Tag Archives: Clash

Proto-Punk? Yes. Post-Punk? Yes. Punk? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a teenager I discovered The Clash and with them, punk-rock. There was a certain immediacy and urgency that appealed to my teenage self. Everything was vast, loud and angry. Even if I didn’t exactly understand what they were referring to (this was the case for many Clash songs in my younger years) it didn’t matter. It was exciting and visceral.

Sometime later, a friend of mine took me to an Anti-Flag show about ten years ago, and I found the whole experience completely boring. Sure, the songs were played at break-beck speed, but they mostly stuck to their studio incarnations and seemed lackluster. I also didn’t enjoy being shoved every which way as the kids around mossed themselves in oblivion. I couldn’t understand why no one paying attention to the band – they only seemed intent on bashing each other.

Punk-rock it seemed, didn’t fit my personality after-all.

This isn’t to say that I totally dislike punk. I still rate both The Sex Pistols and The Clash among some of my favorite groups. The Clash and Nevermind the Bullocks are some of the most exciting and classic albums of rock and roll. It seems to me that no matter how hard any punk has tried subsequently they’ve never been able to better those two albums. There’s a reason why The Sex Pistols imploded, and the Clash moved on embracing other musical styles. The standard three-chord attack of punk only offers so much for a song.

I however, have a huge fondness for proto-punk and post-punk. Readers of this blog will surely know my affinity for Iggy Pop and The Stooge and of course, the Velvet Underground. The blue-print for punk was more or less created with these artists. As the 60s closed and the 70s began, mainstream rock became a little stagnant with the advent of prog-rock, bands whose names sounded more like law-firms, and other bands who took their names from cities and other locations.

In come The Stooges with their abrasive sound and Iggy’s legendary antics. It should also be noted that their first album also updated early rock and roll, giving it a more aggressive and wild sound complete with tightly controlled feed-back solos. Iggy seemed to be attack the “golden god” singers of the era when he declared, “Your pretty face is going to hell!”  Both the Stooges and The Velvet Underground’s proved that any one could make rock and roll. You didn’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to get attention.

Punk of course, took that philosophy to the extreme. Naturally, the next groups of artists to emerge would combine punk’s do it yourself freedom, but not completely sticking to its three-chord ethos. Elvis Costello wasn’t strictly a punk-rocker at the beginning, but his first two albums – My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model – combined punk’s punchiness with a songwriter’s mentality. He also looked and acted like Buddy Holly who could punch you in the face and have no trouble stealing your girlfriend in the process. The Police managed infused their punk with tinges of reggae and in the process became one of the world’s biggest bands. The Talking Heads took avant-garde to a mass audience without ever forgetting their roots as a bar-band in CBGBS.

There are dozens of more bands I could list as favorites who were influenced by punk’s attitude, but not so much its sound. For me, punk has always been about freedom and too often a lot of “punk” bands seem stuck in one mode.

 

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What The Clash Mean to Me

I recently read the feature on The Clash in the new issue of Rolling Stone.  While it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the band, it certainly reminded me of why I love them so much.

In 2003, when I saw Pearl Jam in Pittsburgh while in college, I decided to wear one of my Clash t-shirts.  For a long time, my concert credo was not to wear the shirt of the band you were seeing, unless you purchased one at the show.  One fan saw my shirt.  “Pearl Jam doesn’t like The Clash!” He yelled at me.  I brushed him off, because I knew he was wrong.  Later on during the show, when Pearl Jam busted out a cover of The Clash’s “Know Your Rights”, I seemed to be one of the few that recognized the song and cheered loudly when Eddie Vedder shouted its famous line: “This is a public service announcement with guitar!”

I discovered The Clash sometime in high school.  I had been exposed to a few songs – “London Calling”, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” through mix tapes my sister made for me.  But on my 18th birthday, I received a copy of their live album From Here to Eternity from my older brother.  From the beginning of the opening song – “Complete Control” – I knew right away that this would be a band that I could identify with.  Here a band cutting down their own record company in song – they weren’t going to bullied by anybody.  The backing vocals which point out that “CON” is spelled out in the middle of “control” were captivating.  Strummer was clearly drawing a line.  You could either go with them, or be left behind.  I quickly knew which side I was on.

I’ve often joked that I credit The Clash with moving me towards a leftist way of thinking.  And while it’s certainly true that songs such as “Clampdown”, “London Calling” and “Career Opportunities” are Marxist theories put to thrashing music, The Clash opened a lot more doors than a political awakening.

The Clash incorporated world-music into their repertoire, which eventually lead me to seek out some of these sounds.  The only reggae artist that I knew before listening to The Clash was Bob Marley, but soon I was scooping up albums by Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals.

When Joe Strummer died in December of 2002, it was the first time I felt a void when a star died.  If The Clash were the “CNN of rock”, then Strummer was its Walter Cronkite – providing positive insight into a world that seemed to veer out of control.  While other bands have attempted to take The Clash’s place of political rock for a new generation – particularly Rage Against the Machine – none of them succeeded on the same level.  The Clash made have been “the only band that mattered” but they were also one of the few bands that were really were for the people.

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Clash Week, Friday: “The Call-Up”

The Clash followed up the magnificent London Calling with one of rock’s most interesting and frustrating albums –Sandinista! A triple disc, 36 song set Sandinista! found the Clash taking the multi-genre experimentation they explored on London Calling and taking it to its (often illogical extreme).  It’s been called the punk-rock White Album due to the few numbers of great songs piled in between loads of filler.  I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that – I’ve grown to like The White Album more in recent years, and Sandinista! just seems misguided, and egotistical to me.   The one thing I really do like about the album overall though is the production.

That being said – there are shades of brilliance, and “The Call-Up” is the best example of that and ranks among the Clash’s best work.  Musically, “The Call -Up” is one of the Clash’s better reggae/dance experiments.  It’s almost danceable, and its laid back and dreamy groove almost entirely glosses over the bitterness in the lyrics.  It’s a rallying cry for blind-patriotism that often sends young kids to their death  “You must not act the way you brought up,” Joe Strummer sings softly, almost with a hint of sympathy. Later he laments,  “All the young people down the ages/they gladly marched off to die/Proud city fathers used to watch them/Tears in their eyes.”  Sometimes The Clash could be too specific in their attack, but lines like these transcend time, and still applicable almost 30 years later.

I’ve got to admit that “The Call-Up” didn’t even really register on my list of songs from Sandinista! until I saw the Pogues a few years ago.  The connection between the Pogues and The Clash is no secret.  Shane MacGowan is known to have attended their shows in the late ’70s, and Joe Strummer took over the singer’s duties when he was forced out of the band.  Before the show started, the PA blasted “The Call-Up” and I realized how powerful of a song it was.  It’s dark groove proved a perfect introduction for the Pogues – fun sounding songs with serious lyrics.  As John Lennon once said, “Imagine was an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

The Call-Up:

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Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers.  For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms.  “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.  Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.

I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ.  He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and  -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on.  In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.

As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls.  It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it.  (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.)  The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.

The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager.  It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans.  I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape.  It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.

“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well.  Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll.  (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)  It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Videos galore, dear readers!

Studio Version of “London Calling”:

The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:

Joe Strummer & The Pogues:

And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”:

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Clash Week, Wednesday: “Safe European Home”

“Safe European Home” is without a doubt the best song off The Clash’s second LP “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.  Even if the rest the album were good (which it’s not) it would be hard to follow “Safe European Home”.   It’s a bit more polished than the songs off The Clash, but it’s harder hitting.  Topper Headon’s opening drums commands you to listen – and if you’re not Mick Jones’ power chords will pull you in.  By the time you’re hooked, Joe Strummer is back from the place he never wants to go again, but ready to relay the story back to you.

The story goes that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took a trip to Jamaica, and felt out so out of place that they came home and wrote “Safe European Home” is response.  “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer laments in the chorus.  “And sitting here in my safe European home, I don’t want to go back there, again.”  The Clash have sometimes been described as naive in some instances, and this is one instance where I can say that critics might have actually have a point.  Bob Marley was shot a year or two before Strummer and Jones arrived in Jamaica (depending on the time-frame) for trying to ease political tensions at a free concert.  Did Strummer and Jones expect to be welcome with open arms because they talked about world issues and played reggae music?

But Strummer and Jones’ misfortune made for great music.  Like John Lennon who turned his marital issues into the great (and perhaps under-rated) “Ballad of John and Yoko”, Strummer’s first person account in song was at times self-deprecating.  Strummer spits out each line with venom and Mick Jones calls back, “Where’d you go?” after each line.  It’s as if he can’t believe that Strummer actually went.  His calls demand Strummer to finish the story.    Strummer ends his tale stating, “I’d stay and be a tourist, but I can’t take the gun-play.”

The break-down in the second half of the song sounds like an escape.  Jones strums his guitar in a repeating crunch.  Strummer starts mumbling and scatting about “rudie can’t fail” (a theme that would be explored later on “Rudie Can’t Fail”) as the band tries to regain itself.  Topper Headon brings tension, by creating some of the best drum rolls ever put to record.  But ultimately, Strummer (as one most Clash songs) steals the show through his combination of Springsteen-sincerity, Dylan-esque sneer, and Lennon self-deprication showcased in this song.

Safe European Home:

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