Celebrating the politics of punk
Tuesday 4th April 2017
Next Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of The Clash’s debut album. MARK PERRYMAN reports on a notable event to mark it
FOR most people, the birth of punk happened on or around 1976 with the November release that year of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. Music and movement were catapulted into the “filth and fury” headlines via the band’s expletive-strewn Bill Grundy TV interview.
The Pistols and the rest were key to the detonation of a youthful mood of revolt alongside the not entirely dissimilar The Damned, Manchester’s Buzzcocks and the more trad-rock Stranglers. Giving the boy bands a run for their money, The Slits pushed perhaps hardest at punk’s musical boundaries, their Typical Girls track quite unlike what the others were recording.
But it was The Clash who more than anyone symbolised the punk and politics mix, showcased on their debut album The Clash, released 40 years ago on April 8, 1977.
Its 14 tracks, played at furious speed, were two-minute classics. Boredom with the US, hate, war, non-existent career opportunities and an angry demand for a riot of their own all featured. And there was an inspired cover version, backed by a pitch perfect reggae beat played slow, of Junior Murvin and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Police and Thieves, with the lyrics almost spoken rather than sung.
The album cover shows the youthful threesome of Strummer, Jones and Simonon in their artfully stencilled shirts and jackets that were to become their signature stage wear uniform completed by the obligatory skinny jeans, white socks and black DMs.
The print quality is purposely poor to add a degree of authenticity that this band hardly needed. But it was the back cover, a scene from the 1976 Notting Hill carnival riots with the Met’s boys in blue, that’s the more telling. It shows them in hot pursuit of black youth who are retreating and regrouping under the Westway flyover in west London.
It was that reality in ’76 that inspired The Clash’s anthemic White Riot and the lines: “White riot! I wanna riot. White riot! A riot of my own!”’ At the time the National Front’s streetfighting racist army was laying waste wherever they marched. Their leaders John Tyndall and Martin Webster were pretty much household names and the NF was getting an indecently high enough number of votes to suggest an electoral breakthrough might be a possibility.
The potential for White Riot to be misinterpreted then — and now too — is obvious. But the band’s intent couldn’t be clearer.
Living and recording in and around the Westway, they embraced the changes the local community had undergone since the 1950s. Caribbean music, food and fashions were as much a part of who The Clash were as rock’n’roll, Sunday roast and safety pins.
It was a spirit of Black defiance that they sought to share, not oppose: “All the power is in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it,/While we walk the streets/Too chicken to even try it./And everybody does what they’re told to/And everybody eats supermarket soul food!”
A year after the album’s release, The Clash headlined the first Rock against Racism carnival in London’s Victoria Park.
The dayglo politics of this musical culture of resistance fitted perfectly with the agitprop look and lyrics of the band, as it did with Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex’s punk feminism, Tom Robinson with his liberatory number Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution.
This wasn’t just a line-up that commercial promoters in ’78 would die for, it was a platform to challenge prejudice both without and within that we could dance to, or jump about to.
Of course, like all successful musicians, The Clash became celebrities and the venues became bigger and bigger. But, through force of circumstance, the band bailed out before they reached U2’s overblown proportions or outstayed their musical welcome like the Rolling Stones.
1977 is a moment to look back to and remember but not to fossilise, that would be the antithesis of everything The Clash represented or, as the final track from the album put it: “I don’t want to hear about what the rich are doing, I don’t want to go where the rich are going.”
Garageland. That’s where they came from and never entirely left either. Its why more than anything else the ’77 Clash still matter four decades on and to mark the 40th anniversary there’ll be a night of live music like no other at London’s Rich Mix on April 8, hosted by RMT and supported by the FBU.
The album will be played in both the original 1977-era Clash style and a 2017 remix on a bill that mixes bands, solo performers, discussion and spoken word. Syd Shelton’s incredible photography of ’77 punk and the rise of Rock against Racism is on show and among the artists appearing are 48 Thrills with Steve North, Dream Nails, Emily Harrison, Sean McGowan, Nia Wyn, Joe Solo, Captain Ska, Attila the Stockbroker and Comrade X.
’77 Clash Night is at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London E1, with a 6pm start. Tickets, price £9.99, are available from philosophyfootball.com or call (01255) 552-412 to reserve.