Turning Rebellion Into Money:
The Story of the Clash
John Deeth Home
by John Deeth
NOTE: I wrote this in grad school waaaay back in the spring of 1990. I spruced it up a bit, but the essential document reflects the long-lost academic stage of my life, written for a fondly remembered professor who knew not punk but welcomed the introduction. (I got an A.) Before Cobain, before the Internet, before MP3's... And yes, back then I really did think Midnight Oil and Living Colour were the next great hope...
They were called "the only band that matters." Their words were at once threatening and touching, cathartic and crusading. From 1977 to 1983, the British rock group the Clash was considered the best band in the world by many rock critics, and had a loyal and passionate cadre of fans. But their intensely political, often explicitly Marxist message only reached a fraction of its potential audience, thanks to the corporate structure of the broadcasting and record industries. This failure, and the creative conflict it caused, led to the early end of the Clash. By examining the marketing of music and the history of the Clash, we can gain insight into the effectiveness of political art and the barriers it encounters.
Studies of mass media usually focus on television or print media, and rarely examine radio or recorded music. The popular music market is highly concentrated among buyers between 12 and 25. Thus the audience for an album that sells ten million copies may seem small when compared to network television, but is at the point of saturation for the demographic groups that buy the most music.
"This here music mash up the nation
this here music cause a sensation!"
"Revolution Rock," 1980
In the 1960's, musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles made powerful and often intentional contributions to the era's politics. Titles like "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "All You Need is Love" and "Give Peace a Chance" have become cliches. Like the protest singers of the 1960's, the Clash intended to change society through their music. "Rock and roll changed the way I looked at society," said Clash guitarist Mick Jones (Cocks, 1979). Clash ideology was summed up by Joe Strummer, who with Jones led the Clash, as "Death to the bosses! Equality in everything!"
As the political concerns of 1960's rock (such as the Vietnam war and the draft) died out in the early 1970's, rock grew complacent, emphasizing perfection over passion. Many rock stars became jet-setters with little in common with their fans. But as the `70's ended, a new alienation developed in the permanent underclass of the U.K. Britain faced racial tension, rampant drug addiction, "aimless gang violence, industrial collapse, social decay, and 12 percent unemployment." (Hall, 1982, p. 26). The British Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, would soon come to power. The music that grew out of this decay was loud, political and angry.
"Big Business it don't like you-
don't like the things you do
you got no money so you got no power
they think you're useless an' so you are Punk!"
"Remote Control," 1977
Punk rock took on the social and political conditions in late `70's Britain with a vengeance. In reaction against the millionaire "art-rock" crowd, and in an effort to express frustration and anger, the musical style was simple--bass, drums, and guitars turned up loud, ragged and rough singing. One of the goals was to escape the corporate marketing system. Bands formed by the score, and short-lived independent record labels and magazines promoted the music. The idea was that "anyone can do it." Politically, punk functioned as a "fringe genre," which communicated its message to a small but intense group of fans (Jaffee, 1987).
Punk's standard bearers were the notorious Sex Pistols. Their ideology was simple: "I want to destroy!" In their infamous song "God Save the Queen," they perverted the national anthem and slandered Her Majesty, in the midst of the royal Silver Jubilee, a major patriotic bash. The record was considered so offensive that most record stored refused to carry it, and the national records charts refused to list it, leaving a blank space in its place. (Nevertheless, it hit Number Two.)
The Clash were second only to the Pistols in the punk pantheon. As opposed to the "no future" vision of the Pistols, the Clash saw the world through a revolutionary lens and held out hope for a better future. "Certainly a long battle was ahead, but perhaps it could be won." (Henke, 1980, p. 38.)
The Clash was formed in the ghettoes of London in June 1976, when Strummer and Jones met in a London dole queue. Strummer was the son of a low-level diplomat. He dropped out of school and took a factory job, becoming obsessed with class inequality. Strummer was the more ideological songwriter, with a ragged, ravaged voice and a hostile attitude which conveyed "the defiance of a man trying to convince the authorities of his innocence as he's being led off to the electric chair." (Henke, p. 38.)
Mick Jones was the personable romantic of the Clash. Although his material, too, was political, Jones was more likely to personalize the issues and focus on details. He was also a better singer and technical musician than Strummer, who shouted "you're my guitar hero!" at Jones during Mick's solo on "Complete Control." The Clash also included bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon.
Punks emphasized purism, and despised those who "sold out." The Clash, like other punks, despised the mainstream, apolitical rock acts that Americans preferred. "The Aerosmiths, the Foghats, the Bostons," listed Jones in 1979 (Cocks), "they've kind of signed themselves out." Yet the Clash always insisted that they were first and foremost musicians. "It's music first and political thought next," said Strummer in 1982 (Hall, p. 26).
"The AM, the FM, the P.M. too,
churning out that boogaloo..."
"The Magnificent Seven," 1981
In order to understand the marketing of popular music in America, one must examine the symbiotic relationship between the recording industry and radio. In the U.S., unlike most other countries, broadcasting is privately owned and subject to little regulation. Television replaced radio as the dominant mass medium in the 1950's, at roughly the same time as rock and roll became popular. Radio responded by switching from "broad-casting" to "narrow-casting." Stations sought narrower, more homogeneous audiences, and adopted different formats revolving around varieties of prerecorded music. Today, the record industry facilitates this by providing free "product" (the industry term) to radio. In return, radio becomes a non-stop ad for prerecorded music.
Herman and Chomsky (1988) describe a propaganda model of mass media consisting of a series of "filters" which restrict content. These include the size, ownership, and profit motive of mass-media firms and the role of advertising as the main source of media income. Corporate media owners and advertisers have, for all practical purposes, a monopoly on the First Amendment. The 29 largest media systems account for the majority of newspaper output and the majority of both sales and audiences of magazines, books, movies, and broadcasting. Bagdikan (1987, p. xvi) calls these firms "a new Private Ministry of Information and Culture." The record industry is part of this oligopoly. Six multinational corporations account for 85 to 90 percent of the market.
In a privately owned, profit-oriented media system, broadcasting exists to create an audience for commercials. Thus media sources are financially subservient to advertisers. Radio programmers contend that their decisions are based on meticulous audience research, and that they are only playing what listeners want to hear. But "listeners" do not constitute the entire public. Advertisers are not concerned with the quantity of people who hear their message, but with the quality. They seek the "upscale" audience with maximum buying power, and broadcasters target this audience, which tends not to include young, poor, punk rock fans.
Advertisers wish to avoid bringing controversial attention to their products, and "avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the `buying mood.'" (Herman and Chomsky, p. 17.) Coca-Cola, a major radio advertiser, wouldn't like to tune in and hear one of their commercials next to "Koka Kola," a Clash satire about the other coke, complete with puns on Coke slogans and references to the effects of cocaine:
"I get good advice from the advertising world
Treat me nice says the party girl
Koke adds life where there isn't any, so freeze, man, freeze!
It's the pause that refreshes in the corridors of power..."
Radio sales managers are also wary of controversy, and fear that political music would drive clients away. "With rare exception (advertiser's own principles) are culturally and politically conservative." (Herman and Chomsky, pp. 16-17.) This increases the trend toward moderation and conservatism. Jaffee (1987) contends that artists who begin to express political concerns in their music without changing their musical style still face reduced airplay. Artists in fringe genres such as punk may address limited audiences, but usually without much airplay. Only the very biggest superstars whose work cannot be ignored by radio, such as Bruce Springsteen, get airplay with explicitly political records.
Few artists are able to sell large numbers of records in America without airplay. A hit is bait for an album. The failure of the Clash to get airplay meant that much of their target audience was not exposed to the undiluted message on the LPs. Perhaps in frustration, the Clash named one album after the BBC's program guide London Calling, and in late 1981 they recorded a single in which they "set up their own station:"
"This Is Radio Clash on pirate satellite,"
orbiting your living room,
cashing in the Bill of Rights."
Unable to sustain their hate, the Sex Pistols self-destructed in early 1978. Punk was co-opted and polished into "New Wave" by the record companies. Sandy Pearlman, the producer of the second Clash album Give 'Em Enough Rope, observed that "(Record companies have) sublimated all the revolutionary tendencies this art is based on." (Gilmore, 1979, p. 22.) Fryer (1986) noted that in Britain, television appearances and magazines, not radio, are the major means of disseminating information about rock music. Programmers refused to preach revolution, so in order to get on TV, musicians needed to stress form over content, novelty over politics. "New Wave" emphasized clothing and hair styles, and "punk became defined in such terms as to catch disaffected but politicized youth, who would in turn buy the (music) papers to be informed of the latest interpretation of the new phenomenon." (Fryer, p. 5.) "We're the only ones still true to the aims of punk," Jones said in 1979 (Gilmore, p. 22). "Those other bands should be destroyed."
"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?"
"White Man In Hammersmith Palais," 1978
In 1977, the Clash signed a $200,000 contract (a fortune by punk standards) with one of the largest corporations in the world-CBS. It might seem odd for CBS to feed hands that would bite, but the label rationalized that the potential for profit was there (Jaffee, p. 26). The deal also meant Clash "product" would be widely distributed throughout the world..
The Clash were ambivalent about working for CBS. Their fears were borne out when the company, over the band's objection, released the song "Remote Control" as a single. Strummer and Jones vented their fury in their next song, "Complete Control:"
"They said we'd be artistically free
when we signed that bit of paper
they meant 'Lets make a lotta mon-ee
an' worry about it later!'
Oh-have we done something wrong?
Oh-Complete Control--even over this song!"
As their career proceeded, the Clash and CBS continued to clash. CBS refused to release the first Clash LP in America because it was "too crude." It was issued two years later, in a revised version that included several later British singles, after 100,000 imported copies of The Clash had sold. The label didn't promote the band aggressively, with one promotion executive frankly admitting upon the 1979 release of Give 'Em Enough Rope, "we're not likely to get a hit single this time around." (Gilmore, p. 22)
In an effort to work around radio and make their music more accessible to their audience, the Clash cut the price of their records. London Calling, a 1980 double album, had a list price of $9.98, at a time when the average single album carried an $8.98 tag. In 1981, the triple LP Sandinista! listed for $14.98, a dollar below the typical double album price, and the Clash wanted it priced even lower. With retail markdowns, common in the early '80s, it would not be unusual to buy Sandinista! for $11.
The band also cut the prices of t-shirts and tickets. They made up the difference by sacrificing their royalties, earning almost nothing for Sandinista!. CBS objected strongly to both the oversized albums and the low prices, and Paul Simonon believed that CBS refused to promote Sandinista! to punish the band.
"All the power is in the hands
of the people rich enough to buy it
while we walk the streets
too chicken to even try it"
"White Riot," 1977
The Clash's first single set the tone for their career, in that it was misunderstood. "White Riot" was inspired by riots in London's black ghettos, and Strummer and Jones were envious: "I want a riot of me own!" The Clash were often accused of supporting violence, but insisted that they simply described violence without advocating it. "Our music's violent--we're not. When we wrote about 'White Riot,' we imagined what was gonna hit on us," said Strummer in 1978 (Rolling Stone, 1987, p. 74). "I imagined having a knife pointed at me, right? But people took it to mean that WE had them and we were pointing them at other people." Because of the word "white," the band's short hair, and their pseudo-military garb, some observers thought the Clash were a racist, skinhead, neo-Nazi band!
Racial tensions were high in late '70's Britain. The once homogeneous society was struggling with the post-World War II influx of immigrants from decolonized Commonwealth nations, and in the late '70's the first generation of British-born blacks was coming of age. The Clash expressed a special solidarity with blacks. They began to work the reggae music of Jamaica into their sound, and racial themes continued in songs such as "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," which describes Mick Jones' visit to a reggae concert, where his white face failed to fit in. The lyric takes on the false divisiveness of racism:
"White youth, black youth
betta find another solution.
Why not phone up Robin Hood
and ask him for some wealth distribution?"
In America, the Clash began to attract a mixed following of "punks, longhairs, gays and straights." (Henke, p. 39.) Their reputation, fueled by intense live performances that were at once angry and joyous, grew to "near-messianic proportions" (Gilmore, 1979, p. 22).
Other early Clash songs took on the imperialists across the Atlantic ("I'm So Bored With the U.S.A."), and boredom and alienation ("London's Burning," "What's My Name"). In "Garageland," the band was armed with a "bullshit detector." And, in "Career Opportunities," the Clash took on the work ethic. "(At my school) it was the high hope that you would become a civil servant," Jones said, recalling that his school's song bore the Orwellian title "Servants of the State to Be." "That was the best you could do." (Cocks, 1979.) He once held a civil service job which involved opening suspicious packages:
"I hate the civil service rules
and I won't open letter bombs for you!
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you on the dock
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock."
As their popularity grew, people began to accuse the Clash of "selling out." The British musical press, which resembles American supermarket tabloids in being notoriously fickle, lashed out at the band's "reckless" politics. One British writer said, "One is never sure which side the band is supposed to be taking. The Clash use incidents as fodder for songs without caring." (Kent, cited by Gilmore, 1979.) Their working-class credentials were also questioned. Strummer's background as a diplomat's son was criticized, and Jones and Simonon were called "upwardly mobile art students" and attacked as militant fakes.
In short, the Clash's efforts to walk a tightrope between commercial success and their political platform were damned both for opportunism and dogmatism. As their audience broadened, the original core constituency began to desert the Clash. The new fans the Clash won in America were less committed to politics than to loud guitars.
"Every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock and roll
grabs the mike to tell us he'll die before he's sold
but I believe in this and it's been tested by research
he who fucks nuns will later join the church."
"Death or Glory," 1980
Jones thought that if the Clash could become mainstream superstars, their message would reach more people:
"We realized that if we were a little more subtle, if we branched out a little, we might reach more people. We saw that we had just been reaching the same people over and over. And the music--just bang, bang, bang--was getting to be like a nagging wife. This way, if more kids hear the records, then maybe they'll start humming the songs. And if they start humming the songs, maybe they'll read the lyrics and get something from them." (Henke, p. 41)
The Clash's musical style became more sophisticated and diverse. Among punk purists this move was considered a sell-out to American tastes. "When I heard that I just laughed," recalled Strummer (Rolling Stone, 1989, p. 54). "I certainly don't think it's fair when people charged we've mellowed out," Jones said in 1980 (Henke, p. 41). "I don't call `The Guns of Brixton,' `Clampdown,' `London Calling' relaxed."
On their 1980 album London Calling the Clash transcended punk form without abandoning its essentially political content, and began to reach a somewhat wider audience. In late 1989, a panel of Rolling Stone magazine rock critics picked London Calling as the greatest album of the decade, describing the record as "an emergency broadcast from rock's Last Angry Band, serving notice that Armageddon was nigh, Western society was rotten to the core, and rock and roll needed a good boot in the rear."
The album's cover appropriated rock's biggest icon, parodying the cover of the first Elvis Presley album in typeface and color scheme. But where Elvis was playing his guitar and shouting to the heavens, Paul Simonon (identifiable only by his instrument) is bent over, hoisting his bass high in the air, poised to smash it to bits in a pose that appropriates the 1960's heroes Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix. (Townshend, perhaps the only classic rocker except Neil Young who truly got punk, arranged for the Clash to tour as an opening act on the 1982 Who tour.)
The title cut, recorded mere months after Three Mile Island, "sounds like it has looked the future in the face without flinching and understood that humanity is finished" (Marsh, 1989, p. 120):
"The Ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
a nuclear error, but I have no fear
`cause London is drowning--and I live by the river!"
The 1950's rockabilly hit "Brand New Cadillac" was supercharged and introduced in concert as: "a song about something nobody here can afford." "Working For The Clampdown" takes on corporate society and fascism, linking the two. Strummer includes specific directions to the Clash's audience:
"Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall
how can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
d'ya know that you can use it?"
Summing up their case, over Morse code guitar straight out of Motown ("You Keep Me Hangin' On" by the Supremes to be exact), Jones adds:
"The voices in your head are calling
stop wasting your time--there's nothing coming
only a fool would think someone could save you.
The men at the factory are old and cunning
you don't owe nothing--boy get running!
It's the best years of your life they want to steal."
Paul Simonon's "The Guns of Brixton" became a rallying cry during 1980-81 riots in the heavily black London ghetto for which the song is named. The music has a slow, ominous reggae beat. The lyrics are equally threatening:
"When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come?
With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?
You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you'll have to answer to
oh--the guns of Brixton."
London Calling ends with a surprise. The last song listed on the label, "Revolution Rock." ends, but the album is not over. Quietly, as if an engineer faded the master tape early, forgetting that there was one song left, the railroad rhythm of another song fades back in. Mick Jones' yearning voice is singing. . . a love song?
"So alone I keep the wolves at bay
and there's only one thing I can say-
You didn't stand by me, no not at all..."
"Train in Vain (Stand By Me)" became the first American hit single for the Clash, pulling London Calling into the top thirty. The success fueled Mick Jones' ambitions for stardom, but "Train In Vain" did not represent the band's politics, to Joe Strummer's great frustration.
In late 1980, Black Market Clash hit the record stores. The "Nu-Disk" was part of a short-lived CBS marketing experiment. The idea was to issue "mini-albums," ten inch records featuring about four songs by new artists at a budget price--$4.98. Typically, the Clash knocked a buck off that rate and made the most of the opportunity. Billboard noted: "With nine songs and about 17 minutes of music to a side, this disk contains as much music as most LPs. Considering that the music is performed by what many consider to be the best rock band in the world, here is a true bargain." One side was old B sides and songs left off the revised American Clash album; the other was two newer singles--"Bankrobber" and "Armagideon Time"--coupled with their dub remixes. But this was only a brief holding move. The real followup to London Calling would arrive in the new year.
"For the very first time ever when they had a revolution in
there was no interference from Amerika. . . Sandinista!"
"Washington Bullets," 1981
"The Clash called their 1981 album Sandinista! long before anyone knew what it meant. One wonders whether the record company, today would allow such a strong endorsement for the left." (Jaffee, 1987, p. 28.) Politically, Sandinista! anticipated the struggles of the 1980's landscape. The album cover is in the red and black colors of the then-new Nicaraguan regime. The title, complete with exclamation point, seemed optimistic in early 1981 and bitterly ironic a decade later, after ten years of political battles, scandals, crimes and civil war centered around Nicaragua. A throwaway line in "Charlie Don't Surf" ("satellites will make space burn") anticipated Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative by two and a half years. Just to ensure that no one missed the point, a huge lyric sheet came with the album, complete with maps.
Like its cinematic counterpart in the winter of 1981, Warren Beatty's Bolshevik epic Reds, Sandinista! flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Both were long to a fault, Sandinista! running two and a half hours. Both ran against the political grain of the early Reagan era. Both were major works by major artists and met with serious critical discussion upon release, and both were commercial failures.
Most attacks focused on the sheer bulk of the triple album. In the days before the boxed collection, three record sets were rare and usually confined to excessive live albums by acts like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer--the very antithesis of punk. Triple studio albums were even more unusual, with George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" virtually the only precedent.
Sides five and six of Sandinista! are mainly dub instrumentals, sound effects ("Mensforth Hill," billed as the "title theme from forthcoming serial," is the Clash's attempt at updating the Beatles' noise collage "Revolution 9") and guest vocals by other artists. CBS had no hope that radio stations would be able, let alone willing, to plow through 36 songs, so they issued a promotional album, Sandinista Now!, with the twelve "best" cuts.
The content was also attacked. Time dismissed Sandinista! as "agitprop sermonizing. . . an attempt to puff up a flat pose with a lot of political hot air." (Miller, 1981, p. 77.) The rock music world, however, hailed Sandinista! as a masterpiece, and it won several 1981 "best of the year" critics polls. Dave Marsh (1989, p. 78) noted "Sandinista! (was) a record whose topic was as many years ahead of its time as its sound." The album is a stylistic and topical potpourri that anticipates the "world music" trend of the late `80s and early `90s. Reggae, jazz, mock gospel, rockabilly, and Clash-style rock all turn up on Sandinista! The album included two rap songs at a time when rap was new even among its core black audience. John Piccarella, in a review headlined "The Clash Drop The Big One" and giving the album the highest possible rating of five stars, argues that in effect, the band said "to hell with Clash style, there's a world out there." (Piccarella, 1981, p. 58.)
The album kicks off with the first and better of the raps, "The Magnificent Seven," which travels through a twisted day at work in New York City. The rappers of the 1990's could lift lines from it and barely be noticed: Change "gypsies" to "niggaz" in "What do we have for entertainment/ cops kicking gypsies on the pavement" and it becomes Public Enemy or N.W.A., dissing Daryl Gates and the LAPD.
Perversely, the first American single was "Hitsville U.K.," a jumble of record company jargon barely recognizable as the Clash. The vocal was a duet between Jones and his girlfriend Ellen Foley, who first gained fame as the female voice on Meat Loaf's "Paradise By The Dashoard Lights." Foley's own album, Spirit Of St. Louis, was released at the same time as Sandinista!, complete with a production credit to "my boyfriend." The Clash served as backup band and wrote half the songs. The best was another Foley-Jones duet, "Torchlight." As for the rest, given titles like "The Death Of The Psychoananlyst of Salvador Dali," one suspects they were outtakes from the triple album. Foley later went on to greater fame on TV, on "Night Court" and as a VH-1 announcer.
The blues oldie "Junco Pardner," done as very heavy reggae, follows. "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" is interspersed with sound effects from the then-popular video game "Space Invader," and reduces the nuclear arms race to a disco dance contest. It collides into "The Leader," a short rockabilly number about the Profumo sex scandal of 1960's Britain.
Side one ends with "Something About England," the best drama of the Clash era. They compress half a century of war and declining empire into one scene with two characters. Mick Jones narrates, recalling National Front style jingoism and setting the scene. Police cars zoom by; more knives in W11. An old man has seen what happened. Mick asks:
"I thought the old man could help me
if he could explain the gloom."
The ravaged voice of Joe Strummer, sounding a hundred and fifty years old, replies:
"You really think it's all new?
You really think about it too."
Jones acknowledges: "the old man scoffed as he spoke to me," and Strummer insists, "I'll tell you a thing or two."
And so he does, telling his life story, as old people who have suffered with no one to talk to for too long are apt to do. But this man is bitter, and the story of his life is the story of 20th Century Britain.
The heart of the album is side four, which begins with "Police On My Back," a 1968 hit for the reggae band the Equals (led by Eddy Grant, who had a big but brief comeback in 1983 with "Electric Avenue"). But the Clash skip the reggae-rock treatment they gave "Police And Thieves" and instead deliver the song full-tilt punk style, a sequel to "I Fought The Law." It worked well enough that this was the one Sandinista! song that American album rock stations programmed.
"The Equaliser" takes on class structures and advocates a general strike: "Till humanize is equalize--put down the tools." The song fades and a platoon of Marines marches across the speakers--"Hut, two three, four!"--as "The Call Up" begins. The first single in England, the message is absolutely unmistakable: resist the draft. The young male protaganist clearly understands that "he who will die is he who will kill," and lists the reasons he has to live: the woman he's going to love but hasn't met yet, the wheat fields of the Ukraine he's never seen (is he defending or bombing those fields? It's not clear whether Ivan or GI Joe is speaking.) "The Call Up" was the first single in the U.K., but one year after draft registration resumed in America, CBS didn't even try to release it to American radio. Dance clubs played it extensively as the remixed "The Cool Out."
Despite the punning title, "Washington Bullets" has nothing to do with the basketball team of the same name. (Strummer insisted he had never heard of the ball club.) The mock-calypso song runs through a dishonor roll of Yanqui imperialism: Nicaragua, Chile, the Bay of Pigs. The effect is either enhanced or subverted by the mariachi music, and a corny hockey arena organ sound at the fade. In the last verse, after discrediting G.I. Joe, the Clash calls Ivan on his sins: "If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow Bullets missed/ ask him what he thinks of voting Communist."
As side four fades, without notice on the label, a small, out of tune little girl's voice reprises "The Guns of Brixton." The last vocal on the album, buried deep on side six, is a harpsichord driven remake of "Career Opportunities" sung by two small boys. The presence of children is no mere novelty. It seems that for these children, career opportunities may never knock, and that, unless the world changes, they will face life staring down the barrel of the guns of Brixton.
"This is a public service announcement--with guitar!"
"Know Your Rights," 1982
In 1982 the Clash set out to become big-time--as opposed to fringe--stars. They renegotiated their contract with CBS, earning themselves a higher position in the company's promotion plans, but ending the budget price policy. (A direct price comparison is impossible since CBS quit using the suggested list price in mid-1981. But wholesale and retail rates on Combat Rock corresponded to those of $8.98 albums on other labels.) Rolling Stone noted Strummer's doubts about success, and asked "Can these rash, contentious young men maintain their edge without toppling over it?" (Hall, p. 25.)
Combat Rock was released in mid-1982, and hit the top ten by Christmas. Its success was fueled by "Rock the Casbah," which was a top ten hit in early 1983 after massive exposure in dance clubs and on MTV. The video featured the Clash jamming in front of a Texas oil rig. Mick Jones wears a veil until the end of the clip. Ironically, the video does not feature the songwriter, Topper Headon. His heroin problem has become too much for the rest of the band, and he was fired and replaced by Terry Chimes, who had briefly been in the band in 1977 (on The Clash, he is billed as "Tory Crimes").
"Casbah" vaugely satirizes Iran's ban on western music ("By order of the Prophet/we ban that boogie sound"). While American radio would normally avoid politics at all costs, poking fun at Iran only a year after the release of the embassy hostages was non-controversial and societally sanctioned. The degree to which the song was seen as apolitical was underscored in 1990, in the months before the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. military radio station in Saudi Arabia signed on for the first time playing "Rock The Casbah." (Presumably, "The Call Up" and "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A." were not on their playlist.)
Once again, the strongest political songs did not get airplay. Strummer advises us: "Know Your Rights!" and reads "all three of `em: Number three! You have the right to free speech, as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it!" The touching, sing-song "Straight to Hell" indicts America for its refusal to accept responsibility for its Amerasian children, the human fallout from the Vietnam war. But the other single from Combat Rock was Mick Jones' love-going-bad rocker "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?"
After Combat Rock, Strummer became even more frustrated at the Clash's failure to get its message across. In 1984, he "fired" Jones, citing "political and musical differences." Strummer and Simonon recruited three new members, and in 1985 released an album that lived up to its title-- Cut The Crap. The "new Clash" soon disbanded.
Mick Jones formed a new band, Big Audio Dynamite, which released five albums of rap-influenced dance music. In 1991, Jones re-organized his post-Clash band, calling it Big Audio Dynamite II, and had an American hit with "Rush," which prominently samples the Who's "Baba O' Reilly." The follow-up was the title track from the B.A.D. II album The Globe. That song tooks its groove from a sample of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go."
Joe Strummer wrote several movie scores and in 1989 released his first and to date only solo album, "Earthquake Weather." He later toured as fill-in front man for the Pogues, an Irish act that played traditional and rock instruments with punk-like energy. Paul Simonon briefly led the band Havana 3 A.M. and soon return to his preferred art form, painting.
As an active band from 1977 to 1983, the Clash had more British chart records (17) without ever reaching the top ten than any other act in chart history. Then, in 1990, the Clash had their first British number one hit. "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" topped the British charts, ironically after being used in a commercial.
"In these days, the beat is militant,
must be a Clash--there's no alternative"
"Kingston Advice," 1981
The contradiction of attacking capitalist society by using its own tools requires a great deal of intellectual and political compromise. Within an ideology that emphasizes purism, this is a nearly impossible task, one that proved to be beyond the Clash.
An inherent weakness with political music is that it preaches to the converted. Political musicians tend to draw fans who are already sympathetic to their stance (Jaffee, p. 28). The early punk audience in the U.S. was further left politically than the mainstream rock audience (Dixon et al., 1979). Only by the graces of radio programmers can musicians reach the unconverted (Jaffee).
Another problem, especially in America, was that the audience simply wasn't listening to the words. The Clash themselves had their doubts anout their own efficacy, and obviously some fans didn't get it. At one series of New York club dates in 1981, the rappers who opened the show for the Clash were booed and blasted with racial insults. Had the audience forgotten the Clash's own experiments with rap earlier that same year--or had they missed the point from "White Riot" on? One reviewer (Lord, 1980, p. 58) noted:
"They attract fans who perceive no more than the hot sound and the angry stance, which gets them rocking, oblivious to the words, escaping in part the things that the words concern. Even for those attracted by the lyrics, rebellious, political rock can act as a soporific as easily as it can a catalyst. The listener passively reaffirms beliefs--but takes no responsible action."
Perhaps the American audience lacked the political background the early British punks brought to the Clash experience. Although the 1970's British left, in the form of the Labour party, was weak and ineffectual, at least the youth of the U.K. had some cultural familiarity with socialism, unlike young Americans in the early `80's.
Did the Clash fail? "Being the greatest rock & roll band of our time is something like being the greatest baseball player, with the same limited political impact on the real world. (But) we can still use that stubborn Sixties morality." (Piccarella, 1981, p. 58.) The Clash had little chance of achieving their ambitious goals. But they tried, and in that effort there was triumph.
The Clash's vision was broad enough that over a decade later, unlike most political rock, their work is still relevant. In a review of the 1988 Story of the Clash compilation, Rolling Stone said "we need this band even more now than we did then," and discussed with great regret the demise of the band and the work it left unfinished. The Clash's legacy lives on in the work of musicians like U2, Billy Bragg, Midnight Oil, Living Colour and Public Enemy, all of whom combine passion, anger, lyricism and political commitment. Yet the power of the original, as observed by Carson (1979, p. 84), is unmatched:
"Listening to them, one not only believed in the world at war they sang about, but also wanted to enlist, on their side, on the spot. That night, the Clash were victorious, and, if only for a short while, so were we."
All American LP releases on Epic Records.
The Clash, 1977.
Give `Em Enough Rope, 1978.
London Calling, 1980.
Black Market Clash, 1980.
"This Is Radio Clash," single, 1981.
Combat Rock, 1982.
Cut The Crap, 1985.
The Story Of The Clash, Volume One, 1988. (anthology)
1977 Revisited, 1990. (collection of rare recordings)
Clash On Broadway, 1991. (three compact disc boxed set)
Super Black Market Clash, 1993. (collection of rare recordings)
From Here To Eternity, 1999. (Live album)
Bagdakian, Ben. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.
"The Best 100 Albums of the Last Twenty Years." Rolling Stone, Aug. 27, 1987, pp. 45-174.
Carson, Tom. "The Clash Conquer America." Rolling Stone, Apr. 5, 1979, p. 84.
__________. "The Clash: Coming to Terms With Greatness." Rolling Stone, Apr. 3, 1980, pp. 60-62.
Cocks, Jay. "The Best Gang In Town." Time, Mar. 5, 1979, p. 68.
Compaine, Benjamin, ed. Who Owns The Media? Concentration of Ownership in the Mass Communications Industry. White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry, 1979.
Dixon, Richard, et al. "The Cultural Diffusion of Punk Rock in the United States." Popular Music and Society, Vol. VI, No. 3 (1979), pp. 210-218.
Fricke, David. "The Clash Bash Back." Rolling Stone, Jun. 24, 1982, p. 39.
Fryer, Paul. "Punk and the New Wave of British Rock: Working Class Heroes and Art School Attitudes." Popular Music and Society, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1986), pp. 1-15.
Gilmore, Mikal. "The Clash: Anger On The Left." Rolling Stone, Mar. 8, 1979, p. 8.
Gray, Marcus. Last Gang In Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Hall, Peter. "The Year of the Clash." Rolling Stone, Aug. 19, 1982, pp. 25-28.
Henke, James. "There'll Be Dancing In The Streets: The Clash." Rolling Stone, Apr. 3, 1980, pp. 38-41.
Herman, Edward, and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Jaffee, Larry. "The Politics of Rock." Popular Music and Society, Winter 1987, pp. 19-30.
Lord, C.B. "The Clash: Hollywood Palladium." downbeat, Jan. 1980, pp. 57-58.
Marsh, Dave. The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. New York: Plume, 1989.
Miller, Jim. "Riding The New Wave." Newsweek, Feb. 23, 1981, p. 77.
"The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties." Rolling Stone, Nov. 16, 1989, pp. 53-149.
Piccarella, John. "Red-Hot Rock and Roll, A Joyful Noise and Politics That Live: The Clash Drop the Big One." Rolling Stone, Mar. 5, 1981, pp. 57-58.
Shapiro, Bill. The CD Rock and Roll Library: 30 Years of Rock and Roll on Compact Disc. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1988, pp. 79, 124.
Tillman, Robert H. "Punk Rock and the Construction of `Pseudo-Political' Movements." Popular Music and Society, Vol. VII, No. 3 (1980), pp. 165-175.
Clash songs are copyright 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982 by Nineden Music, Ltd., except for songs on the London Calling album, which are copyright 1979 by Dorisimo Music, Ltd. Most songwriting credits through the London Calling album are Strummer-Jones; songs from Sandinista! and Combat Rock are credited to The Clash. All lyrics cited in this paper are as printed on lyric sheets included in Clash albums. Any spelling, style, punctuation or grammatical deviations from the King's English are from these sources.