:: Thursday, October 07, 2004 ::

Punk Rock Countdown: No. 1
"Clampdown," by The Clash
In his book England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, Jon Savage quotes French literary and historical scholar Jacques Attali, putting punk into a proper broader context. Quoting from Attali's book Noise: The Political Economy of Music:
Music is prophesy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that gradually becomes visible; it is not only the image of things, bu the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future. For this reason, musicians, even when officially recognized, are dangerous, disturbing, and subversive.

If ever a record made a new world audible to me, it was the Clash's London Calling. It not only heralded the future, but it also reminded us that ghosts of our collective past were not far away -- and indeed, lived on as we walked into a new world. With "Clampdown," the Clash conjures up the ghosts of Europe's past -- the horrors of World War II and the Nazi wehrmacht -- and reminds us that those same haunting spirits are ever with us.

It begins with feedback from Mick Jones' amp, a 1-2-3-4 shout out, and the signature tandem of Jones' slashing guitar chords yoked to Paul Simonon's thundering bass. Drummer Topper Headon keeps time with a steady martial beat, while under his breath Joe Strummer utters the prelude. It's a vision of fascist horror -- not on some European battlefield but in a schoolyard:
Jimmy's outside but you can't take him back for the drama of design
They hit him in the back and see the long arm dropped over the school cuisines
They say now back and hands facing the sidewalk as they slowly click on
Jimmy's under arrest, it seems. The jackboots of authority "slowly click on" to quash the next rebel. And in unison, Strummer and Jones ask: What are we gonna do now?

In three minutes and 52 seconds, "Clampdown" describes the threat of totalitarianism to the human soul. ("No man born with a living soul/can be working for the clampdown.") But the totalitarianism Strummer describes comes not only from government fascists, but also from the world of meaningless work. In some sense, "Clampdown" is a song about the proletariat struggle to be freed of our bonds. But at another level, it's a song that speaks to each of us who, to borrow a phrase from another great Clash song, "makes a bargain with the world." It's a song of caution to those who compromise their ideals for a litle bit of short-term gain, material success, or the illusion of security. It's a social critique of conformity, of selling out -- and it's ironic because, in just a few years after the release of London Calling, the Clash themselves would be seen as sellouts (with the release of Combat Rock in 1982).

In the wake of Strummer's mumbling prelude, the song begins in earnest with images of Nazi atrocities juxtaposed with yuppie pride of one-up-manship. Both Hitler Youth and Yuppie, it seems, are working for the clampdown:
Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
they're working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying we earn more than you!
When we're working for the clampdown
Swap "Arab" or "Muslim" for "Jew" in the first line, and the song would find immediate relevance in our post-9/11 world. Music is prophecy...

The critique goes on to address the dangers of conformity (and the blind faith of "young believers"), again conjuring images of the Hitler Youth:
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers

Strummer then tells about standing up to the authorities: "The judge said five to ten/but I say double that again/I'm not working for the clampdown." (This never happened in Strummer's life; the worst he ever got was a night in jail for some vandalism.) The scene then changes from politics and law enforcement to the world of work:
The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you
The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don't owe nothing, so boy get runnin'
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal
This is a variation on a familiar Clash theme. Earlier works -- such as "Career Opportunities" and "All the Young Punks," which proclaims that working in "some factory" is "no way to waste your youth" -- as well as later songs ("Magnificent Seven") suggest that meaningless work in an industrial economy is as oppressive as fascism.

But do we heed the wisdom of the old, cunning factory hands? No, not us. We can change things.

And as an alarm clock sounds -- a wake-up call? or the bell tolling for us? -- Strummer paints a portrait of the young punk all grown up:
You grow up and you calm down
You're working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
You're working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now
Yes, we've grown up, calmed down, sold out. We're in our 40s, secure in our middle-class lives. But "Clampdown" tells us that, whether we realize it or not, working in our offices and factories, we're fully assimilated into the culture of death.

Or are we? Subversively, Strummer offers a glimmer of hope, whispering toward the song's conclusion that at least a couple of "evil presidentes" have "fully paid their due/for working for the clampdown."

The resistance continues. Some of the sellouts may not be sellouts at all. They're working hard in Harrisburg, working hard in Petersburg. Ha! Gitalong gitalong!

So, there you have it. My choice for all-time best punk tune.

Why "Clampdown"?

Well, for one reason, this line -- my favorite in all of punkdom:
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D'you know that you can use it?
Other than that, though, I'm giving away no secrets.

Throw your bricks in the comments below. I'll post links to all 40 tunes in the countdown later today, if I have time.

:: Andrew 15:31 + ::

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