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.
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.
Well, no commentary really needed here. Everybody knows this refrain, and everybody loves it, because it’s fun to stomp your feet to and easy to relate to. The Clash have turned political angst into hit singles, but as always, it’s romantic angst that really makes the most indelible songs. You can also pinpoint it as the moment that punk rock became fully infused into pop culture’s mainline (it wouldn’t be until the 2000’s that fake punk rock would clog pop culture’s arteries like a particularly angst-ridden strain of cholesterol.) Hats off to The Clash for making an iconic hit without losing an ounce of coolness about it.
The Clash have remained perennially relevant, and I’m sorry to have to say that. Their ongoing relevance means that the things made angry young people pick up guitars and put safety pins in their faces (and worser things) haven’t changed very much since 1978. The names and details have changed, but inequality, violence, corruption, poverty and oppression remain monolithic. The arguments of the European bourgeoisie about cultural sovereignty, ethnic birthright and economic largesse – a political conversation that was nearly identical a century ago – are trending white-hot again and it’s not encouraging. Maybe someday soon there’ll be a consensus of what constitutes a safe European home, and maybe the answer won’t end up being “Europe for the Europeans.” Maybe then there won’t be a market for punk rock music anymore, just like there’s no longer a market for dead baby portraiture.
I still can’t tell you quite what it means to be a rude boy. Because, you know, culture gaps. I know it’s a bit more than just a guy who likes ska. I also know that it was ska music that brought its own cultural youthquake from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to California. You can trace that history through pop culture from the 1950’s well into the 90’s. Here, we can concern ourselves the late 70’s, when ska was intertwined with punk and socially conscious British youth cared a lot about political instability in Latin America. We think of punk rock music as being a simplistic genre, probably because a lot of its practitioners never stray from the three-chord, three-minute structure. But if we try to understand the social context the movement sprang from, suddenly we’re learning about things like Thatcherism and it’s Late 20th Century History 101. Sountracked by The Clash, of course, them being the anointed ultimate punk rock band – the the antithesis of ‘ignorant punks’. Their music is loaded with global political context, so much so that fans who weren’t lucky enough to have been there personally need a study guide to really understand what they’re pumping their angry little fists about.
Rock’n’Roll is going to bring peace and/or liberation to the Middle East. The Muslims and Hasidim are going to boogie down together, and the punk revolution will take place in the Texas oil fields. I can’t think of how to interpret this rallying cry for whatever The Clash thought they were rallying for, except to say don’t take it too literally. I’m pretty sure that the Middle East doesn’t want your stinking infidel punk rock music. I think the only message here is “forget your dogma and come have a party.” I’m a little distracted by the video, though. When you’re an English punk band filming a video for a song about the Middle East, you obviously can’t go to the actual Middle East, so you go to Texas, where at least there’s armadillos. (Nothing is more punk rock than armadillos.) There’s also some impressive oil derricks, which is kind of on-topic. So, of course, most of what you see was filmed around south Austin, and although the Austin City Coliseum exists no longer, the city scenes are easily recognizable. Did you know that the blue building at 1:41 is now a Wells Fargo?
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.