By Ben Myers.
White Riot: Punk and the Politics of Race, ed. Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, Verso 2011
Is rock music racist? In its beginnings, certainly. Nothing more than blind cultural theft.
Check the timeline: post-War America and business is booming. Food, clothing and cinema are helping sell the utopian dream to a world still living in monochrome. Young people are no longer considered entirely sub-human, and are instead re-branded as ‘teenagers’. Energised by opportunity but listless in suburbs still soft of tarmac and spreading outward from the cities, the teens need something to dance to because Cole, Bing and Doris just don’t cut it any more.
But there’s a problem: white people are only making so saccharine they use it to sugar their iced tea, so starched it can clean shirts. So neutered their parents like it. But wait – what about the black people with their gospel and blues? Imagine if we took the sass and sex and violence and pain and longing of that music but presented it an acceptable – in a white, suburban – way.
So the songs of Cannonball Adderley and Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House and Robert Johnson, and a thousand gospel standards besides, are re-recorded, uncredited and unpaid, by polite young white men who loved their Mommas, looked good in pleated pants and were unlikely to want to wreak revenge on this freshly-planted paradise for all that horrid slavery business
“The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll,” sang Muddy Waters. And so the record companies got paid, the white boys got laid, and the black artists got nothing — but it didn’t matter because America was booming thanks to the musical wing of the propaganda machine. Because the Russians didn’t rock, daddio! The precedent was set and everyone from the Stones and Led Zeppelin to Eminem came in to clean up.
Racist. Plain and simple. And theft too.
A compendium of articles, essays, interviews accrued from a variety of sources and preceded by some incisive commentary from the editors, White Riot examines the position and influence of the black man in rock n’ roll’s conclusion: punk and its many derivatives. Simultaneously scholarly and digestible, it takes as its starting point Norman Mailer’s famous essay ‘The White Negro’ in which Mailer posited the idea that the source of all things hip was to be found in the black man who “has been living on the margin of totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries” and that by participating in the “black man’s code”, the white man becomes the “white negro”. In other words cool by association and/or appropriation.
It’s a notion not a million miles away from David Starkey’s recent TV outburst, in which the deluded historian claimed that the reason urban Britain rioted this summer was not because of poverty, social neglect, spending cuts in the most economically deprived areas or, more broadly, the fall-out of capitalism, but because all white kids want to talk, dress and black.
James Baldwin, also included in this book, saw through Mailer’s suggestions and would surely have scoffed at Starkey’s archaic and ill-informed suggestion that black = criminal. As the writer who perhaps did more for representations of black people in the 20th century than any other, Baldwin suffered in a way Mailer could never have understood and here he takes umbrage at Mailer (and The Beats’) borrowing of the “depression language of deprives Negroes” and turning it into cringe-inducing jive-talk, and further lambasts for Kerouac writing he “wished he were a Negro”. The book’s editors rightly note that when such “countercultural identifications take the form of racial fetish [they] rely upon and perpetuate the very privileges accorded by the dominant culture it is attempting to subvert.” Patti Smith was partly guilty of the same thing here in her reproduced sleeve notes to ‘Rock N’ Roll Nigger’ in which she awkwardly attempts to redefine the N-word as a “badge of honour” for anyone “outside society”. It was an idea that today seems about as convincing as a fake-dread Rasta hat bought on the beach at Negril.
It took punk and reggae to steer the white man’s flirtation with black stylings in a more positive direction. In his strong essay writer Dick Hebdidge reasons that with its patois, political commentary, other-worldly production and allusions towards Rastafari, in 1970s Britain reggae was “an alien essence, a foreign body which implicitly threatened mainstream British culture from within and resonated with punk’s adopted values — ‘anarchy’, ‘surrender’ and ‘decline’.”
It’s a salient point that underpins this book: the idea that the best punk came not from those who tried to be black — or who saw a flirtation with black culture as a short-cut to shocking the parents — but who identified with reggae’s revolutionary spirit and applied it to their own austere times back home. It’s no coincidence that the best punk music was made by those sussed enough to reach beyond rock ‘n’ roll’s white archetypes (Presley, Vincent, Cochran etc) and take a broader sonic world view: The Clash, The Ruts, The Slits, PiL and, slightly later in post-punk, The Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Gang Of Four, New Age Steppers and co.
Further valuable insight into punk’s black influence comes from fanzine rants made by white racists, discussions of songs such as Minor Threat’s erudite ‘Guilty Of Being White’ — about taking the blame for slavery while growing up a white minority in Washington DC — on the flipside, an overview of Skrewdriver’s unequivocally fascist White Power punk, and also a couple of piece about Bad Brains. Regarded by those in the know (and this reviewer) to be one of the greatest bands ever, Bad Brains’ turbo-charged melding of conscious reggae and three-chord punk created the hardcore genre. But as guitarist Daryl Jennifer points out it also did away with such clunky tags as “black rock”, a catch-all term applied when black bands were still perceived as a gimmick if they dared to play ‘white’ rock music. Such a tag conveniently overlooked the fact that just twenty-five short years earlier rock was born out of black culture. Like I said: racist.
What White Riot shows is that — excuse the pun — race is not a black and white issue. It is much more complex than that. Gradients and subtleties are at play and no two people — let alone two races — think, act or live the same. Punk helped remind that the best music acknowledges its source material while forging forward, and the best artists are those who sing about what they know rather than what they think they know.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Myers is an author and journalist. His first book was a collection of interview and essays, American Heretics: Rebel Voices In Music (Codex). His new novel Richard (Picador), about the disappearance of Richey Edwards, is published as a mass market paperback in October 2011.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 30th, 2011.