Friday, October 5, 2012

Your Friday Clash Song: Are You Going Backwards, Or Are You Going Forwards?

“White Riot,” from both versions of the debut album, The Clash, originally released in the UK in 1977. This is the single version, which was also featured on the U.S. release of The Clash in 1979. According to The Clash Wiki:
The version of White Riot on The Clash (UK Version) is a practically live take, much faster and rougher than the single version, with Joe ad-libbing the line “yeah, and instead of all that, all we get is someday maybe”, at the end instead of the famous line “are you going backwards/or are you going forwards?”. The single version has far more refined production as well as a series of overdubbed sound effects, including a police siren at the beginning of the song, the sound of marching stamping feet, the sound of glass breaking, and what sounds like a burglar alarm going off.
So, I’ve been doing this “Your Friday Clash Song” thing on and off for nearly two years now, and all the while I’ve been avoiding this song. It’s not that I dislike the song, it’s that I’m not sure how to deal with it. Given yesterday’s discussion of racial double-standards in the current presidential election, however, I decided it was time to confront it head on.
As a punk song, “White Riot” is fantastic. It’s fast and angry and overtly political:
Of people rich enough to buy it
While walk the street
Too chicken to even try it …
It’s everything you want in a punk song.
But it’s the obvious racial overtones that I find perplexing. The Clash were, in fact, vehemently anti-racist. As I’ve often mentioned before, Joe Strummer aptly described the band’s overarching philosophy as antifascist, antiviolence, antiracist … we’re pro-creative, against ignorance”; and that’s reflected in the entirety of the band’s oeuvre, from their adoration of reggae to their pointed lyrics about social injustice, bigotry, imperialism and poverty. Indeed, one of the band’s earliest and most famous live performances occurred at the massive Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park in 1978. A 2008 article from The Guardian explains:
On 30 April 1978, a crowd gathered in Victoria Park in London’s East End. They had come from all over the country - 42 coaches from Glasgow, 15 from Sheffield, an entire trainload from Manchester - marching across London from Trafalgar Square to attend a special all-day concert headlined by Tom Robinson and the Clash. The day had been organised by ‘Rock Against Racism’, a grassroots political movement that used music to campaign against the looming electoral threat of the National Front. …
… [F]or those who attended the original concert in 1978 it was a show that changed their lives and helped change Britain. Rock Against Racism radicalised a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference. By demonstrating the power of music to effect change it inspired Live Aid and its supporters claim it helped destroy the National Front. It was the triumphant climax to a story that began two years earlier, following one hot August night in Birmingham.
By the way, read that whole article. It’ll open your eyes to what was happening in music and in society at large in the mid- to late-1970s, and it explains so much about the environment in which punk sprouted and why it was so vitally important to the future of rock ’n roll.
In any event, here are the Clash performing “London’s Burning” and “White Riot” at the Rock Against Racism concert in 1978, captured in the film Rude Boy (1980) … and it’s most definitely NSFW:

Nonetheless, the lyrics of “White Riot” are challenging, particularly in our current political climate where the right uses the President’s “blackness” as a cudgel and at least some of us on the left are, shall we say, more than a little tone-deaf on issues of race. (I’m looking at you, Bill Maher.) Take, for instance, this verse, which sets up the premise of the song:
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick …
In the context of the song, they undoubtedly mean that as a compliment to, not a criticism of, Black people; and, of course, it’s a metaphor: “Throwing a brick,” as in taking decisive action, refusing to allow the haters to push you around. Whereas white folks go to school and become passive and inert. I suppose I’d rather be a metaphorical brick-thrower than a thick person who’s been taught to be obedient, but you can see why the lyric is troublesome.
And this dovetails with my comments yesterday about the conveniently-timed release of that 2007 video of Barack Obama speaking to a predominantly African American crowd at Hampton University. To the right, when Pres. Obama “talks Black” to a Black audience, he’s that metaphorical brick-thrower who makes white folks so edgy. And we on the left may view that brick-thrower as heroic, even enviable, but it’s still a stereotype. Why describe a forceful Black person as a brick-thrower in the first place? It may be a metaphor, but it’s a troublesome metaphor.
My point isn’t to suggest Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were racist. To the contrary, they were probably light-years ahead most of their white contemporaries in the late 1970s. No, my point is to emphasize how just difficult it is to root out subtle and not-so-subtle racist influences in your life, even when you are genuinely committed to battling racism. That’s something most of us white folks are uncomfortable confronting: That no matter how pure your heart is, it’s next to impossible to grow up white in a white-majority country without having your thinking affected by racial stereotypes.
But you can’t overcome that if you aren’t willing to recognize it.
So, there you go. Today, Your Friday Clash Song is a great song that reveals a hard truth. And here’s Joe Strummer performing it live with the Mescalaros in New York City in 1999:

As always: Turn. It. Up. But think about it, too.

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