In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The intro to the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces” is everything you could possibly want an intro to be. A guitar rings out, tense and coiled. Underneath it, a drone rises. Big bass tones arrive at every beat. A cymbal taps. And then the beat drops in and you’re in it. The groove doesn’t gradually fall into place. It immediately locks in, juicy and full-bodied. It’s all there: the vaguely jazzy horn-riff, the strutting bassline, the in-the-pocket drums, the sideways guitar shimmy.
That intro lasts maybe 10 seconds. At first, your brain doesn’t have time to process it. Later on, as the song sinks in and become a part of your life, that intro becomes pavlovian, a subliminal signal to put your drink down and report to the dance floor immediately. It’s a warning, and it’s a beacon. That groove is about to arrive. And since “Pick Up The Pieces” is basically an instrumental — albeit with a bunch of Scottish dudes shouting the song’s title every so often — that groove is all you get. It’s enough.
Truth in advertising: Average White Band where white. They were also Scottish. They were pallid. They had the sorts of terrible beards that every man in the ’70s was seemingly legally required to wear. And yet “Pick Up The Pieces” is a full-on funk vamp, greasy and hard and immediate. It’s not quite as nasty as the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” a song that hit #1 a couple of weeks earlier. But it’s a tight and clean groove, played with purpose and ferocity. And it has hooks. It doesn’t need lyrics; those horn riffs speak for it.
Everything about “Pick Up The Pieces” is fully improbable, and yet sometimes those pieces fall into place. The members of Average White Band were all Scottish musicians living in London, scraping by. They all knew each other a little bit, and many of them had made livings as session musicians. Two of them played on Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling.” At least one of them played on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” After they all ran into each other at a Traffic show one night, they started playing together, vamping on American-style R&B. A friend heard them playing and joked that it was “too much for the average white man,” and that’s how they got the band name.
The members of Average White Band were a tight unit, and they clearly knew how to play. But a lot of their early songs sounded a bit dress-uppy — the work of a band attempting funk, rather than the work of a funk band. Their first album, 1973’s Show Your Hand, went nowhere. But they they signed with Atlantic, then still primarily a soul label, and went to work with the legendary Turkish-born producer Arif Mardin, who knew what to do with them. A lot of AWB, their breakthrough sophomore album, is Doobie Brothers-ish pseudo-funk, and its mannered try-hard vocals are a problem. But “Pick Up The Pieces” solves that issue, basically eliminating those vocals.
“Pick Up The Pieces” only has four words, but at least to the people in the band, it was about something. They were tired of languishing in obscurity, and they wanted to rise up and go places. Years later, saxophonist Molly Duncan, the man who wrote that great horn line, told The Guardian, “It’s about picking yourself up when things aren’t going well. We’d spent a lot of time making no money whatsoever, so it felt very relevant.” This happens to be the animating motivation behind a whole lot of funk music. It’s an impulse that transcends race.
The song came out in July of 1974, so it took some time for it to catch on. Drummer Robbie McIntosh didn’t live to see the song reach its full potential. He died of an accidental heroin overdose at a Los Angeles party in September of 1974. Apparently, the guys in the band thought they were sniffing coke. Singer and bassist Alan Gorrie almost died, too, but Cher, who was at the party, kept him conscious until he could get help. Ken Moss, the millionaire playboy who’d thrown the party and supplied the smack, was charged with McIntosh’s murder, and Cher testified at his trial, but he only served three months. In any case, by the time “Pick Up The Pieces” hit #1, it had become, at least to the members of the band, a song about McIntosh.
“Pick Up The Pieces” was made from a sense of competition. The Average White Band were hearing what Kool & The Gang and the Ohio Players were doing in America, and they wanted to put their own spin on it. It’s worth pointing out again and again: These guys were total outsiders, so it must’ve taken some real gall to think that they even belonged in that conversation. But with “Pick Up The Pieces,” they pulled it off. They thought Atlantic was crazy for releasing an instrumental as a single, but the people at Atlantic knew what they were doing.
Today, a song like “Pick Up The Pieces” would get a white band charged with cultural appropriation. And something like that happened in 1975, too. There are reports that the JB’s, James Brown’s backing band, were pissed off about “Pick Up The Pieces,” figuring, with some justification, that Average White Band had stolen the bassline from Brown’s 1972 track “Hot Pants Road.” So under the name A.A.B.B. — Above Average Black Band — they recorded the Brown-produced answer single “Pick Up The Pieces One By One.” Funk beef is the best kind of beef.
Decades later, though, “Pick Up The Pieces” stands as an example of the good side of cultural appropriation. Average White Band weren’t just stealing a sound. They were building on it, adding to it, and knocking together what would become a standard of their genre. “Pick Up The Pieces” has been sampled dozens of times — by Doug E. Fresh, by Tim Dog, by the Real Roxanne, by Chris Rock and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, by Gang Starr. Twice.
Average White Band only made the top 10 once more. (“Cut The Cake” peaked at #10 later in 1975. It’s an 8.) But they kept playing together into the early ’80s before breaking up and inevitably reuniting. Right now, there are two different touring versions of the band out there, the two-original members Average White Band and the two-original-members 360 Band.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Pick Up The Pieces” soundtracking the Quentin Tarantino meta-homage in Doug Liman’s 1996 movie Swingers:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the best part of (Swingers star and screenwriter) Jon Favreau’s 2010 movie Iron Man 2, where Sam Rockwell spends a few brief and glorious seconds doing some fancy footwork to “Pick Up The Pieces”: