Debunking Punk

What the Clash meant to rock ’n’ roll.

On the Clash’s London Calling, the pink-and-green lettering that frames Paul Simonon—red London down the Y axis, green Calling across the X—mimics the “first” rock album, Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut. This is not an homage. Where Elvis was holding up his acoustic guitar, shouting blues to the rafters, Simonon has split his legs wide, the better to drive the head of a Fender Precision into the stage at the old Palladium. The Clash were built to smash twilit idols—”no Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones” had been the band’s rallying cry since 1977. The working title for London Calling was “The Last Testament,” and it was supposed to stand, according to the band’s manager, as the “last rock and roll record.” This is the goofy imperial hubris of the young, of course; but it’s also utterly sound dialectical reasoning. With London Calling, the Clash merged the arty daring and political sincerity of the ‘60s with the rage and trashy nihilism of the ‘70s. Pop music has been many things since, but it has never again been as artistically and commercially dominated by rock ’n’ roll. Now that London Calling is 25 years old, an anniversary currently being celebrated with a handsome box set and a lot of reverential air guitar, the time has come to think of their record as the lads intended: as the headstone for the rock era.

Why were the Clash so well-positioned to take punk rock beyond punk rock? This will strike some ears as heresy, but the first reason is simple: The Clash weren’t a punk rock band. Joe Strummer had fronted a group called the 101ers, a pub-rock outfit more in the tradition of Dr. Feelgood or Brinsley Schwartz than the New York Dolls or the Stooges. (Before that, he passed himself off as a folkie, demanding to be known simply as “Woody.”) His hokey stage bravado, which so blew away his new chum Mick Jones, was based on Strummer’s recent study of Bruce Springsteen, who had been headlining at the Hammersmith Odeon. For his part, Mick Jones was an avowed punk, the better to spite his own sweet disposition. Before they became famous, Jones and Chrissie Hynde hung out and wrote music together. She later remembered his creations as “rather dippy love songs.” True, from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, the Clash learned to execrate dippy love songs and to embrace sonic crudity. But the great fun behind the Ramones and the Pistols had been their love of the total lark, part and parcel to spitting on the burnt-out legacy of the ‘60s. There the Clash did not follow. They still sold authenticity, wailing spitefully at “every gimmick-hungry yob digging gold from rock and roll” as if that yob were emphatically someone else.

Unlike their rivals the Sex Pistols, a bunch of lowlifes tossed together by a cunning impresario, the Clash were formed on something of the model of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: Two white working-class boys meet when young; bond over their mutual love of American rhythm and blues; and found a songwriting partnership. Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, Strummer-Jones—the mythic co-credits run like a spine through the heyday of album rock. Look more closely, though, and you start to see another, more intriguing pattern. One boy is from a relatively stable, more solidly middle-class home, while the other is from a poorer, less respectable or broken home. Paul McCartney’s father worked as a cotton salesman, an unusually solid career for Liverpool at the time and a job that typically went to his social “betters.” After Paul’s mother died, his father stuck it out—in enduring contrast to Lennon’s, who bolted while he was still an infant, leaving him to a carousing and inconstant mother. Keith Richards was born in Dartford, a candidate for “arsehole of England,” as Richards would later have it, near a smallpox hospital, a chemical plant, and the reeking salt bogs of the Slade marshes. The Jaggers hailed from nearby Wilmington and hoped their son “Mike” might grow up to be an economist, or failing that, an ad exec. To their respective bands, Lennon and Richards brought anger, volatility, and a certain street credibility, while McCartney and Jagger brought likability, focus, and an eye for the main chance.

It is a winning pop formula: moody reticence and danger on one hand, innocence and eagerness to please on the other. The Clash were built on a similar template. Joe Strummer was solidly middle class, with a father who had bootstrapped his way up from nothing to become a modestly successful diplomat. (It was while the family was stationed in Bonn, Germany, that the young Strummer first heard the expression “London calling.”) Mick Jones, meanwhile, had been abandoned at a young age to his maternal grandmother. Central to the Clash mythology is the public high-rise where they lived, a Brutalist concrete slab overlooking the London Westway. A half-generation on from Lennon and McCartney, though, and the alliance has become an uneasy one. The middle-class boy is now very middle class; his working-class partner is now more of a genuine dead-ender. What’s more, the roles have shifted. It was Strummer who was more moody, more political, less ingratiating, and less melodic, while Jones wrote and sang without embarrassment the band’s catchier songs: the deathless blue-eyed soul workout “Train in Vain,” the suburban lament “Lost in the Supermarket.” The key word here, I think, is “embarrassment.” Early in the Clash’s history, Strummer tossed out some snotty asides from the stage about how A levels (the “Advanced” standardized test often necessary for university entrance in Britain) were a conspiracy, when a girl in the audience shouted, “Your drummer’s got them,” promptly silencing Strummer, who, as it turns out, had at least one himself. For his part, Mick Jones passed five O levels (the standardized tests British children take in their mid-teens) and attended a demanding grammar school from which he could reasonably have expected a white-collar future.

Now we can begin to understand why London Calling is such a fiercely political record. It’s not because Joe Strummer wanted to re-fight the Spanish Civil War. It’s because a generation of affluence had split the English working classes along just the lines laid down by Lennon and McCartney. Affable, pliable, ingratiating working boys had been invited in huge numbers to join the white-collar middle class, which had exploded throughout the postwar years. Moody, fatalistic, reticent working-class boys were increasingly being left behind. By the late ‘70s, the situation had become dire. Between 1972 and 1982, the working class of England “polarized,” according to the most comprehensive study of the issue, Goldthorpe’s Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain. One cohort still headed up into the service class; but another cohort headed downward into chronic unemployment. The postwar expansion had been accompanied by an idea of relative social mobility—that expanded educational opportunity meant talent would be identified and rewarded, regardless of one’s social position. The reality was, however, that England was still, in relative terms, class stagnant. And when its economy stopped expanding at the generous postwar pace, the meritocratic ideal came under enormous pressure. Jobs in the professional elite were now increasingly being filled by the children of the professional elite, a pattern that continued into the ‘80s and, some data suggests, intensified in the ‘90s. Put more bluntly, education was no longer a fig leaf; it was a weapon by which service professionals could protect and defend the class status of their own children. Here, in other words, the Lennons and the McCartneys parted ways for good.

On London Calling, the Clash, by simultaneously flattering your ears (à la McCartney) and bashing you over the head (à la Lennon), is straining to keep that old alliance intact. (Into that alliance they wanted to bring, improbably but blessedly, both immigrants and would-be skinheads.) It was a glorious last hurrah for the postwar pretense to a universal middle class. To keep it up, the Clash had had to pretend they were more destitute of opportunity than they really were; that they were punks, not pub rockers, and dead-enders, when the world of decent middle-class living was theirs for the asking. The Clash closed out the rock era, when the uneasy alliances between the Jaggers and the Richardses, the Lennons and McCartneys, the Strummers and the Joneses, could perfectly echo the deep optimism and the equally deep unease of the culture at large. London Calling was released on Dec.14, 1979, in the United States. It butted up against Thatcherism in England and Reaganism in the states. In music, it butted up against the Sugar Hill Gang in the Bronx and REM in Athens, Ga., or hip hop and the depressingly named “college rock.” For the past 25 years, these have been the dominant sounds of pop, the sound of the center no longer holding.

The anecdotes in this piece derive from Marcus Gray’s spectacular band biography The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Townand the no-less spectacular documentary about the Clash, Westway to the World.

Audio clips from: Super Black Market © 1994 Sony; London Calling © 1999 Sony Music Entertainment. All rights reserved.