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THE CLASH – “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”

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#661, 9th March 1991

March 1991. I’m coming to the end of five years as a scholarship boy at a top boarding school. It’s been – oh yes – an education. I’ve bullied, I’ve been bullied, I’ve hidden myself away, I’ve learned a lot about institutions and very little about the bits of real life that happen in between them. I’ve fallen for music. I’ve discovered – though I’ve no idea yet how important this will be – that I’m much more comfortable putting words into the world than I am a physical presence. And as such I’ve stumbled into being the nominal editor of the cosy, unrespected, unread school magazine.

What’s in this journal? It has endless reports of a sport only a few thousand people have ever played. It has indifferent landscape photography. It has an anonymous gossip column (which I write) mostly about the editors of its inky, photocopied school rival. Which also has an anonymous gossip column. Which I also write. It has creative writing – oh god, the creative writing. In my first week I’m sent a long poem in iambic tetrameter about the poet’s copping off with an unfortunate girl at a school disco. “She kissed me like a hoover would / A lot of suction. It felt good.” Reader, I published him. And faked a letter of complaint in the next issue.

What has this to do with that band of my fellow poshos, The Clash? Well, the magazine also publishes music reviews, of schoolboy bands. The bands are always awful, the reviews are by convention always encouraging. Except as a music lover I decide it is time to Take A Stand, and so I commission a scathing review of a particularly braying group whose repertoire is mostly punk rock cover versions. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” among them.

I got the writer to take an obvious line – how nauseating to see the anthems of punk sung by the scions of the ruling class, blah blah. Good rabble-rousing stuff, utterly hypocritical of course. It was a fairly gross spectacle to be sure but there was a lot of emotion I wasn’t ready to examine lurking behind my reflexive hate. What I was really expressing wasn’t an incipient preciousness about punk authenticity but a more deep-felt unease and resentment about rock and the uncomplicated, well-worn hedonism it had come to represent. The boys getting up on stage and playing punk rock weren’t rebelling against anything much but they were doing more than I was, with my knotted, paralysed suspicion of everything. But if breaking out of that suspicion meant sinking into the cosiness of rock, was it really worth it?

And then suddenly “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” was at number one, and my personal identity crises were being played out across pop. It’s The Clash at Number One! But from a jeans ad! But still, The Clash! But so what? Half the NME got excited, half cued up the “He who fucks nuns….” quotes. As for me? I hated the song, and the band, even more.

But why? OK, the anti-Clash argument in a nutshell: they were – by this point, for sure – a big sloppy rock’n’roll hug, a four-headed walking reassurance that nothing had really changed in the 70s, that rock could still be about – could again be about – riffs and leathers and blokey mob-handedness. But more abstracted – they didn’t seem to be in it for sex or money or even religion, politics perhaps but also just a sense that rock was in itself still a good idea. The Clash Are The Rock’n’Roll Preservation Society: that was how their fandom came over by 1991. And maybe that wasn’t their fault, but all their branding – that “Last Gang In Town” stuff – seemed to point to it. It repulsed me. I didn’t want to join any gang that would have me as a member. How fortunate that no gangs were asking!

More than Queen, more than Maiden, more than B**** A**** even, this hit stank of the past, all the more strongly because so many people around me seemed to think it wasn’t the past. And so I find it very hard to listen to now – my dislike of it is still located in the vicious roil of being 17, semi-detached from the repetitive ramalama knock-off I hear when I put it on. I even like some Clash songs now, but not this. In the pub I suggested maybe it was their “Rainy Day Women” – an irritating crossover hit – but that’s not quite right.

So let’s strain for objectivity. Good chugalug riff. Vocals a bit clearer than usual – I like Mick Jones more than Strummer as a singer. The mood? I guess I quite like how the goof-off Spanish backing vox undercut the apparent tension in the thing, provide an illustration of the matey delights awaiting the boy if he goes, but the sullen, finger-jabbing attack of it reminds me too much of The Stranglers (and who would want this moaner to stay, anyhow?). And then the double-time bit starts and I just can’t keep up the pretence – I’m 17 again, and I still just hear this as rock music, and rock music as an institution, a school I can’t wait to leave.

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Comments

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  1. 151
    pink champale on 4 Apr 2011 #

    oh. I’ve just looked at wiki too. i’ve long believed what was told as fact in an early 90s nme ‘great pop stories’ freebie booklet, that bobby:
    i) went out celebrating the success of ‘i fought the law’;
    ii) danced with mafia boss’s woman;
    iii) was taken out to the car park and pumped full of gasoline;
    iv) to death
    but seems it ain’t so. or at least hasn’t been properly established as so. next i’ll find out that the same booklet’s surreally pointless mark e smith buys a dictaphone story is also a wild fabrication.

  2. 152
    wichita lineman on 4 Apr 2011 #

    Re 151: I think that’s still a likely explanation – moreso than links to Manson and Sam Cooke! It was obv the work of someone who knew they’d literally get away with murder. He was at a party taking acid the night before (think this is fact) and may well have recklessly danced with the wrong girl – much as the singer of Jay & The Americans’ Come A Little Bit Closer did, only with less deadly results.

  3. 153
    Mark G on 4 Apr 2011 #

    I have a Bobby Fuller 4 Live e.p. and it’s a wonderful thing.

    #151, I’ve heard (ok, read) MESmith’s Dictaphone story from himself, so it may well be a true one.

  4. 154
    Steve Block on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Too many comments to work out if this point has been raised, but I find it amusing that Tom talks of The Clash being the Last Gang in Town and completely fails to spot the gaping irony which therefore exists in the title of the song. Only The Clash can get to number one so far after their heyday with one of their least great singles and manage to subvert that by, granted, perhaps unintentionally, pointing out the artist is not always in control of their legacy: the imploring need of the singer, Jones, to be told whether to stay or to go, “Come on and let me know”, is answered by the audience placing this at number one on the charts. Like it or not, it’s there. A definite 8 from me, I bought it and it is a double A with BAD II’s Rush.

  5. 155
    Ed on 12 Apr 2011 #

    This thread has been picked up at the very excellent D-squared Digest blog, here:

    http://d-squareddigest.blogspot.com/search/label/intrinsically%20risible%20people%20%28non%20Denis%20MacShane%20category%29

    One of the commenters over there draws a parallel between the Clash and Bruce Springsteen, which seems about right.

  6. 156
    Erithian on 12 Apr 2011 #

    Well, Bruce seems to be a bit of a fan – he started his 2009 Glastonbury set with “Coma Girl”, from the posthumous Mescaleros album “Streetcore”, then a couple of days later started his Hyde Park set with (a fairly ropey version of) “London Calling”. You can imagine he’d have got on with Strummer circa ’78.

    Indeed here’s what Joe thought of Bruce: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/bruce-springsteen-joe-strummer-glastonbury

  7. 157
    Hessy on 24 Jun 2011 #

    Knocekd my socks off with knowledge!

  8. 158
    Tommy on 10 Jul 2011 #

    This is kind of what I was trying to get at in my earlier posts:

    “We assumed he[Pharrell Williams]’d have all these synths and beats,” sez HP, “but he has all this enthusiasm for rock music, because he only just discovered it.”

    http://www.thehivesbroadcastingservice.com/band.php

    “Lady Gaga went to see Iron Maiden and, whilst talking about the show, summed up how communal metal can be. Elitist dickheads, please bring a pencil and take notes.”

    http://www.metalhammer.co.uk/uncategorized/lady-gaga-sums-up-metal-better-than-99-of-people/

    – that the people who profess to hate rock for it’s blokely conservatism are never the people who are actually doing anything more progressive and inclusive. The cool people are happy to embrace it on its own terms. Rock haterz I’ve encountered generally seem to be fans of stuff even more regressive and conservative (i.e. indie) than the stuff they profess to hate.

  9. 159
    punctum on 11 Jul 2011 #

    You were doing pretty well there until you fell through the trapdoor in your last sentence.

  10. 160
    Tommy on 11 Jul 2011 #

    You patronising sod! :-P

  11. 161

    […] nine years after its original release, introduced me to a debate I didn’t know: the band is reviled in certain British quarters for its last-gang-in-town mythos (read the comments on Tom […]

  12. 162
    thefatgit on 2 Dec 2013 #

    Here seems a good place to say RIP Junior Murvin. The Clash introduced a wider audience to Junior. “Police and Thieves” not only a great reggae song but also a great protest song. Kinda cut up about this…

  13. 163
    tm on 3 Dec 2013 #

    Sad day indeed. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of The Clash’s Police and Thieves though.

  14. 164
    Erithian on 9 Nov 2014 #

    Remember the woman who was reviewing her husband’s “stupid record collection” one album at a time? Turns out she quite likes The Clash: http://alltherecords.tumblr.com/

  15. 165
    Mark G on 9 Nov 2014 #

    Yeah, a couple years ago I got one (the proper UK version) for a fiver, and played it at home for the girls and they all loved it. It was a lot less tinny/lofi than I remembered.

  16. 166
    hectorthebat on 23 Mar 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 228
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 228
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 55
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 78
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 39
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 93
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 704
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 6
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 294
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rocks Musiczine (Spain) – The 100 Best Rock Songs in History (1995) 49

  17. 167
    Girl with Curious Hair on 26 Mar 2016 #

    I’m really late to the party here, but reading this has been like a support group. I thought for years I was the only person who never got the Clash. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    They’re actually responsible (albeit indirectly) for my only music-related break-up…

    I was 16 (and therefore an idiot, yes). I was seeing a boy in a band. He had the leather and the sneer, and he’d worked his way back from the Libertines to the Clash, and he’d become rather fixated with them. Fair to say he really bought into that “only band that matters” line.

    I made the mistake of introducing him to my father… now my father was a real gent, and he made a genuine effort to bond with this boy over their shared love of 70s rock. My dad was an Anglophile growing up in 70s and 80s Communist Yugoslavia, where he told me the only rock you could get was sneaked-in prog and rock. All the dinosaurs. Clash Boy saw my dad’s Stones and Floyd and Gensis, and sneered at it like only a teenaged purist can. All of that shit was old and ancient. The term “old farts” might have been used. Only the Clash mattered.

    My dad took it like the gent he was, but later, on the way to the tube station (which was… you’re going to love this… HAMMERSMITH!), I got tired of Clash Boy’s posturing when he said something to the effect that he pitied my dad, because 1972 was a long time ago. So was 1979, I said. He didn’t like that. Words were exchanged. I threw his scarf at him. (NB: you can’t throw a scarf furiously and keep your dignity. So don’t do it during an argument.)

    None of this has anything to do with the Clash themselves, I know, and I’m not trying to project one dick’s behaviour onto a band and their output, but as other people have said in this very thread, they do seem to have provoked something in their fans. Maybe this is the folly of youth but I really don’t see the difference between the Clash and the other gangs of white, guitar-bludgeoning blokes who were apparently the enemy just because they came from a different part of the same decade. I can listen to them and appreciate them and suppose that yeah, objectively they’re a Good Band, but shorn of their 70s punk context they mostly just sound like another rock band to me.

  18. 168
    Phil on 26 Mar 2016 #

    they mostly just sound like another rock band to me.

    The Clash bought into the myth of Rock’N’Roll in a very big way – as well as the myth of being the Best Band In The World. They never really cited any band past or present as their peer, but I think if you’d said they sounded just like the Who in the mid-60s, the Faces in the early 70s or Mott the Hoople in the mid-70s, they wouldn’t have rejected the comparison. And some of the later stuff – London Calling & after – is distinctly loose & un-rock-like, making the anathematising of everything before them even more absurd. They don’t sound much like Genesis at any point – but maybe that was because prog was different from everything else, not because punk was.

  19. 169
    Paulito on 27 Mar 2016 #

    Don’t most of the acts that make up the classic pop pantheon lose something when stripped of their historical context, though? Much the pleasure I get from listening to the Beatles or Joe Meek or Kraftwerk lies in casting my imagination back to the era in question and getting a sense of how mind-blowingly innovative their material was at the time. It’s the same with the Clash and even more so with the Pistols (‘God Save the Queen’ is a great example – it obviously doesn’t sound nearly as incendiary 40 years later if listened to bereft of the contexts of Jubilee Year and of the pap that largely surrounded it in the charts. Much of its residual thrill lies in being able to listen to it while imagining the shockwaves it created on release).

  20. 170
    Girl with Curious Hair on 27 Mar 2016 #

    That’s a very good point, and again I totes accept I might be being harsh just because I’ve got a personal axe to grind… I totally agree that a lot of stuff works better within its historical context.

    I think the key is realising that context exists, though. The problem is when you get somebody like Clash boy and his ilk (he’s not the only offender I’ve met, sadly, though he was the certainly only one I ever took home to my dad) who refuses to accept that – the Real Music Has Guitars and Attained Perfection In 197X argument writ large. Sullen conservation that’s all the more annoying because the conservative in this case is so utterly convinced of his righteous cause, so utterly incapable of seeing that he’s exactly what he claims so noisily to despise. Meet the boss same as the new boss indeed.

  21. 171
    Tommy Mack on 29 Mar 2016 #

    Girl With Curious Hair: I don’t believe I’ve said Hi yet, so welcome!

    I’ve listened to the first Clash album a few times over the last weeks (the IMO superior US version with their superlative ’77/’78 singles added in) so I’ve been thinking about them a bit. They’re a band who always seem to divide opinion: here’s the thing, nearly every criticism I’ve heard of them rings true on some level (maybe that’s why their fans get so angsty when to hear them maligned!) but all of it seems irrelevant when I hear the music (in the right mood, there’s plenty of times I think ‘why do I even like this ugly, clangerous racket?’ – and certainly, many times in my youth I was that surly, sour line-in-the-sand prick. I once threw a salt cellar at my best mate’s head when he slagged off Jonathan Richman. I’ve mellowed a little since then…)

    The Clash are The Watchmen: Rotten’s got superpowers and Siouxsie’s got superpowers. The Slits have got superpowers and The Undertones and Buzzcocks have melody as their superpower but The Clash, they’ve got no superpowers (at least in the early days) but they became superheroic through sheer force of will. Loads of the songs on the first album should be crap by all rights: clangerous power-chord racket churned up by a bunch of would-be thugs (“The truth is only known by guttersnipes” indeed) BUT BUT BUT… there’s just something magnificent in the up-and-at-’em fervour of it.

    In his autobiography, Johnny Rotten says that The Clash always played everything too fast and knackered themselves out mid-set but part of the charm of the first album is that it sounds like they’re playing everything as fast as they can. White Riot is one of the few early punk singles that sounds genuinely out of control, like a runaway mine-cart. Not that that makes it better than more accomplished records pulling less obvious moves but it does give it a certain something. It’s like their cover of I Fought The Law: you could easily say that they round all the idiosyncrasies off the BF4 version, replacing it with a meat and potatoes pub rock sound and at face value, it’d be hard to dispute but put it on and to my ears anyway, it stills sounds like a magnificent rocket-fuelled chase soundtrack.

    Later they’d make better records that pulled together all sorts of disparate influences without ever rounding off the rough edges that sound so great to my ears and so unpalatable to others but even their straight-up rock stuff, they might have been cooking with the same meat and potatoes ingredients as a lot of the other 70s rock bands but at their best it feels like they were currying the meat and potatoes into something thrillingly spicy while others where boiling them in tepid water.

    That’s how I feel tonight anyway. Tommorrow I might stick them on and think ‘what’s this ugly, messy crap’!

    Phil @ #168: I’ve often thought if there’s a problem with punk then it’s the same problem as with prog: that both started out as a way of breaking rules, as a new way of doing things but developed their own constricting orthodoxies.

    Paulito @ #169: I think it’s the opposite way round for me: if I can get some sort of kick from the song/record itself then I can effortlessly pitch myself back Quantum Leap-style to 1959, 1967, 1989, whenever but if the record doesn’t do it for me, while I can still imagine others getting excited by it but it will only ever be in the third person. Mind you, it’s the same with new records: if it doesn’t do it for me, I can understand what’s exciting others but I can never feel it.

    Obviously this is a fluid not a rigid thing: you can listen to a record 100 times without ‘getting’ it and then one day something suddenly clicks. Or someone says something which allows you into their head to hear it through new ears. That’s one of the most important functions for me (and Marcello said something similar on facebook last week) of great music writing: opening up new standpoints from which to hear the music, to allow the reader not just to understand to experience, through the quality of the writing, what the writer experienced listening to the music.

  22. 172
    Phil on 30 Mar 2016 #

    In those days, when we thought that three or four years was about as long as any band should keep going, it was generally agreed that the Clash had lost their edge and turned into rock dinosaurs, but there was some debate over when – certainly before Sandinista!, but would you disqualify London Calling? all of it? Then there were the hard-liners, who drew the line before Give ‘Em Enough Rope; some people even looked at the first album and said Huh, CBS – sellouts!.

    What everyone would agree, though, is that there was a time before the Clash were boring. And that’s worth saying, because – I still believe – when the Clash were good, they were very good indeed. Specifically, they were very punk indeed. I remember watching a ten-years-on punk compilation on TV in 1987: the Pistols were amazing, some other punk bands were some other punk bands, and right at the end Joy Division showed what was coming next, with effortless poise and lack of cool (Barney was wearing a jumper…). But the Clash! They were fast and loud, but more than anything they looked as if they wanted to be fast and loud but couldn’t necessarily hack it – but they were going to do it anyway. Such energy, such a shambles. I couldn’t take my eyes off Joe Strummer, even (or especially) when he lost the song completely and ended up lying flat on the stage, hitting it with his fist.

    The next day at work my friend asked me
    “Did you see the punk thing last night?”
    “Yeah, it was good.”
    Did you see the Clash?

  23. 173
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2016 #

    #172 – on of my favourite clips of them is the version of What’s My Name (one if their best straight-up punk songs) from Bellevue on So It Goes. Strummer staring into the camera: “‘Ere we are on TV / what does it mean to me? /what does it mean to you? / FUCK OFF!” and then he trips over the mic stand and knocks himself out on the drumriser. I mean, written down it just sounds pathetic and teenage (which I guess is why they’ve become such a magnet for surly aggro types) but watching it, aged 15 (even in 1996) there was something brilliant about the chaos and hostility.

    Main problem with London Calling is it’s mastered far too quiet. That and maybe a couple of the trad-rock plodders from the second half of the album.

  24. 174
    Phil on 30 Mar 2016 #

    #173 – that was the very clip! But I’m pretty sure it’s ‘fuck all’. And the idea of saying you don’t give a damn about being on TV, let alone saying it & knowing the audience would think so too… different times.

  25. 175
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2016 #

    Ah, that makes a bit more sense!

  26. 176
    Tommy Mack on 31 Mar 2016 #

    #173 the irony is that modern audiences probably genuinely give far less of a fuck about their faves being on TV than Clash fans did in 1977. In fact, in 2016, TV must rank pretty low in the rankings for ‘portals that allow us access to our pop heroes’

  27. 177
    Paulito on 2 Apr 2016 #

    @171: That’s a great bit of writing about the Clash, which eloquently sums up my own oft-changing feelings about them. Sometimes they annoy me and other times I just love to hear them. They’re flawed, certainly – they could be both pretentious and incompetent, occasionally at the same time – and some of their material just doesn’t come off. But the flaws and the misfires are made up for many times over by their passion and vitality, by their (mostly successful) attempts to broaden and deepen their sound with influences from dub, funk etc, and by about two dozen songs that remain stone cold classics.

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