Sunday, July 09, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 018: The Clash: The Essential Clash

(in lieu of hypothetical special compilation excerpting The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling)

My favorite punk band. They weren’t as chaotic as the Pistols, they lacked the thunderous brevity of the Ramones, they didn’t have the guitaristic virtuosity of Television or the linguistic virtuosity of Patti Smith, but here’s what they did have: the great guitar parts of Mick Jones, the matinee-idol good looks of Paul Simonon and fantastic, rock-solid drumming of Topper Headon, and the political ferocity of the much-missed Joe Strummer. The Pistols went on TV and said “fuck”—the Clash went on stage and called for revolution. Coming up in Brixton, they had linked up with the ska and reggae musicians of the immigrant Jamaican community, and they saw the damage being done by the Tory Horror. They wrote absolutely fantastic songs, they understood—far better than the Pistols, who were basically interested in pissing off their aunties, or the Ramones, whose cretinous interviews reflected nothing but a reflection of Joey’s un-examined political imbecility—how to dance along the knife-edge between access and sell-out, they recognized the political power of being rock stars. They were more involved with anarchist and leftist political groups than any other punk band, and the song titles tell the story:

White Riot, London’s Burning, Police & Thieves, (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, Stay Free, London Calling, The Guns of Brixton, Jimmy Jazz, Train in Vain, This is Radio Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go

These are all absolutely fantastic songs, most of which make the connections between class, cash, and power explicit. White Riot, the first single in 1976, set the political template—but not the musical template, which would continue to evolve and grow, which was to cost them credibility later, because a pillar of the earliest punk (and then the later hardcore) ethos was that virtuosity was a sell-out.

The first record, The Clash, I heard in Chicago from Americans who were coming back from England; the second Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1977) I bought myself. Here was where they made their connections with rockabilly and reggae explicit: there’s a brutal version of I Fought the Law and the titanic original White Man in Hammersmith Palais (a metaphor for their own experience as Anglo punks in a Jamaican immigrant community). Mick said “You should write about what you know about,” and so they did—but what they knew about got bigger and bigger, and more and more sophisticated. There’s fantastic punk, reggae, and rockabilly on this second record, and the political content is as strong as ever, but for me the high point is the same tune that the punk audience hated: Mick’s Stay Free, an anthem to friends on the scene who had already died. Now I hear it as a tribute from Mick for Joe, who died of an unexpected heart attack in 1992—a tragic loss.

years have passed and things have changed
and i move anyway i wanna go
i'll never forget the feeling i got
when i heard that you'd got home
an' i'll never forget the smile on my face
'cos i knew where you would be
an' if you're in the crown tonight
have a drink on me

but go easy...step lightly...stay free

The third disc, London Calling, a double-LP, is conventionally described as the band's masterpiece, and it's a great record, with an absolutely iconic cover:

By the time it came out, I had moved on, geographically and musically, so it wasn't 'til years later that I got to know the record.

But they were great, courageous men: this is a band that played Rock Against Racism and the Concerts for Kampuchea and Reggae, insisted that their double- and triple-LP albums should be released at the same price as a single-disc, and categorically refused to reform or to sell out. The best part: they played their first gig on July 4 1776--the American Bicentennial. Absolutely appropriate: they epitomized the sophisticated rabble-rousing of Sam Adams better than anyone else in punk history.

The Clash had the balls and the brains to go up against the cowardice, greed, class-hatred, racism, and fascist repression of Tory Britain. They were Margaret Thatcher’s worst nightmare. And God knows she, and Ronnie and Nancy, and the PMRC, all deserved it.

1 comment:

RMVela said...

London's burning, but i have no fear...cause, I live by the river!

it took me a long time to figure out the clash, but once i did, i realized how much they music made sense to me, not only as a disaffected youth, but also as a minority, as a "self-styled outsider", and as a musician.