Book Review: Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music

Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music by John Corbett. The University of Chicago Press, 2019. 475 Pages.

Review by Randy Laist.

What do you think of when you think about the 1970s?  Many people who are too young to have many first-hand memories from the 1970s, myself included, harbor a stereotyped characterization of the 1970s as a time of ugly, earth-toned clothes, political unrest, economic anxiety, and “cheesy” cultural products like “The Brady Bunch” and disco music.  In the ’80s and ’90s, the ’70s appeared as a messy, unsettled time of frustrated hopes, failed experimentation, and collective existential malaise.  From the perspective of the 21st century, however, the 1970s looks like a golden age.  The bipartisan impeachment that ended Nixon’s presidency presents an idyllic counter-example to the sectarian logjam of the Trump impeachment.  The end of the Vietnam War contrasts tragically with our modern “infinity wars.”  And, in popular culture, the variety and inventiveness of the decade’s literary, filmic, and musical output puts to shame our contemporary corporate entertainment monoculture.

Book cover to Pick Up the Pieces- Excursions in Seventies Music by John CorbettJohn Corbett’s Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music is a love letter – or, perhaps, punk power ballad – to the cultural daring and artistic energy that flourished during this remarkably fertile period in popular music.  The book is arranged into ten chapters, one for each year of the decade (with a short epilogue for 1980), and each chapter is composed of a series of short essays on particular albums from that year.  The essays perform critical analysis and historical contextualization of the albums under discussion, but they also incorporate Corbett’s own memories of hearing them for the first time and personal reflections on how the albums have helped to shape Corbett’s personality, how they informed certain stages of his adolescence, and how their significance has changed as Corbett has returned to them over the course of his life.  Some of the book’s “pieces” take the form of short stories and even stand-up routines and prose poems.  The chapter on 1978 includes the script for a play in which Corbett imagines himself interacting with some of his rock heroes, while the 1979 chapter breaks down into 41 mini-blurbs about his favorite 45s from that year.  The variety of Corbett’s approach to these sections reflects the variety of the musical styles and genres he celebrates, and also expresses the multiplicity of ways that music engages and affects us.

The ostinato bass beat that connects all of these pieces together is Corbett’s enthusiasm not only for the music itself, but for the mood of anarchic possibility that permeates the decade’s zeitgeist.  Corbett scrutinizes the capacity of musicians like Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Sun Ra to use the power of music to challenge their audiences, to reimagine collective assumptions, and to give full expression to the variety and intensity of human experience.  Along the way, Corbett regales us with pointed and passionate observations about topics ranging from the quality of Captain Beefheart’s saxophone playing to the corporate appropriation of the music of Nick Drake, the joy of squeaky drum pedals, the golden age of the double-live album, and the ’70s roots of rap music.  The book also features scenes from Corbett’s own personal acquaintances with such luminaries of ’70s music as Richard Hell, Fontella Bass, Todd Rundgren, and Milford Graves.

As overwrought as it may sound, reading “Pick up the Pieces” reminded me of the Keats poem about Chapman’s Homer: the book points the way to an entire universe of unexplored riches.  Corbett writes of a friend that helped him discover country music, “We all need a pointer dog now and then” (274).  Since reading this book, I have spent many hours discovering and rediscovering the sounds of the seventies, admittedly via YouTube rather than on Corbett’s beloved vinyl, and have found Corbett to be a reliable pointer dog.  Whether you are a ’70s neophyte or a veteran blank-generation scenester, “Pick up the Pieces” offers an obsessive-yet-accessible survey of a decade that, as Corbett persuasively demonstrates, constitutes an exceptionally dynamic period in American popular music.

Randy Laist, Goodwin College

Randy Laist is a professor of English at Goodwin College.  He is the author of The Twin Towers in Film: A Cinematic History of the World Trade Center and Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s.

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