What Was So Great about the Clash, Anyway?

[27 February 2011]

By David Shorr

We all know that the Clash (1976-1983) wear the halo of eternal coolness. History has been very kind to them. What is the big deal, anyway? For me, the question is personal. Abiding loyalty as a Clash fan has been a constant through much of my own history. From youth to middle age, the songs have held me in their thrall. Which raises the issue of how this music has held such strong resonance through all the changes in my life: How does someone go from anti-nuke activist to serious foreign policy maven, student protester to midlife bourgeoisie, and feel the same way about this band?

To echo a phrase made famous by middle-aged men, my wife doesn’t understand me. Actually, that’s not true; my wife understands me all too well, but not this part. In fact, one thing that made me to want to explain this emotional attachment was the vaguely patient it’s-nice-to-have-a-hobby look my wife gives me whenever I talk about the Clash. It didn’t make any sense to her, for instance, that I mourned Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002 when I didn’t know him personally.

For a start, the political issue that started me on my professional path was also the subject of a Clash single. In 1980, I was 19 and had barely given a thought to world affairs, war and peace, or politics of any kind; the post-Vietnam period was peacetime, after all. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter instituted a new requirement for our age cohort to register with the Selective Service System, just in case the United States needed to reinstate the draft. For many of us, getting ready for a military draft seemed like a pretty hair-trigger reaction; we were against it.

In short order, I morphed from an apolitical college physics major into a protesting, protest-organizing campus activist. Going to Washington used to mean the tenth grade class trip, but then I’m marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with thousands of other opponents of draft registration. And around the same time, my musical heroes released a single with the message, “It’s up to you not to heed the call-up.”

While it represented a very nice moment of moral support, I can’t say the shared draft registration fight was the cornerstone of my loyalty to the Clash. Over the years, my pacifist, civilly disobedient passions gave way to a pragmatic advocacy for winnable policy battles and politics as the art of the possible. And just as my advocacy today as a professional is no less passionate (though less radical), the songs of the Clash likewise resonate just deeply as they always did.

“The Call Up” was pretty much an outlier in terms of the political content of Clash songs. Really, it’s to their credit that they didn’t regularly pontificate on particular issues. The main danger when musicians stake political positions isn’t the risk of alienating listeners, but of dulling their own art. Joe Strummer said it very directly: The songs have to be good.

Nor is the point to remain aloof from society’s ills, which the Clash certainly did not. Actually, from the group’s earliest days, manager and mentor Bernie Rhodes told the Clash that the honesty and integrity in their music would stem from its relevance. They should sing about their own lives, surroundings, and the times they lived in. The decadence and glamour of mid-1970s rock—the Rolling Stones were a negative point of reference—had little if anything to do with the real lives of young people. A key marketing tag line for the Clash was “The Only Band That Matters,” and to be a band that mattered, they needed to confirm for their generational peers that their hopes, dreams, and frustrations mattered. “Back in the garage with my bullshit detector . . .”

As they started to build their career, the vicissitudes of the music business became fodder itself. In a way, they were echoing the great Bob Marley. If you read Tim White’s Marley biography Catch a Fire, he annotates many of Marley’s lyrics as coded references to dirty dealers in Kingston musical circles. For their part, the Clash fought legendary battles with CBS/Columbia to keep the prices of their albums affordable, literally at great cost to themselves.

In the summer of 1982, I was an intern for one of the main organizers of the huge nuclear freeze rally in Central Park. What a perfect venue for them! Somehow, I got in touch with a manager of their American tours. We got our wires crossed in the conversation; he misunderstood what I meant by “disarmament” and talked about recently being at a gun show in Texas. Either way, I was clueless about the financial reality that flying the Clash in for the rally was a completely impractical proposal.

The band’s difficult economics even prevented a full-scale U.S. tour to support Sandinista! in 1981. Instead they booked themselves at a new New York venue—Bond International Casino, right on Times Square—for a week. When tickets went on sale, I was at college a couple hundred miles away. Since the Bond residency was the only chance to see the band, fans would have to catch them in New York. In the days before Ticketmaster and online brokers, there was a computer-linked ticket sales system called Ticketron, and the manager of my local Midland Records, where I was a regular, ran off tickets from his Ticketron machine for three shows. I was very pleased with myself when I read Joe Strummer quoted in an interview that “the mountain has to come to Mohammed.” I had suggested the old proverb as a name for the “tour” in my entry in a local radio station’s send-in-your-questions-for-the-band contest.

The combination of cresting popularity, PR savvy, and a run-in with the fire marshals caused a frenzy of mythic proportions. They were the princes of the city. A week’s worth of shows at Bond’s turned into two, once it became clear that the venue had sold twice its legal capacity. The Clash took one for the fans and made up for the club owner’s mistake by adding shows. The band’s star-crossed economics kicked in yet again. Same gate receipts for twice the number of performances, you do the math. Even so, it was a triumph. NYPD had to deploy crowd control and close off traffic to deal with the crowds—and this was during the day, in between shows! Imagine how it felt for four Brits weaned on American pop culture. The Clash on Broadway!

For the shows themselves, I was probably too overexcited and overstimulated for the performances to really register. My clearest memories are actually about the warm-up acts. For one of the shows I saw, it was the Slits, with the now-departed Ari Up, and for another, it was proto-rapper Grandmaster Flash with the Treacherous Three. The rappers were greeted with terrible heckling. The Clash were successfully crossing over to get a lot of airplay for their own rap “The Magnificent Seven” (a tick-tock piece about a New York City work day) on the local black station, WBLS. Yet their mostly white fans clearly weren’t very open to rap music themselves. It was the unattractive side of “Welcome to America”.

Since the schedule included family-friendly weekend matinees, one of my pairs of tickets was for me and my 12-year-old brother, which makes him a rare member of his generation to have seen the Clash play. The warm-up for that show was a kiddie band, the Brattles, who dressed just like the Clash.
It was only after 25 years of obsessed fanhood that I ran across the perfect explanation of the band’s compelling appeal. I belatedly found Lester Bangs’ superb essay (reprinted in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s collection Let Fury Have the Hour) with this crystalline passage:

There is a mood around the Clash, call it whatever you want, that is positive in a way I have never sensed around almost any other band . . . Something unpretentiously moral, and something both self-affirming and life-affirming.

The fact that the Clash were positive—stood for something rather than nothing—was just the surface of the matter. In fact, positivity was an explicit part of the band’s carefully crafted myth. (Every great group has one, and band biographer Marcus Gray explains the Clash’s in his Last Gang in Town.) The idea was to draw a sharp contrast with the sneering cynicism of the Sex Pistols. It was also heartfelt. Whenever and however they could, they tried to be personally available to the fans.

The Clash were rock stars mightily resisting stardom's power to dehumanize.

They were rock stars mightily resisting stardom’s power to dehumanize. It’s a strange business, and the internal contradiction is built in. The dividing line between succeeding and selling out isn’t very well marked, and ambition can be a propellant or a corrosive, sometimes both. When it comes down to it, to perform is to make a claim for other people’s time and attention. As the audience gets bigger, so does the artist’s extraordinariness. For a band like the Clash, particularly someone with Joe Strummer’s jumble of ambition and ambivalence, the tension between accessibility and privacy must have been quite a strain.
By the time Joe Strummer emerged from his wilderness years of near-invisibility—having formed a new band, the Mescaleros—the frenzy had died down. It was once again easy to see the (post-)Clash up close and personal. Joe was back in small venues, and I planted myself right in front of the stage for a show. His performances could only be described maniacally forceful. Projecting himself out to the audience, even in small venues, was an act of will that seemed to summon every fibre of his being. That’s the imperative as he saw it; that’s what it took to keep faith with the assembled congregation, with the passion and subjects of the songs (and of rock’n'roll itself), indeed with the miracle of human consciousness. Even a rock icon had to leave blood on the stage.

With the Clash’s place in history so well established, in hindsight it might look like success was assured. The reality was that punk rock’s DIY principle applied not just to the music itself, but also the struggle to build an audience. Essayist and Clash fan Sarah Vowell cited them as one of those special instances of guys banding together to accomplish something big. There’s a moment in the video for the song “London Calling” (made by the band’s good friend Don Letts) that captures this idea for me. Snazzy 1940s-style suits, rainy night on a Thames-side dock—“I live by the river.” After the song’s clarion opening chords, Joe, Mick, and Paul simultaneously snap around to the mics. The image conveys a great deal of purpose and unity.

Lamenting the band’s break-up, and his own part in it, Joe vehemently stressed that when you find a combination of musicians who can make great rock ‘n’ roll together, don’t mess with the magic. It can’t be replaced or replicated. For many fans, we end up invested in the relationships among the bandmates. Even after the messy 1983 divorce of the Clash, the members were able to patch things up personally. Given that Mick Jones soon sought Joe’s production help with Jones’ group Big Audio Dynamite, the two of them mended relations fairly quickly. And with incredible eeriness, Mick and Joe’s only post-Clash performance came just weeks before Joe’s death—impromptu at a benefit for a firefighters union involved in a wage dispute.

Joe and Paul Simonon were thick as thieves until the end. After Joe’s death, I read in one remembrance about a recent all-nighter of theirs. Hanging out in the basement of Paul’s London home, they listened to an extreme variety of music—from Afropop to Anthony Newley, a silver-throated tenor who’d had hits on the 1960s pop charts and Broadway stage. That reference to Tony Newley gave me an idea and an opportunity. Getting ready to lurk around the Waldorf Astoria Hotel the night the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I liberated my dad’s original Broadway cast album of The Roar of the Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd to give to Paul. Tickets to the ceremony were priced way beyond my means, but I could see from pictures inside the hall that Paul propped up the album in the middle of his banquet table. Later that night, I asked him what Newley meant to him, and he said Newley was one of the few English pop singers of the time who sang in his native accent, rather than putting on an American one.

I see another resemblance between Newley and the Clash: Both wrote songs alternating between trenchant and smart-alecky. Or, as one memorable lyric put it, “All the young punks / Laugh your lives / Cos there ain’t much to cry for / All you young cunts / Live it now / Cos there ain’t much to die for.”

Lester Bangs used the adjective righteous, and that—in the best sense of the word—was most crucially what the Clash were about. It was also what struck the deepest resonance for me. To paraphrase what Joe Strummer famously said about trousers and brains: Like band, like music. This makes me think of Michael Stipe telling about REM’s early days, and that group’s decision to be the “not-assholes band”. I think the Clash wanted to be the people-shouldn’t-be-assholes band. That’s what the songs said. “The Clampdown” warns that the factory bosses (“old and cunning”) want to steal the best years of your life. There was an exhortation against letting the bastards get you down called “I’m Not Down”. “Hateful” is about the predations of drug pushers. And the London Calling album actually has not one, but two fables about deadly conflict at the gambling table—“The Card Cheat” as well as the retelling of “Stagger Lee”, both emphasizing that the stakes couldn’t be higher. In other words, they tackle issues of human relations, like man’s exploitation of fellow man, that are more profound than politics, yet underlie them.

Basically, they were existentialists. Life is what you make of it. What are you going to make of it?

Their moralism was not only unpretentious, as Bangs wrote, and conscientious, but it was also artful. For as preachy as the Clash were in its message, they had a deft touch in crafting music and lyrics, the latter thanks mainly to Strummer. The words had plenty of indirection, misdirection, mischief, and mania. One of the conceits of pop music mythology is to designate some of its heroes as poets. I’m not sure what criteria set the poets apart from the other songwriters, but I do know that Allen Ginsberg collaborated with the Clash, which must’ve meant a great deal to Joe.

Above my desk, I keep a Joe Strummer quotation saying we should always appreciate what a great thing it is to be alive. Don’t get wrapped up in self-absorption; you never know what amazing thing might happen in the next instant. A recent biography by another of his friends, Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song tells of Strummer’s own struggle with depression and how he was haunted by the suicide of his only brother when they were young.

The band was waging an even more fundamental struggle than the clashes Paul saw in the newspaper when he came up with the name for the band. As the Lester Bangs quotation reminds us, the real clash was the affirmation of life, this life, your life, the intersection of peoples’ lives—righteous living, not exploitation or waste.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally been caught off guard and found relative strangers or mild acquaintances treating me as a kind of accidental confessor—I guess I have one of those faces. My very limited encounters with Strummer included such a disclosure. It was outside the venue before the launch of his first American tour in many years, and Joe was troubled by a recent violent run-in with a cameraman at the Glastonbury festival. By his own violence, that is. For all of Strummer’s guardedness, it seemed like a glimpse of the demons with which he wrestled.

Being a rock star means a lifetime of strangers telling you what big fans they are. For decades, people have been thanking the members of the Clash for changing their lives—How else do you say it? I tried once to express to Joe the impact he’d had on me. Having read somewhere about “Strummer’s law” of creativity and inspiration—“To get output, you must have input”—I gave Joe a book of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s essays on Africa. In an inscription, I said that the Clash had encouraged me to approach life with open eyes, mind, and conscience.

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This may be David Shorr’s first published article that is not about foreign policy. He blogs at TPMCafé and Democracy Arsenal. In another tribute to the Clash, he recently compiled a misheard lyrics video of “Safe European Home”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/137088-what-was-so-great-about-the-clash-anyway/