VH1: Cool An' Speckless


A version of this essay was published in 100 Greatest Albums, edited by Jacob Hoye (VH1 Books)

London calling to the faraway towns

Now that war is declared—and battle comes down.

     —London Calling

It was 1983 and we were a scaly lot—wildly pimpled and wildly grinning.  And, by our own standards, mighty good looking, and ready for anything. 

We had been meddling with the other rock that was out there—The Minutemen, X, Fishbone.  And of course, the reggae—Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, etceteras.  All of us were Bad Brains adherents—whom we regularly saw at the Ritz on Thirteenth Street.  Yet none of it, exactly, was music that was ours.  We found ourselves on a continuous search for something we hadn’t yet heard, and on some level, the music we listened to was the imprecise answer of limited options.  

What else was there?  The Duran Duran agenda was far too polished for us—and surely, a sound like that was part of the machine we so resented.  We were consciously aware, in the shoulder pads and rolled cuffs of the early eighties, that rock’n roll had become the preferred entry to conformity.  That rebellion had been canned.  (Generations still respond to the Clash as alternative, because rock’n roll has only gotten more sanitary.)  Billy Joel or Bruce Springstein had an aura, to us, of the suburban, as did Heavy Metal.  Music, for a teenager, was as much about style as substance, and whatever we secretly thought of a song, there was no forgiving long hair, or sympathy for New Jersey (Jersyites being the arch faux pas to any of us Manhattanites).  American, white rock’n roll had a distinctly non-urban history.  Early on, those first city crooners, singing about life under the boardwalk, had been co-opted by the rural Elvis, and the L.A. garage band, and eventually, after other incarnations, by the Seattle grunge scene.  Urban life had become singularly ‘black.’  And in fact, many of us listened singularly to Rap (many an identity crisis resulting).  Anyone with a credible sense of reality, however, knew that our urban experience was not then represented in Rap (though Rap, as represented by commercial record producers, is much broader today).  As for Punk—it was just too silly.

When we were first introduced to the Clash (through albums subsequent to London Calling—I think, first, Combat Rock), we found the urban heavy metal that we had been craving.  Not only did the Clash satisfy our anger, but our sense of romanticism about city life—as easily represented in the form of London as New York.  As for the musical elements of the Clash—the punk and reggae—we were well prepped, as we’d been listening to music like that for years.  Here was a thinking man’s Sex Pistols, or a young, white Bad Brains. (Even though The Clash just looked young.)  Finally, without hair-shaking or safety pins, we could relate.

New York, New York, 42nd Street,

Hustlers rustle and pimps pimp the beat.

     —The Right Profile

Additionally, the Clash’s mocking, if emotive attitude towards life (evidenced in "The Right Profile") extended as far as themselves, and in that, was a perfect counterpoint to the near-universal hypocrisy.  The Clash were not ashamed of the fact that they were mournful, drunk, and a little goofy.  How could that fail to appeal to us?  And yet still, as puny as they were—as puny as we were—the rage felt real. 

Like skyscrapers rising up

Floor by floor, I’m not giving up.

     —I’m Not Down

Work hard and get ahead—we were overwhelmed not only by our disbelief in the lie, but also by our belief in it.  It was America in the fifties, again—although now with a sense of irony.  (In the eighties, the fifties really was the decade that we were reliving—from the hamburger to the mini-skirt.)  And that fifties awkwardness, and hint of rockabilly that was so intense to the culture (The Stray Cats, The Fine Young Cannibals), it was also there in The Clash, but raw—in songs such as, Brand New Cadillac, Jimmy Jazz, and Wrong ‘em Boyo.  And as for that rebel-without-a-cause, he was also there for us, in songs like Revolution Rock, and Rudie Can’t Fail, where the reggae influence offered not only a critique off all that was absurd, plain and sinister, but a personal solution.  Get rude and reckless.  Look cool and speckless.  Drink brew for breakfast.  ("Rudie Can’t Fail.")

The Clash had honed a response to the angst of the time—represented in songs like "Lost In The Supermarket," and "Working For The Clampdown".  But the real battle, The Clash had realized, was against our own fantasy of rebellion—that mythic rebellion characterized in "The Guns Of Brixton."

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

Like many, I imagine that teenager in me is still waiting—dreaming of the falling door....

The truth, of course, now, as it was then, is that waiting isn’t enough.  And however consciously, we all knew that The Clash was singing to the tragedy and legend of our own failure.  In the songs, "Death or Glory" and "Four Horsemen," every note played, and word sung, speaks directly to this awareness of the con—the fraud we were perpetuating on even ourselves.  And today, with my generation slowly taking the helm—what do we have?  Disco lives on in dance-music and rap so sharp and so smooth—and so without tooth.  And the pre-rock’n roll ballad has returned to the fore in a new rockish format.  And even the littlle rock’n roll that’s left is casually tendered as a form of societal initiation.  The only comfort that we can take in the death of rock’n roll, is that most of us probably died right along with it.  And the Clash made sense of it all.  Basements and streets as dingy as our own optimism.  Handclaps and beats as dragging as our own footsteps through the inevitability of our lives.  And a music of endless defiance, and endless surrender.  

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. 

     —Death or Glory


So the Clash is on the greatest-album list.  In the end they get us all.