It’s difficult sitting here in 2018 Trumpworld, recalling how another hated politician spawned a musical revolution. But back in 1975, when Great Britain’s longest-serving post-WWII prime minister took office, the fury of the then-nascent punk scene hadn’t yet been funneled her way. Punks’ anger and rage found an able target in Margaret Thatcher just two years later.
Thatcher climbed atop her conservative perch, two years prior to the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, the Sex Pistols’ punk “shot heard round” the music world. Britain would never be the same, as Thatcher (much like Reagan in America), turned her attention to dismantling much of the country’s social infrastructure. And Trump seems hellbent on scrapping what remains of America’s.
While the Sex Pistols received the lion’s share of attention from the media for their outlandish “manners,” sneering frontman, Johnny Rotten, and McClaren-esque media savvy (not to mention their shot across the bow, “God Save the Queen”), it was a group of working class twenty-somethings from Brixton who embraced an incendiary ethic of rage, channeled through punk sensibilities and three-minute song structures, that would later evolve and incorporate reggae, rap, dub, and funk, demonstrating that punk could be more than three chords structures, played at breakneck speed.
The Clash were inspired by U.S. bands like the MC5 from Detroit, serving as the cultural arm of the White Panthers. In an interview with Clash frontman and founder, the late Joe Strummer, he told the interviewer that the Clash wanted to be “more like them, using our music as a loud voice of protest…” and he believed that punk in essence “should be protest music.”And there was much to protest in Britain under Thatcher. With the nation’s postwar prosperity fading away, she used this as a pretext to cut social programs, which only amped up the poverty and social decay. As the economy tanked, skinheads began roaming the streets, looking to rough up (and worse) people of color. Racism and xenophobia were part of what was becoming an incendiary social scene in the once-great empire.
The Clash hit the ground with the release of their debut record, The Clash, and songs like “Career Opportunities,” with lyrics like these:
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
Strummer and his band mates headed to the U.S. in 1979, where the election of Reagan made for a “perfect storm,” and a new frontier where political malcontents armed with guitars and amps could introduce their British take on punk resistance to American audiences.
As Strummer recalled,
“Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of England and Ronald Reagan became President of the U.S….it was hard to tell who would be worse but we knew that a tremendous struggle was ahead…their tendencies leaned to the far-right if not fascism.”
I’m not naive enough to believe that in our fractured 21st century times, anything close to something like the Clash (and the Sex Pistols) might happen again, with music making a difference and shoving a stiv in the side of the establishment. Albums no longer matter, music-sharing services have made it such that musicians’ creative wares can be exploited by the lords at the top.
But, today is #International Clash Day, at least in select places around the world. KEXP, in Seattle, began this paean to the Clash, their music, and their values, back in 2013, and this marks the fifth year of a day being set aside to bands who mattered, or as critics and others wrote about the band during their heyday, “the only band that matters,” (actually, this was the CBS marketing slogan for the band). The city actually formally proclaimed this to be #International Clash Day. So did Austin, Texas (“The People’s Republic of Austin), Vancouver, BC, and a few others. All political oases in a growing sea of anger, and reactionary retreat.
Tune in, revel in the sentiment and spirit of the Clash and their music (and sincere politics at the time), and maybe, just maybe, some of that might seep out and counter some of the doom and hopelessness rampant in a country under siege, or as another favorite band of mine, X, once sang, a “Country At War.”