Tag Archives: The Clash

The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 9. Green Day

In the summer of 2004, I read an article that was previewing what would become American Idiot. It stated that Green Day were working on a rock opera about the state of the nation.  One song, the article said, was about 10 minutes long and would contain multiple sections.  At the time, it seemed quite ridiculous.  Green Day, was after all a band that sang about masturbating and smoking weed.  And who knows, maybethey sang about doing both of those activities at the same time.  Green Day were a good band, a fun band.   Billie Joe Armstrong might have borrowed Joe Strummer’s snarl (and occasionally the accent), St. Joe he was not.  During a drunken night, I told one of my friends about the alleged 10 minute song I read about in the article.  “Shut the fuck up, Matt,” He told me with a bit of disdain.  “Next, ever speak of this again.”  Afterall, who would want to listen to Green Day’s thought on the state of the nation?

As it turned out, Green Day would prove the skeptics wrong. American Idiot, would end up becoming one of the defining albums of the era in part because many of its song were protests against the War In Iraq.  While there plenty of artists making statements and complaining about the war, they seemed to be few and far between.  And it wasn’t just the Dixie Chicks who got some shit.  Dozens of fans walked on  a Pearl Jam concert in 2003 when Eddie Vedder sang the anti-Bush song, “Bushleaguer”.  If artists were speaking out against the war, they certainly weren’t doing it on the radio.  Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief didn’t receive much play, Neil Young’s Greendale only spoke to his devoted fans, and Conor Oberst was too much of a niche artist at the time to make any impact.  But when “American Idiot” came blaring on the radio in the summer of 2004, it suddenly became clear that Green Day were no longer trying to be The Clash.  They were The Clash for this generation.  When Armstrong suggested that ” Everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia” it was a rallying cry to wake people up.  And if the lyrics didn’t cover that ground, the sonic assault of the song was just as arresting.

While many of the songs are a protest agains the War in Iraq, making no pretense about the band’s stance, it’s also much more than that.   In a decade where everything seemed to teeter out of control from every direction.  “Hey can you hear the hysteria?” Armstrong asks. But then he takes it one step further – “The subliminal mind-fuck, America.”   Somehow Green Day managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist – a fusion of anger and disillusionment.  It was an era where many seemed destined to “fall in love or fall in debt” .

Of course, Armstrong’s instincts and intentions would mean as much if the songs on American Idiot weren’t good.  The aforementioned 10 minute song, “Jesus of Suburbia” combined punk and elements of prog-rock.  Amazingly the 5 pieces of the songs fit together perfectly, and the result became of the band’s best songs.  “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” with that weird feed-back loop managed to be the successful song on the album.  The band managed to cover a lot of ground, without missing a step.  The lyrics may have the focal point of the album, but their content also never got in the way of a good rock song.  Which American Idiot was full off.

American Idiot brought back some of the spirit of the 60s and 70s – when music actually meant something, that it could be a catalyst for change.  If a group that previously known for being dumbass stoners ends up releasing the album that best sums up what it was like to live in the mid 2000s, I’m not sure whether Green Day deserve even more credit than they already have, or if I should point a shameful finger at others for not stepping up.

(And for those who might suggest I’m only basing this off of one album, The Sex Pistols only had one album as well.)

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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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5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”

 

 

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5 Great British Bands That Go (Mostly) Unnoticed In the US

“Laid” by James just randomly played on my computer and my girlfriend demanded to know why I purchased that “stupid song from American Pie”.   I told her I actually have 5 songs from James.  To the US audience, much like Blur (who’s only stateside hit is “Song 2” aka “Woo hoo!”), James is considered a one-hit wonder.  But in Britain they were part of the Manchester scene (the UK equivalent of the US’ musical 90s Mecca Seattle) and put out a total of 12 albums since 1986.  Not bad for a band that is only known for “one song” in the US.

James and Blur aren’t the only bands to achieve commercial and artistic success in the UK, only to remain relatively unknown in the US.  So here’s my list of 5 great British bands that Americans don’t pay enough attention to.

Joy Division

Another band from Manchester.  Joy Division are perhaps best known for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which came out after their lead singer Ian Curtis died.  Joy Division are one of rock’s most important bands – they’re practically the inventors of post-punk.  Joy Division were one of the first groups that took punk’s DIY ethics and lo-fi techniques and place the emphasis on mood and atmospherics rather than straight up aggression and anger.

The Smiths

Without a doubt, The Smiths were the most important alternative rock band of the 80s (with the exception of R.E.M.).  Morrissey was a highly intellectual and literate lyricist whose lyrics are most often associated with loneliness and isolation, but he could also be a keen social critic as well (“Panic”, “The Queen is Dead”, and “Sweet and Tender Hooligan”).   Johnny Marr is a widely underrated guitarist, and his ringing chords provided the backdrop for the Smith’s unique take on rock with a pop sensibility.  Stateside, they are probably best known for “How Soon Is Now?” which is a great song, but not representative of their sound.

The Faces

The Faces are probably best known at least in the US as “band that Rod Stewart used to sing with” or “that band that Ronnie Wood was in before he was in The Rolling Stones”.  The Faces songs were sloppy, and dirty much like The Rolling Stones in a certain way.  But while The Rolling Stones became the target of many punk bands for their overblown image, many punk bands often cited the Faces as a direct influence.

The Kinks

The Kinks are probably best remembered in the US for “You Really Got Me”.   Although they normally get placed in with the “British Invasion” wave of the early 60s, The Kinks incorporated pop, country, R&B, folk and blues into their sound.  The riff of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” is almost a direct rip-off a Kinks song.  The Kinks influence can be heard in the songs of the The Clash, The Ramones, the Jam, and Oasis.

The Clash

To the US audience, the Clash are mostly known for “Should I Stay or I Should I Go?” or “Rock the Casbah”.  But with the dynamic Joe Strummer at the helm, The Clash were one “the CNN of music”.  They were political and intelligent.  And they can could take on almost any musical style and make it their own as witnessed on 1979’s London Calling. If both Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen cover your songs, that should say something about The Clash’s influence.

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Fall Mix

I made a Fall mix for my girlfriend (she’s just starting blogging so check out her site) and here’s what I came up.

Old Habits Die Hard – Mick Jagger & Dave Stewart

Nobody Told Me – John Lennon

Born in Time – Bob Dylan

Lost in the Supermarket – The Clash

Pretty (Ugly Before) – Elliot Smith

Into the Fire – Bruce Springsteen

Easy Plateau – Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away – The Beatles

The Unforgetable Fire – U2

Vito’s Ordination Song – Sufjan Stevens

Strange Boat – The Waterboys

Society- Eddie Vedder

Sprawl II – Arcade Fire

Heaven – Talking Heads

Perfect Circle – R.E.M.

Cold Desert – Kings of Leon

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Clash Week: Monday: “Garageland”

The Clash’s “Garage Land” is not only one of the best songs off of their debut, but it’s also one of the best responses to a harsh review.  In 1977, New Musical Express wrote that The Clash were “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage.”  While it probably bothered The Clash they got bad press, they certainly weren’t pissed at being called a “garage band” as the lyrics suggest.  Not only do they play garage music, “we come from garage land” snarls Joe Strummer in the chorus.

Funnily enough, “Garage Band” starts off with a riff that sounds pretty mainstream.  The riff that Mick Jones plays seems destined to be played to on the radio.  But after a few seconds, it’s clear that the riff is deception and the song quickly reveals itself to a be a jagged mid-tempo rocker. The first verse describes the love of being inside the garage, even as carbon monoxide hangs in the air, and people knock on the doors.  And if there’s any question about their motives, Strummer declares, “We’re a garage band.  We come from garage land.”

Luckily Strummer is smart, and can sense his detractors’ criticism before they have the time to pronounce.  Some might suggest that being inside the garage is just a bubble, and that The Clash would perhaps be jealous of other bands.  “I don’t want to go where the rich are going.  I don’t want to go where the rich are going,” Strummer spits out.  “They think they’re so clever.  They think they’re so bright.”

Here’s the original studio version:

And a version from 1977, which shows why The Clash were one of the greatest live bands ever:

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Joe Strummer – Art Rock & The X-Ray Style

Usually I hesitate to listen to solo albums by the frontmen of bands I absolutely love.  Too often, the singer indulges himself and the album leaves you wanting the restraints the band put in place.  I first got into the Clash sometime in 1999, and wanted everything that they ever put out.  (I don’t count Cut the Crap as a Clash album in case you were wondering.)  Sometime later, I discovered that Joe Strummer put out another album with a new backing band dubbed the Mescaleros.  It couldn’t possibly be good, I remember thinking.

About a year or so later, I finally did break down and buy Art Rock & The X-Ray Style. I knew right away it wouldn’t sound like The Clash or be as good as their debut or London Calling. What possibly could?  (Even the band themselves never reached those heights again.)  But what shocked me, was how much it didn’t sound like The Clash.  Except for one song (“Techno D-Day”) there’s nothing on the album that even sounds remotely like The Clash.  Instead, Strummer takes on the listener on a laid-back groove that’s part folk, part world-beat that could only be made by the man who fronted a band where every single genre imaginable was tried on Sandinista!

“Has anybody seen the morning sun?” Strummer asks on the opening track “Tony Adams”.  For anyone else, this line might sound trite, but Strummer had been lost in the wilderness for years following the demise of the Clash.  Now, he’s revitalized with an album that actually sounds perfect for a late 40-something year old man.  The morning sun has come up to him, and he’s taking you on the road to rock and roll.  The song “On The Road to Rock and Roll” was originally written for Johnny Cash, but I’m not sure that it would fit Cash’s style stripped down style that he perfected late in life.  Strummer’s version takes blends two pieces of of rock and roll together – it’s led by a country/folk riff but the backing band plays a hip-hop beat.

I often find myself listening to Art Rock & The X-Ray Style whenever I can’t find something particular that I want to listen.  Every single track is of high quality.  Strummer is still political in parts throughout the album, but he doesn’t beat you over the head or demand something of you like he did with the Clash.  It’s him enjoying music, and its infectious for the listener.

His other two albums with the Mecaleros weren’t as focused.  Global A-Go took the world-beat of Art Rock, a bit too far and Strummer seemed to forget about the songs.  Streetcore could have been very good, but as it wasn’t completed at the time of his death in 2002, it feels too much like the collection of out-takes that it was.

Even if the world wasn’t listening like they were with London Calling, Strummer achieved a renaissance late in life with Art Rock & The X-Ray Style worthy of a legend.

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