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April 12, 2008


Joe Strummer and the Clash's Mindless Graffiti Politics
Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash, 1977 imageFirst off, the Clash were a great band. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones wrote some outstanding songs. Between them, they were one of the most exciting rock bands of their era. Plus, London Calling came out when I was 17 and just prime to dig their manly posturing - revolutionary wolves howling out in the night against the oppressors. Ke-wl!

However, the Clash have perhaps unfairly suffered significantly in their canonical rankings with me over their foolish political posturing - and their proponents and the record company put me off even more with that "only band that matters" nonsense. They're super duper triple extra important because they're political - and of course they're down with the people. The Clash think deep.

Except that they didn't. Joe Strummer had his moments as a lyricist, but they didn't have anything that much to say politically other than that they were down for the communist revolution. They named a (crappy) triple album for the brutal Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. At least they weren't actually blowing stuff up and killing people like the Weather Underground. They were just posturing for the press, a new incarnation of radical chic.

The vapidity of their thinking jumped out at me recently watching The Clash Live Revolution Rock DVD, an excellent collection of vintage live Clash performances. Joe Strummer, the charismatic lead singer, was the main one pushing politics. Pop songsmith Mick Jones recalls Strummer's first meeting with the band. Jones had a song about being bored with his girlfriend, "I'm So Bored with You." But of course Strummer immediately makes it "I'm So Bored with the USA." Voila! A mere excellent pop song becomes an Important Social Statement. But really, what the hell did it mean, other than some broad generalized disrespect? The main important thing though, they were raging against the machine.

Tom Snyder with the Clash, 1981 imageMost particularly to this point though, there is a 1981 appearance on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. Tom Snyder was an excellent interviewer, trying to give a sympathetic platform for them to make their case for social justice or such. "You prefer to be identified not so much as a rock and roll group, but as a news giving group. Why?" He spent eight solid minutes of air time trying to get Joe Strummer or anyone else in the band to delineate what exactly the news was that they so urgently needed to communicate.

Joe Strummer, 1981 imageThere was no answer to be had. Joe Strummer, Mr Revolution, was on American network tv with a friendly host begging him to make his case, and he just didn't have one to be made. He and the band sitting with him took to playing with a random stuffed bear on the stage and basically playing shtick to kill time.

The big point of protest when he went dredging around for something concrete was that Joe Strummer is of the opinion that rental housing is too expensive in London, and that "landlords are out of control." Thus, he personally has been squatting for years, not paying rent. From the juvenile nature of that behavior, you can take it that he had no detailed explanation for how he decided what "fair" rental pricing would be. Nor, of course, did he offer any explanation as to what landlords should do if his "fair" prices weren't enough to pay taxes and insurance and maintenance on the property.

For being the great political revolutionaries, they generally had no program of what exactly they were protesting against, other than The Man. He didn't have any marching orders for his followers (fortunately). What was it that they wanted people to do to further the revolution, exactly, other than simply buying more Clash albums from the big corporation they work for?

The Clash performing with a graffiti artistThey were on Snyder's show promoting the largely tuneless Sandinista! album, and played "This Is Radio Clash" shortly before he interviewed them. They even about halfway managed to make that mediocre song fairly compelling, but they had a particularly interesting bit of staging with a graffiti artist spraying messages on the wall behind them during the song.

You could probably pick through on freeze frame and make out some of what he's writing on the wall, but they obviously didn't intend for you to get much and it doesn't much matter. It's mostly the idea of showcasing a graffiti guy. It's from the street! It radical. It's chic.

That Tom Snyder show put it together perfectly. Graffiti slogans spray painted on walls by vandals was their level of political discourse. They absolutely had not a goddam thing to say when someone tried very nicely to draw them out explaining their issues with full sentences and paragraphs.

But that's not important. Thing is, they were on the right side. The People's side. Plus, they were a really good rock band with strong tunesmithing and great creatively expressed passion. They were down with the revolution, so they were deep - "the only band that matters."

highly homoerotic looking Paul Simonon playing bass with The Clash in 1977

desktop wallpaper image of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and The Clash

The Clash
"THIS IS RADIO CLASH" PICTURES - 1981 on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder

posted by Al at 4/12/2008 09:03:00 PM

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