Radicalism, resistance and rebellion: The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer
Thursday, 25 July 2024 01:12

Radicalism, resistance and rebellion: The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer

Published in Music

Joe Strummer, leader, lead singer and lyricist for the seminal punk band, The Clash, died twenty years ago this year. But long after his death and that of The Clash in 1986, he continues to exert a considerable influence upon the education of innumerable individuals, propelling them towards adopting and maintaining radical, left-wing politics.

Alongside the musicianship of Mick Jones, Strummer was able to provide passionate live performances which elevated the influences of his lyrics into political epiphanies for many. Amongst them are many union leaders in Britain today like Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union.

This is the central conclusion from my research for my new book, The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer: Radicalism, resistance and rebellion. The research for it was based upon taking testimony from over 100 individuals of different ages, genders, generations, countries and continents. What lessons can the left learn from Strummer for putting across its radical message?

The main one is that people, especially young people, are 'into' music in a way that is not true of other art forms like films, poetry or sculpture. Music can provide a stronger and sharper psychological connection with the listener, bringing about strong emotional feelings. For that reason, it is the clear candidate to be the primary form of culture that needs to be used to convey left-wing ideas. This is not instead of writings, whether books or pamphlets. Rather, it is a way of stimulating the desire to approach them, having had an enjoyable emotional experience which is in a bite-size digestible form. 

Examples of Strummer doing this are most obviously found in his songs ‘Spanish Bombs’ from London Calling (1979) about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and ‘Washington Bullets’ from Sandinista! (1980) about American imperialism in central and south America. In the former, he wrote:

The shooting sites in the days of '39 /…/ The freedom fighters died upon the hill / They sang the red flag / They wore the black one /…/ The hillsides ring with "Free the people" / Or can I hear the echo from the days of '39? / With trenches full of poets/The ragged army, fixin' bayonets to fight the other line.....

while in the latter:

As every cell in Chile will tell / The cries of the tortured men/Remember Allende, and the days before, / Before the army came/Please remember Victor Jara /…/ When they had a revolution in Nicaragua / There was no interference from America /…/ Well the people fought the leader / And up he flew / With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

See Youtube clip here (it's only available to watch on YT).

In a pre-internet age, such songs sent many scurrying to their local library to find out more. Nowadays, there are websites explaining his lyrics and links to further written, audio and visual materials.

So, Strummer gave us a 'masterclass' in the way to converse with an audience, whether it be over environmental destruction, what we now call neo-liberalism, of fighting racism and fascism. Though he seldom was explicit about what listeners should then do, he was always clear that some form of activism was necessary to make good on the ideas.

Of course, his charisma and self-confidence as well as having the platform of punk were all critical in his ability to widen the appeal of being such a wonderful wordsmith. The only other lyricist that comes close to Strummer in giving a radical worldview mass appeal is Paul Weller in the closing period of his first band, The Jam, and in his next band, The Style Council.

What does this practically mean for the left? Over and above being able to analyse the progressive political nature of cultural artefacts like a song and promote those groups and bands which are in their songs radical in challenging the status quo, the left needs to take a big step.

It needs to consciously create its own music. This means left organisations creating the infrastructure and opportunities for their members and supporters to produce music which has a radical intent. The costs and difficulties of producing and distributing music today are so much lower than back in Strummer’s day. Sure, the lyrics will have to be clever and well-crafted and the instrumentation and arrangements appealing. But there is then a chance for the left to use this means to speak to a much wider audience than it has been able to up to now. Songs can be an introduction not only to tomes on capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism but also on what to do about them. As Strummer said in ‘Working for the Clampdown’ (1979): ‘Kick over the wall 'cause governments to fall. How can you refuse it? Let fury have the hour, anger can be power. Do you know that you can use it?’


London is drowning – but keep the faith
Thursday, 25 July 2024 01:12

London is drowning – but keep the faith

Published in Music

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman recalls the Clash's epic album of 40 years ago. Image designed by Hugh Tisdall for Philosophy Football

14th December 1979 – the year of Thatcher’s election was seen out with the release of London Calling, widely regarded as the finest of all Clash albums.  Forty years later, 14th December 2019, another Tory nightmare begins and London's drowning. So it seems timely to look back, in hope.

The Clash had burst onto the fast-emerging punk scene in ’77 with their debut album. The band’s second long-player Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released to mixed reviews. It was over-produced, so the raw energy edge of its tracks was somewhat blunted. All this was to change however, with London Calling.

From double album length, weighing in at an astonishing nineteen tracks across four sides, to the stunning cover pic of Paul Simonon doing some serious damage to his bass guitar, this was to become an instant classic.  The rich mix of sounds showcased the foursome’s ever-expanding musical influences – jazz, reggae and dub, the blues, rockabilly, ska. This by and large wasn’t what was expected of 1970s English punk bands. Despite that, both fans and critics loved it.   

On their debut album Joe Strummer had belted out the anthemic ‘We’re so bored with the USA’ yet two years later The Clash appeared to have fallen hopelessly in love with the place.  The influences were obvious, from Montgomery Clift to Cadillacs – a wholesome embrace of Americana minus the shrill anti-Americanism of the band’s more obvious politics.

The band were emerging as fulsome internationalists too. Every bit at home belting out their tribute to inner-city resistance The Guns of Brixton as their very particular account in Spanish Bombs of the battle against Franco’s fascists. For many listeners these tracks would be their first introduction to either subject. The Clash were a genuinely educational, as well as innovative, outfit, a key influence shaping a generation whose politics were framed by being anti-Thatcher on the home front and soon enough against Reagan on the global front too.  Sounds familiar?        

Two tracks in particular stand out. Not only as unforgettable when first heard but uncannily prescient four decades on too. 

What are we gonna do now?
Taking off his turban, they said, 'is this man a Jew?'
'Cause they're working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying: 'We earn more than you'
We're working for the clampdown
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers

This ‘clampdown’ mixed authoritarianism, race hatred and economic power. What The Clash railed against in 1979 remains the shape of Johnson and Trump’s right-wing, racist populism today.

And then of course the album’s title track, London Calling:

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down

This was the era of the Winter of Discontent, the Special Patrol Group, war in Ireland (and soon enough in the South Atlantic too), the Nazi National Front on the march, Brixton and Toxteth ablaze, civil disobedience against Reagan and Thatcher’s nuclear arms race, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike.  ‘War is declared’ – they weren’t far wrong.

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin' thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river

The meteorology might be a tad skewift but a frightening vision of the future has become the vivid reality of the present-day climate emergency. A melting polar ice cap, record-breaking heatwaves, agricultural growing seasons in crisis, and rising seal levels.

We can rest assured that The Clash of yesteryear would have been playing Extinction Rebellion benefit gigs today.  It’s Revolution Rock, ’79 vintage – play it loud in 2019, and keep the faith.

Philosophy Football’s 40th anniversary London Calling T-shirt is available from here.

Celebrating the politics of punk
Thursday, 25 July 2024 01:12

Celebrating the politics of punk

Published in Music

8th April is the 40th Anniversary of The Clash's debut album. Mark Perryman reminds us what the 1977 punk and politics mix was all about.

The birth of punk for most is dated on or round 1976, with the November release that year of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. Music and movement were catapuoted into the ‘filth and fury’ headlines via the band’s expletive-strewn Bill Grundy TV interview.

More Situationist than Anarchist, Rotten and the rest were of course 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 8th April 1977. From being bored with the USA and angrily demanding a riot of their own, via hate and war to non-existent career opportunities, fourteen tracks, played at furious speed to produce two-minute classics. The one exception was their inspired cover version of Junior Marvin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Police and Thieves, played slow, the lyrics almost spoken rather than sung, backed by a pitch-perfect reggae beat.

The album cover shows the youthful threesome of Strummer, Jones and Simonon in their artfully stencilled shirts and jackets that was to become their signature stagewear, 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 more than most hardly needed. But it was the back cover that is the more telling. A scene from the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riots with the Met’s boys in blue, these were the days before RoboCop style body armour, riot shields, helmets with visors, in hot pursuit of black youth retreating and regrouping under the Westway flyover.

MP police 2

It was that experience 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 household names, and the NF was getting enough 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 this West London community had undergone since the 1950s. Caribbean music, food and fashions were as much a part of The Clash as rock and roll, Sunday roast and safety pins. They sought to share the spirit of Black defiance, not oppose it.

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 Polly Styrene of X-Ray Spex’s punk feminism, Tom Robinson’s liberatory Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay, and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse with tales of a 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. In her book 1988 The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, Caroline Coon predicted of The Clash that "their acute awareness, and ability to articulate the essence of the era which inspires their music, will make their contribution to the history of rock of lasting significance. Happy times are here again."

The Clash inspired, and continue to inspire, a wave of bands who play music we can dance to and march to in equal measure. Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers, Southall’s Ruts, and the Au Pairs stand out from back then. Poets too, who often styled themselves as ranters, like  Seething Wells, and of course Attila the Stockbroker. Then came the unforgettable and much-missed Redskins and the hardy perennial favourite, Billy Bragg. Today? A new wave (sic) of bands whose influences, musically and politically, can be traced back to ’77 era Clash would certainly include The Wakes, The Hurriers, Thee Faction, Joe Solo, Louise Distras, Captain Ska, Séan McGowan and more. Off the musical beaten track yet holding out for a better tomorrow with tunes to match!

Like all successful musicians The Clash did become celebrities, their appeal went mainstream, 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 to play into their dotage Rolling Stones style. 1977 is a year to remember but not to fossilise - that would be the antithesis of everything they represented. 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 to where, where the rich are going.

Garageland. That’s where they came from and never entirely left either. Its why more than anything else ‘77 Clash in 2017 matter still.

MP Clash ad for Tweet

‘77Clash Night is presented by Philosophy Football in association with the RMT and supported by the FBU, Brigadista Ale and R2 Magazine. Saturday 8th April, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Clash Debut Album side one played live ‘as was’, side two ‘played now’ by artists of today remixing and rewriting the originals. At Rich Mix, Shoreditch, East London. Tickets just £9.99 from here.

’77 Clash T-shirt range available now from Philosophy Football. This is an extended version of an article first published in the Morning Star.