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.
You may know that I feel ambivalent about the practice of actually buying physical manifestations of music. Ya know, it’s a ripoff and the record industry is a huge scam and one of their favorite gambits is overpriced box sets and ‘deluxe’ editions stuffed to the gills with garbage that the artists were initially smart enough to be ashamed of. But I’m contradicting myself to say sometimes it’s worth it, and Clash on Broadway is a box set that so worth it. (Although why, why are they on Broadway? Are they auditioning for Cats?) The set contains most of the singles we all know and love, plus many unreleased songs that are magnificent and should have been singles. The Clash were one of the few bands to meaningfully transcend their initial punk attributes without looking like wussy sellouts, and also managed to bow out of their existence as a band without too much embarrassment, both of which are tricky things to achieve. It takes a wide-spanning collection of 60+ tracks to show their range, of which they had substantially more than most of their contemporaries in peroxide and leather. So, yeah, good investment.
NEWSFLASH: Not much has changed since 1981. Well, a lot of things have, but the things that were making The Clash angry thirty-plus years ago are still making people angry. People still subject themselves to endless drudgery in the fruitless pursuit of a better life that’s always promised but never arrives. The media still puts out inane and absurd headlines about budgies as a bright distraction from the real issues festering society. Violence and income disparity are still a constant grim reality. And cops are still kicking gypsies with impunity. The anger and frustration of Thatcher-era English punks has only become more relevant in the intervening decades. Would that we could dismiss Joe Strummer’s social commentary as unrecognizably distant, but sadly enough, it still plays like it was written yesterday.
“I came in here for a special offer; a guaranteed personality”
Well, I doubt that Joe Strummer ever had to worry about his personality being inadequately interesting. Or maybe he did, I don’t know. Either way, he certainly grasped the link between consumerism and insecurity. The supermarket is an overwhelming, alienating place, as is the whole of our consumer society, so much more so today than in 1979. And the world is full of hollow little people with no identity of their own, flailing their way through the market isles of life, grasping for some colorful item that will grant them the personality they seek. The personality which should be inborn and self-contained, but very rarely is. Consumer culture is such an overweening success because it offers material tokens to represent the ineffable. Material plenitude is not necessarily bad; it’s better than scarcity and deprivation. But the material things we seek should be a reflection of who we know ourselves to be, not the other way around, and who we are should not be the sum of the things we own. Which is a difficult distinction for most folks to grasp, and a difficult way of thinking to get free of even for the ones who do, on an intellectual level, grasp it. Even if you do have the realization that your identity is built on a foundation of external signifiers, there’s still the challenge of figuring out who you actually are underneath all of those things you’ve purchased to represent yourself with. Which leaves most of us lost in the supermarket, in search of that one big guarantee.
It was a different London that was calling in 1979. I feel the urgency and anger spilling through on the records. Those feelings are why The Clash is still remembered. When the specific circumstances they sprang from are forgotten, the feelings continue to captivate. You can apply that attitude to whatever your personal frustration may be. It was topical and relevant in ’79. It’s not topical anymore, but it’s still relevant.
This is either the best or the worst introduction to The Clash, depending on what your views on punk music generally are. It’s very punk; loud, incoherent, chaotic and way too fast. The Clash weren’t always like this. They started out sounding like a fairly typical punk band, but matured into the worldliest and most intelligent of their peers. Which is why I like them above most other so-called punks. A lot of the groups who spewed out of that scene valued safety pins over musicianship, and I have very little use for that. Still, you can’t deny that it’s historic. It was a short-lived cultural moment with a lot of short-lived people in it, but it did end up being one of the definitive and most important moments of the 1970’s. It’s iconic in a way that most of the participants couldn’t have predicted, and probably wouldn’t have liked very much. Being iconic doesn’t necessarily mean being any good, though. Malcolm McLaren was onto something when he coined the term Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. All of which is to say, firmly and yet again, that for me, the safety pins might have been the best part of the punks’ contribution to the world. And there will be a lot of people who vehemently disagree with me, which is fine. People like them and people like me can still agree on a few things being awesome; safety pins and The Clash.