Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In defence of the Clash?

I am returning to the issue of the Clash and punk, because I think this is a political topic of how socialists relate to mass culture. And in particular it is important to defend the proposition that culture enriched by mass popular participation provides a more fertile environment for individual talent, and which thus allows conventional cultural norms to be transcended.

In a comment to the post below about Punk, TWP defends the clash saying: "Have you ever heard Sandinista? The thing about the Clash is that they went beyond punk because they had the courage and musical interest to extend beyond the three chords. To me that's more punk than all the Sex Pistols put together. ... The point of punk was to do whatever you wanted to - not to fit into some "line" propogated by other punks - no matter how self-righteous."

I don't want to be unfair to TWP, and perhaps I am being by responding at length to a short comment of hers on this blog. Hopefully she will develop a longer and more considered defence of the political and cultural significance of the Clash, and their relationship with punk on her own blog, and we can continue the debate

I respond becasue I think she is actually making a dangerous argument: to defend the thesis that the Clash were a great "punk" band, and were "more punk than all the Sex Pistols put together", it is necessary to write the audience and popular participation out of punk. It is necessary to deny that punk was part of a wider social rebellion, spilling out into art, publishing, journalism and politics, and most importantly to deny that punk was about empowering young people.

Instead, the alledged individual genius of the Clash transcends the limitations of all us little people.

So let us look at the evidence - here is the Clash playing a song from the Sandanista album on American TV in 1981. I suppose whether you like it or not is a question of personal musical taste, but this is clearly a band totally at home in the context of corportate culture, and playing as rock stars to a passive audience.

In contrast, watch this clip below from X-Ray Spex in 1978, just three earlier. According to TWP, punk bands apart from the Clash were constrained because they didn't have "the courage and musical interest to extend beyond the three chords".

What we actualy see is a creative riot, bursting out of the conventional topics and style of popular music, spilling over into the audience who fully participate in the performance (it is worth persevering into the last three minutes, where we see confident, happy young women from the audience singing with Poly-Styrene) and involving a exuberant attack on consumerism and corporate values.

It was the relativley mass base of punk as a social and cultural movement that empowered such a diverse set of responses, including the genius of X-Ray Spex. The conclusion is inescapable that X-Ray Spex were empowerng, and the Clash were not.

Again, this is not a question of personal taste, this is a question of defending historical truth, that punk was a mass social phenomeon that encouraged a glorious flowering of talent. To diminish the experience by implying that punk was a constraining format and the Clash were able to transcend it becasue they had more courage and musical interest leaves the door open for elitest arguments, that seek to minimise the importance of mass popular participation in culture.

And another, shorter clip this time of the Lurkers, showing exactly what "Audience participation" meant in a punk gig. The key here is that there is that the band and the audience really are all jumbled up in a single creative event:

In any event, participation was not just gigs, becasue nearly everyone even touched peripherally by the punk scene was creatively active, making their own outfits, writing for and producing fanzines, organising and promoting gigs, being in bands, or acting as MC or DJ at gigs, or even spraying grafitti. If we allow punk to be redefined as simply a musical genre, within which the later Clash can be included, then the danger is that the real mass popular participation in cultural radicalism becomes just an audience, and not art of the creative process itself. Punk was a cultural revolution forged by participation.

(And in case you are wondering whether these performcnces were distorted by the TV cameras being there, they aren't. I saw both these bands more than once, and the Poly-Styrene clip is a pretty true picture of what X-Ray Spex and many other punk bands were like, and even by 1978 the Clash has pretty much fallen into the stale rock star mode we see in the clip above)


D.B. said...

Hello AN. David B here - you don't know me, but I'm an avid reader of your blog. Keep up the good work, pal.

I thought your original post on punk made for a brilliant read, all except for the final three paragraphs which were exceptionally unfair on The Clash.

Here's why: it just seems to me that you've taken a largely subjective account of punk (i.e. your taste, your experience, your own reading of The Clash) and have then tried to build an all-encompassing theoretical justification on top ... which is fair enough in itself, but by imposing these structures of thought on everyone else, we end up at the crazy conclusion that saying The Clash are a great punk band is somehow an assault on historical truth (!!)

Regardless of the big name record deal, the stadium gigs and their mass commercial success, The Clash is, was and always will be a great band to me – and millions of others – because their style, music and ethos (as I understand it) fills me with the hope, anger, passion, adrenaline and means by which to share and express my own socially-conscious ideals. Regardless of economic factors, for me this is what amounts to the authentic, self-empowering, anti-corporate ethos of which you wrote. Other bands may float your boat in the same way, but for me it's The Clash, and the Manics, and the Asian Dub Foundation, and the Arcade Fire (etc, etc.) I don't care too much about record deals and audience participation, because I'm of the view that all music is about audience participation. (That can be on the stage, behind the stage, in front of the stage, down the pub or even in your own bedroom.)

I agree that punk was about self-empowerment and authenticity, in an anti-corporate culture, and that it extended beyond music to street fashion, the visual arts, self-publishing and fanzine journalism, and people making their music and their own records ... I would argue over the definition of some of these things (as above), but more importantly I would also add one other crucial feature of punk: it was about facing up to the endless contradictions of society and culture under capitalism. Punk wasn’t simple and it wasn’t easy: it awash with contradictions. ("Shot by both sides!")

So you get the contradiction of punk bands espousing right-wing ideals one moment and shouting left-wing slogans the next; you get the contradiction of seemingly radical new record labels adopting the bourgeois rhetoric of small businesses and entrepreneurs which would become familiar in the 1980s; and you get the contradiction of a band like The Clash – a small collective of ex-hippy, art student, and working class prole - signing themselves away to capitalist mutlinationals yet still producing a chaotic, innovative sprawling left-wing mess like 'Sandinsta!' and demanding that their fans pay a reasonable sum for it.

That's my case for the defence. I think your posts were a little simplistic in their conclusions, despite some of the excellent points about the punk movement in general.

AN said...

Thanks for the kind words about the blog David.

I accept some of your points, and in particular it is dificult to seprate out questions of personal taste when discussing culture. Also, any broad social and cultural phenomenon like ounk is going to embrace a number of different points of view about what is going on, and what it is all about.

What is more, I don't actually have a problem with the Clash, White Man in the Hammersmith Palais in particular is a fine song, and the world would be a worse place without White Riot.

After all, whatever the Clash did, they were not U2, which has to be a huge point in their favour.

What I disagree with, and it is the occassion of Julian Temple's biopic that made me comment on it, is focussing on individuals like Joe Strummer, rather than celebrating the empowerment that punk as a mass popular cultural movement provided.

And I think you misunderstand me over the issue of participation, becasue nearly everyone even touched peripherally by the punk scene was creatively active, making their own outfits, writing for and producing fanzines, organising and promoting gigs, being in bands, or acting as MC or DJ at gigs.

Now the reason that the Clash become important in that context is because while everyone recognises the rupture between Adam Ant or Billy Idol from punk, generally people who like the Clash don't recognise the a similar rupture.

In this area I don't think there is a contradiction. The Clash simply got a big record deal and stopped being a punk band.

If we allow punk to be redefined as simply a musical genre, within which the later Clash can be included, then the danger is that the real mass popular participation in cultural radicalism becomes just an audience, and not art of the creative process itself.

Punk was a cultural revolution forged by participation.

Phil said...

I was composing a reply to David, but after reading Andy's comment all I can say is "he's right, you know".

Let me just pick out this line:

I'm of the view that all music is about audience participation. (That can be on the stage, behind the stage, in front of the stage, down the pub or even in your own bedroom.)

This is diluting the meaning of the word 'participation' to vanishing point. Punk wasn't records and gigs - punk was a way of living, or that's how it felt. It meant being a different kind of person - at least, it meant doing something. (I, er, artistically ripped my school folders and wrote cryptic graffiti on the school walls.) "No more time for spectating", as the Clash never said.

AN said...


I have visions of a retired school caretaker (ideally looking like the one from Please Sir) reading this blog and saying, so it was that little bastard, I always suspected it.

D.B. said...

phil & an:

Thanks for your replies. I see your points, particularly about participation, punk's greatest triumph. Again I would argue that The Clash inspired countless thousands of kids to "participate" in the movement, even though I concede that they may have done this much less in their later years as a distance formed between themselves and the scene/movement itself, such as it existed.

What sometimes troubles me in debates like this are the narrow and perhaps even exclusive meanings attributed to terms like "authenticity" and "empowerment" which can in turn lead to pop cultural hierarchies and a kind of elitism of taste and preference.

Hell, I even know people who were inspired to get more active politically through The Clash and that ersatz lefty message that they made cool. How many people have you heard describe how that life-changing moment - the moment when you realise you can go out and D.I.Y. - was prompted by seeing The Clash live (not just in the early days), or just getting home and listening to 'White Riot' in their bedroom? The Manic Street Preachers found that message years later, long after The Clash stopped being "punk", as many other kids continue to do so. And the Manics, despite their proud stadium rock ethos from the beginning, have inspired as many revolutionary bands, fanzines, websites and spray-painted T-shirts as The Clash...

Alex Nichols said...

I was heavily exposed to punk bands at the time of ANL-RAR, including helping to steward a Clash gig at the Rainbow and various local events.
The good thing about that period was the way that there was a definite mass of young people who were becoming politicised while enjoying themselves at the same time.
Symptomatic of the period was Andy S*house of the SWP, speaking at a meeting, where he said: "Why does everything that the left organises have to be such a pain?"
That was certainly remedied by RAR and many of the people we attracted also participated in the big anti-fascist demos.

Musically, I'm not so sure about its long term legacy. Sandinista is probably one of the least played albums in my record collection.
It could be that I was a bit too young to be fully fledged hippy and a bit too old to be fully fledged punk, but I tend to think that some of the clapped out old hippies have stood the test of time. Neil Young for instance, is prominent for his anti-war views and Country Joe McDonald (an early Peel favourite, with a CP background) remains highly political.

Rather disturbingly, I've started to listen to Joni Mitchell again recently and developed a disturbing fantasy about her buying me a bottle of wine at the Mermaid Cafe.....

neprimerimye said...

One of the funniest aspects of punk in the early years was the way in which lefties only a few years older would ruminate on whether or not punk was progressive or proto-fascist.

More seriously I have to say that it was very limited both musically and politically. The speed with which a 'punk party line' developed is in retrospect incredibly sad. One could participate and be creative but only within very narrow limits.

No wonder really that punk was so rapidly abandoned by many of thise present in its earliest stages in order to move on to more challenging projects. For example Lydons work with the 'post-punk PIL is far more interesting than the sub-Heavy Metal the Pistols made their name with.

Mention of Heavy Metal reminds me that while many on the left, both then and in the long years since 76, were punk fans a far larger proportion of the working class, the male white working class specifically, were always more into their metal. In a bizarre twist that most 'conservative' of genres now produces more interesting music than the banner wavers of punk do with their tired cliches and shouty slogans.

Punk was in the end a dead end only of interest to naifs and nostalgics.

AN said...

I agree with what you say about the party line Mike, the heroic and creative period of punk was quickly overwhelmed.

But that doesn't mean that the impact on wider culture was not significant.

And with regard to the Pistols, their music is a question of personal taste again, but their music is almost not the point. No band could ever be less deferential to corporate music business, and commercial expectations.

Whether or not metal is intersting is again a question of taste, personally i think there is more interesting work done in Alt-country.

neprimerimye said...

Was it the Pistols or Maclaren who were obnoxious to the record companies?

You're right as regards musical taste of course but I do feel that the Alt.Country scene has ceased to develop as it was doing a while back.

On the other hand some of the more experiemental acts coming from a metal background - I'm thinking of Earth, Boris and Sunno)) among others - are doing venturing into areas otherwise left to the free music people who are sadly elitist.

Anonymous said...

Hats off to the hippies:

Neil Young 2006

Neil Young 1971