Punk vs. reggae, subculture, and The Clash (and Echo and the Bunnymen, too!)

Happy Sunday, folks! I hope that you Americans with an hour less sleep are still smiling.

My wife and I have a modest collection of books between us and, when I did a bit more traveling, the book along for the ride might accumulate a ticket stub from a shuttle bus, or a boarding pass, or even a receipt from an airport café. The ticket stubs with one matte side remain my favorites, and make the best bookmarks. If I were to empty the bookshelves of their occupants and shake them by the spines, I’d find a nearly comprehensive account of dates traveled and money spent.

I recently found my copy of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, for which a stub from the Olympia Trails bus line between Newark and Port Authority marked one of my favorite passages. Subculture represented a key work in semiotics, for it offered a decoding of the signifiers–musical, sartorial, and gestural–that differentiated punk, mod, the Teds, and reggae in the UK. It was published in 1979 and went through 10 printings in the next eight years. Rolling Stone considered it “the first book dealing with punk to offer intellectual content.” (I like Caroline Coon’s 1988: New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (1977).) Hebdige is especially eloquent on the connection between punk and reggae, and does an amazing job of unpacking punk’s debt to Rasta Britons in terms of its politics of refusal and regard for “Britishness.” In terms of music, though, Hebdige finds more counter-affinities than homologies.

“Despite the strong affinity, the integrity of the two forms – punk and reggae–was scrupulously maintained, and far from simulating reggae’s form and timbre, punk music, like every other aspect of punk style, tended to develop in direct antithesis to its apparent sources. Reggae and punk were audibly opposed. Where punk depended on the treble, reggae relied on the bass. Where punk launched frontal assaults on the established meaning systems, reggae communicated through ellipsis and allusion.” (Subculture, pp. 67-68)

Musically, especially circa 1977, punk rejected the sources of prog rock and rock-as-art by affirming rocknroll that embraced a more working-class aesthetic via homages to Eddie Cochran (The Pistols’ “C’mon Everybody”), The Trashmen (The Ramones’ “Surfer Bird”), and Bobby Fuller (The Clash’s “I Fought the Law”). The Pistols, though, in their less-than-earnest cover of Chuck Berry, indicated that their adoration for the blackness of popular music history fell far short of fawning, if predictably disrespectful.

Hebdige continues: “Indeed, the way in which the two forms were rigorously, almost wilfully segregated would seem to direct us towards a concealed identity, which in turn can be used to illuminate larger patterns of interaction between immigrant and host communities. To use a term from semiotics, we could say that punk includes reggae as a ‘present absence’ — a black hole around which punk composes itself.” (p. 68)

Outside of Bad Brains, perhaps, and maybe Fishbone (if you’re willing to make that stretch), this black hole proved massive in US punk: from New York to LA, by way of Minneapolis, any trace of black aesthetics was left on the cutting room floor–even though, from the get-go, The Clash demonstrated that the history could be otherwise.

With the inclusion of “Police and Thieves” on their debut LP, and its regular appearance in their live shows, The Clash did a much better job than the Pistols in terms of their adherence to a key maxim of The Situationist International: “be reasonable, demand the impossible.” In terms of politics and aesthetics, few did it better, as demonstrated below, in a live clip from Birmingham, 1 May 1978.

(Youtube looks askance on embedding clips of The Clash it seems — so here it is.)

A Strummer-centric camera man finds Joe and Clash fanatics at their jittery best. On the LP, alongside a host of other great tracks, “Police and Thieves” allows the listener to imagine the greatness that will follow. Listening today to the first recorded tracks of so many bands from that era — Scritti Politti and Echo and the Bunnymen, e.g., — there’s no sense from the early tracks that either band will eventually produce something as sublime as “Wood Beez” or “Never Stop.”

Thanks for reading all the way. You American motorcar commuters be careful on the roads tomorrow.

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