In 1990, Rolling Stone published one of its innumerable advertisement-packed “special” editions, this one listing the Greatest Albums of the Eighties. At the top was London Calling by the Clash (which, to be technical, was a late seventies album, but let that pass.) Yes, I thought, and in celebration cranked up my gloriously scratchy import album, reliving over its four sides the promise and drama of messianic rock’n'roll. Hell, the kids were off visiting grandma, so I really let my thinning hair down: took the potted geraniums off the speakers (we put them there because the Pioneers are otherwise dead space, interior design-wise) and made myself an angry cup of boullion and sat down at the electric typewriter (a machine we used back in the nineties) to sweat&smoke&slamdance a tremendously punky (though MLA’84-documented) screed about the Christmas dinner scene in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By God, get out of the road, you old and dying generations, I thought.
Then a couple of issues later, the RS letters column published what you might expect in response to such a list quibbles, bitches, gushes and one sincerely clueless (but well-put) question. The letter-writer agreed with most of the choices Prince, Bruce, and so on but he (or she my memory of this letter does not extend all the way down to its writer’s signature) had to know the answer to one question before proceeding further: Just who, or what, was the Clash? I mean, not to sound dumb or anything (said the writer), but, sincerely now, huh??
I stared at the letters column and for the first time ever in my life said “Alas” and didn’t intend it ironically. See, to me the Clash was The Only Band That Matters, the Four Horsemen of Punk Apocalypse themselves (I used to believe in record company slogans, I wore them on badges pinned to my Salvation Army jacket) , and here this this this child was, trying to get a clue, doing her/his best to come to grips with capital-H History, but nudging cool hip me on my sadly inevitable, inevitably sad descent into the cold dark fetid grave and the oblivion that awaits us all (though some of us sooner than others). (Alas.)
I could, I suppose, have dragged myself out of the terminal ward to explain it thus. “Young lady, or young man,” I would say, drawing a warm rug over my arthritic knees and marinading in an Oldfart melange of Mentholatum and Preparation H:
Why the great Clash records , the epoynmous first album, more a collection of firebreathing punk singles than an album proper, but still more unified by spirit and determination than a thousand lesser bands’ “concept” albums; London Calling; the terribly underrated Sandinista!, a set that earned its exclamation point by testing the band’s limits (and its listeners’ stamina) not only with its three-record length but with its against-all-odds determination to raise rock’n'roll up as some gloriously failed (it has to fail to succeed) last romantic stand against the mere mereness of banal late capitalist culture life (it’s the record Ahab was playing when he baptised his harpoon in the name of the devil) and the not-so-great, but still still better than the average run records Give ‘Em Enough Rope (which, you read on page one of the critics’ playbook, has “great songs, poor production”; Super Blackmarket Clash, a glob of experimentation that, round about ‘80, sometimes worked and sometimes made you wish that CD players would go ahead and get invented so you could have a skip button to work with; and Combat Rock, a melange that actually yielded a hit single or two, one of which, “Rock the Casbah,” got played on military radio as soundtrack for the Gulf War, because the military, it seems, does not get parody why these recordings last is simple enough, and has been rooted in the Clash since the beginning.
Working with punk idiom, creating with the early singles the only legitimate rivalry the Pistols had among British bands (they were the Who/Beatles/Stones; everyone else, no matter how good, was the Kinks or the Animals), the Clash found their place in Rock History and found that Rock History had a future. The Pistols looked forward to apocalypse because they were hilariously real cartoon avatars of thanatos, costumed boys with silly-scary names who bore out the Bugs-Bunny-in-leather-jackets aesthetic propounded by Sire/Warners Records even better than Sire’s own great clumsily animated punks, the Ramones. But the Clash did not see punk apocalypse as the end, or The End; instead, they understood that it was, and is, only one of many re-visions to which rock, among the other demotic, arts aspires, an opportunity to re-work the genre, scrape away barnacles.
A kind of puritanism, then, drives the Clash to smash radical politics and reggae rhythms hard against current affairs reportage to come up with “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” a song historically focused on seventies Britain but with roots extending backward and forward to such White Trash culture terrorists as Elvis and Kid Rock. “Clash City Rockers,” a self-serving self-aggrandizing theme song looks forward to hip hop’s ego-tripping raps, but also back to the Monkees’ theme (among others) and the constant self-mythologization of Bo Diddley (who was, Joe Strummer once told Musician, the only influence the Clash ever had.) And so on. Sometimes you listen to the Clash and hear clear sonic echoes of earlier bands, sometimes (i.e., on dub-reggae-gospel-rockabilly-lounge-etc. London Calling) echoes of entire genres. But always you sense a band that is part of some great continuum, a band that respects the past and looks forward to the future.
That is what I would say to this mere child who would, of course, sit rapt for every word. But now here comes my whippersnapperish colleague Mark Reiter with his PopMatters review of From Here to Eternity, a 1999 compilation of songs the Clash performed live between 1978 and 1982. What can I do for him?
A testament to genius and conviction and (a quality sad old punks dislike) professionalism, the CD deserves most of Mark’s 9.9 rating. Like all great bands, the Clash had a terrific rhythm section; Paul Simenon and Topper Headon (and his predecessor/replacement, Terry Chimes [whose stage name was Tory Crimes], who appears on eight of this recording’s seventeen tracks) bash on the punky “Complete Control,” swing on the proto-rock’n'rap “Magnificent Seven,” and lurch magnificently on the Beefheart-reggae “Guns of Brixton.” (The band’s sometimes too-earnest affection for dub may spring from knowing that most every song they did would sound just swell with the melody stripped away, the rhythm tracks left to shine like bare bones washed up on a beach.) And Mick Jones (in the eighties we had to explain that he was not Foreigner’s Mick Jones, but, rather, the one in a good band) stretches out to become Punk Anathema, a guitar hero blasting notes and chord clusters all over the place as if he was the Edge or something. Which, because it cheeses of the punk orthodoxy, is Cool.
“There’s little left to be said about the Clash that doesn’t smack of nostalgia and good ol’ days bitching,” writes Mark, before going on to beat contemporary music with a seventies stick: “there’s more rock and roll spirit in the first 25 seconds of ‘Train in Vain’ than the whole of ‘90s punk rock”; and “From Here to Eternity‘s only flaw? It makes so much other shit seem, well, irrelevant.” Now I understand that much of what I have written simply reeks of codgerism and I agree, mostly, with Mark’s assessment of the Clash in comparison with today’s punks (one of the most musically and politically reactionary sub-cultures ever in rock, what with its boring and ultimately haute bourgeois arguments concerning whether so’n'so has sold out by signing with a corporate label, its hasty, predictable, and self-parodying dismissal of any artist who seems on the verge of bigness, its creepy banal college-kidness). But the Clash also beat hell out of any number of seventies bands. It is not nostalgia (it’s clarity of vision) to note the brilliance of London Calling or The Clash. But it is nostalgia to celebrate, say, Stiv Bators as if he were any less the boring poseur than I don’t know, name your town’s creaky punque du jour, the one the mall rats slobber over when they think they’re acting transgressive. If it’s dumb to call every Foghat song “classic” simply because it’s old, then the dumbness extends as well to punk: superannuation does not equal quality.
What nouns of praise does Mark use in his review? Well, e.g., “clarity” and “intensity,” words that he applies to the newly cleaned-up production of From Here to Eternity (nineties technology lets us hear, and recall, what live rock’n'roll is supposed to sound like), but which are equally applicable to the Clash’s moral vision. And also “justice” and “indignation” and “righteousness” and “conviction”: if you grew up listening to the Clash, you considered “mellowness” not only a bore but a spiritual flaw as well, and you just knew your roommate was going to hell, and ought to, when he started listening to Jimmy Buffett.
But another of Young Mark’s Oldfart criticisms “And in these here cynical days ain’t no one likely to step up to the plate with the same size bat or balls” brings up a word that I think many of us feel uncomfortable with. And we really need to say it if we are to understand why the Clash worked, why they work.
They were sincere.
Christ: sorry. I mean, wasn’t it embarrassing to read that? Four (five, counting Terry Chimes) adult band members who stood on a stage or in a studio smashing hellacious noise and soulstirring music out of their instruments and the best I can come up with is “sincere”? Well, yes. And I grant that I was abashed to write it. But here you must re-read Mark Reiter, who talks about “these here cynical days,” and know that the Clash first appeared in “those there cynical days,” and know that cynicism is the demon they, and the best agit-rockers, (and artists in pretty much general) have always set out to exorcise. I hope that Mark agrees: sincerity, despite seeming a cornball concept, a sentimentalism geared to appeal to grandparents and small children, is the wellspring of the Clash’s “justice/indignation/righteousness/indignation/etc.,” the reason they could swing for the bleachers. If irony is the twentieth century’s mode, its way of stepping away from the boredom and horror and stupidity of modern life, its main contribution to history’s storehouse of wit, then cynicism is its dumbass reduction, the knee-jerk “irony” that such guys of a certain age (i.e., mine) as Mark Edmundson and David Foster Wallace condemn, much to the amusement and contumely of cynical dumbasses, who mistake simple snarkiness for intellectual integrity or somesuch, who have taken to writing clever things about “the Ironic Backlash.” (See, for example, Jesse Walker who, writing in Reason, seems unwilling to comprehend the difference between, say, George Orwell and Vince Macmahon. Note: we are not against smart people using irony for smart reasons, only against dumb people using the term irony to excuse mindless culture-trashing.)
Sincerity means caring caring some and getting past the easy outs kneejerk cynicism offers. The Clash were fun and serious, smart and silly, and, yes, they were sincere, and most bands are not. In the end hearing the Clash play rock ‘n’ roll is thrilling because it is so unusual for someone to give a damn.
By the way, Jimmy Smith gives From Here to Eternity (Epic) an 8.5.