Song performed by The Clash
Written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones
Punk Music was no more the antithesis of music than Jazz, Romanticism, or Rap. Like Dogme 95 and Fauvism, it was an aesthetic adopted by artists in order to facilitate their creative drive. The real questions for every dogmatic artistic movement arise when the world takes notice. How many young artists have sat around a bar or coffee shop, half-pissed and fully pissed off, scribbling down their list of demands? And they will never, ever compromise. Religions are created from these half-formed doctrines, let alone artistic movements.
Then somebody, maybe multiple somebodies, actually go out and create. And someone pays them for their art. Time passes and the art gets repeatedly bought, maybe even praised by the establishment. Maybe some of the original drafters of the doctrine start to admit that everything about the world does not suck, like food and drink. Where does the compromise go too far? When do the shillelaghs come out?
London Calling is a tremendous, angry album, an attitude that the Clash had pretty much mastered by the time they arrived in the studio. The spittle practically drips into your ears from the headphones. They are rooting for the rude boys, ticked about the clamp down, dismayed by consumer culture, hate war and love reggae. Also, somewhere along the way, that punk aesthetic of thrashing on your instrument… not so much. (Bear in mind, from fireHose through the Sex Pistols, you find an awful lot of people who always said they made music, just maybe not the kind you like. And they were right.) The members of the Clash were musicians before the band, just with a lot of issues to work through.
I hear London Calling as an album about that eternal argument over dogma. The tension is over compromise. How far is too far to go? Should Train in Vain even be listed among the songs if the record company wants it to be a pop hit? Are we pissed if we can dance without the slam? Isn’t reggae music by people even more disenfranchised than us? Is punk outsider art and what happens to outsider art once you sign with a big record company? What would Woody Guthrie do?
In the end, the Clash crafted song after song that ultimately create that catharsis sought by all artwork since Aristotle named the experience. Through their own turmoil as a group and as individuals, they somehow captured all the anger that comes with being overwhelmed with ennui. They had accomplished so much more than envisioned and they could be satisfied with their place in the world, until they looked at the world around them. How do you maintain that dismay when you are no longer living on the streets? How do you carry the weight of the world without being crushed? Are you allowed happiness knowing that so much needs to change?
Like so many art strains, Punk music arose from diverse sources with varied agendas, but London Calling captures that common thread- never stop questioning everything. What more can we ask from our art?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 296 more to go.
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