By John Rees
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The Clash of Civilisations

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John Rees remembers Joe Strummer of The Clash.
Issue 270

The Clash arrived on the battlefield of the mid-1970s in the nick of time. Unemployment was climbing, real wages were falling for the first time in postwar British history, Labour was imposing welfare cuts and the Nazis were on the rise.

In rock music, as it was then called, the radical charge of the 1960s had been dissipated. ‘Progressive rock’ was overblown, made dull by its concept album, rock opera pretensions.

Punk drew on the alienation of the young abandoned by the system, and focused it in a new musical form uniquely suited both to expressing the rage of the dispossessed and the raw energy so completely absent from mainstream rock and pop. The Sex Pistols broke the mould, but their nihilistic stance merely reflected an alienated experience without shaping it. It was the same with The Damned. The Clash were a self conscious attempt to direct the anger. Their emergence put paid to a debate on the left, fuelled by the way some punk bands toyed with the swastika as an image that could shock, about whether punk was a left wing or right wing cultural trend. Racism was rising. It was crude. It was violent. There was an air of menace. Anyone seen to bolster this mood was, justifiably, suspect.

It’s difficult to recall now how deep this rejection of punk by the left was beginning to run. But where I was at college it was necessary to write out the lyrics of ‘White Riot’ in order to prove that it was an incitement to black and white rebellion, not a racist hymn:

‘White Riot’
White riot–I wanna riot
White riot–a riot of my own
White riot–I wanna riot
White riot–a riot of my own

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!

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

Everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
Nobody wants
To go to jail!

Are you taking over
Or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?

But to anyone who listened to ‘1977’, ‘Complete Control’ or ‘London Calling’ the meaning, and the musical inventiveness of the band, were beyond doubt.

The argument was quickly won, although not with all the left by any means. But to anyone with a mind in working order, by the time The Clash played to 100,000 people at the Anti Nazi League carnival in 1978 and Rock Against Racism had been founded, events had ended the controversy.

The radical sensibilities, the icons and the language either created by or popularised by The Clash were essential to all of this. The punk-reggae crossover, for instance, was practically a Clash invention, devastatingly effective in the cover of Lee Perry’s ‘Police and Thieves’ on the first Clash album.

The Clash were responsible for some of the most effective and directly political music that white rock has ever produced. But it occupied only a brief historical moment. After Thatcher things rapidly became different, and the radical charge of punk dissipated by the early 1980s.

To his great credit Joe Strummer was not only the architect of the politicisation of punk but its most clear-eyed critic. In ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ (extract below) the crisis of the movement is beautifully dissected.

Joe Strummer was bigger than the movement he did so much to direct. He never left our side. Every now and then a shaft of light would appear, like the soundtrack to Grosse Pointe Blank, which came from him. Entirely fitting then that his last gig was in support of the firefighters and that six of them carried his coffin.

Joe Strummer did what many claim but few achieve–he fused politics and art. The left is less without him.

‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’

White youth, black youth

Better find another solution

Why not phone up Robin Hood

And ask him for some wealth distribution

Punk rockers in the UK

They won’t notice anyway

They’re all too busy fighting

For a good place under the lighting

The new groups are not concerned

With what there is to be learned

They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny

Turning rebellion into money

All over people changing their votes

Along with their overcoats

If Adolf Hitler flew in today

They’d send a limousine anyway


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