Next weekend marks the 40th Anniversary of The Clash’s debut album. Mark Perryman asks what the 1977 punk and politics mix was all about.
The birth of punk for most is dated on or around 1976, when the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK and both music and movement kickstarted into the ‘filth and fury’ headlines via the band’s expletive-strewn Bill Grundy TV interview.
More Situationist than Anarchist, Johnny Rotten and the rest were of course key to the detonation of a youthful mood of revolt, alongside the not entirely dissimilar The Damned, Manchester’s Buzzcocks and the more trad rock Stranglers. Giving the boys’ bands a run for their money, The Slits pushed perhaps hardest at punk’s musical boundaries, their Typical Girls track quite unlike what the others were recording.
But it was The Clash who more than anyone symbolised the punk and politics mix, showcased on their debut album The Clash, released 40 years ago, on 8th April 1977. From being bored with the USA and angrily demanding a riot of their own via hate and war to non-existent career opportunities, the fourteen tracks are played at furious speed to produce two-minute classics. The one exception is their inspired cover version of Junior Murvin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Police and Thieves, played slow, the lyrics almost spoken rather than sung, backed by a pitch perfect reggae beat.
The album cover shows the youthful threesome of Strummer, Jones and Simonon in their artfully stenciled shirts and jackets that was to become their signature stagewear uniform completed by the obligatory skinny jeans, white socks and black DM’s. The print quality is purposely poor to add a degree of authenticity that this band more than most hardly needed. But it was the back cover that is the more telling. A scene from the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riots, with the Met’s boys in blue – these were the days before RoboCop style body armour, riot shields, helmets with visors – in hot pursuit of black youth retreating and regrouping under the Westway flyover.
It was that experience in ’76 that inspired The Clash’s anthemic White Riot and the lines ‘WHITE RIOT! I WANNA RIOT. WHITE RIOT! A RIOT OF MY OWN.’ At the time the National Front’s street-fighting racist army was laying waste wherever they marched, their leaders, John Tyndall and Martin Webster, pretty much household names, and the NF was getting indecent enough votes to suggest an electoral breakthrough might be a possibility. The potential for ‘White Riot’ to be misinterpreted then, and now too, is obvious. But the band’s intent couldn’t be clearer. Living and recording in around the Westway they embraced the changes this West London community had undergone since the 1950s, and Caribbean music, food and fashions were as much a part of who The Clash were as rock and roll, Sunday roast and safety pins. It was a spirit of Black defiance they sought to share, not oppose.
“ All the power is in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it,
While we walk the streets
Too chicken to even try it.
And everybody does what they’re told to
And everybody eats supermarket soul food!”
A year after the album’s release The Clash headlined the first Rock against Racism carnival in London’s Victoria Park. The dayglo politics of this musical culture of resistance fitted perfectly with the agitprop look and lyrics of the band. Not just them either: There was Polly Styrene of X-Ray Spex’s Oh Bondage Up Yours!, punk feminism, Tom Robinson’s liberatory Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay, and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse with tales of a Handsworth Revolution. This wasn’t just a line up that commercial promoters in ’78 would die for – it was a platform to challenge prejudice both without and within that we could dance to (or jump about to more like).
In her book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, confusingly actually published in 1977, Caroline Coon predicted of The Clash:
“Their acute awareness, and ability to articulate the essence of the era which inspires their music, will make their contribution to the history of rock of lasting significance. Happy times are here again.”
Of course, like all successful musicians, The Clash became in their turn stars, celebrities, the venues became bigger and bigger, though through force of circumstance the band bailed out before they reached U2’s overblown proportions or outstayed their musical welcome to play into their dotage Rolling Stones style. 1977 is a moment to look back to and remember, but not to fossilise. That would be the antithesis of everything they represented or as the final track from the album, Garageland, put it:
"I don't want to hear about what the rich are doing, I don't want to go to where, where the rich are going."
Garageland: That’s where they came from and never entirely left either. It’s why, more than anything else, ‘77 Clash in 2017 matters still.
’77 Clash T-shirt range available now from Philosophy Football
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.