The Clash. White Man In Hammersmith Palais. Forty Years Old.

 

I know every word. I’ve always known every word. Even before I heard it, I knew every word. It’s alienation. It’s envy. It’s rage. It’s having a dig at Weller. It’s about being cool. It’s about being gloriously uncool. It’s about being white but wishing you weren’t. It’s about being white but fearing you’re not doing it properly. It’s about pride. It’s about equality. It’s about fifteen minutes long. It may be the best song ever written. It’s reggae. It’s not reggae. It’s my past. It’s walking down Ridge Avenue one snow-covered February. It’s Strummer hoping and hurting. It’s me wishing I was Simonon. It’s built on our hopes: yours and mine. It’s what I want playing in the old people’s home as the carers throw balls at me.

Next time I meet you I’ll sing it to you. Every word.

Death Or Glory: Thoughts On Joe Strummer’s Birthday.

One Story

1. The Clash version

He was passionate, kind, uniting, decent, restless, ruthless, funny, flawed, full of hope and rage. We bloody need him right now.

2. London Calling version.

White Riot scared me. I knew/know every word of White Man In Hammersmith Palais. That Rock Against Racism gig was one of the most energising of our young lives. I loved that second, evil-Yank-produced, hated-by-NME album. I loved doing my own falsetto version of Police And Thieves one snow-filled night, walking along Ridge Road with friends.

I loved Paul Simonon. But Strummer was my hero.

3. Sandinista (dub) version.

A couple of years ago I put one of those word cloud things on my website. Five words stood out as being used the most: ‘love’, ‘hero’, ‘clash’, ‘story’ and … um … ‘Enfield’. I realised at that moment that I’d spent a huge amount of energy writing and thinking about the past, trying to find meanings in it that might help bring me fully into the present. I’d written endlessly too, I realised, about the inevitable disappointments men’s search for heroes brings – and about the traps and freedoms stories and love offer us.

Johnny Rotten was never a hero, not for me. While I was trying to navigate my poorly-drawn, minor character through the unfolding stories and myths of 1970s Enfield, he was too scary, too different, too scratchily, sarcastically other. And I suspected he wouldn’t like me very much. Paul Weller, meanwhile, definitely was a hero, his malicious Woking a cracked mirror to my grey, messy-hard Enfield, but his sneer masked a confused idealism, his sheer Englishness could be narrow and dark and exclusive and seemed to offer solace without hope. As with Rotten, Weller dismissed America and the American. And – I suspect – vague, meandering grammar school kids.

Which brings us to Joe Strummer: the most English and, I’d suggest, the most American of the three, the one who best merged the individual with the collective. The one who – in one of my stories at least – would definitely have welcomed me as his mate.

He started by scaring us, by twisting our liberalism out of shape. Us wish-we-were-punks loved I’m So Bored With The USA

Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
And they can’t afford to miss a word

– because it echoed the simplistic stories we were all writing about The Real Evil Empire. But the half-hour gob of that first album – as punk in places as anything by The Pistols – also hinted at the space and hope and expansiveness and freedom and nuance of everything The Clash subsequently did. Stuff that was America(n). Stuff that was Jamaica. Stuff that was The World and Mexico and LA as much as it was Notting Hill and Enfield and Woking. Stuff that channelled and shaped Mick Jones’ pop sensibility and Simonon’s immersion in reggae and dub. Stuff that rewrote our culture.

I’ve just been wondering where exactly I was in Strummer’s story, what part I played. In one version of my own, I’m a hippy. An angry, America-loving, contradictory hippy. And that’s what Strummer was too. He saw the price of everything and the value of everything. Watch him in The Future Is Unwritten. Listen to Coma Girl, to his version of Redemption Song. Humour. Trust. Suffering. Belief in a better society, in the individual and the group overcoming The Man. Belief in you and me. In one, shared, story.

4. The Clash (remastered) version

In most of my autobiographies, I’m me. I’m never, ever Weller or Rotten in any of them. In at least one, though, I’m Joe Strummer.

 

Happy birthday Joe.

God Save The Queen

It’s 40 years since the release of the Sex Pistols’ Nihilist Anthem

The Sex Pistols were perhaps more purely punk than any other band of the era. The angry politics of the Clash offered at least some hope that, with a fight, social change was possible: Are you taking over, or are you taking orders? But for the Pistols, politics was pointless. While Weller sang “What’s the point in saying destroy?”, Lydon’s nihilism sunk to depths that other so-called punks barely touched upon: No future for me, no future for you.

But we all know now it was just a great rock’n’roll swindle. All manufactured. The Pistols weren’t genuine at all. And no surprise that Her Majesty has long outlived the ephemeral teenage rebellion. It seems surreal that the Clash were accused of “selling out” when they signed to CBS, but that Lydon now advertises butter and we all just chuckle. I suppose the crushing realisation that it was all a sham is an integral part of the nihilistic, Situationist International art installation that punk was. As was foretold, all came to nothing. We really are the flowers in the dustbin.

But those opening chords. More power than any other record before or since.

The Clash

The debut album from The Clash was released 40 years ago today.

Steve: I was on a school trip in what must have been April 1977 and, coming home Sunday evening in the coach from Slough, we had the chart countdown on the radio. I remember just two songs: first was the disconcerting 7/4 rhythms underpinning some gloriously mesmeric melodies in Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. The second was The Clash’s full-on, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, White Riot. I thought the former was “impressive”; the latter, “exciting”. I wanted to own them both. The following weekend, I had enough cash (£3) to buy one album. I was 16. I chose excitement.

Kev: I don’t really want to ask why they made innocent schoolchildren go to Slough… Skipping quickly over my far-worse-than-Peter-Gabriel Emerson, Lake and Palmer phase (which was the result of drinking dodgy water from that fountain in the Town Park), I can’t quite remember when I first heard The Clash, though I think it was a while after you did. I remember our mutual friend Paul giving me a cassette recording of Anarchy In The UK when it was released at the end of 1976 and telling me this was what all the fuss was about and wasn’t it shit and me disappointing him by really liking it. I do remember as well I buying the Jam album in the summer of 1977 in Guernsey (that’s how punk I was) and loving it; I’m fairly sure I still hadn’t heard The Clash at that point (though I’d read about them and loved that album cover) – but I soon caught up.

S: I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Anarchy. I was also late to that party and probably heard it from that same cassette. It doesn’t mean as much to me as a lot of other singles of the time. My way in was via another route. Back in early 1977, during my own (still ongoing) ELP phase, I knew (without having to actually listen to any of it) that all this punk nonsense wasn’t proper music. However, while waiting for Nebula, the local prog band I used to follow, to come on stage, The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat was blasting on the PA. It was quite a Damascene conversion – in this case, The Road to Carterhatch Lane Youth Club – and I suddenly “got it”. It wasn’t just about banks of synthesisers and twee tunes on 12-string guitars any more.

K: No. Though of course the Beatles were smeared all over and under both the Pistols and the Jam and I suspect that’s why I/we liked them – they were melodic, knowing, easy, their aggression was new and real but their music was firmly attached to the sweet accessibility of the fifties and sixties. Whereas The Clash… someone (it might have been me) once said (wrongly) that The Clash were a rock band, not a pop band: but there was very little melody, no sweetness, no rock’n’roll, no Kinks, no Who (at least not obviously), no Stones, no blues, no Motown, no nothing (except reggae) that had gone before: they were harsh and, yes, exciting, and they were scratchily scary when both the Pistols and the Jam were (joltingly and ferociously) reassuring. And they were as serious as Weller and as angry as Rotten and that first, belated, hearing of the album was, for me, eye- and ear- and mind-opening.

S: While I’d disagree with you on the “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” traces on the album (London’s Burning has a key change and a guitar solo, ffs!) it has to be said that tracks like Janie Jones and Career Opportunities have an astounding, stainless steel purity. Certainly some Ramones influence but with politics thrown in, and violently whisked. Short and sharp with no second wasted.

K: Absolutely. And Police & Thieves was pretty much my introduction to non-Bob Marley reggae: Simonon’s influence (I still reckon he’s what made the band special) and chucked in as a bit of an afterthought on the LP apparently. I remember walking along Ridge Avenue in the snow once singing Police & Thieves (though at a higher pitch even than Junior Murvin) (who hated The Clash version apparently) and then adapting Garageland to become ‘Enfield Town’. Those who were there with me maintain it was one of the finest punk performances of the age.

S: So, has it worn well? Most of the songs are still powerful, albeit a little boxy and thin-sounding. The production is (deliberately?) unsophisticated – particularly when compared to the overblown production on Give ‘Em Enough Rope – and so sounds a little dated. Nothing on the album comes close to the power of the opening chords of The Pistols’ God Save The Queen, but Strummer’s politics at least offered a little more hope than Rotten’s extreme nihilism. Of course, the best of The Clash was yet to come.

(K: Whatever happened to Nebula?)

(S: John Hoare, Nebula’s former guitarist, is now in The Haunting A.D. They’re still playing gigs around the Enfield/Barnet/Southgate area. Lasted longer than The Clash)

Less Than Zero Means Everything

Elvis Costello’s début single, Less Than Zero, was released 40 years ago today

The chief weapon of punk rock was abrasive rebellion: that and political sensibility… Its two weapons were… Amongst punk’s weaponry were such diverse elements as….

Sorry…. Monty Python’s lawyers have been on to me and unless I cease and desist this they will despatch the Piranha Brothers to nail my head to a coffee table….

If you canvassed a dozen people of a certain age, those in their mid to late teens in 1977 say, and asked them what punk meant, you’d get a range of answers and have no clearer idea than you had before you asked. Abrasive rebellion, political sensibility and a bonded affinity with reggae might be some of the themes commonly mentioned. They’d be mine anyway.

It’s far too easy and glib to think that punk was the crashing wave that swept aside bloated and pompous rock music. It didn’t. It isn’t true with the benefit of historical perspective, nor was it true then. Take a look at the top 40 for the beginning of 1977 and you’ll find no evidence of this brash new uprising. Instead you’ll find the likes of David Soul, 10cc, Showaddywaddy, Leo Sayer, Abba, Bread and Chicago. Skip to the final chart of the year and you’ll find Wings at number one with (the bloated and pompous) Mull of Kintyre, The Floral Dance at number 2 and the Bee Gees at 3. Further down you’ll find, oh, wait, look… David Soul, Showaddywaddy and Abba.

There is very little presence of what you might call ‘punk’, aside from John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett with Really Free at number 29, The Boomtown Rats at 16 and, right above them, a callow young chap called Elvis Costello. 1977 was, of course, the year Elvis Presley died; Elvis is dead, long live Elvis.

Purists will argue to the point of exhaustion about who were the ‘proper’ punks, and it is, in my view, reasonable to argue that many of the artists who were thus labelled were actually just budding bands or singers trying to break through, who were young and fresh and whose sartorial and coiffure aberrations, eschewing flared trousers and having short hair, placed them in this new category in the eye of the media, and thus the public, regardless of having a punk soul. The Boomtown Rats? Wannabe pop stars whose lead singer was already 26. John Otway? He was aged 25 and having difficulty troubling the charts since 1972. Not exactly the rampaging youth associated with generational warfare.

Elvis Costello though, was only 22 when he released his first single and 23 when he enjoyed his first success with Watching the Detectives. A suit- and tie-wearing bespectacled singer is perhaps more reminiscent of ’50s rock and roll (Buddy Holly) than ’70s punk, but Costello was in fact trading on some the hallmarks of the ‘weapons’ mentioned above: he was a spiky and uncompromising character, he adopted and adapted reggae music to underpin his own and, perhaps most significantly, he had something – a lot – to say. Watching the Detectives was described by Rolling Stone as “a clever but furious burst of cynicism”. Those elements of ‘abrasive rebellion, political sensibility and a bonded affinity with reggae’ are there to be seen. True, nobody did these better than The Clash, but the early Elvis Costello sends its blood roaring through similar veins.

His first single, Less Than Zero, is 40 years old on March 25th. Sinking from view with barely a trace it was as good a single as any to come out of the early days of punk rock. In 1977 there was much to be rebellious about if you were a teenager. Firstly, there was fashion, which had become even more exaggerated than music, with collars and ties wider than the English Channel, and flared trousers and jeans ridiculously, well, flared. Then there was the hair… The once wild long hair of the hippies had morphed into beautifully blow dried tresses (see Justin Hayward or any of the blokes out of Guys and Dolls). A young man with a skinny suit and tie and short hair was actually much more of rebellion than the photographs of Elvis Costello appear to us now.

And of course, there was political unrest: “Labour Isn’t Working”. There was the growing belief that foreigners were taking ‘our’ jobs, scrounging benefits, occupying homes that the ‘British’ couldn’t get. The National Front, fronted in the main by scary-looking skinheads (terribly British) was gaining a following and there was an ugly backlash at the black and Asian communities.

A week before Elvis Costello’s debut single, The Clash released theirs – White Riot. In suggesting that ‘black’ people already had cause enough to be angry, they advocated ‘white’ people also finding a worthy cause to get up and shout about. There was plenty for both it seemed at the time, and the song seemed to reflect the disaffection felt by a generation who wanted change, who didn’t like the direction society was headed in, and wanted to say something about it.

Less Than Zero isn’t remembered in the way that White Riot is, but it too was an angry riposte to the growing trend to the political right, a response, in fact, to seeing Oswald Moseley, leader in the 1930s of the British Fascist movement being interviewed on television. It may not be the finest song to come from the punk canon, probably not even from Costello’s. It is though, hugely significant. Look at those chart entries mentioned above. Then look at what this young man was saying, or trying to say.

Where today, as once again the political right gains ground, ‘foreigners’ are scapegoated and provincialism is on the rise, are the angry young voices rebelling through music? I would argue these are even more scary times than 1977: at least then we didn’t have world leaders being the ones so blatantly openly driving the unrest. Nobody is stepping forward to use music as the tool of opposition, of rebellion, of rage.

Punk didn’t change the world, it probably didn’t even really change music, but, for one brief, shining moment it did hold up a flaming mirror and say ‘No! We’re not having this!’ Elvis Costello and Less Than Zero deserve to be recognised and remembered for not merely following a trend, but kick starting it.


From our guest writer, Danny JonesDanny entered the world at the start of the 60s. They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Despite being there, he has only the vaguest memories so it must be true. He certainly didn’t experience the much talked about sexual freedom (his junior school was rather forbidding in that regard) and wasn’t even one of the 20 or so ‘5th Beatles’. Now retired from the rat race, since the rats began to overtake him, he spends his time attempting to look busy for his still rat racing wife. She’s not fooled. Danny’s blog is currently moving and can be found somewhere between here and here.

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…