The Clash. The Clash.
US Version: 1979, Epic. Producer: Mickey Foote.
Purchased ca. 1994.
IN A NUTSHELL: A record full of energy and fun, even if the lyrics are serious. Strummer/Jones is one of many binary characteristics of the group and their sound, and these create a tension and uniqueness in their sound. It’s a record of quick songs, with different styles, and all of them sound like they could fall apart any second, but it’s hard not to love the chaos.
Within social groups there are few condemnations as malicious as the epithet “Poser.” Attacks on appearance, style, family members, taste, intelligence … all of these can be mean and hurtful. But the term “poser1” assesses all of these characteristics – a person’s total self-image – and dismisses them entirely in a single word.
It is a word that at once a) observes the distinction between “us” and “them;” b) emphasizes that line of demarcation; and c) unconditionally places the object of the term on the “them” side. But the Poser is not only one of “them,” the Poser is even worse: a spy, possibly a double-agent; a non-believer simply playing a role among strict disciples of the faith – whether it be punk rock, skateboarding or football team fandom – who is quietly mocking the devotees by constantly sitting on the edge of the conviction pool even though dressed as if ready to take the plunge. To people who have their entire “self” completely invested in an identity as part of a group, there may be no greater crime.
Even people apart from a group tend to sneer at The Poser. In mainstream, Wonder-bread, American society for the past fifty years, about the only thing worse than being a real hippy or punk rocker or Wiccan has been to be a PRETEND hippy/punk/witch. Google the words ‘why people hate posers‘ and you can read all about their reasons. People don’t appreciate it when they believe someone is trying to be something they are not. To be a poser is to be reviled. But like everyone else, each poser has a unique story, and maybe the poser’s story is useful in understanding any particular Pose.
When I was twenty-two, I nearly died. Not in some “Oh my gosh, my fly was down for the entire job interview!!” kind of way, but in a “Do we know his next of kin?” kind of way. In a way in which friends are screaming “Holy shit!! OH MY GOD!!! HANG ON, E!! HERE THEY COME!!” while you – shivering and naked in a cold, dark forest campground at midnight, resting your head against the cool metal of the hood of your friend’s light-duty pickup, hear faint, distant sirens. In a way in which, as your friends’ shouts begin to sound muffled and slow, as if they’re shouting under water in a slo-mo replay, and the darkness you see inside your eyelids turns yellow and bright, you start to feel as if you’re weightless and floating and warm and you know that everything is going to be just all right for the rest of …
In a way in which you wake up on a hospital bed shivering so hard that you feel you might rattle off the edge, and you discover the joy of warmed blankets, while your buddies stagger into your emergency room and joke and laugh and say “You really had us worried there, E!” You were with your friends – five neighborhood buddies who you’ve played pickup sports with since fourth grade – because one of them invited you to go on their annual early Spring weekend fishing trip out to a secluded campground at Raystown Lake. Sure, it’s nearly a three-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, and it’s supposed to be unseasonably chilly, even for the last weekend in March, and you’re not really much of a fisherman2. But it’s an opportunity to drink beer in the woods and joke around. And besides – you’re a year out of college, supposedly looking for a biology teacher position, but still working at that dumb summer job that’s been extended through winter, and you have no idea of what else you’re going to do, either this weekend or the rest of your life. So you say, “Why not? Let’s fish! What’s the worst that can happen?”
Of course, since you’re going to the woods to drink beer, and since both the woods and beer have at times given you asthma attacks like the ones you’ve had since you were a kid, you are sure to pack your trusty inhaler. You never had an inhaler as a kid, but when you first got one in college you were AMAZED at how quickly and thoroughly it knocked out any wheeze of any size. It’s often called a “rescue inhaler,” and it’s rescued you many times over the past few years.
You had fun the first night, Friday, even though you drank a lot more than you probably should have – not uncommon for you. Saturday was too windy to be enjoyable in the boat on the lake, and it seemed to suppress the appetite of the fish, as well, but you and the guys goofed around some more, hiked up a big hill/little mountain, and generally had fun. And as the day wound down, and a new fire was lit, and more beer passed around, you weren’t feeling all that great, so you finished your one measly beer3 and climbed into your sleeping bag fully dressed, inside the old, moldy canvas tent J. brought with him.
Having had asthma since you were a child, you’re very familiar with the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps and diarrhea – a peculiar symptom of your outbreaks that your doctor has told you is particular to your body’s response to allergens. But upon returning from the dark campground lavatory, everyone else having gone to their tents, the embers in the fire pit still smoldering, you just know that the puffs you’ve had on your inhaler are not going to stop the tingling wave now rushing up from your diaphragm, you know that this is a different feeling than any you’ve had before, that the electricity running down your arms and legs isn’t a usual asthma symptom. So, hoping the others aren’t passed out from too much booze, you wake them up with squeaky gasps intended to be shouts and let them know they’d better get an ambulance out here to the wilderness pretty damn quick. Emerging groggily from the tents, they’re all a little confused, but when you start disrobing because you’re so fucking hot, and then lean against a truck and defecate because you’ll never make it back to the latrine, well, they start to figure out that it isn’t a prank. And T. – who’s recently graduated from State Trooper school, and so trained in emergencies – takes over the situation and sends D. off to the payphone located way over at the campground’s main building. And you just lean against that cool truck and try to breathe, even though each breath feels like you’re trying to suck a billiard ball through a drinking straw4. And the next thing you know, you’re shivering in the E.R.
So that’s what I mean when I say I almost died. And before it happened I’d always had vague notions of doing creative things. I’d dreamed of being a stand-up comic, but I also wanted to act in plays and write songs in a band and write stories and … geez, I don’t know, just get out and make stuff and do stuff and say yes to life. But I felt trapped in my little Pennsylvania town, and I had no idea how or where or even if people did these kinds of things that I wanted to do. But lying in intensive care for 3 days gives a person a lot of time to think. I realized that the rest of my days were a gift from my friends, the paramedics, and the ER staff. It was time to take advantage of that gift and look for opportunities to do the things I’d always imagined. My decisions over the past 27 years or so have been greatly influenced by the belief that I’d better say yes today, ’cause I might not have the chance tomorrow. I’ve kept a grainy photo taken the morning I left on that trip as a sort of reminder of my gift.
So several months after the camping trip, when an opportunity to join an established rock band came along, one that was writing its own songs and playing out regularly, I couldn’t say no. It was the pre-Nirvana era of jangly college rock and trippy guitar pop, and this band, The April Skies, was ambitious and good. I dove in head-first, started wearing clothes like the other guys did, cut my hair in weird ways5, and began listening to music I’d never listened to before. I discovered The Replacements, The Pixies, and The Stone Roses, and I found I really loved them. I wasn’t doing it to be cool or to be part of a group, I was just enjoying myself. I took a temp job at an aspirin factory so I could take days off when the band played out of town.
That’s where I met R., who, it turned out, despite being a genius-level chemist basically running part of the analytical lab at the ripe old age of 23, and despite looking perhaps more like a Romanov than a Ramone, was a soaked-to-the-bone punk rocker. He was intrigued by my band and our music, which I typically described as “pop-punk-alternative” and hearing this he said, “You must be a Clash fan, right?” Now, obviously, I’d heard of The Clash, and I knew such songs as “Rock the Casbah” and “London Calling” and “Train in Vain” (aka “Stand By Your Man”), but that was the extent of my knowledge. So I told him. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t turn away in disgust, he never once uttered the word “poser.” He simply said, “I have to bring you something.”
The next day he brought in the CD box set The Clash On Broadway, an extensive compilation that had recently been released. I knew about the superhuman reviews and comments and opinions that had been stated about the band for years. I figured they were probably pretty good. I had no idea they were as amazing as advertised. I took that box set home, and I must have played it 4,000 times if I played it once. I couldn’t believe how fun, tuneful, serious, loud, diverse and incredible the band was. As one did in 1991, I immediately transferred the CDs to cassettes, and I played them relentlessly. The Clash were actually better than advertised. And if R. had simply dismissed me as a “poser,6” I may have never found out. I began buying Clash albums, and their self-titled debut7 was one of the last ones I got.
It’s been observed many times over the years that The Clash’s main songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones followed a blueprint established by The Beatles’ Lennon/McCartney, and it’s a pretty decent analogy. Strummer was Lennon’s rocker with a poet’s soul, and Jones was McCartney’s melodic, musical genius. And The Clash kicks off with a song, “Clash City Rockers,” that immediately establishes the beauty of this configuration.
After a quick run-through of the song’s chords, Strummer starts spitting out lyrics in something close to a tune, but with an insistence that implies more concern for lyrical content than melody. Then, at about 28 seconds, Jones brings a (relatively) nicely sung melody to the song, and backing vocals, that keep it from being a simple shout-fest. The lyrics are a type of celebration of the new (in 1977) punk/D.I.Y. culture, and include a couple tweaks of contemporary music like Disco and David Bowie in a parody of a British nursery rhyme. There’s an energy to the entire song, an energy that continues through the album, that makes it feel important and necessary.
Of course, the band became well known for their politically-charged songs, as in the title-says-it-all “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”
What I really love about this song is Mick Jones’s guitar work. Just as he made “Clash City Rockers” more interesting with his vocals, he raises this song with the cool fills and leads he plays throughout. At 15 seconds, he throws in a syncopated riff that plays nicely against the driving rhythm of Strummer’s strumming and becomes a counter-melody for the song. He also again adds harmony vocals that lift the song to something more than angry lyrics and a couple chords. There’s a definite synergy to Strummer and Jones, which to my ears makes the whole greater than its parts. But there are other parts besides Strummer and Jones.
Bassist Paul Simonon and drummers Tory Crimes8 and Nicky “Topper” Headon were the rhythm section, with Crimes leaving the band after recording The Clash9. The drumming is great throughout the album, and Simonon’s bass is particularly strong on the reggae and reggae-influenced songs, for example “Police & Thieves.” It was written and originally recorded by Jamaican singer Junior Murvin, and is one of my two co-favorite songs on the record. Simonon plays sloppily but melodically, a style that perfectly suits the band. And the lyrics of this cover, expressing a view held by many people on the fringes of society, fit perfectly for a band like The Clash, as well.
The left-wing, populist lyrics are a mainstay of The Clash. And as great as they lyrics can be, one of the beauties of the band is that their locution and pronunciation are so poor when singing that even if you’re annoyed by such views, they’re easy to ignore because you can’t understand them most of the time anyway! A song that combines all the characteristics I’ve described is the wonderful “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” my other co-favorite song10. It has intelligible vocals by Strummer, with lyrics about wealth distribution, racial harmony, and put-downs of a system out to value profits over people, excellent harmonies and cool guitar fills by Jones, a strong, reggae bass line and terrific drumming.
All of these songs, the entire album, have a nearly-off-the-rails feeling that gives them an immediacy, like hearing your favorite band live playing a song they just wrote. But the production and arrangements make the songs sound complete and finished. It’s one of many dichotomies within The Clash11, and they create a great tension that elevates the band. Take for example “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song about drug laws and prison. It’s got a raucous fury to it, but it starts with a drum beat that almost sounds like a drum machine. It’s controlled chaos.
Similarly, “Hate & War” is a pop song with a slight disco feel, but it’s thoroughly 70s punk rock as well.
And speaking of punk rock, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the straight-ahead, safety pin through the lip, 11-inch mohawk songs that also reside on The Clash. They sound powerful and angry, especially when placed alongside the more melodic efforts. I’m talking about songs like “White Riot,” and “London’s Burning,” and “Career Opportunities“. It’s an album chock full of great songs. Complete Control and Janie Jones are two others that stand out, along with a cover of the great 60s gem by The Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law.” And “Garageland” has one of the great opening lines in rock n roll.
The Clash is a record for everyone. Fun songs, great energy, thoughtful lyrics, diverse sounds and styles … It’s a record that gives the appearance of being a punk rocker, but there is so much more to it – which is an excellent lesson. Many things in life are more than what they appear to be. That mild-mannered chemist might be a punk rocker. Your goofy friends might be heroes. And there might even be more to that “Poser” than his outward appearance suggests!
“Clash City Rockers”
“I’m So Bored With the USA”
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”
“I Fought the Law”
“What’s My Name”
“Hate & War”
“Police & Thieves”
“Jail Guitar Doors”