White Riot released on this day 40 years ago

White Riot by The Clash: released on 18th March 1977.

I think I might still be a little bit in love with Paul Simonon (see http://www.kevinacott.com/lies/2016/3/1/man-crush). I’m definitely still in love with The Clash: as a band, an idea, a memory, a rhythm, a rage, a fuck-you, a me-too, a proof that there’s good in the world and it doesn’t always have to be tender. White Riot though? I’ve never been sure about White Riot, that it didn’t have layers we foolishly discarded. It made me happy and free when I first heard it, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced sonically: raw and bare and stripped of ideology or thought or love. It was my first real introduction to punk and to a thrilling harshness of expression, to that tidal wave of manipulated passion that stamped on our lives and helped us both belong and sense a deeper, scratchy alienation. And it had a great tune.

But… We belonged to the mass of kids who were neither part of the cold oppressors nor part of the cool revolutionaries. The stagnant and twisted establishment despised our parents and despised us; the art-school rebels didn’t even notice us, just knew we would go along with whatever they said because we wanted to be them. Somewhere in Strummer’s words there was a reaching out:

‘Black man got a lotta problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick.’

I went to a grammar school. Even there – especially there – they taught us to be thick, to play the liberal game of ‘openness’ and ‘tolerance’ whilst being unable and unwilling to challenge the structures that propped up our lives while building the bonfires and barricades. Even when I was fifteen, all that wanting ‘a riot of my own’ stuff felt more than a little awkward. It felt apologetic. It felt shot through with flakes of what is now termed cultural appropriation. And it felt real. It felt like the Kev part of Joe Strummer was being given expression as Simonon (just how cool was Paul Simonon?) and Jones (just how uncool was Jones?) and the drummer bloke were punching holes in the seventies in ways I could only dream of doing.

‘All the power’s in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it.’

How true. It’s still true. It always was true. And I loved Strummer for confronting me with that truth. Music unites us, White Riot says, not only in the political realm, but in the personal:

‘Only the very safe can talk about wrong or right
Of those who are forced to choose, some will choose to fight’.

Those words came to me as I was listening to White Riot again this morning and having my comfortable middle-agedness shaken yet again. A decade after The Clash, Christy Moore had chosen to align himself with the Republican struggles in the North of Ireland, with those fighting apartheid in South Africa, walking all the while the inside/outside tightrope. The Clash had chosen to align themselves, to align the alienation and oppression felt by the white working class, with the black struggle against racism in the UK in an age when brutal policing and the poison of discrimination and bigotry were forcing (black) people to choose. This was identity politics, but an identity politics that celebrated the shared, not the unshared, not the slight and unique. I listened to them both, took them both into my world and was offered a glimpse of something different, of an existence that could be remade by flawed and confused people, a world where all our riots are everyone else’s riots. Somewhere in my mind right now I can hear No Woman No Cry. And I have choices to make still.

Have a listen to these and ask yourself if we did anything with the awarenesses their torches lit for us, what we could still choose to do to help finish the revolution…

Comments are closed.