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Working for the clampdown

An introduction

Colin Coulter

The introduction sets out in part to locate The Clash in their own very specific historical context. It is argued that the band offer one of the most compelling cultural documents of that moment when the crisis of social democracy paved the way for what would in time be termed the ‘neoliberal revolution’. While The Clash may well have chronicled the political defeats of the past, the body of work that they bequeathed to us represents perhaps one of the resources that might facilitate a rather more progressive political future. There has been no time since the band parted company when their songbook has seemed more relevant. It is acknowledged that there are certain dangers in seeking to take radical artists like The Clash out of their own place and time. Not the least of these is the possibility that we might mimic the culture industries in canonising the band in ways that airbrush out their critical political perspective. The chapter concludes, however, that there are theoretical resources that allow us to avoid this pitfall and to embrace The Clash as though they were a contemporary band, documenting our own current period of global economic and political crisis.

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Working for the clampdown

The Clash, the dawn of neoliberalism and the political promise of punk

Edited by: Colin Coulter

There are few bands that have enjoyed as much adoration or endured as much criticism as The Clash. Emerging originally as a principal voice in the burgeoning mid-1970s London punk scene, The Clash would soon cast off the fetters that restricted many of their peers, their musical tastes becoming ever more eclectic and their political field of vision ever more global. In the process, the band would widen the cultural and political horizons of their audience and would for many come to exemplify the power of popular music to change minds. While The Clash would attract a great deal of critical acclaim, this would always be less than universal. In the eyes of their many detractors, the radical political stance of the band was little more than self-mythologising posture, neatly serving the culture industries in their perennial goal of ‘turning rebellion into money’. In this collection, scholars working out of very different contexts and academic traditions set out to examine this most complex and controversial of bands. Across a dozen original essays, the authors provide fresh insights into the music and politics of The Clash in ways that are by turns both critical and celebratory. While the book seeks to locate the band in their own time and place, it also underlines their enduring and indeed very contemporary significance. A common thread running though the essays here is that the songs The Clash wrote four decades ago to document a previous, pivotal moment of geopolitical transformation have a remarkable resonance in our own current moment of prolonged global turbulence. Written in a style that is both scholarly and accessible, Working for the clampdown offers compelling and original takes on one of the most influential and incendiary acts ever to grace a stage.

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What if Keith Levene had never left The Clash?

Punk and the politics of novelty

Pete Dale

This chapter explores the ways in which a band such as The Clash illustrates the tension in popular music between aesthetic judgement and political influence, that is, between making more interesting art and reaching more people. Original member Keith Levene evidently had rather more adventurous musical tastes than the rest of the band. If the guitarist had continued working with The Clash, it is possible that the group may have taken more interesting musical directions. A flavour of what Levene would have added to the band is evident when we consider the composition of the only song for which he receives a writing credit on the debut album, ‘What’s My Name’. While the early departure of the gifted guitarist in all likelihood narrowed the creative range of The Clash, it also perhaps allowed them to have greater political influence. It is unlikely, after all, that the palpably more avant-garde tastes that Levene would showcase in his future work would have allowed the band to reach the mainstream audience that they had always craved.

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‘Up in heaven (not only here)’

The Clash, left melancholia and the politics of redemption

Colin Coulter

The appeal of The Clash often seems to hinge upon the band’s passionate denunciations of a world ever more animated by the impulses of profit and war. While the band are well known for their sense of passion, this chapter suggests they should also be remembered for their profound, but often overlooked, sense of pathos. This thread of melancholy is traced to twin principal sources: the autobiographical detail of the peripatetic and abandoned figure of Joe Strummer, and the ever more despondent geopolitical context in which the charismatic front man crafted his indelible lyrics. While the songs that The Clash committed to vinyl might well be heard as documents of political defeat, it is perhaps that particular feel of pathos that lends them their abiding, maybe even contemporary, political power. Drawing on the work of cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, it is argued that the vein of ‘left melancholia’ that courses through the band’s back catalogue identifies them as resources for political struggle in the here and now, requiring us to act as ‘ragpickers’ gathering the cultural tributes from our dismal past that map a path towards a more progressive future.

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‘Up and down the Westway’ or ‘live by the river’?

Britishness, Englishness, London and The Clash

Conrad Brunström

Few bands are quite so intimately associated with a specific locale as The Clash. The iconography of the band is, of course, closely bound up with a cluster of neighbourhoods in West London and symbolised most dramatically in the form of the Westway urban flyover. This chapter explores the very particular ways in which the band conjure up a certain moment in the history of the British capital, and in doing so how they mediate the ever more complex connections between Englishness and Britishness. While The Clash may have had intimate ties to the neighbourhoods around Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, this rootedness was always entirely compatible with a broader view of the world. Indeed, one might be said to have fed into the other. It was in part their connection to specific districts of multiracial London that allowed the band a wider cultural and political palette than many of their peers in the punk scene. In order to explore a world riven with conflict and inequality, The Clash after all simply had to unlock the global politics that existed already on their doorstep.

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‘The beautiful people are ugly too’

The Clash as my ‘true fiction’

Martin James

Over time a growing body of cultural artefacts – documentaries, biographies, compilations – have emerged seeking to tell the ‘truth’ about The Clash. In these competing renditions of the band, one of the voices that has often been drowned out is that of the fans. Drawing on the author’s own experience of running away from home to follow The Clash on tour, this chapter seeks to capture what the band meant to those who witnessed their legendary live performances, typically without the privilege of backstage access. This autobiographical ‘true fiction’ offers a perspective that underlines one of the most important affirmations of the group’s much-disputed ‘authenticity’. While the members of The Clash were often unforgiving to one another, they were unremittingly generous to their travelling fans. The chapter also suggests that the focus on metropolitan London in many accounts overlooks the importance of suburban centres in nurturing the early punk scene. A case in point is that of High Wycome, a setting neglected in the standard accounts of the period, but which in fact deserves its own place in the story of the subculture.

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Kieran Cashell

That moment when punk first flowered in the UK is so heavily mediated that it is difficult to separate its real meaning from the various fictions that surround it. In this chapter, it is suggested that we need to pare back these multiple mediations in search of the genuinely revolutionary spirit that was abroad in 1977. Due not least to their celebrated synergy with reggae, The Clash attained a political power in that early moment that they would never attain again over the rest of their career. While this flash of creativity would prove to be short-lived, its brevity was central to its potency. As Walter Benjamin suggests, moments such as punk interrupt the continuity of capitalist history, their momentary flowering leaving traces that can provide the substance of future cultural struggles. The chapter concludes with the suggestion that we need to bear this in mind, to recognise that the early songs that The Clash wrote in one period of geopolitical crisis in the distant past might yet prove the inspiration for another generation in this current age of turbulence.

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The one struggle

The Clash, Gary Foley, punk politics and Indigenous Australian activism

Alessandro Moliterno

One of the abiding controversies that attends The Clash centres on their ‘authenticity’ as a political band. While some recall seeing the band live as a moment that altered their perspective on the world, others have dismissed their politics as posturing framed by a certain cinematic version of outlaw chic. In this chapter, the author leans towards the former, more optimistic reading of The Clash’s cultural politics. The focus here is on the band’s 1982 tour of Australia during which they championed the cause of Aboriginal rights. Each night during their cover of the reggae number ‘Armagideon Time’, the group would segue into an instrumental section during which activist Gary Foley would take the stage and address the predominantly white audience. The attendant media attention for these moments was sparse and it remains difficult to establish whether they had any real political impact. That The Clash were willing to provide a space for the airing of what were at the time controversial views serves to underline that here was a band that, for all their shortcomings, had a genuine concern for the promotion of human rights and global justice.

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Jason Toynbee

This chapter seeks to examine the turbulent political context in which The Clash recorded their enduring body of work. The songs that the band crafted together provide a compelling account of the rise and ultimate triumph of the neoliberal project as the 1970s turned into the 1980s. While The Clash were one of the critical voices raised against this dramatic turn to the right, their political power was always compromised by their proximity to a corporate world they claimed to despise. As many bands before and since have learned, the culture industries have a facility for incorporation that diminishes the political valence and authenticity of even the most critical artists. In spite of the constraints of the corporate environment in which they were operating, however, The Clash wrote scores of songs that have retained a political resonance even today. The political power of the band derives ironically from previous cultural movements that they often claimed to loathe. In large measure, the enduring influence of The Clash comes from their rechanneling of the 1960s counterculture and the band should be seen then as heirs to that prior movement of radical cultural dissent.

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The Clash and musical artistry

Against the corporate voice

Caroline Coon

At the heart of the mythology of punk rock is the notion that it was driven solely by a ‘do it yourself’ ethic that denounced the technical virtuosity of the most celebrated recording artists that came before. Drawing on the first-hand experience of a former manager of the band, this chapter suggests that the success of The Clash originated not in this much-lauded DIY culture but rather in a much more conventional and traditional dedication to their craft. That the band were able to sustain a commercially successful and artistically innovative career for so long was because they were absolutely committed to striving for ever greater levels of musical excellence. This commitment ensured that for all the compromises they were required to make, The Clash retained a palpable ‘authenticity’ that enabled them to challenge the artistic constraints of the ‘corporate voice’.