As usual when I listen to The Clash, I’m forced to conduct research. Their records may have retained their relevance because their anger cuts across the specifics of time, but many of those specifics have long ago faded from public consciousness. In this case, Joe Strummer references the history of the Spanish Civil War and compares it to the terrorist activities of Basque separatists. The Basque nationalist organization ETA was fighting the Spanish government at around the same time and with similar methods as the IRA in Northern Ireland, but with less of a political leg to stand on. In the mess of violence and political instability rocking Europe (and elsewhere) in the 1970’s, the bombings in Spain were only vaguely noted by the international consciousness, and aren’t really known about today. Though the ETA’s activities may not have interested the world the way The Troubles did, they’re another reminder of the roiling dissatisfaction of that time, which drove some people to violence and others to start playing punk music.
I’ve always wondered what Debbie Harry was high on when she wrote this one, and whether she brought enough for everybody. It takes some kind of an altered mind to write a song about the limbo moments – stretching into hours – waiting to fall asleep. Perhaps she’s just a natural insomniac, or maybe she was on crack. Either way, I don’t think there’s another song, anywhere, about that particular exact feeling.
Bob Marley got that right. Marley got a lot of things right and a few things wrong, actually. Lamenting the troubles of the world is eternally on-target; no matter how much change and progress mankind achieves, the world continues to be cloaked in sorrow. It just shifts and moves and takes on new forms to match the times. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the fighting; everyone should do the work of standing up and making their own times a little better.
It’s some kind of miracle that every Blondie song sounds like a Top 10 hit. Every single one of them. Album after album where even the third-from-last song would be anyone else in the world’s once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece. How did they do it? There’s been no lack of bands that have tried to replicate the formula; you got your pretty blonde singer, you got your girl-group harmonies, your post-punk tempos and your synths. And it’s mostly led to lots and lots of mediocre punk-pop. No, thanks. I guess that Blondie is just magic.
Times may change, but I’m still over here listening to blues guitar. That doesn’t make me a crotchety old person. It means, I hope, that just because the times aren’t conducive to blues guitar based bands like Dire Straits just now, the music will remain timeless enough for the times to roll over yet again. Were the times optimal for this kind of music in 1979? Not exactly then, either, with the fires of the punk revolution blazing and whatnot. Not in the next few years, with “80’s music” becoming what it was. Yet here’s a record that doesn’t care about any of those changes, and I will listen to it just as happily as I did 20 years ago.
Here’s something notoriously depressing. I think we all know the story of Joy Division’s brief success and tragic ending. There have been movies about it. Tragedy obviously sells, and you can’t deny that it’s because of the tragedy that instead of being a blip on the radar of the crowded post-punk field Joy Division has had an afterlife that’s fueled the sales of a million t-shirts. At least their gloom was genuine, and people with their own gloom relate to that. Idolizing a troubled person may seem ghoulish, but if it helps other troubled people feel a little bit better, that’s about the best legacy anyone could ask for.
Elvis Costello wants to chop off your head, take your job and steal your girlfriend. None of which things he appears the least bit qualified to do. He’s just an angst-ridden nebbish in an ill-fitting suit, fussing about the world’s injustice. 1979 was a really great year for injustice and instability, meaning that it was actually a pretty bad year, politically, but politically bad years yield great cultural inspiration, and the punk and post-punk generation had their songwriting work cut out for them. Elvis Costello certainly packed his early records with enough references to world events to require Cliffs Notes, and he didn’t forget the discomfort of the average working bloke who finds himself dog-paddling madly just to stay afloat. That creeping dissatisfaction and sense of unfairness hasn’t become any less familiar since ’79. Meanwhile, the names and details keep changing but the same world events appear to be repeating themselves: another economic crisis, another rigged election, another genocide, another secret prison, another despot waving his arms on a podium.