Monday, December 14, 2009

Thoughts of An Aspiring Music Snob: Week 38 - The Clash

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

By most counts, I usually do not like overtly political music. I prefer my politics to be nuanced, well-argued, focusing on intricacies and details. Political music, on the other hand, tends to be as radical as it gets. Lacking the ability to investigate complicated political issues, most such music usually just devolves into catchy quips and angry slogans.

Not that there's anything wrong with that; I certainly don't expect music to provide a detailed policy analysis. And, whether liberal or conservative, art is certainly more enjoyable when it takes a radical stand on an issue; politically moderate art is probably the most boring thing imaginable. Still, I find that mixing politics and art usually tends to take away any sense of timelessness that a piece of art might have. Mixing politics doesn't necessarily devalue art, but it does date it, tying it to a specific time and place.

So, by all accounts, I shouldn't like the music of the Clash. I certainly have no opinion on the social policies of Great Britain in the late 1970s, and such lines in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" that compare the British government to Hitler not only invoke Godwin's Law, but are so eye-rollingly over-the-top that I expected myself to be unable to take them seriously.

But I loved it, self-righteous political statements and all. It has nothing to do with me agreeing or disagreeing with the Clash. But something about their music is so emotionally charged and energetic that I got caught up in the political message myself. And, despite dated references to to British immigration policy, to racial tension in London, to leftist revolutions in third-world countries, there was a certain kind of timelessness in the Clash's music. Are you angry? the music asks. Then get off your ass and do something about it!

I can appreciate that message. And perhaps I can learn to appreciate political music, especially when the music is this good.

WEEK 38

Artist of the Week: The Clash

What I Knew Before: Okay, it's time to fess up. I was somewhat familiar with the Clash's music before last Monday. This week (and next week) are fairly busy for me, so I decided to treat myself by picking an artist that was not a complete stranger. I'll start taking musical risks again after Christmas, I promise.

My Listening: To be quite honest, between working on schoolwork and driving 800 miles north for Christmas break, my listening got all jumbled this week, so I can only supply estimates. I listened to London Calling (1979) a bunch of times, The Clash (1977) and Sandinista! (1980) a fair amount of times, and Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978) and Combat Rock (1982) at least once. I also listened to some non-album singles from their early years.

What I Liked:

I remember the first time I listened to London Calling. After that raucous, apocalyptic title track, I was expecting more of the same. So I was surprised that the song was followed by "Brand New Cadillac", a rockabilly song that couldn't be more different. Then came the laid back cool of "Jimmy Jazz" and...well, you get the idea. By the time "Train in Vain" ended the album with lyrics that wouldn't be out of place in a country song, I was thoroughly confused.

I had a similar experience with Sandinista! This album begins with "The Magnificent Seven", a rap song that was inspired after Joe Strummer saw the Sugarhill Gang perform in New York. Then came "Hitsville U.K.", which is all sweetened up with glockenspiels and sounds like something straight off of Broadway. The album then continues for over two hours, throwing dub music, gospel music, and a goddam children's choir at you before it's all over.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm very impressed with the Clash's versatility. Their first album contains some great fast-paced two-minute punk songs. But the band's ambitions had eclipsed this sort of format within a few years. They reached and reached, but I don't think they ever overextended themselves. And in between their first punk single, "White Riot" and the disco/dance/Arabic inspired "Rock the Casbah" in 1982, there's a wide range of influences and styles that, nevertheless, still remains instantly identifiable as The Clash. It's impressive that a band can work so much into their music while still retaining such a unique sound.

What I Didn't Like:

There's not a lot here not to dislike. Even every track on the Clash's double album, London Calling, feels indispensable. They might have stretched themselves thin on their follow-up, the 144 minute long triple album (!) that is Sandinista! Sandinista! is chock full of weird dub experiments, and it gets a little tiresome in the middle. But really, the effect of an album that is longer than most movies is so mind-numbing that I'm not even sure what to think. It's going to take a few weeks for that one to properly digest, but it helps that I liked dub music to begin with.

What I Learned:

I learned that political music can be entertaining without being annoying. Usually radical political views + recklessly ambitious creative scope = an embarrassing failure, but the Clash prove that some bands have the skill to pull this kind of thing off.

They're not hypocrites, either. When their record company balked at the distribution costs of London Calling and Sandinista!, the Clash offered to give up the difference out of their own pockets, rather than cut their work down to a single, more palatable album. In effect, they were subsidizing their own music for the benefit of low-income music consumers.

Of course, the very ambition and drive that created such good music tore the band apart from the inside. Drummer Topper Headon was replaced after a destructive heroin habit, and frontman Joe Strummer fired guitarist Mick Jones after he claimed the latter was not showing up to practice, and becoming sullen in the studio. The departure of Jones was the true beginning of the end, but it also inspired Strummer to make a speech that perhaps sums up the Clash's goals better than anything else:

"The Clash needs to job on in trying to attempt its ridiculous aims. I am proud that we have ridiculous aims, 'cause at least we aren't going to underachieve."

Further Exploration Would Entail: I still haven't given the Clash's final album, Cut the Crap (1983) a decent listen, and I'm sure there's some singles that have slipped through the cracks. Other than that, it seems Jones and Strummer both released albums with other groups that received fair-to-middling acclaim.

Best Song You've Heard: "London Calling"

Overplayed? Of course. But it's still the best song they've ever done.

Best Song You Haven't Heard: "Hateful."

The most rocking, upbeat song about drug addiction you'll hear all day.

Next Week's Artist: The Arcade Fire