Thursday, 15 September 2022 16:00

'The future is unwritten' - The Clash, 40 years on

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'The future is unwritten' - The Clash, 40 years on

Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman remembers the day Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper broke up

1982, the year of the Falklands War, Gotcha! And when the ships returned to Blighty, the troops greeted us with the banner 'Call Off the Rail Strike or We'll Call In An Airstrike'. A Thatcherite version of patriotism triumphant, complete with Michael Foot's Labour Party in tow, backing the war.

Grim times, and for those of a certain musical-political disposition, the soundtrack that gave us hope, The Clash, split up. The 17 September '82 release of their single Should I Stay or Should I Go marked the end of the band's classic line up: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. Various versions struggled on for a while, and both Mick with Big Audio Dynamite and Joe with The Mescaleros went on to produce some great material. But for The Clash as we knew them, it was The End.

Four decades have passed but nothing will ever replace the sounds and the culture we associate with what seems now a remarkably short time that The Clash were together, 1976-82.

Bad ideas can be displaced

In the aftermath of the Falklands War the leading left intellectual of the time, Stuart Hall described the mood and the political consequences:

We are up against the wall of a rampant and virulent gut patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser – in part because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.

But Stuart was not a determinist, and he also outlined why it didn't have to be this way:

The traces of ancient, stone-age ideas cannot be expunged. But neither is their influence and infection permanent and immutable. The culture of an old empire is an imperial culture; but that is not all it is, and these are not necessarily the only ideas in which to invent a future for British people. Imperialism lives on – but is not printed in an English gene. In the struggle for ideas, the battle for hearts and minds which the Right has been conducting with such considerable effect, bad ideas can only be displaced by better, more appropriate ones.

The Clash did that 'displacing' in a manner we could sing along with, dance to, and wear as a badge with pride. Mixing Notting Hill and Brixton with Rocking against Racism and Working for the Clampdown this was a band that stood defiantly for a very different version of Englishness to Thatcherism. Robin Hood, the Levellers, Cable Street all wrapped up in black leather jackets, bandanas and Doctor Martens. English Civil War The Clash belted out English Civil War, but not for even a fleeting moment petty-minded nationalism, instead theirs' was the popular internationalism of the triple album Sandinista! A rebel music, home and abroad too, quite different to the more than occasionally twee so-called 'World Music' that emerged at the time.

To what extent was this a model for that long-awaited mix of radical politics with popular culture? For a brief moment punk was both counter-cultural and filling venues, storming the charts while Burchill and Parsons provide weekly bulletins from the front line of this heady mix in the pages of a radicalised NME.

When Rock against Racism folded in '81 there wasn't much in the way to replace the kind of platform, audience and political context it provided for The Clash, and those who followed in their wake – most notably The Ruts. The 1984-85 Miners’ Strike was a time of huge benefit concerts, something Enough is Enough would do well to replicate. The Redskins, for many a band who came closest to what The Clash meant were a big part of this. And perhaps most surprisingly of all Labour launched 'Red Wedge'. Without really knowing what they were doing, it was the most ambitious effort at popular cultural politics in the party's history. But it was closed down after the '87 defeats, because Labour wrongly thought that there weren't enough votes in it.                      

But despite this huge gap ever since The Clash ended in '82, for a certain generation they will always be the best band of all time – they might not have changed the world but they certainly changed us. They started off as a 'garage band' as proudly proclaimed on their 1977 debut album track Garageland (decades later brilliantly rewritten by punk poet Attila the Stockbroker as Farageland).

The future is unwritten

Attila is one of those who keeps the diy rebellious spirit of The Clash alive, like Joe Solo, Jess Silk, Captain Ska, The Commoners Choir, and the grassroots and local musical and poetic solidarity of We Shall Overcome and Poetry on the Picketline – and for a precious moment in 2017, Grime4Corbyn too. But none of them have achieved the scale of breakthrough The Clash once managed with a musical-political legacy that four decades on remains every bit as potent today.

In the space of six years, they graduated from playing in the garage to selling out Shea Stadium, with U2 as support. What if The Clash were still with us, like The Rolling Stones, The Who and U2? We'll never know, but for as long as their legacy remains, one thing is certain: in the words of Joe Strummer 'the future is unwritten'. And so Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper, for that we'll always be grateful. 

Further reading

Colin Coulter (Ed) -Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, The Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk

Daniel Rachel - Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of  Rock against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge

Gregor Gall - The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer 

Philosophy Football's The Clash 1976-82 range is available from here  

Clash zip 2022.600

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