The Global Impact of the ‘Only Band that Mattered’
Somewhere between the 1960s when Bob Dylan performed folk songs about the civil unrest and racial tensions brimming in the United States, and the mid 1980s when the successful Live Aid fund-raising concert was founded by musician Bob Geldof for a world hunger crisis, there was a rag-tag grouping of four young men in the mid-seventies punk-rock scene in London who angrily demanded justice for a world that seemed to be in short supply of it. The clarion call of their compassionate rage was heard all over the globe, and still rings truer than ever today. Their individual personalities combined to create an explosive artillery of messages in the sky that said what everyone was feeling. They called themselves The Clash.
Whether or not The Clash are still popular is not up for debate (they are in case you’re wondering), but their social relevance might be slowly fading from the writing on walls in today’s neon pop culture. With each generation it is inevitable for the potency of a message to somewhat fade, culturally and socially speaking. And any objectivity to be found in an artist’s musical impact on the world pretty much begins and ends with only their tangible meddling in history textbooks.
I won’t pretend that everybody likes or will like the band, their political views, or even their frenetic music, but I do know that they left quite an impression internationally for a generation of people in the seventies and eighties, and they certainly gave a kind of kicking momentum in favor of multicultural progressivism that defined part of the late-seventies and early-eighties. But now even I have to admit, as a so-called millennial star baby, that it’s just too easy to overlook the social and cultural importance of any band or event decades after the fact—especially when the epicenter of the impact was in a different continent with its own history and culture altogether— but I urge readers and casual listeners to consider the global and social relevance of The Clash apart from just the way they sounded.
The Clash were essentially a Journalism punk band. In an interview with talk show host Tom Snyder in 1981, they insisted that instead of being referred to as a rock and roll outfit, they would rather be known as a “news-giving group.” “News is news, so it’s not boring […] we’d like to plug into what’s happening now,” Joe Strummer said.
Some of the social issues The Clash gave the spotlight to when it was uncommon for musical artists to do so were: support for the African and Jamaican, and west Indian immigrant communities struggling for unity and integration in London during the late seventies, the disappointment that factory workers felt in a Capitalist-based economic system, the legacy of the problematic U.S. involvement during the Vietnam War, the threat of Global Climate Change well before it was in vogue, police brutality and misuse of lethal force, and especially, the political disorganization of youth facing heavy-handed systems of governments all over the world.
The mix of anger and compassion found in many of their songs can in all likelihood be traced back not just to the band’s inherent frustration with the status quo, but also the multicultural roots of individual members of the band. Immediately coming to mind is the guitarist, vocalist, and de facto mythical leader of the group: Joe Strummer.
A son of an English foreign service diplomat, Joe Strummer knew only too well the dynamic experience of growing up in different countries with their own different cultures. Born in Ankara, Turkey (once a Greek city called Antioch that fell during the bloody Crusades around Europe), Strummer grew up molded by his multicultural experiences in such places as Egypt, Germany, and Mexico, before ultimately attending private schools in London for the rest of his formative years.
As fate would have it, Strummer grew up disillusioned with being middle class, the expectations that came with it, and all of the stifling political bureaucracy his father wished for him to inherit. He identified better with, or at least preferred to his background, the slummy swashbuckling life of the low class families in London and their combined sense of work ethic and creative ingenuity. This was pure to Joe. Some critics like to claim that this essentially marked Strummer as a poseur when he eventually began squatting in vacated flats in the city while writing songs about the nobility of the poor and the greed of the rich, but it must be entertained that Joe really felt a stronger bond with the disenfranchised class than he did with his own privileged upbringing.
Flash-forward to the early nineties and the legend goes that upon learning about American fighter pilots painting their explosive ordnance with the title of his hit song “Rock the Casbah” for a routine bombing run during the Desert Storm campaign, former front man of The Clash, Joe Strummer, wept tears of bitter grief.
This is just one example of the global and social consequences of The Clash’s music. Fortunately, most of the band’s international impact was unquestionably positive.
But “Casbah,” though usually misunderstood, was a brilliant “punk” track in the sense that it was the perfect pop radio hit that held a much deeper meaning. The original point of the song was about urging Iranian youth during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to keep playing western music that was banned by the Sharif of Iran, and in turn, the jet pilots under his command to airstrike any place where the music was coming from would then object to his orders and rock to the radio themselves in defiance. After the low-budget music video was released in conjunction with the single in 1982, the song began to take on an added meaning with an optimistic demonstration of Arabs and Hasidic Jews coming together in peace and social harmony in an otherwise politically volatile region.
Amazingly, despite the band disintegrating sometime by 1983, some of the issues they stomped their jackboots to are just as relevant today as they were then, if not more so. Back then, the conviction the band felt about social issues that were real and important at a time when many other bands wrote self-absorbed musings and songs about broken relationships, eventually led music journalists to emphatically agree with the promotional title given to the group by their record label at CBS as“The Only Band that Matters.” Does this title still hold up? In spirit, I would say it does. In fact, I would also go as far to claim that any artist that goes out of their own way to champion causes in favor of human rights around the world get to share this moniker. It’s a titular crown that I believe The Clash would gladly hand over to anyone that cared about justice in a weary world as much as them.
The Clash eagerly supported, and it could even be argued, helped pioneer, a few fledgling ethnic musical genres in the late seventies that are now as prolific as they are popular: hip-hop from New York City and reggae from Jamaica. They certainly helped spread their sound and popularity by advocating them in press statements and incorporating these genres in their own popular music with tracks like “The Magnificent Seven” and “Revolution Rock.”
Despite their high ideals and quest to free the world, The Clash were undone 1983 by infighting, drug abuse, and exploding egos. The four scattered to the four winds for some time Joe Strummer played solo projects until he unexpectedly died in 2002 at the age of 50 from a rare defective heart condition. But I still think the essence of their passion is still in the air.
Musically, it can be argued that The Clash played a part in influencing several monstrously popular music artists from different areas of the globe. Among these are the Irish group U2, the U.S. Pacific Northwest band Nirvana, Washington D.C. punk band Black Flag, Tears for Feasr, and, most evidently, with British artist M.I.A., who sampled their track “Straight to Hell” for her 2007 top 40 pop hit “Paper Planes.”
If one single message can be distilled from the band’s career, as difficult as that might be to extract, it would probably be a safe bet to assert that they wanted young people to be politically restless in a world where ruling powers are constantly looking for ways to clampdown and determine the fate of their futures. Would some consider this sentiment cliché by today’s standards? Maybe, but remember who hollered it first.
- https://books.google.com/books?id=J6- dXBf76RkC&pg=PA235&lpg=PA235&dq=the+clash+a+news+band+journalism&source=bl&ots=OVb84XY738&sig=P5z9hyVakcqb1NArxREokIRJ2iw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=xTjZVL6sB43LsASf1YGYAw&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=the%20clash%20a%20news%20band%20journalism&f=false
- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0321711/ [Westway to the World Documentary about the rise and fall of The Clash]