Friday, October 19, 2012

Your Friday Clash Song: “You Can’t Live In A Home That Should Not Have Been Built …”

The best thing about doing this feature is that it gives me an excuse to go back into my record collection and listen to songs I haven’t heard in years. This is a perfect example: “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here),” an obscure track from the second of three records that comprise the Sandinista! LP, released in December 1980. It’s a haunting song about shoddily built council housing for poor workers in London:
The towers of London, these crumbling blocks
Reality estates that the hero’s got
And every hour’s marked by the chime of a clock
Whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?
You can piss in the lifts which have broken down
You can watch from the debris the last bedroom light
We’re invisible here just past midnight
And the wives hate their husbands, their husbands don’t care
Their children daub slogans to prove they lived there
A giant pipe organ up in the air
You can’t live in a home which should not have been built
By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt
When the wind hits this building this building it tilts
One day it will surely fall to the ground …
Classic stuff from the Clash about how hard (and dangerous) it was to be poor in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and how the people in power really didn’t care. It’s a timeless theme that could easily apply to America in 2012 … and perhaps even more so in the coming years, depending on what happens November 6.
There’s something else that’s fascinating about this song, though, and that’s this quotation, which is repeated several times:
“Alianza dollars are spent

To raise the towering buildings

For the weary bones of the workers

To be strong in the morning”
Those lines come from the song “United Fruit,” by legendary American folk singer Phil Ochs. Ochs’ song, like the Clash’s “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here),” is about brutal exploitation of workers, though not in the UK. Rather, Ochs’ song talks about the mistreatment of Central American workers by United Fruit Company, “a U.S. concern, [that was] notorious for having economically colonized Central American in particular, using the support of the U.S. politically – and,  on occasion, militarily – to ensure its taking of large profits in the region.” You can hear a live version of Phil Ochs’ “United Fruit” here.
In any event, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected the Clash to reference a 1960s American folk singer in 1980. That’s kind of antithetical to punk rock … but as I’ve always said, the Clash were no ordinary punk band.
In fact, the reference to “United Fruit” dovetails perfectly with one of the major themes running through Sandinista! – American imperialism in South and Central America and the human suffering it caused. The album’s title, of course, comes from the successful revolution that deposed U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and several tracks on the album, including “Washington Bullets” and “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” speak directly to U.S. foreign policy in the region and throughout the world.
More than that, though, inserting a quotation from Phil Ochs’ song about exploited Central American workers in a song about exploited British workers reinforces the idea that these kinds of struggles are universal, and that if you care about the people of your own country you also have to care about people everywhere facing the same, or worse, problems. Like the song’s subtitle says: Not Only Here. That, too, is classic Clash.
So there you go. Another gem from The Only Band That Mattered. Now, you know what to do.
Turn. It. Up.

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