By Michael Goldberg
Photos by Chester Simpson
|The Clash are (from left) Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Terry Chimes, and Paul Simonon.|
It's an ugly voice. Gruff. guttural uncouth, barbaric at times. Joe Strummer can't sing, not like an Al Jarreau or a Joni Mitchell, anyway. Lyrics are shouted out in a harsh nearly unintelligible cockney snarl. At times this voice rips at the ears like an exploding letter-bomb. It cries out for justice in an unjust world. It nags at the soul like the memory of those nuns killed in El Salvador, like the memory of Allison Krause gunned down at Kent State by the National Guard. Joe Strummer's voice demands to be heard Surprisingly, it is.
Strummer is the singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for the Clash, the most popular punk rock band in the world. You've probably heard of the Clash. You've probably read that some rock, critics think they're "the greatest rock & roll band in the world," as Village Voice critic Robert Christgau announced a few years back. Or maybe you noticed that their LP London Calling captured the Rock/Blues Album of the Year in the '80 down beat Readers Poll.
But if you've only heard of the Clash, and haven't actually heard their music - listened to the five albums and the EP that they've released in the US - you may still be wondering what all the fuss is about. You may still be dismissing the Clash as one of those foul-mouthed punk rock bands that made a lot of media noise - and not much else - in the late 70s.
Dismiss them no longer. If you listen to one rock & roll band During the next year make it the Clash. You will discover music and lyrics as rich as anything that Bob Dylan or the Roiling Stones created 'n the '60s, back when rock & roll mattered, back when was more that the uptempo elevator music one mostly hears by bands like Journey on the radio today.
At the beginning of their most recent album, Combat Rock, Joe Strummer spouts out: "This is a public service announcement... with guitars!" That single line does a good job of summing up the Clash. This is a band that makes rock & roll with a message. For the Clash, the message is as important as the rock & roll and vice versa.
"We're dealing with the power of music here ' says lead guitarist/songwriter and occasional vocalist Mick Jones, who is thin and gaunt and wears his black hair short and greased back. Jones looks like a cross between a 50s rockabilly singer and a '50s hood - and that seems to be his intent. "Music can sooth furrowed brows and all that stuff." he continues "and it works and it's true and it really can make you feel better when you have the blues I have a lot of faith in it. The music, as a really good force."
Those are calm and reasoned words from a member of a band that has a punk reputation for being taciturn, moody, rude, even hostile. Jones, as well as his mates - Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Terry Chimes (the original Clash drummer, who played on their first album, was replaced for four years by Topper Headon, but began performing again with the Clash following Headon's heroin bust earlier this year) - can certainly adopt a tough pose. Yet beneath the surface bravado and "punk" attitude that they often present to the public and the media, these are dedicated, courageous musicians. Unlike a large number of other punk bands, the Clash have never trafficked in nihilism, never jabbed a safety pin through their ears, either literally or metaphorically The Clash have always had more in common politically and idealistically with politically aware hippie rockers and folk singers of the '60s like Country Joe McDonald, Joan Baez, and the young Bob Dylan, than with the other angry young men of punk.
The bottom line for the Clash is a belief in the human spirit, in the ability of men and women to do good. And in all their music, in the 100-plus songs that the Clash have recorded in a five-year period, this positive spirit is clearly felt The Clash may agree with another punk band that sings "the world's a mess," but despite the darkness, they continue to have hope.
The Clash's songs are infused with a sense of social responsibility. "Hate and war - the only things there are today/And if you close your eyes/They will not go away," sings Strummer. "You have to deal with it/It is the currency." Such a refusal to close their eyes to the atrocities played out day by day around the world, and an insistence on writing about those atrocities in their songs, helps to make the Clash one of the few contemporary rock bands that truly matter.
Often, the Clash use sarcasm to make their point. In Know Your Rights, on their recent LP, Strummer sings, "Know your rights, all three of them." He goes on to detail those "rights." "Number one: You have the right not to be killed/Murder is a crime/Unless it was done by a policeman or an aristocrat../Number two: You have the right to food, money/ Providing of course you don't mind a little humiliation, investigation and (if you cross your fingers) rehabilitation/Number three: You have the right to free speech/As long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it."
Since 1978, when Jones and Strummer came to San Francisco to record vocals for their second album. Give 'Em Enough Rope, I've spoken with them on several occasions. One overcast afternoon, I met them for the first time. They were wary, antagonistic, and mostly impenetrable. Strummer, a short, stocky man with a rotting, chipped front tooth that added menace to his sneer, slouched in the corner of the small lounge where the interview was to take place. He wore dark glasses and a black motorcycle jacket and had short, oily brown hair.
"So how much ya gonna make on this story anyway," badgered his buddy, Mick Jones who was pumping away on a pinball machine. He looked over at Strummer and they both laughed.
"I don't think we should do this interview," continued the guitarist.
"I don't either," muttered Strummer, turning away.
GIVE 'EM ENOUGH ROPE - Epic JE 35543
LONDON CALLING - Epic E2 36328
BLACK MARKET CLASH - Epic 4E 36846 (EP)
SANDINISTA! - Epic E3X 37037
COMBAT ROCK - Epic FE 37689
But they did continue the interview. I discovered later that this was just the Clash's nature. In America for the first time, they were particularly suspicious of Americans, who they thought were not to be trusted. In the Clash's camp, one was always suspect until proven innocent.
During that first interview, asked about the problems occurring in England, Jones snapped, "Not as bad as it is here! That's definite. You've got your Hershey bars and your Dr. Peppers. There's a lot more f**king work to be done here than England. Everyone watching TV. It reminds me of the Roman Empire. And every American I meet is a bullshitter. This place tends to look not very real."
Those impressions of America as a land where the reality of the problems faced by the rest of the world do not often penetrate, came out in the Clash's song Guns On The Roof (Of The World), in which Strummer sings sarcastically, "And I like to be in the USA/ Pretending that the wars are done."
When I spoke to Strummer and Jones more recently, they were no more enchanted with the U S. and the complacency of Americans. The group's personal manager, a young man who calls himself Cosmo Vinyl said, "Nobody in America wants anything to question or upset what they might personally be. Ted Nugent never gives anyone a hard time. He's just like his fans, He never causes them to think things should be different, that things aren't right."
"I agree with him, really," said Mick Jones. "I get depressed at the thought of 50 million people worshiping Ted Nugent." Then Jones cracked a smile and said in an exaggeratedly proper English accent "We're only doing what we can to impress upon them that there is something better going on. By being here, it can only help."
I've been talking a lot about the politics of the Clash, and politics isn't what down beat is usually about; down beat is about contemporary music But with the Clash, one can't avoid talking about politics. The Clash don't see music as something isolated from the rest of life; they see music as a part of life. For anyone who recently lost his job - or knows someone who lost their job - and happened to hear Gary US Bonds' recent hit, Out Of Work, the ability of music to tie into the rest of one's life should be obvious. Don't think, however, that the Clash's music is inconsequential, just because, as is often the case, interviewers and reviewers spend more time considering why the band called an album Sandinista or what they think of Margaret Thatcher, than discussing the Clash's music.
The Clash make magnificent rock & roll. In concert their music roars along like a train whose brakes have worn out, Huge, raw chunks of guitar noise tumble out of Jones' amplifier, Strummer barks out the lyrics, all the while bashing at his own guitar, as if the fierceness of his strum alone determines its volume On a good night the Clash are like a team of rock & roll guerrillas. With guitars for weapons, they seem determined to show the world that nothing will stop them, that they will win the good fight and keep the fires of truth burning.
It was in 1976 that the Clash formed, inspired by that other famous punk band, the (now defunct) Sex Pistols. Joe Strummer's previous experience as a musician included "playing to earn a living in subways... I had low overhead. No rent and stuff like that. Squatting in empty buildings Busking. You play and you have a hat and they like what you play and throw money into the hat." When he got busted by the police, Strummer formed a band. the 101'ers. His band became popular on the London pub circuit. Guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon were impressed by Strummer and eventually talked him into joining the new band they were starting, which Simonon wanted to call the Clash.
With the Pistols and the Clash at the forefront, a British punk movement sprang up as a gut response to both ever-worsening conditions in England and to a rock music scene populated by elitist and wealthy superstars who had become complacent and, as Strummer railed in one song, "fat and old." Punk was firmly anti-star. "They [the audience] could be up there as easy as me," says Strummer. "In a way, we were just there. And that was it. You feel lucky. Why you? Instead of him. Why you? Don't know why. Don't ask me the f**king meaning of life 'cause I don't know it."
Yet the Clash now find themselves caught in a bind, treated like stars when they tour America despite everything they can do to prevent it. "I find it humiliating," says Jones. "I try not to be anything other than just a human being. But you can't just say I don't want to sign autographs if there's a hundred people there."
"We feel a bond with our audience, but we hate them too," says Strummer candidly. "Best way to explain it is imagine if you were standing on the dock of the bay and lots of fish come. 10,000 fish and they all came to look at you and opened their mouths. You know what I mean?"
The Clash recorded their first album, The Clash, in 1977. Because the Clash emerged as part of England's punk movement, their rock & roll sophistication was initially overlooked. The rudeness of punk was mistaken for musical inability and ignorance. In the U.S. the Clash's label initially refused to release their first album because of what one Epic Records executive called "the tin-can sound."
But in fact, when one listens a few times to The Clash, one discovers much more than the sound of buzzsaw guitars and sour voices. One finds brilliant vocal arrangements that contrast Strummer's ultra-real, man-of-the-street voice against the chanted background vocals of the rest of the band. One finds inventive, concise revisions of the classic Chuck Berry guitar style, savage, but well placed, rhythm guitar work and, overall, a dramatic return to the high energy style of early rockers like the Who and the Kinks. Only this time, instead of singing about how You Really Got Me, the songs are about unemployment and injustice, war and racial tension.
Right from the start the Clash demonstrated a tremendous knowledge of rock music, and an uncanny ability to remake the music into an intense, highly original sound. In a song like White Riot, which is basically about the need for middle class whites to rebel against the unchallenging lifestyle that the government endorses, Strummer turns in one of his most embittered vocals as he sings, "All the power is in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it/While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it." The rest of the band counters with background voices singing '"White dot, riot of my own," that are obviously derived from the purposely "off" horn sections on Jamaican reggae and ska recordings.
In a rock & roll context, this juxtaposition works perfectly, both in terms of the sound, and as far as getting the message across.
Since making that first album (which some critics have flatly stated is the best rock & roll album - period), the Clash have certainly become better musicians, yet they refuse to let technique replace emotion. With honest, uncompromising lyrics they continue to render the ravaged and decaying modern world like punk Picassos detailing their own version of Guernica.
The Clash's music often sounds like a violent revolution. At times it is a thunderous roar that filters bits of the Rolling Stones, reggae, the Who, Chuck Berry, rockabilly, marching soldiers, gunfire, and a brawl at some London pub into a crashing wall-of-sound But there's a mellower side of the Clash too. Jimmy Jazz, from London Calling, is reminiscent of Tom Waits, or even Mose Allison. (The Clash included a version of Allison's Look Here on Sandinista!) And over the course of their five albums, they have recorded a lot of reggae, from the gutsy Police And Thieves, to more subtle pieces like One More Time, One More Dub. The Clash have also fit straightforward rockabilly, gospel, blues, and both classic and modern soul music--funk and rap--into their bag of tricks. The Magnificent Seven, the group's first rap number, was played by some of the more adventurous black stations in the U.S.; this greatly pleased the band, who felt that they were connecting directly with an audience that could appreciate their songs about oppression.
"We're not minimalists." says Mick Jones. "Where they [most punk bands] tend to keep themselves in one line. we tend to go out in every line possible - all sorts of sub-tracks." In fact, the Clash's embracing of numerous kinds of international music, and their commitment to keep that music alive in the minds of their fans, is a very important part of what they have accomplished. Particularly now, when American radio is more specialized than ever, when jazz, soul, country & western, reggae, and rock are each isolated and never heard on the same radio show, the Clash continue to demonstrate on each album (since London Calling) that music, like people, should not be segregated.
Of course the fact that politics are such a part of what the Clash do begs the question: Can political rock & roll actually accomplish anything? The Clash try to be realistic, if not optimistic. "Maybe it won't change anything," says Mick Jones, "but I still believe in it, as something worth doing. Perhaps we're too ambitious a band. I would say rock & roll can contribute toward some minor change." Then he adds stubbornly, "But it ain't gonna tell the politicians what to do. It ain't gonna save people from wars'
Adds Strummer with finality, "But we'll have a go at it."
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Article contribution by Michael Bodseni
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