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Mar 11

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. 1
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2011 #

    THREE???!!!

    Dear God!

  2. 2
    Jim5et on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Indie snobbery never dies!
    That’s not a criticism, by the way, it seems to be a universal truth. This is a pretty tedious record, listened to now – I never had much time for the Clash though I now associate them with my 5 year old who has an old vinyl copy of London Calling in hsi room which he plays endlessly. 3 is a bit harsh, but I’d not go above 5.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Had never heard it before the advert but was vaguely familiar with a handful of their other previous hits. Love the guitar sound throughout, the rowdy vibe and the tempo shift towards the end stops it getting boring. 7 or 8 for me (Rock The Casbah being a 9).

  4. 4
    Tom on 29 Mar 2011 #

    “Rock The Casbah” is quite entertaining – way more so than this – but obviously best used by Will Smith.

  5. 5

    The Clash didn’t really make a habit of straight-ahead old-school love songs, so who is “she” meant to be? Allegorically, I mean — presumably she isn’t an actual person.

  6. 6
    Tom on 29 Mar 2011 #

    #5 Apparently it IS – one of Meat Loaf’s backing singers.

  7. 7
    Matthew H on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Wow. That’s getting the boot in. Then I realise I’m pretty ambivalent about it – coming into pop in the early 80s, The Clash were already dinosaurs to me, and in 1991 this felt like a weary interruption in an exciting year (second term at university, off my box on Balearic/Italo dance music at all times). I appreciated the riff well enough but hated the clumsy double-time chorus, and dismissed The Clash altogether because I was into pissing off the rockists down the hall bar.

    Oddly, the reissue of ‘Train In Vain’ later in the year started to tickle my interest, but ‘Should I Stay…’ was too imperfect (maybe, ahem, too obvious).

    I ran a school paper too. It was mainly a vehicle for me to survey musical tastes, and ‘Thriller’ emerged as the school’s favourite single. My music teacher went for Ashton, Gardner & Dyke’s ‘Resurrection Shuffle’.

  8. 8

    “one of Meat Loaf’s backing singers” <-- ALLEGORY OVERLOAD

  9. 9
    Mark G on 29 Mar 2011 #

    I’d give it six, and remark that it’s, again, something I don’t need to hear ever again.

    Still reckon “Sandinista” the classic though.

  10. 10
    Steve Mannion on 29 Mar 2011 #

    “but obviously best used by Will Smith”

    not feeding the troll here ;)

  11. 11
    col124 on 29 Mar 2011 #

    What a tremendous review, though I’d argue the “3” is just too low–perhaps you should’ve recused yourself and put an asterisk in. & I think comparing “Should I Say” with “Rainy Day Women” is pretty on point–a friend once described the latter as “the Dylan song morons love,” harsh but relatively accurate in my experience. “Should I Stay” is in my bottom tier of Clash singles today: it’s repetitive and it just jabs away at you. In theory, it should be a 4 or 5, but I give it far too much leeway because of what the Clash meant to me at the time.

    Because when I was in my teens I certainly was in the group who considered the Clash “the Only Band That Matters” and the last great rock & roll band, etc. Perhaps the US perspective is different—the Clash, though they did get a couple hit singles towards the end of their career, never seemed like the rock establishment at all, or any sort of preservationist society—they weren’t played on the radio that much, so they still seemed like outsiders. Even in the late ’80s, they sounded fresh and adventurous, to the point where even their pop compromises (like “Should I Say”) seemed justified–the message getting to the masses, as inane as that seems now.

    So I suppose I’m coming at this record from the opposite end: I’m overrating it, because when I hear it now, I’m 17 again as well, but music like this was one of the few good things I had in going on in my life then–it represented getting out of my hometown, it suggested an alternative; it was the future. An 8.

  12. 12
    Mark G on 29 Mar 2011 #

    The rest of the band figured that as it was Mick Jones’ song, he should pick the b-side as well.

    To which he chose “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite, forcing it to be a double a-side.

    Which somewhat annoyed the rest of the clash.

  13. 13
    Tom on 29 Mar 2011 #

    I should point out what I didn’t find space for in the review = that, yes, my characterisation of the Clash as firing the flames of anti-rockism in Young Tom is based on a hugely unfair appreciation of their output, which as Sandinista apparently shows had plenty of globe-trotting adventure. But you only need look at the sleeve of this reissue to understand that it wasn’t that side of them that was winning the legacy war in 1991!

    My favourite Clash song is the impeccably canonical White Man In Hammersmith Palais.

  14. 14
    Matthew H on 29 Mar 2011 #

    #11 I usually find that ‘Rainy Day Women’ is the song Dylan-haters use to bash him.

  15. 15
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2011 #

    # 7 – Your music teacher had good taste, Matthew!

  16. 16

    Re the legacy: Jon Savage wrote a powerful review somewhere* of the first compilation (1988 I think) as a disgraceful slab of band-approved revisionism, programmed and ordered to streamline their lamest and most mythologised dimensions, and edit away much of what was so contradictory (and therefore interesting) about them early on. Obviously all bands do this on their compilations, but the Clash were meant to be different.

    I actually quite like the bit where it speeds up, and dislike “Rock the Casbah” a LOT more.

    *It’s collected in Time Travel

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 29 Mar 2011 #

    This one positively reeks of JABOF! Their hearts weren’t TRULY IN IT were they?

    Oh, but I loved this song. And like many, who’ll cite White Riot or London’s Calling, or even Rock The fupping Casbah over this, I agree. It’s throwaway regurgitated shit, but I can’t help it. I should hate it, but the stupid opening riff and the back-of-the-studio hollering (Joe?) just set me up to get my feet stompin’ and fists pumpin’ with pavlovian regularity. I love it enough to give it a 9!

  18. 18
    flahr on 29 Mar 2011 #

    screamy bit + Spanish backing vox = 7

    best Clash song = probably “Lost in the Supermarket”

    Not a surprising Tomscore, it has to be said, but it’s nice to know he was at one point a teenager just as anti-authority and surly as doubtless Joe Strummer was :P

  19. 19
    will on 29 Mar 2011 #

    I don’t mind Should I Stay, but as a overall package it’s desperately lacking its original double A side. I wouldn’t describe myself as an affociando but Straight To Hell is a reminder that the Clash were always more than just skinny-jeaned rock revivalists.

  20. 20
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Re 13: The “globe-trotting adventure” always seemed like more grist to their myth, to show how well they understood the oppressed. The influences were rarely assimilated – how well does their take on Police And Thieves stand up against the Junior Murvin original, or London Calling/Sandinista! against subsequent black/white British pop – say, Massive Attack? It just doesn’t.

    The sight of them dancing in the background while b-boys break dance in Clash On Broadway is hilarious.

    And that’s without even mentioning the “last gang in town” stuff!

  21. 21
    col124 on 29 Mar 2011 #

    #20: I’d say the Clash’s reggae generally has held up okay. “Police and Thieves” is nowhere near the class of the original, but the intensity and the commitment of the band to the material is still compelling for me (the Clash were sort of like folkies when it came to reggae, for good and ill). Plus they generally had good taste: Junior Murvin, “Armagideon Time.” I like the Simonon reggae tracks in particular. Only real misstep is their version of “Pressure Drop,” which is a mess.

    but yeah, the hip-hop era of the Clash seems a bit ridiculous now (though I still like “Overpowered by Funk,” dumb as it is).

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 29 Mar 2011 #

    More than any other band, the way that I respond to The Clash is dictated by context. Sometimes when I hear them they seem to completely hit a spot that nobody else ever quite has, finding a mythology and excitement in living in the city, and then placing the singer and listener within that narrative, the romanticism of which can be overwhelmingly exciting. And then often they just sound like a posturing rabble of fools to me. The best way to induce the first reaction is to listen to ‘London Calling’, the best way to induce the second is to play their dimwit version of ‘Police & Thieves’.

    ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ is a song that has its own ideal context – as a 1982 double A-Side with my own favourite Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’, a vastly ambitious attempt to construct a global narrative of the sufferings induced by capitalism and colonialism that takes in deindustrialised Britain, US junkies and Vietmanese war babies. Having held himself up to ridicule by trying to achieve so much on one side of the single, Strummer and the listener has certainly earned the ability to derive goofy fun from ‘Should I Stay’.

    Heard on a sodding jeans advert nine years later, the song seemed to signify a dispiriting nothing. Turning rebellion into money, indeed…

  23. 23
    Billy Smart on 29 Mar 2011 #

    #21. Although ‘Police & Thieves’ raises my hackles, ‘Police On My Back’ – the Eddy Grant song on Sandinista – is the business.

  24. 24
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Three seems fair. A dull underacheiving song by a band that were capable of things far better, and even, just occasionally, quite special.

    But, let’s face it, a few gems apart, the Clash were basically the Who of their day – highly overrated and woefully inconsistent.

    The AA-side ( as I recall it being, but chart stats don’t now seem to back that up) by “Big Audio Dynamite 2” as I think they were styling themselves then would be lucky to get two out of ten, though. Sub-Pop-Will-Eat-Itself-more-or-less-before-they-went-properly-dancier drivel.

  25. 25

    I never listened to Strummer’s World Service radioshow (called “London’s Calling”, inevitably). But the clips of it that were used as a framing device in Julian Temple’s otherwise annoying and sloppy documentary — I hate Julian Temple! — I really rather warmed to; he came across (admittedly posthumously) as the genial uncle of worldwide rebel rock, and I was always happy he favoured Spanish-language rock so much, when almost no one else does.

  26. 26

    “almost no one else” –> ie in the UK

  27. 27
    Billy Smart on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: The Clash were notoriously television-averse because they meant it, man;

    ALRIGHT NOW!: with The Clash, Tom Robinson Band (1979)

    SO IT GOES: with Tony Wilson, Jon The Postman, Steel Pulse, Matthew Kaufman, The Clash, Ian Dury (1977)

    SOMETHING ELSE: with The Clash (1978)

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2011 #

    NOW! watch: SISOSIG opened disc 1 on Now 19, a very good selection on the whole, including Green Gartside’s final Everyhit bow:

    1. The Clash : “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
    2. Scritti Politti feat. Shabba Ranks : “She’s a Woman”
    3. The Source feat. Candi Staton : “You Got the Love”
    4. The KLF feat. The Children Of The Revolution : “3 a.m. Eternal”
    5. C+C Music Factory pts. Freedom Williams : “Gonna Make You Sweat”
    6. Nomad feat. MC Mikee Freedom : “(I Wanna Give You) Devotion”
    7. EMF : “I Believe”
    8. 808 State : “In Yer Face”
    9. Massive Attack : “Unfinished Sympathy”
    10. MC Hammer : “Pray”
    11. Kim Appleby : “G.L.A.D.”
    12. Kylie Minogue : “What Do I Have to Do?”
    13. >>bunnied<<
    14. 2 In A Room : "Wiggle It"
    15. Vanilla Ice : "Play That Funky Music"
    16. Jesus Love You : "Bow Down Mister"
    17. Enigma : "Sadness (Part I)"
    18. Praise : "Only You"

  29. 29
    lonepilgrim on 29 Mar 2011 #

    It seems appropriate for The Clash to have a hit as a piece of commercial nostalgia. I could never become excited by the band in the first rush of punk – never wanted to be in their gang -and for me they seemed left behind by bands from the post-punk era of the late 70s and early 80s. Their disdain for appearing on TOTP seemed to reflect a lack of populism which contradicted their stance of being down with the kids. I’ve become more tolerant of their music since then and don’t mind this too much but wouldn’t choose to hear it.

  30. 30
    Cumbrian on 29 Mar 2011 #

    In 2002, I went to T In The Park up in Balado. Being from Cumbria, it was actually the easiest festival to get to, a group of us decided we wanted to go to a festival and that was the natural choice. In retrospect, the bill wasn’t brilliant and, despite the weather being really very good, we actually spent an awful lot of time in the King Tut tent, where I think I finally understood heritage rock.

    Not The Clash exactly, obviously, but Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros. Stood at the back of the tent, it seemed I was in a crowd that hadn’t been seen anywhere else in the festival – everyone in the tent was probably 15 years older than us, maybe more in some cases; it is possible that every single person over the age of 50 at the festival was in the tent and a decent proportion of those who were over 40 were in there too. My first impression was that the band was pretty decent (in a vaguely competent but forgettable sort of way) but the crowd weren’t really into it. They finished their first song and launched into the next and everyone went crazy – 40 year old skinheads with arms around each other’s shoulders singing along to Rudie Can’t Fail, old blokes with actual tears in their eyes bawling along to every note and inflection. For me, it was pretty weird, I can tell you. Then the next track came along and the crowd went back to being utterly placid. Next up was Straight To Hell (I think) and everyone went crazy again.

    It seemed pretty apparent to me that no-one was there to hear any new material but to glory in the past and I finally understood why bands like The Stones can go on world tour after world tour whilst churning out stuff I thought irrelevant – it dawned on me that people just want to hear the stuff from when they were a kid, to feel like they used to when they first heard the song in question – Don Draper does all this stuff far better than me in the last episode of the 1st series of Mad Men. It’s pure nostalgia.

    I learned later that The Mescaleros were apparently none too happy about churning out The Clash stuff every other song whenever they played. Supposedly Strummer said, we’ll play them because that’s what people want to hear, so play them they did.

    6 months later, Joe Strummer was dead.

    What does this have to do with SISOSIG? Well, it’s in the charts because of the jeans but I suspect it sold because some were searching for that piece of nostalgia – enough to get it to #1. It doesn’t really have anything to do with 1991, or at least what I think of when I think of music from 1991 – even though, as Tom points out, it seems to be part of a general throwback that we’ve already seen in the entries for this year. It seems simply to be some people reliving their youth by buying a lump of plastic. And, as evidenced by what happened 6 months after I saw JS and The Mescaleros, if that’s what you want, you should grab it while you can – so good for those that bought it, in my view.

    I don’t mind some Clash, though unlike the consensus that appears to be developing up thread, I think Sandinista an unfocused mess that really needs the best stuff extracting from it to be worth listening to; I actually prefer the much maligned Give ‘Em Enough Rope. SISOSIG is not one of my favourites though – it’s a good riff but pounding the listener into submission with it is not the way I would want to go unless the riff is quicker in tempo or the song shorter. The double time bits, as others have mentioned, elevate the song, as do the Spanish shouts.

    And yet, marking on a curve, I really don’t see how this can be a 3. The last record marked at 3 that I think should be higher is She by Charles Aznavour, all the way back in 1974. I understand that Tom’s mark is a personal thing, coloured by his own formative years – but for me it’s a 5. Perfectly average and not much more.

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