Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman remembers the day Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper broke up
1982: the year of the Falklands War, Gotcha!, and when the ships returned to Blighty laden with the troops displaying the banner 'Call off the Rail Strike or we'll call in an Airstrike'. A Thatcherite version of patriotism was triumphant, complete with Michael Foot’s Labour Party in tow, backing the war.
Grim times, and for those of a certain musical-political disposition, the soundtrack that had given us hope, The Clash, split up. The 17 September '82 release of their single, Should I Stay or Should I Go, marked the end of the band’s classic line up; Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. Various versions struggled on for a while, and both Mick with Big Audio Dynamite and Joe with The Mescaleros went on to produce some great material. But for The Clash as we knew them. The end.
For those of a certain age, four decades have passed but nothing will ever replace the sounds and the culture we associate with what seems now the remarkably short time The Clash were together, 1976-82.
In the aftermath of the Falklands War, a leading left intellectual of the time, Stuart Hall described the mood and the political consequences:
‘We are up against the wall of a rampant and virulent gut patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser - in part because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.’
But, no determinist, Stuart also outlined why it didn’t have to be this way:
‘The traces of ancient, stone-age ideas cannot be expunged. But neither is their influence and infection permanent and immutable. The culture of an old empire is an imperial culture; but that is not all it is, and these are not necessarily the only ideas in which to invent a future for British people. Imperialism lives on - but is not printed in an English gene. In the struggle for ideas, the battle for hearts and minds which the Right has been conducting with such considerable effect, bad ideas can only be displaced by better, more appropriate ones.’
The Clash did that 'displacing' in a manner we could sing along with, dance to, and wear as a badge with pride. Mixing Notting Hill and Brixton with Rock against Racism and Working for the Clampdown, this was a band that stood defiantly for a very different version of Englishness to Thatcherism. Robin Hood, the Levellers and Cable Street all wrapped up in black leather jackets, bandanas and Doctor Martens. ‘English Civil War’, The Clash belted out, but not for even a fleeting moment was there any petty-minded nationalism, instead theirs’ was the popular internationalism of the triple album, Sandinista! A rebel music, home and abroad too, quite different to the more than occasionally twee so-called ‘World Music’ that emerged at the time.
Does this all amount to a ‘punk-rock politics’, representing the promise of change? Looking back, 1982 was the high point of Thatcherism and within a year Kinnock was dragging Labour rightwards in response, so I'm not sure it felt much like that at the time. The Clash were more respite than revolt. With the end of Rock against Racism in 1981, the most extraordinary of rebel music ever, there was nothing to fill the gap between the endless hope The Clash represented, and existing in or surviving the years of defeat and drift.
But despite this, for a generation The Clash were, and will always be the best band of all time; they might not have changed the world but they certainly changed us. They started off as a ‘garage band’ as proudly proclaimed on their 1977 debut album track ‘Garageland’ (decades later brilliantly rewritten by punk poet Attila the Stockbroker as ‘Farageland’). Attila is one of those who keeps the DIY-rebellion spirt of the Clash alive, alongside others including Joe Solo, Jess Silk, Captain Ska, The Commoners Choir, the grassroots and local musical and poetic solidarity of We Shall Overcome and Poetry on the Picketline. And for a precious moment in 2017 Grime4Corbyn too.
But none, despite their best efforts, has achieved the scale of breakthrough The Clash once managed with a musical-political legacy that four decades hence remains every bit as potent. Back then, in the space of six years, they graduated from the garage to selling out Shea Stadium, with U2 as support. Who knows how it would be, if like The Rolling Stones, The Who and U2 decades later, The Clash were still with us? We'll never know, but for as long as they were with us, for as long as their legacy remains, one thing is certain, in the words of Joe Strummer ‘the future is unwritten’. And for that Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper we'll always be grateful.
Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, The Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk, ed. Colin Coulter (Manchester University Press 2019).
Gregor Gall The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer (Manchester University Press 2022).
Reminiscences of RAR: Rocking against Racism 1976-1982, eds. Roger Huddle & Red Saunders (Redwords 2016).
Philosophy Football's The Clash 1976-82 range is available from here
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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 Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.