make them seem original. The weird scatting, the “oh yeah,” which in the Murvin original is delayed a tad and set off in the mix, sounds like little mice singing background, a classic twist added by producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, another deeper humming choir adding more texture in the rich Black Ark recipe. What makes the song tick is the juxtaposition of Murvin’s honey-sweet voice and the safety-off sentiment of the words.

All the crimes committed day by day
No one tried to stop it in any way
All the peacemakers-turned-war-officers
Hear what I say, hey
Police and thieves in the street (oh yeah)
Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition Police and thieves in the street (oh yeah)
Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition

I kept listening to the Clash’s version even after my bubble had been burst, and gradually I came back to my earlier position, hearing the song for what it was. It was more of its own thing than I’d given it credit for. In fact, the way they’d turned it into their own song grew more exciting the more I listened. The significance of a frontline punk band playing “White Riot” and “Police and Thieves” on the same LP began to sink in. It was a statement of alliance. We don’t have to be identical to admire and respect one another, it said.

The knee-jerk frisson created by white acts playing black music had been familiar since the fifties—think of Pat Boone mauling Fats Domino or Elvis Presley softening Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup— and it was already the basis of decades of outright theft and other approaches to economic exploitation. Listening more carefully, I heard that the Clash weren’t vainly trying to sound like Junior Murvin, but seemed to be paying homage: white musicians—pasty doughboy white musicians—inspired by black music. The difference between the two versions was exactly the point, a critical distance that was also a mark of reverence. In that sense, they were not too distant from Led Zeppelin, a comparison I’m sure would have chafed like the dickens. The Clash weren’t after a doomed shot at authenticity; theirs was an act of transubstantiation.

As a listener, I must confess to having discovered more than one great black original through a white cover. Some of them are embarrassing. I did know Otis Redding’s famous version of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” when I heard a British group called Thursdays cover it on a Fast Records compilation called Earcom in 1979 (which also featured a yet unknown band called Joy Division). But Soft Cell’s take on “Tainted Love”—how could I have missed the wonderful Gloria Jones version? Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” originally by the Paragons? The Slits doing Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? Talking Heads covering Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”? Even “Black and White,” initially a top-ten hit in the UK by the British reggae band the Greyhound, known to me only as being by Three Dog Night? Then again, race aside, I should mention that I found out about Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story via Alice Cooper. The holes in my knowledge could fill Albert Hall—a venue I learned about through the Beatles. Cultural literacy was a game of connect the dots, where ignorance of origins is broadcast time and again.

In the long run, to me The Clash is a record about being white, what it means to be white, and what it meant to be white and British in 1977. It’s a solid rock ‘n’ roll record, but it’s got little of the poisonous intensity of Johnny Rotten, who would go on to make his own extraordinary kind of bridge to reggae with Public Image Ltd. I’d seen a photograph of Rotten in Jamaica with Big Youth, which was a surprise to a Pistols fan. (More surprising later to discover Rotten was doing A&R work for Richard Branson’s Virgin label, which had a newly minted “Front Line” series of reggae records, and that he signed the great Prince Far I, who would subsequently issue the vicious rebuke of Branson titled “Virgin.”) PiL’s Metal Box came packaged in an aluminum film canister. Its three twelve-inch records were 45 rpm, but I didn’t realize that at first and listened to them at 33 rpm a few times before figuring it out; the dub infusions were even more hypnotic and mind-expanding when slowed down. Listen to “Poptones”—a horrific ditty about a murder scene, the victim hunched in a car with the radio still playing. This is not music about whiteness or blackness; it’s some new sort of confabulation, a place where punks don’t just proclaim their respectful difference but throw it all into a pot and put it on simmer.

PiL’s post-punk was something new. To my ears, it was more convincing than Sandinista! would be, or Big Audio Dynamite. It didn’t transcend race, but neither did it reify racial categories. And lots of British musicians in the late seventies had the same notion, bringing together punk and reggae, punk and dub, punk and soul, punk and funk: The Pop Group’s “Thief of Fire,” A Certain Ratio’s “Do the Du (Casse),” The Slits’ “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm.” In 1979 an influential Southern California band called the Urinals issued their sophomore EP with a song on it titled “I’m White and Middle Class,” adding another dimension to the Clash’s race confession.

Lee Perry heard the Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves.” He played it for Bob Marley, who responded by recording a song of his own, “Punky Reggae Party,” released in 1978 on Babylon by Bus. Consider the act of celebratory reciprocity:

It’s a punky reggae party
And it’s alright
What did you say?
Rejected by society (do re mi fa) Treated with impunity (so la te do) Protected by their dignity (do re mi fa) I search reality (so la te do)
New wave, new craze
New wave, new wave, new phrase

Now I’m saying the Wailers will be there
The Damned, The Jam, The Clash Maytals will be there
Doctor Feelgood too, ooh
No boring old farts
No boring old farts
No boring old farts
Will be there

In the long run, what reggae and punk share is not only their respective subcultural affirmations—that they provide a voice for marginalized, subjugated, and disaffected people—but perhaps equally their ability to make those afflictions into a posture, a style, a pose. I remember seeing Black Uhuru in the early eighties; they were five hours late, unapologetic, callous, and their disdain for the overly patient and fawning audience lent a shallow sensibility to their songs of righteousness. That’s the same rock star bullshit that always emanated from the Clash, just as it did from the Rolling Stones— something ultimately cashing in on an image of rebelliousness, armchair hardcore, never really putting up or shutting up, just strutting around like the world should kiss their ass, more fashion runway than political rally, a slideshow of sugarcane cutters projected on the walls of an art museum.

Excerpted from Pick up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music, by John Corbett. Copyright © 2019 University of Chicago Press, 2019. Distributed by University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.