The Thinking Man’s Yobs

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

The fact that London’s burning, literally, has me thinking of The Clash and their impressive-to-teens political stances:

The band’s music was often charged by a leftist political ideology.[62] Strummer, in particular, was a committed leftist. The Clash are credited with pioneering the advocacy of radical politics in punk rock, and were dubbed the “Thinking Man’s Yobs” by NME.[63] Like many early punk bands, the Clash protested against monarchy and aristocracy; however, unlike many of their peers, they rejected nihilism.[34] Instead, they found solidarity with a number of contemporary liberation movements and were involved with such groups as the Anti-Nazi League. In April 1978, the Clash headlined the Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park for 80,000 people;[33] Strummer wore a T-shirt identifying two violent left-wing groups: the words “Brigade Rosse” — Italy’s Red Brigades — appeared alongside the insignia of the Red Army Faction — West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Group.[64][65]

How brave of these thoughtful young English musicians to come out against the Nazis in 1978! Of course, coming out against the Nazis is just a (mildly) clever way of calling your opponents Nazis. No real Nazis are harmed in the process.

It’s hard to take their angry claims of non-violence seriously when they sing — or chant, really — about rioting and wear shirts emblazoned with the symbols of terrorist groups responsible for numerous shootings, bombings, and kidnappings.

Their politics were made explicit in the lyrics of such early recordings as “White Riot”, which encouraged disaffected white youths to become politically active like their black counterparts; “Career Opportunities”, which addressed the alienation of low-paid, routinized jobs and discontent over the lack of alternatives; and “London’s Burning”, about the bleakness and boredom of life in the inner city.[45] Artist Caroline Coon, who was associated with the punk scene, argued that “[t]hose tough, militaristic songs were what we needed as we went into Thatcherism”.[66] The scope of the band’s political interests widened on later recordings. The title of Sandinista! celebrated the left-wing rebels who had recently overthrown Nicaraguan despot Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and the album was filled with songs driven by other political issues extending far beyond British shores: “Washington Bullets” addressed covert military operations around the globe, while “The Call-Up” was a meditation on US draft policies.[67] Combat Rock’s “Straight to Hell” is described by scholars Simon Reynolds and Joy Press as an “around-the-world-at-war-in-five-verses guided tour of hell-zones where boy-soldiers had languished.”[68]

When punk rock took off, England was in a terrible state. For instance, London had massive piles of trash towering over people’s heads due to a garbage strike.

So, with the obvious failure of the post-war consensus, these disenchanted youths turned away from Labour and toward Thatcher and the Conservative Party, right?  Um, no, not so much.

The band’s political sentiments were reflected in their resistance to the music industry’s usual profit motivations; even at their peak, tickets to shows and souvenirs were reasonably priced.[34] The group insisted that CBS sell their double and triple album sets London Calling and Sandinista! for the price of a single album each (then £5), succeeding with the former and compromising with the latter by agreeing to sell it for £5.99 and forfeit all their performance royalties on its first 200,000 sales.[33][69] These “VFM” (value for money) principles meant that they were constantly in debt to CBS, and only started to break even around 1982.[1]

The Clash’s first single, White Riot, makes the juvenile political statement that white “youths” should riot like their black counterparts — for, well, something:

Lyrically, the song is about class economics and race and thus proved controversial: many people thought it was advocating a kind of race war.[1] Rather, lyricist Joe Strummer was trying to appeal to white youths to find a worthy cause to riot, as he felt blacks in the UK already had. It contains a positive message in the lines “Are you taking over / Or are you taking orders? / Are you going backwards / Or are you going forwards?”

The song was written after Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon were involved in the riots at the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976.

London’s Burning, which sounds awfully political, is about getting bored in traffic:

It is sung by Joe Strummer (and Mick Jones in the chorus), who starts the song shouting “London’s Burning!” two times. The song continues talking about the problems in the England’s traffic lines, who makes people stay in the car until the night falls, feeling bored and far of their homes. This message is clearly seen in the next verse: “I’m up and down the Westway, in an’ out the lights/ What a great traffic system — it’s so bright/ I can’t think of a better way to spend the night/ Then speeding around underneath the yellow lights”

Career Opportunities sounds sincere — if oblivious to just why the situation might be so bleak:

The song attacks the political and economic situation in England at the time, citing the lack of jobs available, particularly to youth, and the dreariness and lack of appeal of those that were available. They specifically mention service in the military and police forces in addition to jobs that are often perceived as being ‘menial’ such as a bus driver or ticket inspector, as well as “making tea at the BBC”.

The line “I won’t open letter bombs for you” is a reference to a former job of Clash guitarist Mick Jones, opening letters for a British government department to make sure they weren’t rigged with mailbombs.

English Civil War, from their next album, attacks the burgeoning British National Front — which would go on to receive 0.6 percent of the vote in the 1979 general election. The left-wing Clash chose a still from the 1954 animated Animal Farm film for the single’s cover art — which seems appropriately Orwellian.

Oddly, The Guns of Brixton, from London Calling, is not about the race riots in Brixton in 1981 — because it was recorded in 1979.

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