Heroes in the Age of None: The Clash Rock Out with “Tommy Gun”

You ever have one of those periods where you decide to re-explore a band you haven’t really listened to in years and end up remembering why you loved them in the first place? Right now I’m on a very big Clash kick, something I haven’t experienced since roughly my junior year of high school (my fondest Clash-related memory of that period being cooped up indoors rocking out to the live CD From Here to Eternity during a summer family trip to Florida). Consequently, I’ve been making the rounds around YouTube the last few weeks in search of all things Clash in order to help satiate my renewed hunger for works of the legendary punk rock quartet. Viewing the group’s virtual promo reel, it’s plain that the Clash wasn’t the most conceptual group when it came to making music videos. Aside from the notable exception of the kooky “Rock the Casbah”, the British group’s videography is predominantly focused on performance clips. That’s certainly not a problem, given the Clash’s renown as one of the most exhilarating live groups of its era.

Unsurprisingly, the video for the Clash’s 1978 single “Tommy Gun” (taken from the group’s underrated second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, a.k.a. “The First Attempt to Break America, via Lots of Hard Rock Guitars”) is a no-frills performance piece, devoted solely to presenting the band playing its damnedest on stage, the only concession to visual flair being a backdrop of assorted national flags. Fuck the fancy set designs, this is punk rock. Despite its occasionally obscured cinematography (which seems dead-set on avoiding full-body shots of guitarist Joe Strummer as much as possible) and some of the song’s own deficiencies (with all its fits and showboating chord crashes, it’s essentially one long intro, albeit a striking one), all four members of the Clash overcome any flaws the clip contains by virtue of being so powerfully charismatic, demanding the viewer’s attention via the unbridled passion and sheer awesomeness they exude even when miming to a prerecorded track. In short, the Clash show how punks can be proper rock gods.

Ever the showmen, each member of the Clash unquestionably earns his share of the spotlight in the video’s slightly over three-minute runtime. You have Mick Jones, living his dream of being a chimera of a cowboy and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, thrashing barre chords and one-note guitar solos out of his instrument with concentrated poise. Bassist Paul Simonon, a man who was specifically brought into the band because he looked cool, lives up to his reputation, looking striking as he pounds out notes in between stony-faced jumps. But let’s not kid ourselves: the two compelling reasons to watch the “Tommy Gun” promo are two guys named Joe Strummer and Topper Headon, one the fiery heart of “The Only Band that Matters”, and the other its extraordinarily talented musical secret weapon.

The late Strummer’s live performances were always part shaman, part street preacher, and part angry hooligan. Look at him go — given you can’t see Strummer bash his guitar the majority of the time, the frantic thrashing about that results from such an action makes it appear as if he’s having a religious vision as he spits out the song’s lyrics with a conviction so passionately of the moment it’s irrelevant that most of his words come out as garbled shouts. God bless that man.

In the back, Topper Headon (the band’s then-newest recruit, brought aboard to replace previous drummer Terry Chimes) unleashes the song’s characteristic hook — the rat-a-tat machine gun-style snare fills — with a chill, focused professionalism. In contrast to Strummer, who appears oblivious to anything beyond the sensation of his own transcendent abandon, Headon occasionally flashes a sly smile to the camera as he busies himself providing a solid foundation for the clamor in front of him. That’s a guy who knows he’s found his perfect calling in life, of which his drum part to “Tommy Gun” would stand as the first milestone. Unfortunately, Headon would squander his talent and potential just a few short years later, as he was kicked out of the band due to his heroin addiction. Headon knew he messed up a perfect thing (in the Clash biography Passion Is a Fashion he told author Pat Gilbert “I could have been one of the best. I was one of the best and I blew it.”), and so did Strummer, who until his dying days regretted firing the drummer who so complemented the rest of the group.

It was the addition of the versatile Headon that allowed the Clash to successfully expand beyond its punk rock parameters to make stylistically-diffuse classics like the 1979 album London Calling. In that light, it’s fitting that “Tommy Gun” feels like an over-extended song intro: the video essentially documents the first precious steps the classic Clash lineup took towards becoming legends. Seeing the classic Clash formation assembled on screen at full force is a potent thing indeed. Although the song’s meaning is rendered incoherent by the performance (even after reading the lyrics, its still unclear if the band intends to glamorize or condemn the song’s criminal protagonist), the showmanship is so impeccable I’d sure as hell listen to whatever the band was telling me, comprehensible or not.

Oh, and that final shot of a spent Strummer turning away from the camera, followed by the screen turning to black as a final snare roll and guitar crash sound off? Brilliant.