Tom Carson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169

As a documentary of rock & roll teenagers battling first for good times and then for survival in a blasted urban landscape, the Clash's debut album [The Clash], released in England in 1977 but never made available here, had an astonishing immediacy. You got the feeling that it was recorded virtually in the street, while the National Front marched and the threat of riots flickered all around. And yet the story the LP told—with rage and humor—was as complex, as varied and finally as universal as the American tale of the eternal outsider that critic Greil Marcus found in the music of the Band. Perhaps more than any album ever made, The Clash dramatized rock & roll as a last, defiantly cheerful grab for life, something scrawled on the run on subway walls. Here was a record that defined rock's risk and its pleasures, and told us, once again, that this music was worth fighting for. (p. 76)

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By patching together tracks from the first LP along with the later, obsessively self-referential singles made before last year's Give 'Em Enough Rope, the American version of The Clash tries to tell two stories at once: a gritty journalistic account of one nameless punk's 1977 journey through England side by side with the tale of the not-so-nameless, self-consciously embattled punk stars the Clash later became. It doesn't quite work. Because the Clash is a band that redefines itself with each new release, hearing the songs out of chronological order is maddeningly disconcerting—especially to American audiences unfamiliar with the original context.

Though the tunes omitted here were the lesser ones on the British edition of The Clash, they added a lot to that record's vivid sense of wholeness, to the feeling of a single dramatic moment caught in all its shifting facets. The new version, by contrast, is scattershot and marooned—full of worthwhile nuggets but lacking a center. Its double focus is confusing in more ways than one: you hear the band wrestling with its legend without ever quite being allowed to hear the music that created the legend in the first place.

And yet, after all that, what we are left with is still extraordinary. This music has a barbed urgency that no one else has ever matched: sparse, coarse, lunging and extreme, it's always—barely, almost desperately—held under control. The later material grafted onto the U.S. Clash is richer and fuller, exchanging the flinty, humorous lower-depths eye of the earlier numbers for a flailing melodrama that's layered with doubt and ambiguity…. There's absolutely no loss of tension, however. In the chilling "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," the corruption of rock & roll mirrors the disintegration of a whole society—destruction accumulates by bits and pieces, voices shout and whisper distress signals in the background. Then the horror crystallizes and hits you full in the face: "If Adolf Hitler flew in today," Joe Strummer accuses, his voice a corrosive welt of rage and terror, "they'd send a limousine anyway."

If the centerpiece of the original album was "Janie Jones" …, the thematic core of the new edition is the Clash's cover version of … "I Fought the Law." Though its lyrics admit defeat, this song's greatness has always been that it explodes with a triumphant, transcendent pride…. Strummers digs into the vainglorious words with a meaty gusto that makes it sound as if he wouldn't have it any other way. "I Fought the Law" is flamboyantly self-aggrandizing in a manner that the group's older material would never have allowed. And yet the performance is terrific, savagely exuberant in the face of doom.

"Complete Control" goes even further. Like so many Clash tunes, it escalates a minor incident into a full-scale war: a protest against the Clash's record company becomes a life-or-death battle for rock & roll itself…. Joe Strummer's singing roars up from the depths with a message of no surrender even as the music threatens to flatten him for good. "Complete Control" may be the most desperately heroic call to arms ever put to vinyl.

Like Francis Coppola's camera journeying upriver in Apocalypse Now, this LP roves over scenes of a struggle that seems as endless as it is brutal. At times, the Clash's melodramatic impulse, their incessant need to fling themselves into the center of every storm and turn their experience into epic allegory, plays them wrong. Too many songs rehash the same ground: "Gates of the West," an account of the band's tour of America … sounds condescending, in marked contrast to the bitterly truthful working-class resentment of "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." But that same instinct allows the Clash to ram home lessons that no one else has put so directly before—as in the album's autobiographical closer, "Garageland," where Strummer flings down what might be the group's credo. "The truth," he sings, "is only known by guttersnipes."

The Clash's militant politics struggle in a void: sometimes they're less the product of an actual battle than an attempt to get people to go out and fight on their own. In "White Riot" … which is not about a riot but about wanting one Strummer makes his plea as plain as possible:

              All the power is in the hands
              Of people rich enough to buy it
              While we walk the street
              Too chicken to even try it.
                                    (pp. 77-8)

This music takes chances as a matter of course—it never deals in anything but ultimates. But the rhetoric is always charged and pointed with incisive, specific details. The hero of these tunes, whether he's Joe Strummer or just a punk, never becomes a liberal Everyman. Whether he's mocking the welfare state in "Career Opportunities," reaching out for solidarity in "Police & Thieves" (the Clash's tribute to reggae as punk politics) only to abandon all hope of it in the Hammersmith Palais, or finding his old mates all dead or in jail in the ringing "Jail Guitar Doors," the hero's anger, his rough, deflating wit and his defiant spirit remain uniquely his own. The force of character and the sense of the epic in the band's songs, for all their topical urgency, have a grandeur that's almost Shakespearean.

The British edition of The Clash was, triumphantly, about staying alive in a wasteland. The American version of The Clash—less certain, less fulfilled than its predecessor—is about chaos. The new packaging reveals the contradictions: the grainy photograph of a London riot that adorned the 1977 LP like a newspaper headline is now balanced by glossy liner photos and a helpful (though oddly incomplete) lyric sheet. It's an attempt to make the Clash look more like everyone else. But they aren't like anyone else. Despite the trimming and the compromises, their music remains a crackling live wire that can't be silenced. What it has to say is part of our currency, too. And anyone in America who still cares about rock & roll must listen. (p. 78)

Tom Carson, "The Clash: Street-Fighting Men," in Rolling Stone, Issue 302, October 18, 1979, pp. 76-8.

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