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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.

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