Sunday afternoon I managed to take a second viewing of the Joe Strummer documentary The Future is Unwritten. I saw it for the first time last year in the film festival, but it was good to take in a second viewing to understand the contradictory man that was Strummer and his role in The Clash.
Now, while I wouldn't pretend to be a die hard fan of all things Clash, I would consider myself a fan of some of their music. In particular, their early singles and London Calling, which I would include as one of the best albums ever (with the best album cover of all time, hence my profile picture).
WIth their first three singles they burst out of the blocks with White Riot, 1977, and London's Burning. All were an almost literal call to arms to knock down the tired and staid state of rock at the time. Indeed, the song 1977 is almost a year zero for music with Strummer's scathing "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones." With a collective time of less than 6 minutes, it contained more excitement than some bands muster in their entire careers.
However, by 1979 much of the steam had run out of punk. The Sex Pistols were gone, replaced by a number of knock off bands. The Clash moved away from the pure anger and thrash of their debut and diversified. It mixes its own brand of ska, reggae, punk and rockabilly with some potent storytelling. Themes range from the political: and Spanish Bombs and Clampdown's anti fascism call to arms, to the disillusionment of consumerism (Lost in the Supermarket), bands selling out (Death of Glory) and even Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift (The right profile). While the songs are not outwardly angry, the way Strummer can craft a story in the lyrics proves even more potent.
London calling, for me at least, was their zenith, and would prove to be an album they wouldn't match. They followed it up with a bloated triple record Sadinista, and the only slightly better Combat Rock. Unfortunately, they quickly succumbed (Strummer most of all) to the standard rock death sentence; stadium concerts, drugs, and in fighting. Within a few years they would be no more. Strummer himself comes across in the documentary as a walking contradiction, and while he is unfortunately no longer around to defend himself, I am sure he will agree. Through his life he traversed the scale from a middle class boarding school upbringing, to dropout hippie, to an angry punk, to embracing being a hippie again. While he can be seen as a contradiction in the broadest sense, it is hard to doubt the intesity that he had for which ever hat he chose to wear.
No matter Strummer's contradictions, in London Calling The Clash produced one of the finest rock records of all time. We unfortunately live in a time where angst, anger and protest songs are homogenised. As another great band, Sleater-Kinney, sang in their homage to the Clash "where is the questioning where is the protest song." While the majority of contemporary music has largely failed to rage against the machine (no not even that band has), it is helpful to jump back to records such as London Calling, which are often as if not more applicable to today's environment than they were when they were released.
"The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin"
The Clash - London Calling