“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” from the U.S. version of The Clash (1979). The quality of this video isn’t great, but it captures how explosive the Clash were as a live band. Here’s the original studio version; and here’s a live version from the film Rude Boy.
Okay, so, first of all, what’s not to love about this song? It’s a veritable font of Clash-ism (more on that below); plus it’s an awesome combination of punk and reggae – the two things the Clash were best at.
In any event, I decided to go with this song earlier in the week when I wrote a piece on the thirtieth anniversary of Bob Marley’s untimely death (note I had to repost that piece today due to technical problems with Blogger). Researching that piece, I cam across this quote from David Thompson’s Reggae and Caribbean Music:
Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture ... That the machine has utterly emasculated Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers, and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and whose sacrament was marijuana. Instead, the Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more.
I have mixed feelings about that. Yes, it’s true that drunken college kids and over-served white tourists have a tendency to profane Bob Marley’s legacy; but at the same time, to people who cared to listen his music really was every bit as radical and revolutionary as Marley intended it to be. So I think it really depends on the audience: Those who listened to Marley while they got drunk and acted like fools whitewashed his message in their own minds; but people – Black, White or otherwise – who were receptive to the message actually got it.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen enough klutzy white suburbanites spilling drinks and tripping over themselves while singing “Three Little Birds” off key and way too loudly to get the gist of what Thompson’s getting at. Point: Taken.
But I think the experiences of Marley and other genuinely radical artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday – and specifically, the way those artists were co-opted by mainstream pop culture to the extent that the life was sucked right out of their music (have you ever really listened to all the verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” or “Strange Fruit”? Whoa!) – those experiences probably led Joe Strummer and company to know exactly what they were getting into. From the outset, the Clash knew that they had to compromise, at least to some extent, with record company suits in order to get heard, and they said as much on their records. Even in their earliest songs, the Clash understood: The record company was only interested in money and could care less about the message; but the band was willing to go along with that in order to get the message out. How else can you explain these brilliant lyrics:
White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution
Punk rockers in the UK
They won’t notice anyway
They’re all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits – hah, you think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money …
Turning rebellion into money. That’s all the record companies were interested in – and a good number of rock bands, too. The Clash’s willingness to acknowledge that basic fact of life in the music business made their music that much more credible. They weren’t selling out, exactly, but they told you in no uncertain terms that they knew they were being used to make money for other people.
So maybe in order to get their records out they made a deal with the devil, but they made it on their own terms and they were honest about it. I always respected the Clash for that.
Oh, yeah. And one more thing. Turn. It. Up.© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.