You know that something has failed in the world when songs written in 1980 resound exactly the same as they did back then. You’re supposed to look back on pop culture from 39 years ago like transmissions from an alien planet. And, of course, most of the cultural dreck from the 1980’s does look and sound weird and exotic. Except, ironically, the most politically charged material. If you didn’t know that The Clash were a band that flourished between the years of 1976 and 1986, you would think they were a fresh batch of angry kids agitating about the instability of the world. (Complete with a shoutout about the dangers of “Kissing the microchip circuits.”) It appears that the fashion trends of indolent teenagers change a lot more over the course of time than basic institutional problems like violence and inequality.
There’s a well known phenomenon in pop culture of glamorizing outlaws and criminals, idolizing people who, in reality, really ought to be locked up and never seen again. This is not that phenomenon. What the Clash are describing is the opposite of that. It’s the condition of living in a society where just the act of surviving puts you at odds with the law, making decent people live in fear while the unscrupulous prosper and thrive. Economic disparity and social inequality in the UK drove the punk movement in the late 70’s, and it resonated particularly strongly in totalitarian Eastern Europe, where just being alive meant police at your back. If that sense of rage and fear seemed to dissipate during an era of relative peace and prosperity, it’s seething right back into place in the unstable times of today. Too bad Joe Strummer didn’t live to see himself become the most relevant voice in rock music again, or thank god he didn’t.
As these things often happen in our culture, The Clash’s classic album Sandinista! is now better known here than the political movement that gave it its name. I suppose that not many rock fans cared much about regime changes in Nicaragua in the 70’s either, except as another disturbing news story in an era marked by anger and unrest. On the other hand, it’s understandable why English punks latched onto the Sandinista movement; the Nicaraguan revolution and ensuing civil war struck a chord with young people who felt politically dispossessed, economically burdened and hopeless. For the worldlier and more intellectual on the scene, political awareness was an important part of their anti-authoritarian identity. The Clash drew parallels between the political violence in Nicaragua and other places, and the roiling anger of the disaffected English poor. In the late 70’s it seemed very possible that the UK too would fall into the same chaos. It didn’t, and in hindsight the angry punks look more angsty than genuinely threatening, but at the time the existence of a violent, dissatisfied youth movement that identified (however peripherally) with South American revolutionaries must have been unnerving.