:: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 ::

Punk Rock Countdown: No. 4
"Death or Glory," by the Clash
Joe Strummer, in what may be the greatest opening lines of any song ever written, proclaims matter-of-factly:
Now every cheap hood makes a bargain with the world
an' ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl

Thus begins the two prevailing themes of "Death or Glory." On one level, this is a song about two roads diverging -- one leading to death, one to glory. It is the story of making choices -- specifically, about choices to achieve the glory of punk rock: that is, "making it" without selling out. The other theme is about selling out.

With this song, on the Clash's 1979 masterpiece London Calling, the Clash portray the decline of punk's promise in a less-than-flattering light. Idealists turned cynics, they sing this anthem to cheap hoods everywhere. This one's for the punk everyman-turned-regular joe, the Willie Lomans who traded in their safety pins and leather for a steady job.

The everyman of "Death or Glory" is making his payments -- on the sofa, the girl and now the kids. All that's left of his glory days are the memories, and the "love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of his hands." His anger has turned inward, and in his frustration, he takes it out on his children. "Hands that slap his kids around, 'cuz they don't understand how/Death or glory becomes just another story."

Strummer, his whiskey voice strained and tinged with a world-weariness that defines much of London Calling, tells the story he and the Clash would be accused of in later years:
Every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock 'n' roll
Grabs the mike to tell us he'll die before he's sold
But i believe in this and it's been tested by research
That he who [expletive] nuns will later join the church

This is the ultimate insult -- the ultimate sellout. To join the church -- i.e., conform to a social institution. Our gimmick-hungry yob has just done that.

Besides, youthful rebellion is nothing new. As Strummer explains in the third verse:
From every dingy basement on every dingy street
I hear every dragging handclap over every dragging beat
That's just the beat of time -- the beat that must go on
If you been trying for years -- then we already heard your song

The third verse ends the "official" lyrics. But the song continues with a subversive, almost whispered "fight song." "We're gonna fight, to you lose," Strummer sings in a martial cadence. "We're gonna raise hell." His voice rises, like the phoenix from ashes. Surely, the fire of rebellion lives on in our cheap hood's heart, even if only a flicker. But can that flicker be fanned into a flame again?

Or is death or glory, indeed, just another story? Just another theme for a composition? The story of the youthful rebel who compromises his values for the security and responsibilities of life -- just another story.

:: Andrew 09:05 + ::

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