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)