Thirty-seven years ago today saw the release of what I’d consider to be the best punk single of all time. When I began my initial explorations into The Clash at 18 years of age in 2012, the incomplete live footage of ‘Complete Control’ from Rude Boy was one of the first live Clash videos I saw.and it just floored me. I’d never seen anyone perform like Joe Strummer in that footage and he mesmerized me. Really, that performance coupled with ‘Know Your Rights’ from the US Festival quite simply changed my life. Joe Strummer may have ad-libbed the line “you’re my guitiar hero!” to Mick Jones but songs like this cemented The Clash as my guitar heroes.
Strong personal feelings aside, ‘Complete Control’ really is such an incredible song that’s special in a number of ways. It’s unique in that it’s sung by Strummer yet the vast majority was penned by Jones and it also has the honor of being the first song recorded with a certain Topper Headon at the drums. ‘Complete Control’ was the start of a new chapter for this band, one that would see them rise to dizzying heights only to implode all too soon. It was released in 1977 as a non-album single (in the UK at least) and it comfortably bridges the gap between The Clash and Give ‘Em Enough Rope. It’s more technically proficient than The Clash, it’s more polished, yet there’s still that unmistakeable raw edge and visceral feel that made it a classic album of the genre. This is still very much punk music, and punk music of the highest order.
A song so disturbing that listening to it surely verges on masochism. It’s the centerpiece of Suicide (one of the finest debut albums ever made). The main reason ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is so chilling is the subject matter. Frankie works in a mundane factory job and has a wife and child and they live in deep poverty. These difficult circumstances makes Frankie become insane, until he eventually murders his wife and child and then commits suicide and winds up in Hell. It sounds like it doesn’t get any more harrowing but yet it does. It’s a deeply claustrophobic track with only a recurring, basic keyboard motif, a drum machine, and Alan Vega’s vocals. The keyboard plays the same brief melody for ten minutes – it feels like it symbolizes the repetitive nature of Frankie’s job. That’s not even the creepiest thing about the arrangement either. It’s Alan Vega’s vocals that really leave a lasting impression. The song is laden with his screams that really just cut right through you. They’re so primal that even without the sparse arrangement and chilling subject matter they’d still sound harrowing. Add all these various components together though and you’ve got one of the most gut-wrenching pieces of music you’ll ever hear. And without sounding like a masochist, I think it’s a brilliant song. There’s a definite political subtext to it. It manages to be more evocative and effective than many more overtly political songs really. Essentially, the song is criticizing dead-end, low paid jobs. It uses an extreme tale to illustrate the point for sure, but the core message is the same. It may be something you’d only want to hear once in your life, but one things for sure: it’s an unforgettable piece of music.
As today marks his 59th birthday, it would be careless of me not to post something in relation to Mick Jones. An extremely gifted musician who in so many ways was the soul of The Clash. No one member of The Clash carried the group exclusively, but without Mick Jones the group were considerably poorer, if not outright disfunctional – just look at the regrettable Cut The Crap album. His brilliant studio prowess enabled Joe Strummer’s visionary lyrics to manifest into timeless songs. Of course, Mick was no slouch as a songwriter either. He wrote classics such as ‘Stay Free’, ‘Train In Vain’ and ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’. Perhaps greatest of all though is the classic punk single ‘Complete Control’. It’s a rare Clash song in that it’s written by Jones, yet sang by Strummer. Mick wrote it as a ferocious response to CBS releasing ‘Remote Control’ as a single without the band’s prior consent. It’s an impassioned and scathing commentary against artistic oppression and stands up as one of the greatest punk singles of all time – it’s certainly my favourite punk song from The Clash. The song fires on all cylinders and Joe Strummer was expressing the sentiments of thousands, if not millions, when he bellows “you’re my guitar hero!”, directed at Mick, during the guitar solo. He’s much more than The Clash’s guitarist and tune-smith though – I’ve not even touched upon the innovative music Mick made following The Clash with projects such as Big Audio Dynamite for brevity’s sake. In all of his various projects though his vision and strong desire to always push himself creatively is always prevalent. And, may there be many more years of it to come – happy birthday Mick!
I’ve been having a very Clash oriented today. I re-watched some of my Clash DVDs, but I also watched something new: The Joe Strummer edition of Video Killed The Radio Star. It’s a show that airs on Sky 1 and it focuses on the creation of music videos. That there’s even a Joe Strummer edition of this show was surprising to me. Stranger still, this 30 minute program doesn’t even focus on The Clash. It focuses on two topics: Joe Strummer’s work with The Pogues and their involvement with the film Straight To Hell. As a Pogues fan it was very interesting hearing Shane McGowan talk at length about Joe. Archival interview footage of Joe talking about The Pogues was also included. I hadn’t seen some of the interview footage before so that was a treat. I’m not exactly sure why they focused on these two lesser known areas of Joe Strummer’s work but it makes a refreshing change. This period of Joe’s life tends to get overlooked so it’s nice to see a documentary piece that focuses squarely on that. I’d recommend it to any Clash/Pogues fan. . I haven’t got a Youtube link to the documentary so instead I’ve posted a link to Joe and The Pogues doing I Fought The Law. It’s one of my favourite Strummer performances so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. As far as I know, the documentary will be repeated on Sky Arts over the next few days so keep your eye out!
There were a few Strummer compositions I was considering sharing today. It was tempting to post his cover versions of Silver & Gold or Redemption Song, both from the posthumously released final Mescaleros album Streetcore. In the end though, I went with perhaps my all time favourite Clash song. Sean Flynn – from Combat Rock – is one of the most atmospheric and experimental songs the band ever released. Considering their experiential nature, that’s saying a lot. The song is about photojournalist Sean Flynn who was the son of Errol Flynn. Whilst covering the Vietnam war in 1970, he disappeared. He was never seen again. There’s definitely a mournful atmosphere to the song but I think it’s laced with optimism too. The song is very peaceful and I love that about it. It’s otherworldly sounding to me. It’s the epitome of the mix of emotions I feel today about the eleventh anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death. Sad yet at the same time, hopeful and optimistic. It’s a beautiful song. Sadly it’s rather overlooked in their discography, which isn’t exactly aided by the fact the song was never performed live. A shame but it’s admittedly understandable. The backing track is just too surreal and complex. One of Strummer’s best though, so I hope you enjoy it!
If you’re a Clash fan, as I am, today is a rather bittersweet day. A day that really needs no introduction either. Today marks eleven years since the irreplaceable Joe Strummer died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect. He was just fifty years of age. Frankly, this is a post I’d really rather not have to write. I’d love to write about his new album, a concert I just attended or the like. What’s done is done though so I best get on with it though hadn’t I?
This day will mean different things to different fans. Some will reflect. I can’t really do that. I don’t have any past memories of The Clash or Joe to even reflect on. I was just eight years old when he died, and I only became a fan last year. For me, December 22nd makes me think of what could have happened, or what I could have experienced. One downside to being young (yes there are downsides) is that I completely missed out on The Clash. Not only that but I was simply too young to have any idea who Joe Strummer was in his Mescaleros years. Oh how I wish that was different but it’s the way it is.
Today I’ve often caught myself thinking “Why be sad?”. For a start – I should be thankful he existed. And that in his all too short life he made an indelible impact on the lives of millions. He shared his gift with us, and the lasting legacy of that can’t die. Yes, he can, he was just an ordinary man. His achievements and impacts though? They were extraordinary. I know it’s a borderline cliche, but he really does live on. In the records he made, and through each and every single person he inspired. And let’s never loose sight that he’ll continue to do so. Last year I listened to The Clash properly for the first time. I was eighteen years of age. They changed my life. You can rest assured that’s happened to plenty of similarly aged people since.
What I’m trying to say, simply put for brevity’s sake, is let’s try and be optimistic. It’s easy to be pessimistic today. Too easy. One thing I keep asking myself though – and it’s worth thinking about – is “Would Joe like this though?”. Instead of feeling sad today, we should make a conscious effort to remember Joe by doing something practical to instigate change. For me it seems like the perfect way to honor him. He’s dead, but we can’t let his message die. I’ll be thinking of that today, and of course his family and friends. I’ll be back later with a post but for now, I just want to conclude with this quote from the man himself as it’s all too appropriate on this day:
“ I really don’t believe that we just get born and die and that’s your one shot and that’s it. I really feel that we’re individual spirits and souls. And I know that when we die we go on.”