Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Ten Other Great Songs By... The Clash!*

Welcome to the third instalment of Ten Other Great Songs By… where I gush about the songs you’ve never heard of by bands you don’t know the name of but would recognise if you heard them, eschewing the one or two hits the act has to tell you about 10 other great songs they recorded. We also ignore what I’ve taken to calling a band’s Teenage Kicks – songs that weren’t successful (or even singles sometimes) but are now as well known, if not more well known, than those top selling singles, just like The Undertones’ song Teenage Kicks, which far more people know their highest charting single My Perfect Cousin . And happily, after I had to ignore every A-Side from The Jam for my last entry into this series of shite, we have a much more suitable subject, today we’re looking at The Clash.
See, while The Clash are a big band and pretty widely known I know for a fact your average person struggles to name any songs by them that hasn’t advertised jeans and half of them don’t know the name of the band that sung Should I Stay or Should I Go anyway. Anyway formed by original manager and Malcolm McLaren frenemy Bernie Rhodes, for most of their existence the band featured lead guitarist and vocalist Mick Jones, bass player Paul Simonon, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer and drummer Topper Headon. Headon didn’t join the group until after their first album and early singles (the drummer for those was Terry Chimes) and both Headon and Jones would both be ejected before the band finally broke up in 1986 (though this still had them outlasting just about everybody in the punk inner circle bar The Damned but they broke up once a month or so, so I don’t know if they should count anyway). The band’s biggest hit while they were still together was ‘London Calling’ which is now very overplayed on British radio and together with ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ (which was a hit years after they’d split on the back of a Levi’s commercial) make up their three big songs that we’ll be ignoring. We’ll also be ignoring White Riot, their punk anthem. The band’s songs focussed on social ills and outlaw tales with a particular focus on racism, drugs, the state of the world and the drudgery of ‘normal’ existence and were and still are compared to their peers The Jam in the punk equivalent of the Stones/Beatles or Nintendo/Sega arguments. So are you sitting comfortably?  Good because this is a public service announcement – WITH GUITARS:

Stop The World (B-side w/ The Call Up, 1980)
A funeral song for the world written as fears over mutually assured destruction were rising again, there’s no chorus, no bridge, just Joe Strummer howling a terrifying vision of the world dying around him as he shivers and cries in a flat somewhere in London set to a juddering, shuddering angry reggae… noise. Strummer’s nightmare fuel takes us across the globe at perhaps the scariest time period of nuclear apocalypse, when it’s still settling in, the bombs have been dropped – cities are bombed flat, the rich and noble are cringing in their bunkers but humanity isn’t quite dead, Strummer’s still alive after all shaking with mystery tears in Ladbroke Grove, things are still happening, the bank notes are still burning, the world is still dying as you listen. And you can do fuck all about it except listen and be thoroughly creeped out. Scaring someone into doing something you want might not always be in the best way to go about things but when it comes to convincing them of the seriousness of nuclear war? Yeah, it’s the way to go.

London’s Burning (The Clash, 1977)
LUNDUNN’S BURNING! Inner city alienation gets a kicking, there is really no other way to describe what Strummer and Jones are doing here, they are kicking boring everyday life, television, boredom, street raking and pointlessly wasting your evening amphetamine sulphate high is on the floor and The Clash are putting the boot in, the chords (well guitar noise) even sounds like kicking. Despite telling us about being bored the song is not boring, the song is angry – well it’s a ’77 punk song what did you expect? Sometimes stereotypes are true – and thus it’s really fucking awesome, it’s a get down the front of the crowd and shout along sort of number, about being bored… as much as I utterly love this song I do sometimes sit and ponder the disconnect between subject matter and arrangement.  Despite actually being shorter than I’m So Bored with the USA, London’s Burning always feels to me like one of the meatier songs on The Clash’s eponymous debut (I really like the word ‘eponymous’ it sounds like it could be a Pokémon, maybe a hippo themed one) I think maybe because it shoves so much in, touching on multiple subjects related to the core theme (‘boredom’), nothing spectacularly original – television, drugs, loneliness, how confusing it is to navigate most council estates – whereas the likes of Career Opportunities, I’m So Bored’ and 48 Hours really stay very tightly focussed on their theme, I like all of those songs (in fact the only song on the Clash I don’t like is ‘Hate & War’) but London’s Burning feels a bit… bigger.

Lost in the Supermarket (London Calling, 1979)
London Calling was released in ’79 in the UK, I don’t care who voted it ‘album of the ‘80s’. Joe Strummer’s ‘present’ to Mick Jones (who sings this despite not writing the lyrics) tells us the life of a nameless, faceless straight who grew up in a boring suburban nowhere only to live in a miserable urban flat and listen to soulless popular music and wander supermarkets feeling bitterly disappointed that normality didn’t deliver him any satisfaction. Well I say him; the song’s in the first person and doesn’t really make any reference to the sex of the character. Well I say character, I mean John Mellor, alias Joe Strummer, because this is actually really fucking autobiographical but I’m not sure if knowing that makes this song more or less effective. It touches on a lot of regular Clash topics – unfulfilling jobs, the state of music, boredom, identity – but it does so slowly and softly, perfectly suited to the sighing lyrics and Jones’ higher voice, the poor bloke really does sound pathetic and the music really does make things that much more touching. On another note, I like to replace ‘giant hit Discotheque album’ with ‘Big Audio Dynamite1 album’ when I sing along because I’m cringingly sad.

Something About England (Sandinsta!, 1981)
I’m sure a lot of people would instantly have put Somebody Got Murdered on here instead because it sounds more ‘Clash-y’ but Something About England’s lyric is just so damn good I don’t give a fuck if it’s set to a Clashified version of Music Hall (...yeah…). Our scene is thus: after a gang fight at a dance hall, a random man (played by Mick Jones) asks a nearby tramp (played by Joe Strummer) what’s wrong with the world but the tramp is in a shitty mood, perhaps due to random 20-somethings asking him theological questions at god knows what time a night when he’s trying not to freeze to death, and proceeds to give him his life story to illustrate a point: the world has always been shit and despite good evidence why they should do so society has not broken the class system. It’s Strummer’s ability to fit events and their implications into a few lines at it’s very best (see also The Card Cheat, Spanish Bombs, Washington Bullets) as he takes us through the aftermath of one world war, the hunger march, a second world war and its aftermath and the arrival of nuclear devices AND tell a story with a beginning, middle and end in 3 minutes 44 without any of these events feeling short changed or trivialised. Everything feels like it has the weight it in fact has, my two favourite examples are ‘the 20’s turned, the North was dead / the hunger strike came marching south / at the garden party not a word was said / the ladies lifted cake to their mouths’ and the aftermath of World War II ‘the few returned to old Piccadilly / we limped around Leicester Square / the world was busy rebuilding itself / the architects could not care’ that also fits in a reference to the song ‘It’s a Long Way To Tipperary’ as well, this lyric is so good.

Obligatory Cover Version: English Civil War 
(Give ‘em Enough Rope, 1978)
Ok this might just be cheating and really there’s no reason to cheat as the Clash have recorded a list of great cover versions including but not limited to Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Pressure Drop (Toots & The Maytals), Armagideon Time (Willie Williams), Police on My Back (The Equals) and I’m actually quite fond of their version of Every Little Bit Hurts (Brenda Holloway) but I just like pointing out how unintentionally clever this version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home is. When Johnny Comes Marching Home dates from the American Civil War but the Clash adjusted the lyrics to be about the rise of the far right in the UK at the time – specifically The National Front (precursors to today’s British National Party), a (then) openly racist right-wing political party that was genuinely considered to be a real threat in the ’79 General Election, in the end it proved to be an empty threat and the Election went to the nearly-as-bad Conservative Party with Margaret Thatcher, although they pretty much got in by using slightly more palatable versions of a lot of what the Nation Front believed – in fact a butthurt NF member (I forget who) claimed that the Tories stole his party’s win by adopting a similar stance on race, and he’s not far wrong. The unintentional cleverness comes from the fact that the Confederate Army loved the song (though it was written by a Union bandleader) and a lot of people consider it a Confederate song (at least one Clash book refers to it as such) – so the Clash took a song strongly associated with the side that fought for slavery and turned it into a song against a racist political party, that’s pretty fucking class, someone needs to do that with Cat Scratch Fever and Sweet Home Alabama. And even if you think that’s horseshit (probably because you live in the north of North America) they still used a song from a civil war where the enslavement of black people was a major factor and written by a man in the side fighting against slavery and used it for telling a bunch of racist thugs to go fuck themselves, so it’s thematically appropriate regardless. Better still the National Front aren’t mentioned by name so the song can be used for any scary right wing party (I’ve seen it said fairly often that people thought this and (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais were both referencing the Tories).

(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais2 (Single A-Side, 1978)
Well it had to appear didn’t it? The Clash Fan’s Clash Song might seem too obvious to be included here but it wasn’t a big hit and most people – as shocking and terrible as this is – have never heard of it. Yet this is the song that Uncut readers (or was it Mojo readers? Whatever) voted as their favourite Clash song, a sentiment Mick Jones agreed with, this is the song that I played in response to Joe Strummer dying (on original vinyl release naturally), this is almost certainly my favourite Clash song. That’s not bad for what amounts to a stream of consciousness with no real fucking overall point, or no real chorus for that matter. It’s one of Strummer’s state of the world songs that goes from a disappointing reggae gig to the futility of violence to the rise of the far right and political correctness to The Jam to racial divisions to drugs and really was written by a man miserable a gig (it’s really easy to write a song like that in those circumstances btw, I’ve tried it more than once, though your song will not be as good as White Man). So why does everyone like it? Well it’s sung with real passion (which shouldn’t be surprising as the man singing it was the pissed off man at the gig who wrote it) and it’s set to the best fusion of Reggae and punk/rock possibly of all time, certainly until Skindred came along, and it’s just filled with really good lines, they may not really connect to each other or work towards an overall point beyond ‘existence is shite at the moment’ but they do neatly sum up what they’re moaning about and they’re really quotable, anything is better if it’s quotable – one of the many reasons why Pulp Fiction is better than Reservoir Dogs, sorry movie buffs, you know it’s true.

Stay Free (Give ‘Em Enough Rope, 1978)
Gawd this song is so blokey but it don’t half make me well up. Stay Free is Mike Jones’ love letter… to his old mate Robin Crocker, it is the aural equivalent of blokes hugging goodbye after a night out, somehow Jones (who’s a really good arranger, he doesn’t get enough credit for his song-writing skills) has managed to find the music that plays in every bloke’s head when he’s hugging his best mate. I don’t know how he did it but I think it’s almost certainly related to him being incredibly talented, and a heterosexual man – see Tumblr, occasionally we’re useful, even if it is only at writing songs the rest of our kind can associate with. More seriously it is hard to encapsulate a feeling – blokey or not – perfectly in words and music (and music should cover all of life’s experiences, PC or not) and even though the lyrics are very specifically about a certain person I listen to the song and it makes me think of my old mates and it brings out my feelings for them (a lot of my friends are women but I do have some male friends, my few friends from school were nearly all men and are all very blokey even if I’m not of the opinion that showing affection makes me a ‘poof’3).

Ghetto Defendant (Combat Rock, 1983)
Dear Gangsta Rappers; one day I am going to tie you all down and play you this song until you either learn how to better summarize and communicate the problems of the area you were (possibly) raised in or gnaw your own arms off to escape the truth and go back to completely failing to understand that by openly admitting to criminal activity it doesn’t make it sound like the police are harassing you, but they’re investigating your claims to own unlicensed firearms and copious amounts of drugs – they’re supposed to do that. This is a big problem Gangsta Rappers – an Englishman who was raised in fucking Surrey, a county so white mayonnaise is a native species, was able to make a more accurate and more effective summation of the problems in US Ghettos than you are and he at no point stopped to brag about his possibly fictional criminal activities, his sexual prowess, his possessions or call anyone a bitch, why can you not do this? You’re right, police ARE known to assume the worst of black people from certain areas (this is just a random example I’ve pulled out my arse and not really related to Ghetto Defendant that much) but you need to learn to tell us this in ways that don’t also make you sound like a cock.  
Anyway yes this is a song about how sucky life in the ghetto is, set to a heavy reggae beat and featuring spoken word from Allen Ginsberg, yes that Allen Ginsberg, but lacking the clichés of that built up in the years since it was released, Strummer’s strained vocal, and making statements like the one quoted above make it far more palatable than Gangsta Rap even though it covers similar themes, and Ginsberg sounds like god has popped into the studio for some toasting. 

The Right Profile (London Calling, 1979)
It’s a song about Montgomery Clift, the actor, Clift had a pretty interesting life but it, and this song, were overshowed by a car crash that left half his face paralyzed. Thus he insisted he was shot from the right, or that cameraman shoot his right profile, this lead to a slide into self-destruction. Strummer was perfect for writing tribute songs, his ability to accurately, succinctly and poignantly summarize events into lyrics made a lot of his best Clash lyrics exactly that (again see Spanish Bombs, The Card Cheat, Washington Bullets, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Something About England, my next choice for this list…) and it’s a shame he didn’t write more, I’d’ve love to have seen him write tribute songs for people like Woody Guthrie or Bo Diddly. I don’t have much more to say about it, it’s a good tribute song with weirdly upbeat music to lure you into hearing about the life of a wrecked man who was in the Misfits (the film, not the band).

This is England (Cut the Crap, 1985)
So Topper Headon was sacked, then Mick Jones was sacked, then the Clash pretty much sucked – not helped by the band deciding to focus on by-the-numbers punk songs and then not including Glue Zombie or Ammunition, two of their best new numbers, on the album they eventually recorded, that album was Cut the Crap and it was perfectly named because it was filled with cuts that were absolutely shit – and This is England. This is England isn’t really anything remarkable for The Clash, it’s another state of the world lyric about a Britain now very much into the Thatcher era but a) it’s the most obvious choice for this article because no one ever gives anything recorded post-Mick Jones the time of day and b) it’s a really good state of the world lyric. It jumps around the grey hopeless landscape that Maggie and Co. had turned my country into, not really saying anything everybody else wasn’t but doing it well: the decline of British industry (represented by the death of Triumph); the disappointment of the left at how many people were voting for Thatcher in the face of lots of reasons why this was madness; materialism; violence; a corrupt police force; how much bullshit the talk about a glorious Britain was; the heavy handed treatment of protestors and strikers. All stuff any good socio-politically minded lyricist (or stand-up comic) was touching on but, to go back to bullet points a) Strummer was very good at this by now and it’s very effectively done b) shoving it all into one song really drives home how crappy things are/were/were being portrayed as c) it’s accompanied by this weird mix of punk and synth that really has this depressed drone to it with some very good use of sound bites and d) it has a really good sing-along chorus, oh for just one person to have sung this at Maggie.          

Anyway that makes ten and that means I’m done for this post, I’m not putting YouTube links up for these articles because those sort of videos tend to get taken down and I hate finding a blog post with broken links. I really could do two more of these for The Clash thanks to just how many tracks Sandinsta and London Calling had – no Washington Bullets on this one, no Guns of Brixton, no Complete Control, I really should do another sometime.  On that empty promise (seriously, look how long it takes me to get ‘round to doing one of these) I never felt so much alike, alike, alike…

1 for imaginary readers who have lives, Big Audio Dynamite or B.A.D. was Mick Jones’ horrible post-Clash band
2 Hammersmith Palais, pronounced pah-lay, was a former dance hall turned music venue in London
3 Not really on topic but can I just stress that ‘poof’ when used as a derogatory term for a gay man has a short ‘o’ sound, not a long one? it’s pronounced something like ‘purf’ said fast, not like poo or hoot and while we’re on that subject, twat rhymes with ‘hat’ not ‘hot’ and any place in Britain ending in ‘shire’ (Gloucestershire, Hampshire, etc) ends in ‘sheer’ not ‘shyer’, thank you. On topic ‘Butlins’ is slang for prison and ‘Screws’ are prison wardens so the line in Stay Free ‘how was Butlins? Were the screws too tight?’ translates to ‘how was prison, were the prison guards too rough?. 

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