“I think people ought to know that we’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist, and we’re pro-creative. And we’re against ignorance.”
There’s the most succinct sum up of my absolute, unflagging love for The Clash, all spelled out by Joe himself.
I know I’m not the first or the last overly reflective dork to discover a great band, and to then wrap my entire identity around them. But I still can’t help that urgent shot of pride and protection that wells up in me whenever I hear a Clash song out in the world. And when I put a Clash album on at home. Every time I watch a live clip of them. An interview. My heart warms, I feel a little tragic, I’m filled with this intense feeling of gratitude, and I think, “There are my guys.” It’s a beautiful feeling.I am a pleb at heart, no matter how hard I try to disguise it. My introduction to The Clash was The Essential Clash at probably age thirteen. Then a gradual foray into the odd singles. Then the abundant, untamed frontier of early Youtube. But most critical of all was the French photo gallery fansite, Clash Photo Rockers. I pored over those pages, and enthusiastically downloaded many excellent Windows 98 wallpapers. Sure, The Beatles were certainly something to look at. (Talk about fansites!) They were great. They were very Beatlesy. But moving on to The Clash was an experience entirely its own, because their look has never really dated. They were so fucking cool. They seemed so much more real. There was no polish, except for the effortless kind naturally exuded by Paul Simonon. And in terms of content, they weren’t just writing love songs– which I couldn’t relate to anyway.
I quickly started adding Clash paraphernalia to my Christmas lists, and was blessed with London Calling and Sandinista!. That’s an era with a new measure of sophistication. That’s them, unperturbed, settling into themselves. The amazing, awesome thing about punk and post-punk and that whole swath of music for me, is that somehow I managed after the fact to still travel through it chronologically. I’d done a very, very short 60s hippie phase. It never really felt like me. Then I stumbled onto punk and I was a goner. It was all completely new, and exciting, and revolutionary.When I eventually discovered punk as a whole a bit later, duh, it was a revelation. But it’s weird how some of the most definitive, most famous punk bands sound almost derivative today. You know, the groups who were like, “THAT’S not punk, THIS is punk!” Whether they lasted for two years or twenty, they never really changed. In Westway to the World, Mick Jones makes the point that punk was painting itself into a corner. Some groups possessed the flexibility to move beyond the movement. They turned new wave or post-punk or poppy or whatever, but still maintained a punk spirit. The Clash were so open to the world around them, and boy did they evolve.Sandinista! is my ideal Clash. It’s them embracing the wider universe, and just going for it. Stylistically the content is so diverse that it could easily have turned into a weird, disconnected grab bag of an album. But it’s not. The flourishes of jazz, hip hop, reggae, rockabilly, funk, soul, rhythm and blues, and all the rest are unified by their lyrical spirit and their sense of melody and timing. And as always, I revel in its strangest moments. Joe, again from Westway to the World: “If someone had come in and gone, ‘Let’s play this with balalaikas,’ everyone would have gone, ‘Give me the biggest balalaika,’ you know?” I may have a threshold, and sometimes you may find your Brian Enos and your Residents on the other side of it. But if The Clash wants to present me a bounty of experimental music, their ability to deliver a hook and grounded lyrics means I’m taking it. Visually, I think they were at their most exciting circa ’79- ’80 as well. Sharp and snazzy and confident. (Also, “Rebel Waltz” is probably the longest piece of music I was first able to clumsily pluck my way through on guitar.)So that was me at sixteen, drawing at my desk well into the night, taping the lyrics of “Magnificent Seven” to my wall, with “The Call Up” twinkling from my boombox and swirling around my room, my head full of loving visions of Mick Jones’s wonky teeth (I wrote about them in English class), feeling this vast expanse of a world opening up before me. There is nothing like falling in love with your first real YOU band. I mean, The Beatles were a huge moment for me. But I didn’t really know who I was, and I wasn’t really trying to find out. When The Clash came along, I started feeling very strongly about everything. I don’t think I knew what a lot of those feelings meant yet (and much of it would change to some degree), but everything started to fall into place and The Clash were there to guide me. (Some DEVO construction workers began to congregate as well, but that’s a story for another time.) The person I am today is very much a product of my Clash fanhood.Another beautiful thing about The Clash that should always be mentioned when discussing them, was their utter commitment to their fans. It was an understanding they had of normal people– because they were normal people. And they never had any intention of cordoning themselves off. They treated their fans like peers. Throughout the whole life of the band, they were devoted to being good to people. They let their fans into gigs through back windows, they let them sleep on their floors, they released double and triple albums for the price of one (cutting into their own royalties). They turned their original eight shows at Bonds in 1981 into a full-on, twice as long residency because the venue had been crassly oversold. And to complete the picture, their lyrics were always rooted in notions of equality, justice, opportunity, and solidarity. Every step of the way, The Clash made a concerted effort to display their humanity. They operated always with integrity. They were pure class. What better role models could an over-serious and slightly frightened teenager ask for?I’ve drawn them before with lots of different degrees of seriousness. The most intensive project so far had been an oil pastel tribute, from back when they were still a very new and frantic obsession for me. My artistic limitations were very keenly felt then. So I held back a bit, but only because I didn’t know how not to. Now I’ve reached a point of less inhibitions, in terms of ideas. I feel capable of painting my own Sistine Chapel, I guess you could say. Conversely, I’m more careful stylistically. But that serves me well, because it’s not so much that I’m inhibited, it’s that I’m more disciplined. And, I still struggle a bit with self-worth as an artist, but mostly I’m confident.
It’s been hard knowing where to start with my pantheon bands, especially my very top slots. I have so many thoughts and feelings about them that it’s all sort of seeped into my unconscious. I have to be deliberate– but not too deliberate, self-aware– but bold, true– but not sappy. And I’ve never really been caught up with my ideas turning out a certain way as some artists are. It’s just a matter of caring about what I’m doing. And I care. Sometimes too much. Thankfully, if nothing else, I’ve figured out how not to have too many expectations. I just go with it and trust myself (mostly).
So anyway, I fuckin’ love The Clash. I talk about my feelings a lot, but I guess it’s ’cause… I do a lot of feeling? And my feelings about The Only Band That Matters are so deep they’re hard to convey. At this point in my life, those feelings have turned into something like indebtedness and responsibility. The Clash’s music is still thrillingly fresh something like forty (??!!?!) years since they released it, and their social message remains searingly relevant.
At any rate, nothing but love and respect for them because there are my guys. ♥★ “Know your rights! These are your rights.” ★
(You can purchase a print of this piece here.)