The Cultural Offices of Joe
Well so long liberty,
Let’s forget you didn’t show.
—“Yalla Yalla,” Rock Art and the X-Ray Style
Nina Simone over Sierra Leone.
—“Global A Go-Go,” Global A Go-Go
As Marcus Gray writes in Last Gang in Town, “the recent history
of the Mellor family could stand as a microcosm of social change in 20th-century
Britain” (88). John Graham Mellor—better known as Joe Strummer,
former frontman for the Clash—was born in Ankara, Turkey in 1952,
the son of Ronald Ralph Mellor, a British diplomat who had been born
in Lucknow, India, and Anna Girvan (née Anne MacKenzie), a nurse
who had served in India during World War II. Ronald’s father, Frederick
Adolph Mellor, had served on the Indian Railway, and, as Gray puts it,
in the course of three generations, the family witnessed the fall of
the Empire and the rise of the counter-culture; a colonial and postcolonial
family, they have gone “from Raj to raga” (88). The author
of a number of Clash ragas—in Strummer’s punk lexicon, long, “out
there, free form, play, jamming” Sandinista!-era songs (Clash, “Joe”)—John,
in his early years, lived the nomadic life of a career diplomat’s
son: from Turkey, the family moved to Cairo in 1954, and then onto Mexico
City in 1956, then to Bonn in 1957, then to England for boarding school,
and back, intermittently, to the former colonies. In the mid-1960s, while
visiting his father’s station in Blantyre, Malawi, John tuned in
a short-wave radio to the BBC World Service. As Strummer remarks, “It
was fantastic to be undeniably receiving radio from Britain. Ever since
then I’ve always wanted to spin records on the World Service” (“Sound
of Strummer”). In 1998, he got his wish, hosting a world beat program, “London
Joe Strummer—punk icon, “nightshift D.J.” on the “killahertz,” reborn
folk-raga-rocker with his new band, the Mescaleros—occupies a number
of cultural offices, or positions from which to speak on music, life, politics,
history, and more. From these “offices,” he broadcasts around the
world and into the consciousnesses of those willing to listen—to African
pop, Afro-Cuban Son, American rockabilly, Columbian cumbia, German techno,
Jamaican reggae, U.K. punk, and more—songs and riffs that communicate
a faith in cultural openness, in human liberation and dignity, in the power
of music to move people and to make them think, and that, at the same time,
tilt against the foes of the disenfranchised, the working classes, and the
vast majority of people who live beyond the privileges of the first world.
Though he jokes that he cannot, without the help of his wife, work e-mail,
Strummer makes use of the technologies of late capitalism to carry on the good
fight of punk. Updating the Clash’s sometimes uneven fluency in reggae
and Central American folk music, he draws upon South Asian, African, Caribbean,
and American beats in his own music, and spins records to a potential worldwide
audience of over forty million.2 An ebullient, never-stops-talking populist,
he still wants to change the world.
All this sounds, perhaps, like bollocks—or at least a little too idealistic—and
we cannot, as Marx would have it, think liberation without also thinking oppression.
In Strummer’s case, however much he casts himself as a champion of multiculturalism
and the working classes, we cannot lose sight of the negative proposition.
As Fredric Jameson remarks in Postmodernism,
In a well-known passage Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible,
namely to think [the historical development of capitalism] positively
and negatively all at once; to achieve, in other words, a type of thinking
that would be capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of
capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously
within a single thought, and without attenuating any of the force of
either judgement. (47)
If Strummer represents the “extraordinary and liberating dynamism” of
capitalism, he also risks representing its “demonstrably baleful
features.” We have once more, perhaps, a figure from the metropolitan
center—a figure situated personally and historically in the colonial
and postcolonial worlds—appropriating the music and culture of
those little able to resist such appropriations. Like George Harrison,
Paul Simon, David Byrne, and others, he borrows and integrates the rhythms,
phrases, and even themes of world beats into his own work and transforms
them into music aimed, in the main, at consumers in the West. On the
one hand, his work serves, as it did in the days of the Clash, to introduce
listeners to different forms of music and to draw our attention to the
cultures and struggles of peoples in the U.K. and around the world. On
the other hand, his recent ventures can little escape the traps the Clash
struggled with: contracts, consumerism, reification, commodification,
and the chance that one serves, in the end, the workings of hegemony.
If one moral of much Marxist theory—from Marx to Gramsci to Adorno
to Althusser to Jameson to Hardt and Negri—is that we are undone,
yet again, we can nonetheless see Strummer’s energies as homeopathic:
to use the technologies and means of capitalism to do one’s best
to make a more egalitarian and less violent world.
“We’re a garage band”
The Clash remains Strummer’s most prominent cultural office, and
in order to understand his work with the BBC and the Mescaleros, we need
some sense not only of his politics and pronouncements then, but also
of the Clash’s standing in popular and academic cultures now: the
authority of the first cultural office underwrites, at least in part,
the authority of the later offices. If a better lyricist and frontman
than political theorist, he—along with guitarist and songwriter
Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Topper Headon, and sometime
manager Bernie Rhodes—fashioned the Clash into punk’s version
of Gramsci’s “organic” intellectuals. From the Westway,
they tried to give shape to their generation’s disaffection, and
Strummer, in his role as punk icon and “all-round good geezer”(“Joe
Strummer”) plays his old songs in concert and, on the BBC and with
the Mescaleros, continues to develop the vision he first articulated
with the Clash. As perhaps the most visible member of “The Only
Band That Matters,” he is—next to John Lydon3—punk’s
most able spokesperson, and in interviews, articles, songs, documentaries,
and more, he attacks—as he did in the old days—racism, capitalism,
and imperialism, and argues—again as he did in the old days—for
a more inclusive, more humane world.
While some scholars—including Jameson—have argued that dissent
and refusal constitute part of the system of late capitalism, the question
remains—and will be the focus of this section—whether the Clash’s
intervention into popular culture matters or whether, as Jameson would have
it, they were beat before they began. If pinning one’s hopes on a rock
band seems like a dubious proposition to begin with, and if we have poor instruments
for gauging the impact of cultural phenomena, we can nonetheless argue that
Strummer and his bandmates constitute one counter-hegemonic force in a widely
diverse field of movements and interventions that will, if we accept Jameson’s
thesis of the “liberating dynamism” of capitalism, lead to the
creation of a new political order. And, although Marx has conditioned us to
think in terms of revolution, we might have to take a longer view. As Strummer
remarked in a 1981 interview, changing the world is “not an overnight
thing, you can’t expect everything to change quickly. I figure it’s
an organic process” (Garbarini 51). If all this sounds, once more, like
bollocks, the point here is that the latter-day Strummer, as we shall see below,
wrestles with many of the same contradictions that plagued the Clash.
As one measure of the Clash’s importance as a place from which to speak,
we can examine, briefly, the band’s place in contemporary popular culture.
Originally formed in 1976, the Clash broke up in 1983 (when Strummer and Simonon
fired Jones) or in 1985 (when Strummer called it quits on his post-Jones version
of the Clash4), but in recent years, Strummer and his former bandmates have
enjoyed a period of considerable celebration, popular and critical attention,
and re-publication. In 1999, under the direction of Simonon and Jones, for
example, the band released its first live record, From Here to Eternity. In
the same year, under the direction of long-time Clash ally and engineer, Bill
Price, much of the Clash’s back catalogue was remastered and re-released.
(The only post-Jones Clash record—the much maligned and underrated Cut
the Crap—was also remastered and reissued in 2000.)5 In 1999, Don Letts,
a D.J., video artist, and one-time member of Jones’ post-Clash band,
Big Audio Dynamite, also released a documentary of the band, Westway to the
World, a mix of interviews and footage from Letts’ earlier, abandoned
project, Clash on Broadway. The subject of countless magazine covers, stories,
and interviews, the band has also been the recent focus of several popular
biographies, including, among others, Paul Du Noyer’s The Clash, David
Quantick’s The Clash, and Bob Gruen’s The Clash: A Photographic
Documentary of the Only Band that Mattered 1977-1982. Johnny Green, long-time
Clash road manager, also published a memoir about his days with the band, A
Riot of Our Own.6 As if all this were not enough, the Clash have also been
the subject of at least four tribute albums, all in 1999: Burning London, City
Rockers, Backlash, and Police State.7 Strummer—who began his musical
career as a busker—and the Clash now stand with the Beatles, the Rolling
Stones, and the Who in the pantheon of British rock.
If the Clash has not received as much (rhapsodic) scholarly attention as the
Sex Pistols, they have nonetheless become, as part of the complex historical
and cultural phenomenon of punk, entrenched in cultural studies debates. At
stake have been vexed questions of race, class, and political efficacy. In
Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a seminal study of British post-war youth
cultures, for example, Dick Hebdige explores the influence of reggae upon punk,
and notes the Clash’s openness to the music and dress of another culture: “Most
conspicuously amongst punk groups, the Clash were heavily influenced not only
by the music, but also by the visual iconography of black Jamaican street style.
Khaki battle dress stenciled with the Caribbean legends DUB and HEAVY MANNERS,
narrow ‘sta-prest’ trousers, black brogues and slip ons, even the
pork pie hat, were all adopted at different times by various members of the
group” (29). If the Clash identified with Afro-Caribbean youth, Roger
Sabin argues that while the band denounced racism against blacks, they had
far less to say about the often more violent racism aimed toward Britain’s
South Asian immigrants:
On the very rare occasions when journalists did raise
the subject, the response could be surprisingly unsympathetic. Thus,
in a Record Mirror
interview with the Clash, the band are busy outlining their anti-racist
views when the subject of anti-Asian violence arises, and manager Bernie
Rhodes chips in: “There’s a lot of Pakis that deserve it.
. . .” He’s soon corrected by other members of the band,
but the idea that such a comment could have been made about Afro-Caribbeans
is unthinkable. (“‘I Won’t Let that Dago By’:
Rethinking Punk and Racism” 204-05)8
If some scholars have sounded the Clash on matters
of race and racism, others have explored their politics. In The Triumph
of Vulgarity, Robert
Pattison critiques the band’s agitprop:
On the Clash’s Sandinista! album, Marx and Engels turn up in the
7-11, and on the cover of their Give ’Em Enough Rope Mao watches
from horseback while the buzzards make a meal of a dead cowboy—the
West inevitably devoured by its own greed as the Marxist hero bides his
time. But on closer inspection the Clash’s songs, always sardonically
acute about what’s wrong with the world, have little to say about
any political program to make it right. (141)
In Last Gang in Town, the only book-length study
of the Clash to date, Gray dissects what he terms the “myths” of the Clash—largely
the inconsistencies he sees between the band’s announced politics
and their sometimes stormy relations with one another, their fans, and
other punk acts—and faults the band for not, one supposes, bringing
about the revolution: “I was also disappointed that punk did not
achieve more, and that its most outspoken and—apparently—politically
motivated exponents, the Clash, not only failed to deliver on so many
of their promises, but ultimately failed to come to terms with their
own inherent flaws and contradictions” (xiv). Not all scholars,
however, take such a dim view of the band’s politics and achievements.
Kenneth J. Bindas, for example, offers a more sympathetic reading of
Strummer and company, and argues that “the story of the Clash from
1977 to 1982 illustrates the conflicting ideology of the punks, who believed
on the one hand that state and corporate control had created a new dark
age, while on the other that human beings could prevail and create a
more open and egalitarian society” (69).9 In recent years, biographers
and cultural studies scholars have lauded the Clash’s musical ferocity,
but found their political mission to tell the truth about racism, capitalism,
and imperialism to be a well-intentioned if sometimes messy and contradictory
The prominence of the Clash in popular and academic cultures perhaps
signals the completion of its evolution from garage band to cultural
on that basis, enjoys a position of cultural authority, but the evolution from
busker to punk icon highlights—as the comments above suggest—what
has always been a matter of intense debate: how can a punk band not fall victim
to its own success? Jameson, for one, argues that they never stood a chance:
expressions of cultural and political defiance in the era of late capitalism “no
longer scandalize anyone and are not only received with the greatest complacency
but have themselves become institutionalized and are at one with the official
or public culture of Western society” (5). Beat from the start, “we
all, in one way or another, dimly feel that not only punctual and local countercultural
forms of cultural resistance and guerilla warfare but also even overtly political
interventions like those of The Clash are all somehow secretly disarmed and
reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a
part, since they can achieve no distance from it” (49). Jameson’s “we”—the
trembling, swallowed-whole theorists on the Left—can no longer attain
a position “outside the massive Being of capital” (48), and in
the bass line, say, to “The Guns of Brixton,” we presumably should
be able to hear a chant of “doom, doom, doom.” Too bad for us.
Or, as Jameson demonstrates again and again in his exemplary work, we can (however
much Althusser might have mocked such delusions) do what we can.
Strummer and Jones, in a number of songs, acknowledge the risks of co-optation
and commodification. In “Complete Control,” for example, a reply
to Epic/CBS for releasing “Remote Control” as a single against
the band’s will, they mock both the record company and themselves: “They
said we’d be artistically free / When we signed that bit of paper. /
They meant, let’s make lots of money / And worry about it later.” Punk,
as they put it in “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” could easily
become another commodity, another empty spectacle: “The new groups are
not concerned / With what there is to be learned. / They got Burton suits,
ha you think it’s funny / Turning rebellion into money.” And in “Death
or Glory,” in perhaps their most self-lacerating and crudest moment—neither
Strummer nor Jones have Lydon’s flair for sneering—they worry about
the possibility of their own fall to the filthy lucre: “And every gimmick
hungry yob digging gold from rock’n’roll / Grabs the mike to tell
us he’ll die before he’s sold / But I believe in this and it’s
been tested by research / He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” Although
Strummer’s tongue-twisting lyrics, the tune’s sing-song brightness,
and Jones’ mock-pretty harmonizing undercut the unexpected, defensive
harshness of “he who fucks nuns,” the bluntness of the second couplet
nonetheless suggests that the band was well aware of the perils and contradictions
inherent in being agitrockers.10 At their best, the Clash recognized that whatever
the risks, not to communicate by whatever means possible constituted the greater
capitulation; at their best, they used the technology and means of late capitalism
to broadcast their vision of liberation.
However unsystematically, Strummer explored—and continues to explore,
as we shall see below—the notion of a homeopathic engagement with the
forces of commodification and reification. However vexed or unlikely a proposition—a
punk rocker as Marxist theorist?—he used the media and the record industry
as a means to articulate an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist message. As Jameson
speculates, one might be able to turn the forces of capitalism against capitalism,
to battle reification by means of reification:
I am wondering whether some positive features of
do that as well: an attempt somehow to master these things by choosing
them and pushing them to their limits. There is a whole range of so-called
oppositional arts, whether it’s punk writing, or ethnic writing,
which really try to use postmodern techniques—though for obvious
reasons I dislike the term technique—to go through and beyond.
While Strummer’s efforts seem preliminary and modest compared
to what Jameson here imagines, he nonetheless did his best to turn a
position of reification—the rock star as commodity—into a
position from which to argue against seeing others as objects, from which
to counter his generation’s terminal estrangement, desperation,
and sense of individual and collective worthlessness.
Since the Clash remains before us in both popular and academic cultures,
we can say a little about what Strummer had to say—and continues to have
to say—from the cultural office of punk’s most political band.
While we do not have the space here to sound the Clash’s eight or nine
albums—or to say much at all about their cool-as-hell combat rock gear
or mohawks or Jones’ ability to pull melody from the gain or Lester Bangs’ days
on the road with the band, and more—we can at least gather some sense
of Strummer’s politics and pronouncements. In an early 1978 interview
in Melody Maker, for example, he sets out his vision of the Clash: “There’s
so much corruption—councils, governments, industry. Everywhere. It’s
got to be flushed out. Just because it’s been going on for a long time
doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be stopped. It doesn’t mean
that it isn’t time to change.” He continues: “People have
this picture of us marching down the street with machine guns. We’re
not interested in that, because we haven’t got any. All we’ve got
is a few guitars, amps, and drums. That’s our weaponry” (Kinneraly
Although, as Pattison suggests, Strummer seems rather vague about what might
actually be done to change the world—play guitar it seems—the critique
that the band could sling arrows but offer little in terms of concrete action
seems to miss the point. Strummer names his foes, but the interviews and lyrics
and the Clash’s sonic attack were not aimed so much at leveling parliament
as reaching into the consciousnesses of a generation that believed it would
be forever on the dole. Through his combination of attitude, Marxist critique,
barking guitar, and lyrics that emerge only after thirty listenings, the singer
shared a vision of the world with anyone who would listen. This vision included
some basic messages: have hope; we matter; you matter; know your enemies; know
your rights; believe in two minutes-fifty-nine. The most political of acts:
to try to reach into somebody and change the way they think and act. And, perhaps
most importantly, to create a sense of community through the pleasures of music
and motion. As Eric Lott argues, “Musical culture, like most cultural
products, can in its wonderful commotion create the conditions for social motion.
With Jacques Attali in mind, we might say that music and its best interpreters
help create or announce the existence of a community bent on getting the respect
it deserves for the social desires it lets loose” (244).
Developing the arguments presented in Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy
of Music, a number of scholars have emphasized the roles of noise, music, and
amplification in creating political energy, if only for brief historical moments.
In “‘Kick Out the Jams!’: The MC5 and the Politics of Noise,” for
example, Steve Waksman offers a complex reading of the intersections of politics,
Fordism, race, and rock furor in the music and performances of Detroit’s
late 1960s proto-punk scene. A precursor to the Clash and the Pistols, the
MC5 sought to move their audience through energy and volume, sought to “translate
the powerful sensations they felt from their own experience of amplified music
into a broad-based movement” (67-8): “More specifically, it is
here that we come to the Five’s principles of ‘high-energy’ music
as tool of cultural revolution. For the band, the ‘revolutionary’ potential
of their music lay in its presumed ability to drive people ‘into their
bodies,’ to provoke what [lead singer] Rob Tyner called ‘purification
and resensification on all levels’” (65-6).11 For a few months,
the MC5 turned up their amps and seemed poised to alter the political landscape
of Michigan.12 The Clash, in a similar manner, attempted to move its audience.
Often cited as a great live outfit, and providing, in the first singles and
album, a raw and dislocating noise, the band offered energy, an opportunity
for motion, for elation, for identity, for a feeling of community. If the first
chords of a tripping-over-itself tumult like “White Riot” did not
call into being the revolution, they at least drove the Clash’s early
audience of doldrum kids into their bodies and sent those bodies into delighted
collision with one another. For a time, it seemed something might be possible.
If a jumping, gobbing audience of young punks does not quite sound like utopia,
Strummer nonetheless did his best to imagine a better world. The Clash, in
their early albums, rail against racism, a life on the dole, police brutality,
the repressive domestic policies of the Heath and Thatcher governments, and
more; in the later albums, they broaden their horizons, attempt more musical
styles—especially rap and Central American folk—and attack European
and American imperialism. From “1977” they progressed to “Washington
Bullets.” In the early, proto-punk dirge, Strummer speaks for a frustrated
generation: “In 1977, I hope I go to Heaven / Cos I’ve been too
long on the dole / And I can’t work at all.” In the latter, pop-calypso
critique of U.S. imperialism, Strummer offers a catalogue of left-wing heroes
and celebrates the fall of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua: “For the very
first time ever, / When they had a revolution in Nicaragua, / There was no
interference from America, / Human rights in America. / Well, the people fought
the leader / And up he flew / With no Washington bullets what else could he
do? / Sandinista!” The soothing, yet triumphant refrain—“Sandinista!”—savors
the longed-for moment: a populist victory over brutality and exploitation.
Strummer and company, if we take seriously the presence of “FSLN” (Frente
Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) and “FMLN” (Farabundo
Martí para la Liberación Nacional) on the original covers of
Sandinista! and Combat Rock, respectively, wanted revolution, wanted a world
without tyranny and subjugation. Most Sandinista!-era reviewers, however, condemned
the band for losing its focus on the U.K., for becoming too global, for believing
its own propaganda. John Shearlaw, for one, dissected the band’s politics
and its attempts at musical diversity with ironic precision: “The Clash
have become a messy conglomerate of present day Don Quixotes. So credible,
so concerned, and so in control of their output, that from behind a mixing
desk, they can now tilt at more non-existent windmills than even the Pentagon
is aware of” (qtd. in Tobler 58).
As Strummer admits in the first lines of “Yalla Yalla,” a slow-burn
venture into techno, the world the Clash wanted to help call into being has
not yet arrived: “Well so long liberty / Let’s forget you didn’t
show, / Not in my time.” But ever the optimist, he continues: “But
in our son’s / And daughter’s time / When you get the feeling /
Call, and you’ve got a room.” A true believer, he refuses to give
up, and he keeps trying, keeps thinking of ways—as the rest of this article
will argue—to get the message out. Like Ishmael, he has another idea
for us; his motto could be, “I try all things. I achieve what I can” (Melville
378). Where Jameson envisions unending entrapment, and where Gray evinces anger
that a rock band could not pull off the revolution, Strummer holds onto the
long view. Bit by bit, word by word, act by act, person by person, change will
occur, and in some unknown day, capitalism will yield to a better system. Just
as apartheid and the Soviet Union seemed to fall all at once, late capitalism
could do the same. The good folks at Enron or Arthur Andersen or W.R. Grace
could be, as Marx would have it, grave-diggers. Or maybe not.
“This tune is going out to Marconi”
After folding the Clash in 1985, Strummer worked
a number of odd jobs, and then, as he told the Irish Times, retreated
from the spotlight for
most of the ‘90s: “I had my say and it was time for me to
shut up for a while” (Boyd). In the late 80’s, demoralized
by the demise of the band and unhappily under contract to CBS, he played
with the Pogues for a time and followed a haphazard course in soundtracks
and small parts in demi-art films. He wrote songs, for example, for Alex
Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986), Walker (1987), the astonishingly terrible
Straight to Hell (1987), Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record (1988),
and appeared in Walker, Straight to Hell, and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery
Train (1990). He also released one solo album, Earthquake Weather (1989),
that received poor reviews and seems now to be deleted. In the ‘90s,
his course was equally haphazard: he produced an album, Hell’s
Ditch (1990), for the Pogues, played with or wrote songs for bands such
as Flowered Up, The Levellers, Black Grape, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra,
put together the soundtrack albums for the film Grosse Point Blank (1997),
and contributed to other projects, such as the Kerouac tribute, Kicks
Joy Darkness (1997).13
After years of keeping a low profile, Strummer has returned to the world
stage, creating two, intertwined cultural offices from which to disseminate
of multiculturalism and freedom from economic, political, and military exploitation: “London
Calling,” his BBC World Service radio program, and the Mescaleros, his
new band. In both forums, he celebrates cultural diversity and explores world
music. On the radio—the primary focus of this section—he spins
tracks from around the globe, and with the Mescaleros, he demonstrates a fluency
in a number of musical styles, including folk, rockabilly, techno, reggae,
and more. To date, the band has released two critically acclaimed albums, Rock
Art and the X-Ray Style (1999) and Global A Go-Go (2001), and, as Strummer
tells us with characteristic fervor and humor, he spins and plays music for
a global audience that feels culturally disenfranchised: “It’s
music for people who are beyond the parameters of the demographic fascists
who decide what sells and what gets advertised and what gets on playlists.
If I had five million pounds I’d start a radio station because something
needs to be done. It would be nice to turn on the radio and hear something
that didn’t make you feel like smashing up the kitchen and strangling
the cat” (“Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros”). From his two
most recent cultural offices, Strummer, once more fired-up, attacks his old
enemies: racism, capitalism, imperialism. Once more, he draws upon the technologies
and means of late capitalism to do what he can to create a better world; once
more, these ventures run the risk of participating in capitalism’s baleful
On August 29, 1998, from “Bush House, in the heart of London,” Strummer
debuted his world music show on the BBC. Beamed around the world on shortwave
and available on the web, “London Calling” begins with a voice-over,
an unidentified woman telling us of a future music apocalypse: “The year
was 2098 in the old calendar, when it came. We called it ‘The Vinyl Virus.’ It
took over music right across the world—destroyed reggae, cumbia, punk
rock, anything that stood in its path. No real music survived—we thought.
Then, from far away, across the airwaves . . . .”14 On cue, Strummer,
with morse code tapping and air raid sirens wailing in the background: “All
transmitters to pull. All receivers to boost. This is London Calling. This
is London Calling . . . .” Wow. The post-apocalyptic, pirate radio D.J.
crackling out of the ether to save our descendants from the boy bands and the
Britney Spearers of the future, the machine-made pap that kills all the real
music, the music that arises from the people, from life, from experience, and
not from the factories of soulless later capitalism. Then, the first song,
Trini Lopez’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your
Land.” The perfect moment: the self-named Joe Strummer—who used
to call himself “Woody” Mellor in honor of his folk hero—spinning
a vision of inclusiveness and solidarity as performed by a Chicano star of
the 1950s and 60s: “This land was made for you and me.”
Strummer offers, in “London Calling,” a vision of a world in response
to late capitalism: not a world increasingly integrated by the forces of multinational
capitalism, but a world increasingly united by exuberance, a sense of community,
and a recognition of difference and cultural vitality. The music he plays—Harry
Belafonte, Ibrahim Ferrer, Andres Landeros, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Ernest
Ranglin and Baaba Maal, and more—serves as a celebration of diversity,
indigenous instruments and forms, political and spiritual liberation, and,
most of all, the pleasures of music. After Landero’s “Martha Cecilia,” a
cumbia rave-up, Strummer barks, “If that was no toe-tapper or no body-shaker,
boy, you need to see the undertaker.” The D.J. offers a vision of a global
village, of a less racist, less suspicious, less threatening world. Music breaks
down barriers, makes the experiences and values of others accessible, offers
a common ground upon which to learn about one another. Strummer would have
us believe that music can make the other less other, less alien, less a reified
thing that can be feared, or despised, or exploited. As he riffs after “This
Land is Your Land,” “Dig it! First of all, welcome to the program
all peoples of the world.” He goes on, “This world is your world!” While
we might ask, what world?—the world endured by the vast majority of people,
a world of poverty, limited opportunities, and unceasing labor, or the world
of the rejuvenated metropolitan center, a world of affluence, Thames development
projects, and global finance?—we might be better served to ask what cultural
or ideological work such utopian energies can perform.
If the show’s “format may be simple—one man and his record
collection” (“Sound of Strummer”), Strummer’s selections
reveal as much about his notions of cultural exchange and conversation as they
do about his eclectic tastes. In “Minuit,” for example, a song
played on the first show, Ranglin, a Jamaican guitarist, and Maal, a Senegalese
singer and musician, offer a bright, syncopated fusion of African and Western
instruments and vocals. Ranglin, who had first visited Senegal while on tour
with Jimmy Cliff in the 1970s, returned to Dakar in 1998—in the company
of fellow Jamaicans Ira Coleman and Dion Parson—to record with Maal and
other West African artists. Weaving throughout their album In Search of the
Lost Riddim elements of mento, calypso, ska, rock steady, reggae, Senegalese
polyrhythms, and more, and playing mainly acoustic instruments such as the
kora and hoddu—forms of West African lute-harps—Ranglin, Maal,
Mansour Seck, and the other musicians undertook, as Coleman remarks, “a
musical, historical, and spiritual adventure.” For the Jamaicans, “This
journey to the place that most black people regard as where their roots are
from had proved a magical and thoroughly satisfying mission. We made a lot
of new friends and created a lot of great music together with our African brothers
in rhythm. Did we find the lost one? I think we came close.”
To take another example—this time from Strummer’s second show—in “De
Camino a La Vereda,” a song from the Grammy-winning and immensely popular
Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder teams up with Ibrahim Ferrer and other Cuban
folk musicians. Cooder, a musical polymath and immersionist, traveled to Cuba
in 1996 with the idea of putting together African and Cuban musicians; instead,
he discovered the largely lost world of pre-revolutionary Cuban artists, and
he came, as part of his life-long exploration of instruments and forms, to
play with Ferrer, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo,
and others. Both “Minuit” and “Camino” represent trans-national
and trans-formal conversations, the meeting of musicians to share ideas, to
call into being new and old sounds, and to bring diverse and often less familiar
musicians, styles, and cultures to their audiences. These songs represent moments
of community and cultural exchange; they represent an openness and generosity
among peoples of different languages and nationalities. Just as the Clash,
in collaboration with Jamaican D.J. and musician Mikey Dread, helped to pioneer
what Hebdige calls “punk dub” (67), or a fusion of reggae and punk,
Strummer foregrounds artists engaged in sharing ideas, in speaking to one another
despite differences in race, nationality, or musical sensibility.
In “Global A Go-Go,” the title track to the Mescaleros second album,
Strummer re-asserts his faith in open communication and mutual understanding.
A rave-up techno-raga, the song tells the story of Joe Strummer on the BBC: “World
Service bulletin / From the nightshift D.J. / All wavebands on earth / Reconnoiter
on the killahertz. / This tune is going out to Marconi / To all corners of
the globe. / There is no hut in the Serengeti / Where my wavelengths do not
probe.” Just as the Clash had the habit of singing songs about themselves—“Clash
City Rockers,” “This is Radio Clash,” “We are the Clash,” and
a dozen others—Strummer continues in the self-mythologizing vein, and
casts the D.J. as a multicultural hero, bringing the music, experiences, politics,
desires, dreams, and more of musicians from around the world to listeners around
the world.15 A global exchange, a global conversation, a global attempt at
understanding and de-alienation. The song begins with bubbling and swirling
synthesizer and the half-sung, half-chanted call from the D.J. to the people;
it then erupts into guitars, drums, and unrestrained celebration: “Throwdown!
Stray Cat rock in Bulawayo / Buddy Rich in Burundi / Quadrophenia in Armenia.” Strummer,
with the Mescaleros and guest Roger Daltry howling along, goes on: “Big
Youth in Djkarta / Nina Simone over Sierra Leone / Wild sound of Joujouka in
Nevada.” A messy, six minute raga, the music means it; it rocks, yells,
swings, gasps for air, keeps going, tells us to believe in the lyrics, in the
vision. Just as in the days of the Clash, the singer asserts community, asserts
the value of others, of knowing more, of understanding more. Strummer believes,
and, fusing the offices of rock star and D.J., he played the song on “London
Calling” in July 2001.
Strummer does not, of course, claim to be remaking the world with his radio
show. A few hours on the BBC World Service, while more than hip enough, will
not transform the rapacious desires of multinational capitalism into a desire,
to take a line from Karl Marx’s “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” “to
widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer” (153). In
fact, he mocks his own efforts to call a better world into being: “This
is Joe Strummer, and I’m here with Andy Norman at the machines. Yes,
we’re two men in a room, and we’re broadcasting what needs to be
cast. We gotta get into their heads the fountain of all wisdom. We’re
gonna say the unsayable and play the unplayable.” While a man and compact
discs cannot bring about the revolution, a show reaching a potential audience
of over forty million, in whatever unquantifiable way, perhaps exerts a force
against the forces of reification. The struggle here is not over the factory
or the street, but over consciousness. If playing a few songs on the radio
does not amount to a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” Strummer’s
vision of cultural exchange and openness nevertheless seeks to alter perceptions,
to enrich and broaden understandings between peoples. However utopian, the
reform of consciousness remains, as Marx puts it, the primary goal: “Then
it will transpire that the world has long been dreaming of something that it
can acquire if only it becomes conscious of it” (“Ruthless Criticism” 15).
By whatever means possible, Strummer implies, you do what you can; opportunity
by opportunity, you try to reach others; bit by bit, and using the global broadcast
technologies of late capitalism, you try to change the world.
Whether such efforts serve the global forces—however fragmented and diverse—of
liberation and pluralism or the global forces of late capitalism and empire
has, of course, been a matter of intense debate in recent years.16 Although
the argument has many sides, it breaks into a few major camps, with some asserting
that the information revolution and the technologies of late capitalism will
foster national and global pluralism and political participation and others
arguing that the internet and proliferation of software-driven media serve,
first and last, the commercial interests of multinational corporations. In
The Electronic Republic, for example, Lawrence Grossman subscribes to the utopian
dimensions of McLuhan’s “global village” and asserts that
the new technologies will call into being “direct democracy”: “With
the push of a teleprocessor button or the stroke of a telecomputer key, citizens
can tell their leaders exactly what they think and what they want them to do” (12).
In contrast, in The End of Politics, Carl Boggs contends that the future already
belongs to such companies as Disney-ABC and AOL-Time Warner, and in his introduction
to The Americanization of the Global Village, Richard Rollin asserts that the
web and the new media are leading toward global “McDonaldization” (2).
In the place of news, we get “entertainment”; in the place of debate
and the open exchange of ideas, we get ads and chat; in the place of knowledge
and a complex understanding of our lives and the lives of others, we get information-overload,
white noise, and bland assurances that all will be well. Once more, the majority
of voices in the debate seem to offer the mantra of doom: late capitalism always
“Global A Go-Go,” in fact, dramatizes the dialectical proposition
Jameson sets forth in Postmodernism. On the one hand, we have the good Joe, the
singer-D.J. who carries on, through his latter-day offices, the good fight of
punk; just as the bourgeoisie, as Marx argues, “furnishes the proletariat
with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie” (“Manifesto” 149),
late capitalism furnishes Strummer with the technological weaponry to battle
late capitalism. On the other, we have the potentially bad Joe, the employee
of the BBC who perhaps unwittingly serves the interests of capital. As exuberant
as the song may be, we cannot help but be a little unsettled by some of the imagery: “There
is no hut in the Serengeti / Where my wavelengths do not probe.” From London,
the center of the old empire, the system reaches out, penetrates “all corners
of the globe.” Whether people in a hut in the Serengeti wished to be probed—or
have any defenses at all—does not seem to arise as a question. The show
invades, crosses borders, goes everywhere without asking permission.
Just as importantly, if the program fosters trans-national understandings,
it also opens markets and promotes the sale of compact discs that enrich multinational
corporations. As Jameson puts it, late capitalism constitutes “the purest
form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into
hitherto uncommodified areas” (36). Such as a hut in a former colony.
Or, as Hardt and Negri explain, this penetration of capital into all corners
signals the transition from modernist imperialism to postmodernist empire: “In
contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power
and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing
apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within
its open, expanding frontiers” (xii). While Hardt and Negri hold out
some hope for the multitude in the latter chapters of Empire, the sheer expansion
of global capitalism, underwritten by the “U.S. constitutional project” and
its “networks of agreements and associations” and “channels
of mediation and conflict resolution” (182), would seem to overwhelm
not only the liberating dynamism of one man and his record collection and guitar,
but also the collective efforts of the new anti-imperialists.
Strummer’s broadcasts from the “heart of London” raise still
other, equally vexed questions. If the popularity of world beat—and its
allied movements in, say, fashion or home decorating—means that the mall
needs another floor, the interest of first world artists in third world forms
and instruments runs the risk of participating in the old imperial processes
of surveillance and appropriation.17 We need hardly say that past practices,
discourses, and ontologies—as Foucault, Said, and others have argued—exert
a profound influence on the way we act and perceive ourselves and others, and
Strummer risks, as perhaps most Westerns subjects do, falling into the old
modes. On the one hand, having, as a squatter-turned-punk rocker, turned his
back in some measure on the life and values of his father and grandfather,
and on the racism inherent in British colonialism, he embraces difference and
celebrates on the air and in his own music the work of non-Western artists.18
On the other, as a figure from the metropolitan center, he surveys and consumes
the labor and products of the former colonies; he appropriates their musical
styles and themes, and recasts them in a way understandable to other Westerners.
He lifts songs and forms from their social and historical contexts; he perhaps
contributes to their political and cultural emptying. They perhaps become—in
their slick packaging and gleaming surfaces—commodity fetishes rather
than expressions of lived experience. However good his intentions and however
much music constitutes a form of conversation among its practitioners, Strummer
enjoys—to borrow a phrase from Said’s Orientalism—a “positional
superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships
with the Orient [or, we could add, Africa or Latin America] without ever losing
him the upper hand” (7).
The analysis thus far leads us, perhaps, to a number of propositions. For one,
we could argue that the doom-sayers must be correct: our daily implication
in the dialectic generates, at best, a weak positive force that struggles with
the negative force that may, in fact, be the stronger of the two. Call it a
draw, or a slow, but sure degeneration. For another, we could argue that the
positive force, however weak, carries us forward, but, faced with the overwhelming
truth of Necessity and the forces of reification, commodification, and consumerism,
we never stood a chance. Things may be in the saddle, but we have fallen under
the hooves. For yet another, we could—and here we may, however unfashionably,
indulge utopian desires—think teleologically. We can recall Marx: “The
development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very
foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What
the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.
Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (“Manifesto” 151).
However much the political, economic, and military agents of capitalism and
imperialism—and, we must add, the philosophers of dispersion—have
succeeded in undermining notions of political organization and collective progress,
many would acknowledge that Marx may yet have things to tell us. Strummer—to
retreat a little, perhaps, down the slopes of Olympus—seems also to believe
in the possibility, if not quite the inevitability, of liberty and equality.
More, the world he envisions might be calling itself into being no matter how
much late capitalism might work to suppress it.
“From Willesden to Cricklewood”
In the last few paragraphs of The Rhetoric of Empire,
David Spurr makes a rather unexpected turn. After offering a detailed
precise analysis of the tropes of colonial discourse, he suddenly falls
into a moment of cultural romanticism: “How can I say, now, what
it is like to turn from this theoretical discussion to the scene outside
my open window, where the intervention of the non-Western world seems
already at hand?” (200). He goes on, “It is a summer day
in a working-class ‘ethnic’ neighborhood on Chicago’s
North Side. Mexican vendors selling coconut-flavored helados ring little
bells on their pushcarts. The smell of strong coffee wafts through the
air from the Assyrian café. Women in pastel-colored saris stroll
in the park, where Vietnamese families are cooking outdoors” (200-01).
Where—following acute historical and poststructural readings of
British, French, and American speeches, travelogues, newspaper articles,
and more—did this come from? The recourse to the affective gaze
seems rather abrupt, and could perhaps be yet another trope—“Appreciation,” or
the multicultural warm fuzzy. As surprising and untheoretical as this
move might at first appear, Spurr nonetheless captures an ongoing, fundamental
change in the West: the “intervention” of the third world
into the first.
In Empire, Hardt and Negri note this change as one of the essential pre-conditions
for resistance to empire. Capitalism’s demand for labor—both skilled
and unskilled—has led to widespread immigration and the trans-national
movement of migrant workers. In turn, the forces of empire have sought to regulate
and control this movement:
Empire can only isolate, divide, and segregate. Imperial capital does
indeed attack the movements of the multitude with a tireless determination:
it patrols the seas and the borders; within each country it divides and
segregates; and in the world of labor it reinforces the cleavages and
borderlines of race, gender, language, culture, and so forth. Even then,
however, it must be careful not to restrict the productivity of the multitude
too much because Empire too depends on this power. (399)
Nonetheless, even as capital attempts to keep the
balance in its favor, Hardt and Negri suggest that this movement of
labor will become conscious
of “the central repressive operations of Empire” (399): “it
is a matter of crossing and breaking down the limits and segmentations
that are imposed on the new collective labor power; it is a matter of
gathering together these experiences of resistance and wielding them
in concert against the nerve centers of imperial command” (399).
The theorists describe a world where the third moves through and settles
in the first, and they imagine a growing consciousness and political
power among the multitudes.19 Strummer, in his work with the Mescaleros,
explores the postcolonial city and he once more does his part in the
effort to reform consciousness. His songs express—in about equal
measure—a longing for and celebration of multiculturalism and vibrant
interdependence. If now less the agitrocker and more the thoughtful observer,
he offers a hopeful take on race and what he sees as the positive changes
brought about in London and the West by the forces of capitalism and
The Mescaleros sound these changes in at least two ways. On the one hand,
they experiment with a variety of musical styles and world beats. Their
Cuban, Latin American, African, Arabic, and Celtic influences, and most of
the current line-up—Strummer, Tymon Dogg, Martin Slattery, Pablo Cook,
Scott Shields, and Richard Flack20—play a variety of instruments. They
seem willing and able to try out almost any style or sound: while Slattery
plays a “cardboard box” on “Bummed Out City,” a lament
about being lost in life, percussionist Cook provides “multiple personality
vox” for “Shaktar Donetsk,” a tale about an illegal Macedonian
immigrant to Britain. And, just as Strummer’s selections on “London
Calling” celebrate dialogue, community, and cultural and musical diversity,
the Mescaleros’ facility with world beats suggests not only an engagement
with the work of others, but also an identification with a broad range of cultures
and experiences. Not only do they assert the value and pleasures of music,
but they also assert that people can learn from one another, can learn and
understand more about one another. They offer a vision of co-existence and
exchange. As Strummer says of Global A Go-Go, “The message of the album
is that we’re all going to have to learn to live together and develop
a greater tolerance and get rid of whatever our fathers gave us in the way
of hatred between nations” (“Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros”).21
If the music takes a global view, the lyrics speak even more directly to the
movement of non-Western immigrants into the metropolitan center. In “Willesden
to Cricklewood,” the folk ballad that closes Rock Art and the X-Ray Style,
an unidentified speaker describes walking the “lonely avenues” of
North London, enjoying the people he passes, searching for moments of community: “How
I would love to speak / To everybody on the street / Just for once to break
the rules / I know it would be so cool.” He longs for contact, longs
to break down the conventions and barriers of class and race and propriety,
longs to know more about the lives and experiences of the people living in
the city’s multi-racial neighborhoods: “Come with me and be no
good / Be a madman on the street / Sing something out like Reet Petite / Let’s
hip-hop at the traffic lights / Ten thumbs up and smilin’ bright / Crossing
all the great divides / Colour, age, and heavy vibes.” Over a simple
arrangement of guitar, piano, and synthesizer, Strummer’s rough, knowing
voice takes its time, falls into the groove, shares a redeeming vision: “From
Willesden to Cricklewood / As I went it all looked good / Thought about my
babies grown / Thought about going home / Thought about what’s done is
done / We’re alive and that’s the one.” Against all the old—and
new—prejudices, hatreds, divisions, suspicions, and acts of violence,
he offers simple truths: family, home, living the best one can.
In “Bhindi Bhagee,” an energetic mix of Caribbean and South Asian
influences, Strummer once more celebrates—this time with humor and characteristic
verbal play—London’s multicultural neighborhoods. The forces of
multinational capitalism have called into being a new and vibrant city that
boasts cultures—or at least dishes—from around the world. This
time walking the “High Road,” Strummer encounters a New Zealander
who says he is “looking for mushy peas”: “I said, no, we
hadn’t really got ’em around here, / I said, but we do got / Balti,
Bhindi, strictly Hindi. / Dall, halal, and I’m walking down the road,
/ We got, rocksoul, okra, Bombay duck-ra, / Shrimp beansprout, comes with it
or without. ” He goes on: “Welcome stranger, there’s no danger,
/ Welcome to this humble neighborhood.” As they walk, Strummer tells
the Kiwi about the Mescaleros and their influences: “It’s got a
bit of . . . um y’know / Ragga, bhangra, two-step tanga, / Mini-cab radio,
music on the go! / Umm, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat, / There’s
a bunch of players and they’re really letting go! / We got Brit, pop,
hip hop, rockabilly, lindy hop.” These forms come blasting out of the
apartments, restaurants, and clubs in the neighborhood, and Strummer finds
energy and difference wherever he looks and listens.22 The empire has made
a new world.
In White Teeth, to take another recent portrait of the postcolonial city, Zadie
Smith offers a comic vision of North London. The novel opens on the same streets
Strummer’s unnamed narrator wanders in “Willesden to Cricklewood”—“Early
in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway” (3)—and
we learn that Mo Hussein-Ishmael will not permit Archie Jones, one of the novel’s
many protagonists, to commit suicide in front of his meat shop: “Do you
hear that, mister? We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This
place halal. Kosher, understand? If you’re going to die round here, my
friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first” (6).
Archie, seizing his second chance at life, marries a Jamaican woman half his
age, sounds the meaning of life with his best friend, Samad Miah Iqbal, a Bengali
Muslim and fellow veteran of World War II, and comes into contact with a kaleidoscopic
variety of people, all of whom struggle with their visions of self, city, and
nation: “it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist,
scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts,
compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance” (272).
Smith’s London teems with life and energy—and sadness and loss—and
she portrays multicultural and multiracial couples creating families—and
a city—with uncertain futures: “Children with first and last names
on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped
boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks” (127).23
Fraught, no doubt, with the thousand-and-one tensions, conflicts, and violences
that arise between peoples of different races, nationalities, religions, languages,
genders, classes, sexual orientations, and more, the city that Strummer and
Smith portray nonetheless displays remarkable diversity and life, and even
if all this life betrays the traces and wounds of late capitalism and the history
of colonization and decolonization, it possesses a complexity and vibrancy
that cannot, if we are to believe Hardt and Negri, be contained. As they argue,
empire “finds it impossible to construct a system of right adequate to
the new reality of the globalization of social and economic relations” (394): “This
impossibility is explained instead by the revolutionary nature of the multitude,
whose struggles have produced Empire as an inversion of its own image and who
now represents on this new scene an uncontainable force and an excess of value
with respect to every form of right and law” (394). Capitalism and imperialism
have set in motion bodies and forces that they cannot control, and the theorists
imagine cities rather like the new London: “A new geography is established
by the multitude as the productive flow of bodies define new rivers and ports.
The cities of the earth will become at once great deposits of cooperating humanity
and locomotives for circulation, temporary residences and networks of the mass
distribution of living humanity” (397). Just as Marx saw the bourgeoisie
as the agents of their own (ever-impending) demise, Hardt and Negri imagine
the empire as the agent of its own undoing.
From his multiple cultural offices, Strummer offers a vision of how the world
should be, and his homeopathic engagement with late capitalism arises, in part,
from the same global forces that have been reshaping the first and third worlds
over the last fifty and more years. Just as late capitalism furnishes Strummer
with the technology and position of reification from which to argue against
capitalism and imperialism—and thereby to attempt to reform consciousness—capitalism
and imperialism may be creating the conditions for the liberation of the multitude.
Or perhaps not. In Strummer’s case, we see the curious doubleness that
Jameson describes: he represents capitalism’s liberating dynamism, and
he also represents its baleful dynamism. In the same way, empire may contain
a monstrously liberating dynamism, just as it most certainly contains a monstrously
repressive dynamism. If, in the era of late capitalism and empire, we can perhaps
more readily see self-interest, displacement, racism, poverty, ceaseless labor,
fratricide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, civil war, and more, than we can see
cooperation, liberty, and the joyful acceptance of difference, the future is
unwritten. In the last few lines of “Yalla Yalla,” Strummer, lost
in a riff and deep in the raga’s hypnotic groove, tries to see ahead: “Somebody
got a vision of a homeland / From a township, / From a township window / Through
a township window / Some crazy widow / Dares to have a vision / Starts seething
like / Seeming like a homeland / On the plain / Not in focus yet.”
A number of people and organizations have graciously
assisted me in this project: my thanks, in particular, to Gill Huggett
and staff at
the BBC World Service’s Audience Relations and to Mary O’Brien
at the Irish Times. My thanks as well to Jill Bergman for her insightful
comments on earlier drafts of this article, and to Michael Davis for
keeping me apprised of the latest arguments regarding the web and cultural
1. I have pinched my title from Quentin Anderson’s “Henry
James’s Cultural Office,” an essay that explores both James’s
sense of “the substance of the moral life” and his understanding
of social relations. Anderson foregrounds what he sees as James’s
place in American culture and explores the possibility that James’s
writing could influence political attitudes. The title and the substance
of Anderson’s argument are more than suggestive for my purposes
2. According to the BBC, Strummer’s program reaches a potential audience
of 42 million: “With regard to audience figures, we aren’t able
to measure these by programme. The only information we can provide is the regional
estimated weekly global audience for our English output, in other words, the
number of potential listeners to anyone of our English programmes” (BBC
World Service). The BBC was kind enough to furnish the following breakdown:
total audience (English) 42 million. By region (English): Asia and the Pacific
12.8 million; Africa and the Middle East 19.8 million; Europe 3.8 million;
Eurasia 0.7 million; the Americas 4.8 million.
3. For Lydon’s view on the world, see his book Rotten, as well as any
number of interviews and documentaries, including Julien Temple’s The
Filth and the Fury.
4. Although a number of musicians played, at one time or another, with the
Clash, the longest-standing line-up included Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and
Headon. Before Headon signed on—and after he was fired—Terry Chimes
(a.k.a. Tory Crimes) drummed for the band. Keith Levene, later of John Lydon’s
Public Image Ltd., played guitar with the band in its early days. After Jones
and Headon were fired—and after Chimes again called it quits—Strummer
and Simonon hired Nick Sheppard, Pete Howard, and Vince White. The Clash II
broke up shortly after the release of Cut the Crap (1985).
5. Although critics roundly condemned Cut the Crap when it was first released,
a number of fans—as Clash web sites attest—have since found it
to be one of their stronger albums. Standout tracks include “Dirty Punk,” “Movers
and Shakers,” “Three Card Trick,” and, in particular, “This
Is England.” Among rock critics, Jon Savage remains one of the few to
say anything good about the album: “Almost everybody says this record
is crap: it isn’t. Try to find a copy to judge for yourself and see if
you don’t think ‘This Is England’ is the best song Joe Strummer
ever wrote (or, at least, the last great Brit punk song). Cut the Crap rocks,
and isn’t that the general idea” (591).
6. This brief survey makes no mention of the earlier books about the Clash.
See, for example, Pennie Smith’s book of photographs, The Clash: Before
and After, and John Tobler and Miles’s The Clash.
7. Perhaps the best thing one could say about the tribute albums is that they
demonstrate that the Clash was indeed a great band.
8. Sabin, in his effort to challenge what he takes as the “serious errors
of emphasis” (“Introduction” 2) in studies of punk, asserts
that scholars have tended to assert punk’s leftist, anti-racist politics—in
the form, often, of support for organizations such as Rock Against Racism and
the Anti-Nazi League—and to ignore the subculture’s sometimes virulent
commitment to such neo-fascist, anti-immigration movements as the National
Front. In “I Won’t Let that Dago By,” he explores, among
other issues, how bands such as Sham 69 supported Rock Against Racism, but
had a fan-base with strong allegiances to the National Front. He also rightly
sounds the connections between punk and skinheads and neo-fascist acts such
as Skrewdriver. If Sabin perhaps misrepresents what he takes as the misrepresentations
of other scholars—lots of studies point out the sexism, drug abuse, and
violences of the subculture—and if he perhaps insinuates too much in
noting that one of Jones’s pre-Clash bands went by the name, London SS,
he nonetheless gives a shove in the direction of a more comprehensive view
9. Jon Savage, in England’s Dreaming, likewise offers a positive view
of the group and its efforts to reach out in a positive way to its audience: “if
the Sex Pistols implicitly and then explicitly advocated the destruction of
all values, the Clash were more human, closer to the dialogue of social concern
and social realism—more in the world” (231).
10. Attempting to determine the moment the band “sold out” has
always been sport for Clash fans. For Mark P, editor of one of the original
punk fanzines, Sniffin’ Glue, the moment came early on when the band
signed with a major label instead of going with one of the small labels—Stiff
or Rabid or Pogo—that flashed into being in the punk epoch of 1976 and
1977: “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS” (qtd. in Tobler
16). Others point to the moment when Jones authorized Levis to use “Should
I Stay Or Should I Go” in one of their jean ads; the song quickly went
to number one on the U.K. charts—the Clash’s only number one record.
But as Jones explained in an interview, everybody wears jeans. For more on
the ad and responses to it—particularly Billy Bragg’s—see
11. By “resensification,” Tyner—according to Waksman—means
a recourse to a “primitivism” the band associated with black manhood: “if ‘straight,’ civilized
society required the dissociation of mind and body and the sublimation of physical
pleasure, the Five would counter this system with a sonic assault on the senses
that would, ideally, rid the body of its civilized trappings and return it
to a purity of sensation that had long been lost” (66). The Clash, neither
as phallocentric nor as primitivist as the MC5, relied on noise, but with different
political emphases: they worried more about the dole than about—to borrow
a term from the Five—their “rockets.”
12. Cynthia Fuchs, in her reading of the contemporary queercore and riot grrrl
scene, “‘If I Had a Dick’: Queers, Punks, and Alternative
Acts,” likewise cites the power of music and amplifiers to call into
being a sense of community, even among diverse genders and sexualities: “Like
many punk shows, this one [at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club in 1995] was
premised on an ongoing exchange of energies and vexations: band and audience
members tossed phrases—‘Fuck you,’ ‘Suck me’—and
plastic beer cups back and forth in a ritual that, for all its potent language
and contentious gesticulating, was about community and shared identity. For
this night, anyway, everyone here was ‘queer’” (102).
13. For this summary of Strummer’s post-Clash career, I have relied in
part on David Quantick’s The Clash. Although it does not offer a complete
overview—and although Quantick offers a number of suspect opinions—it
makes note of a number of Strummer’s minor ventures.
14. Although the BBC, for copyright reasons, will not release tapes or official
transcripts of “London Calling,” I found a “bootleg” transcription
of the first four shows on Brian Powell’s “White Riot,” a
fan webpage. I have compared the transcription with the playlists furnished
by the BBC—and with my own imperfect memory—and double-checked
the details with the BBC.
15. In “Techno D-Day,” Strummer also sings about his work as a
rave D.J.: “Well it was a techno d-day out on Omaha Beach / I was reserve
D.J. playing Columbian mountain beats / Andres Landero! Ay Mi Sombrero.” As
Strummer spins Belafonte, the cops arrive to break up the party: “The
noise inspectors with the sound detectors / Were coming on down the beach.” With
the crowd “ready to riot,” Strummer stands his ground: “On
a techno d-day, a techno d-day / Out on Omaha Beach / Where the troops believe
in a life of freedom / And this is all about free speech.” Strummer’s
belief in the power of music, dancing, and the radio can also be seen at the
beginning of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style: before “Tony Adams” kicks
in, we hear the sounds of someone searching the dial for something worth listening
16. For an excellent overview of this debate, see Songok Han Thornton’s “Let
Them Eat IT: The Myth of the Global Village as an Interactive Utopia.” This
article, in part, led me to a number of the writers and works I cite here.
See, as well, Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss’s The World Wide Web and
Contemporary Cultural Theory: Magic, Metaphor, Power.
17. I am using these terms here in the manner suggested by David Spurr in his
excellent study of colonial tropes, The Rhetoric of Empire (see, in particular,
13-42). As Spurr remarks, these tropes, or ways of thinking and writing about
non-Westerners, served “the establishment and maintenance of colonial
authority” (3). “Surveillance” and “appropriation” constitute
ways of observing and assuming control over the lands and lives of Africans
or South Asians or Native Americans.
18. During his days as a busker and with the pub rock band, the 101ers, Strummer
seems to have lived for the most part in abandoned houses. For one version
of Strummer’s life before joining the Clash, see Gray 88-110.
19. Samir Gandesha, in “Punk Multiculturalism,” argues that punk
in part grew out of this mass movement of people:
The cities that gave rise to punk as an aesthetic
of collision and improvisation can be characterized as postcolonial
inasmuch as these spaces were in
the process of becoming transformed from what were once the industrial
and political centers of empire into places increasingly inhabited by
erstwhile colonial subjects—West Indian workers “invited” to
work on British Rail and London Transport and workers from Pakistan and
Bangladesh and refugees escaping racist dictatorships in Uganda and Malawi.
20. The line-up of the Mescaleros has changed over
the course of their two records. The original line-up included Strummer
Antony Genn (guitars, bass, piano), Scott Shields (bass), Martin Slattery
(synthesizer), Pablo Cook (drums), and a number of other session musicians.
Genn, formerly of Elastica, seems to have been Strummer’s primary
partner, and he co-wrote a number of the standout tracks, including “Techno
D-Day” and “Willesden to Cricklewood.” The best track, “Yalla
Yalla,”an example of what Strummer has dubbed “acid punk,” comes
from Strummer’s earlier collaboration with Richard Norris. By the
time of the second album, Global A Go-Go, Genn had departed. In addition
to Strummer, Shields, Slattery, and Cook, the band now includes Strummer’s
old busking partner, Tymon Dogg—who played with the Clash on Sandinista!—and
Richard Flank, the engineer for Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. In many
ways, Global is the stronger, more coherent work. We can add that the
Mescaleros are, in part, the realization of Strummer’s earlier
experiments with world beats in his Walker-era band, the Latino Rockabilly
21. Like a number of scholars and critics, Gandesha does not have much
regard for the contemporary punk scene: “The spirit of Punk lies anywhere but
in the bands that try to produce punk music today” (258). While some
might disagree—Rancid seems to have absorbed both the musical and political
lessons of the Clash, and Strummer has acknowledged Tim Armstrong’s part
(as Hellcat label boss) in his return to the recording studio—Gandesha
does name Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite, Jah Wobble—formerly of Public
Image Ltd.—and grrrl bands such as Hole, L7, and Riotgirrrls as punk’s
worthy successors. Jones, at the moment, seems to have closed the BAD shop.
22. The image of Strummer moving through the neighborhoods of north London,
walking into and out of spaces of music calls to mind the work of a number
of cultural studies scholars. As Thomas Swiss, John Sloop, and Andrew Herman—building
upon the work of Jody Berland, Lawrence Grossberg, Henri Lefebvre, Michael
Taussig, and others—argue in “Mapping the Beat: Spaces of Noise
and Places of Music,” “popular music constitutes a terrain of social
and cultural identity that can be mapped in terms of its spatiality or, more
precisely, as spaces of noise and places of music” (6). By walking into
music, one walks—as if, they contend, by magic—into the lives and
experiences of others; we walk into complex spaces and contact zones of race,
class, gender, sexuality, and experience: “Within the ‘magical’ forcefield
of sound, we become one with its place and, in so doing, mark a difference
not only between the listening self and our ‘normal’ selves, but
also between ourselves and the others on the street” (17). Spaces of
power, the spaces of music, they suggest, open opportunities for “transformation
and flight” (21).
23. Strummer is, of course, hardly alone in exploring and describing the new
city, and while numerous musicians, writers, artists, and film makers have
also studied the changes going on in the U.K., we can note, in addition to
Smith, another of the most exemplary—and comic—writers of the new
London. In screenplays, short stories, and novels, Hanif Kureishi—perhaps
best known as the screenwriter for My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy
and Rosie Get Laid (1988)—sounds the sometimes comic, sometimes harrowing
intersections of multiple races, religions, sexualities, cultures, and subcultures
in urban and suburban London. In The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first
novel, Karim Amir, the son of an English mother and Indian father, listens “to
the Clash, Generation X, the Condemned, the Adverts, the Pretenders and the
Only Ones” (206), explores multiracial London—“So this was
London at last, and nothing gave me more pleasure than strolling around my
new possession all day. London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms,
all different; the kick was to work out how they connected, and eventually
to walk through all of them” (126)—and struggles to come to terms
with his mixed identity: “But I did feel, looking at these strange creatures
now—the Indians—that in some way these were my people, and that
I’d spent my life denying or avoiding the fact. I felt ashamed and incomplete
at the same time, as if half of me were missing, and as if I’d been colluding
with my enemies, those whites who wanted Indians to be like them” (212).
If Kureishi offers a comic take on the city, he also, in his second novel,
The Black Album, offers a dark and violent examination of race, religion, and
sexuality in the postcolonial city. Shahid Hasan, through friends he makes
at college, learns of the violence directed toward South Asian immigrants: “The
family had been harried—stared at, spat on, called ‘Paki scum’—for
months, and finally attacked. The husband had been smashed over the head with
a bottle and taken to hospital. The wife had been punched” (100). Ultimately,
he must choose between his friends—and their acts of retribution—and
Deedee Osgood, the white woman he loves. The hatreds and violences of colonialism
and racism churn through the novel, and Kureishi offers an ambivalent portrait
of the city and its possibilities for both individual and collective liberation
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Brady Harrison is Associate Professor of English at the University of
Montana. His recent work has appeared in American Studies, Mattoid: A
Journal of Literary and Cultural Studies, and Southwestern American Literature,
among other publications, and he is currently co-editing a collection,
West of Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 1 (Spring 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa