August 9th, 2001

The Clash

Have a pop at The Clash? Well, fair enough, Give ‘Em Enough Rope certainly gave us enough rope, their final album Cut The Crap failed signally to follow the exhortation of its title and “I’m So Bored With The USA” rebounded on them when they were instantly and conspicuously seduced by the place the moment they set foot in New York. Still apart from that . . .

Apart from that, they were rubbish. Truly. A band who made a combative, posturing virtue of their fierce ordinariness – not unlike present-day spawn Manic Street Preachers. Honest pub rock Joe Strummer, a man who unselfconsciously took verbal potshots at “toffs”, “pretentious intellectual bollocks” and other more puzzling creations of his own overdriven loathing such as the “vegetable chewing pussies” whom he lambasted in one of his later interviews in Uncut. What he espoused, then, was a rock’n’roll that was raw, basic but also inelegant, mentally unchallenging, anti-feminine and free of any hint of broccoli. And anyone who queried this aesthetic was quite literally shitting on the working classes.

On “White Riot”, The Clash complain that, unlike their admirable brick-throwing black contemporaries, “White people go to school/Where they teach you to be thick.” This is a slight not just on the teaching profession in general, who are waging a daily war against the bonehead chic propounded through street culture by the likes of The Clash for whom intellectual aspirations equal ponciness. It’s also an implied slur on the staff of Epsom – yes, Epsom Boarding School, where in spite of their best efforts it was evidently as much as they could do to teach the schoolboy Strummer to spell C-A-T, so addled was his mind with fantasy notions of rock rebellion.

These fantasies took the form, with The Clash, of an “English Civil War”, in which a bandit culture of tommy-gun wielding bankrobbers, buccaneers and City Rockers waged war against the “suits” and scoffing businessmen who wanted to make plastic robots out of the masses to do their bidding. “Remote Control” encapsulates this utter failing to understand the complex workings and make-up of England and repression. So often, The Clash’s political agenda amounted to little more than the cry of the frustrated, self-pitying yob. On “Complete Control”, they moan that at every hotel “we was met by the law” – as if to suggest that this was ridiculous overkill on the part of the authorities and that they were just a bunch of musicians who intended to cause as little trouble as Coldplay. However, none of this exactly squares with the sentiments of “White Riot”. You could hardly blame Plod for being a bit wary.

That said, the police might have had the sense to realise that the ramparts of the UK establishment were hardly under threat from four pimply geezers who could barely organise a meeting in a hotel lobby, let alone a revolution and who, if necessary, could be taken out in a pre-noon raid. Trouble with Strummer was that he imagined that his Arthur Mullard-style clarion vocal cry was the authentic voice of the decent working class, a breed of anti-intellectual but Nicaraguan politics-loving, jailbreaking, Prince Far I-appreciating anti-American Levi’s jeans-sporting violent pacifists. Yeah, right. Strummer’s belligerent bellow, if heard echoing down the tube station at midnight, isn’t the sort to reassure, say, a single travelling woman on the platform that she’s about to be joined by the Salt Of The Earth. Sure enough, it made sense when, during the 1998 World Cup, Strummer made public his good feelings at seeing “our boys” giving Johnny Foreigner a hiding in the violence that preceded most England games. Joe’s people.

Most of The Clash’s crimes, however, were musical. They espoused a rock’n’roll liberation theology but their music is actually about as “liberating” as being locked in the bogs at Dingwalls. Sure, their bog-rudimentary chords seemed momentarily refreshing to a generation overfed with Yes triple albums but today, next to The Sex Pistols’ raucous falling wall of rock and Lydon’s scathing vocal broadsides, The Clash sound like low-IQ ex-squaddies doing karaoke versions of old Bay City Rollers songs. Indeed, next to street-fighting, nihilist Brit-rock predecessors like The Stones and The Who, The Clash pale into feebleness. Granted, they did expand into reggae, funk, dub etc after London Calling but compared to similar excursions on the part of their post-punk contemporaries, from PiL to Joy Division, The Banshees to Talking Heads, The Clash’s efforts were boorish, ham-fisted. “White Man At Hammersmith Palais” is clumsy, clumsy white reggae while “Hitsville USA”‘s pitiful Motown parody sounds like a Phil Collins rough demo.

Everyone secretly knows The Clash were lyrically facile, musically ugly, embarrassing rebel rock poseurs. It’s only the liberal guilt that Strummer and co succeeded in inculcating in the rock “intelligentsia” that has prevented anyone from actually admitting it.

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