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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. 61
    JonnyB on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Really interesting to read all these comments as I kind of thought that not being wowed by the Clash was my own unique failing as a serious music lover yadda yadda yadda. That said, I’ve never been driven enough to investigate beneath the surface of the well-known ones; when I’ve heard other tracks it’s just been guitar-landfill wallpaper to me.

    SISOSIG – Rainy Day Women or My Ding a Ling – it’s an earworm, but also smacks of one of those annoying bands-pissing-about extra tracks that would have been hidden after the end of the CD had it been in another era. I guess it is the contrived laddishness that grates most with me – almost too calculating. I can imagine One Direction doing it on the X Factor.

    Is that enough to mark it down to a 3? Probably not. Its, and the band’s, sacred cow status make it tempting to over-slate. So I’ll go a low 5.

  2. 62
    punctum on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Arising as they did from the 19th-century Ranter tradition, The Clash did not deal so much in terms of “records” as they did with communiques, samizdats, bulletins. Singles like “White Riot” or “English Civil War” or “Know Your Rights” are less “songs” than progress reports from the frontline, agitated leaflets…proto-blogposts, if you must. Had the internet been in existence in ’77 one gets the feeling that there would have been endless downloads, randomly mixed.

    The cruciality of “nowness” to The Clash is one of many reasons why the current push to insert their square peg into the round hole of Rock History is so misguided. Yes, in many ways Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were helpless traditionalists, hopelessly in love with the scratched 45s they lifted from Shepherds Bush Market, romantically devoted to the bloodied fire of Gene Vincent and Joe Gibbs. But they never really fitted into any schemata to do with rock or pop. Technically they fumbled gloriously, virtually to the end; their fervid assault on Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” is akin to fifteen-year-old kids in the garage who’ve just learned the chords and haven’t yet had the passion burned out of them. Both vocals and guitars studiously avoided “virtuosity” – so the attempt to do an Animals/Kinks-style R&B rocker with “Should I Stay” is as punk, if not punkier, than the Seeds or the Elevators; vocals collide into each other, Spanish interjections yelled in the background for reasons obscure, guitars clicking with the hum of their dodgily fused wires, Paul Simonon’s ultra-fuzzed bass (possibly doubled up with a synth bass in an askew nod to New Pop) the production all over the place as though the group were using the desk slides as a bouncy castle.

    The Clash never really trusted pop, nor pop them; their unbroken boycott of TOTP helped to ensure the absence of any top ten singles within their lifetime (their biggest was “London Calling” which tellingly and symbolically stopped at #11, as though locking themselves out of the palace), but was there any more pop in them than Pop Art – those early Pollock splashes on the backs of their leather jackets which unpeeled easily in the wash?

    Their magic was that it didn’t matter. That the double-headed alarm bell of “White Riot/1977” sold well enough to put them into the Top 40 was wonder redefined; but “Complete Control” and “White Man In Hammersmith Palais,” pop or not, are two of the greatest singles ever recorded, and the fact that they so palpably did not “belong” in charts filled with Boney M, Brotherhood of Man, the Barron Knights and Smokie made them all the more important. Witness how “Complete Control” starts off as a standard, thrashy rant against their record company and touring schedule (so jaded already, boys?) but then midway through – thanks in great part to producer Lee Perry’s Constructivist use of echo, and in common with its chart contemporary, the Pistols’ “Holiday In The Sun” – the structural dummy is cut loose, words start spreading and flooding over bar lines, it stops being a song and starts to become a rant, a hysterical plea for the original punk spirit, already in its dying throes, to be reclaimed and preserved. No wonder Dave Lee Travis was so angry – not grumpy, but actually and vividly angry – to have to play it on his chart rundown show; after all, it seemed to justify the destruction of everything else in that, or any, chart. Meanwhile, “White Man” sees Strummer slowly losing it; at first outraged, and then bereaved, by his discovery that other cultures deal in entertainment as much, or more, as they deal with any “struggle,” the record is the most acute of warnings against misunderstanding cultures in which you do not personally have a hand. The singer, rather than the song, collapses this time; ranting about the imminent rise of the New Right, he ends up squatting in a bleak, cobwebbed corner of the dancehall – “Mister, just leave me alone/I’m only…looking for fun.” Is his idea of fun the suffering of others? The song asks the most crucial of questions – and he can find no answer.

    They never made an album that was listenable all the way through, but neither did they make an album that wasn’t indispensable. Thus the Rolling Stone-venerated London Calling is largely an incoherent mess – but what music lover in their right mind would give up “Guns Of Brixton” or “Lost In The Supermarket” or “Spanish Bombs” or the title track or even, or especially, “Train In Vain” (the latter the closest The Clash ever got to understanding “pop”)? Likewise, the three albums which comprise Sandinista! are a gruelling trawl in one listen, yet the record is not that far away from Metal Box in its (ab)use of dub techniques or its serene overlooking of song structure, and it still yielded three key singles – “The Call-Up,” “Hitsville U.K.” and “The Magnificent 7” – the latter at a time when rap music in Britain was still viewed as a novelty on a par with the Smurfs.

    It helped the reception of Combat Rock that it was released in May 1982, unwittingly at the height of the Falklands war – as New Pop beamed benignly, Strummer and Jones put themselves in the muddled boots of the weary soldiers, trooping towards a preordained death. Songs – if songs they be – like the drowning psychedelia of “Straight To Hell” or the album’s terrifyingly peaceful closer “Death Is A Star” which latter sounds like atomised skeletons clanking their way through the remnants of a piano in a shattered cocktail lounge – sounded as though they came from a different planet, an irretrievably remote world of shattered limbs and imploding lungs.

    “Should I Stay,” released as a double A-side with “Straight To Hell,” was the third and most successful single to come from Combat Rock, peaking at #17; while “Rock The Casbah” went top five in America, it struggled to get to #30 here, sounding utterly lost in a changed world. But by 1991, years after the group had disintegrated, the world had changed again, and not wholly in their favour. The stalwart anti-capitalists finally made number one (a) at a time when they had ceased to be an active threat (is there another theme developing here?) and (b) as a consequence of the latest Levi’s commercial. By then The Clash’s history had been clumsily rewritten for official media purposes – thus 1985’s Cut The Crap, which even without Jones may still be their best album (since in tandem with the same year’s This Is Big Audio Dynamite, it makes the perfect Sandinista! 2), has long since been erased from the record, the better to preserve their preservative status. Sony tried to railroad the band into reforming but they, rightly, were having none of it. Meanwhile, the second, historical wind of “Should I Stay” helped cement them as pioneers worthy of Jeff Bridges’ “phew!” – but the record itself, thankfully, remains too shambolic, too quixotically elusive, to frame them in any Classic Rock weariness.

  3. 63
    weej on 30 Mar 2011 #

    This is the second of the four consecutive number ones I bought at the time, and the only one I thought I could seriously defend. Looks like I was a little off the mark there!
    Anyway, yes, “objectivity” – aged 11 I had no idea of who The Clash were, and almost no idea of what even punk was. This was just a song that seemed exciting and interesting, so I went out and bought it. Listening to it now it’s lost a good deal of its lustre, but I can still enjoy it on its own terms without any “rockist” baggage. Early Clash is something I didn’t really hear until a good five or six years later, and just seems like a completely different band without much bearing on SISORIG. Rock The Casbah is the same period, but I’ve never really liked it, partly because the message gets in the way of the song, but mainly because I can’t stand the ridiculous sound effects layered over the verses.
    So, a ‘3’ seems a bit unfair, not because there’s any level of respect needed, just because it’s an enjoyable song on its own terms. To be fair though, I’m sure I’ll have an equally strong reaction to certain number ones in 97-99. An ‘8’ from me.

  4. 64
    vinylscot on 30 Mar 2011 #

    When I heard this, first time around, I was pretty sure it must have been a cover. As some of you quoted upthread, it could have been played by Quo; it is a dumb pop/rock song, but a good-ish one, reminiscent to me of a sort of Monkees-type fun. (and also, a little, of T.Rex, circa 20th Century Boy, also given the Levi’s treatment) All crazy wacky laddishness, most unlike The Clash.

    My own favourite Clash album was/is Sandinista!, although I would possibly agree it could have been compressed into an even better double. Marcello’s post covers just about all I would have to say about them and this track,(and much more obviously!)

    It goes without saying that this is not the one which should have given them their #1, but I’d probably have gone with a 6.

  5. 65
    Mark G on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Returning to the song itself, I do have to say that a lot of MJones’ songs seemed like he was joking/being ironic at the time. So, punk was all about tearing down the barriers and representing, and you’re rewriting “I wanna hold your hand” via the NYDolls/Stones? Hmmm…. must be taking the proverbial.

    If you ever get to hear “Ooh baby ooh (it’s not over)” you will be struck by how it’s actually the backing track of “Gates of the West” as released, with different lyrics.

    To be fair, after the event, stuff like “1-2-crush on you”, “Train in Vain” and this one are perfectly fine songs out of context, they only ‘suffered’ within the ‘revolutionary spirit’, funnily enough.

    It’s just a shame “Train in Vain” wasn’t the one that got the ad-break. but then again, having an ‘irrelevant’ title maybe didn’t help (was it a working title for the backing track?)

  6. 66
    Conrad on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Great summary Marcello, and great thread

    “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is probably in my all time Top 10 singles, although like many others I have no great liking for Should I Stay, though the riff is fun. It’s the double time bit that puts me off – if Bon-Scott era AC/DC had recorded it they would have had no issue pummelling the riff and building the dynamics more subtly, but I guess they were better musicians.

    “Straight to Hell” generally got the most airplay in 82, certainly on The Top 40 rundowns.

    A 5 or 6 from me. 7 if part of the original double-A

  7. 67
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    re Swanstep’s “dumb rock” – yes I can hear that, but I don’t like any of those records either ;) More evidence of my anti-dumb prejudices – my grudging 6 for “You Really Got Me”, which now sits happily in the readers top 10 number ones.

    (There was an Ian Penman article in the Wire once about stupid v stoopid which talked about this stuff a bit, my copy is in France tho. I remember thinking, yes, that’s an interesting distinction, but I’m not that keen on either.)

  8. 68
    Cumbrian on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Tom: You gave You Really Got Me a 7 – which seems fair enough to me.

    I’ll go back to Pedants’ Corner now.

  9. 69
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    I did? Wonder what I was thinking of then!

  10. 70
    punctum on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #67: Actually written by Chris Bohn.

  11. 71

    Was it Penman or Chris Bohn? The latter is a very extremely lovely fellow, but an even bigger puritan than Tom-at-17.

  12. 72

    haha MOAR ROOM NEEDED IN PEDANT’S CORNER

  13. 73
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Re #69: You gave Tired of Waiting a (perhaps slightly stingy) 6.

    Re #58: swanstep’s pantheon of dumb rock, I don’t reckon SISOSIG is up there with Wild Thing, Stepping Stone or Louie Louie (probably still my favourite record of all time) which genuinely sound as if the people playing them are a genuinely a little unhinged, the whole thing constantly threatens to collapse into chaos or errupt into violence. SISOSIG is more on a par with My Sharona – good stomping fun, good to dance to (despite it’s blokeyness I’ve seen plenty women dancing to it*), not quite thrilling. As punctum says at #62, it’s got enough raw edge to give it a bit more oomph than Sharona, Quo et al, though Sharona is that bit quicker…

  14. 74
    thefatgit on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #53, Cumbrian, you’re right that you can switch the blokeyness on or off, depending on the surroundings and who you’re with. The loss of control, and the “brakes coming off” will of course come later. I’m not saying that the real ale drinking, shed-dwelling bloke is in any way related (except maybe a generational divide?) to the kind of bloke I described in my post @50. In fact, they’re not the same at all. And the 50’s rebel rocker, that seemed to be the template for The Clash’s image, if they cared about image at all, is at odds with the very same real ale drinking, shed-dwelling bloke who might have baulked at Dylan plugging in during the 60’s, or Dr Feelgood playing anything other than The Blues during the 70’s. But still, the blokeyness is there in spades.

    I wonder how (when Joe Strummer with his Mescaleros might have chosen to stick to their guns and only played their current stuff in that tent in Balado) those nostalgia-seekers would have reacted…shuffled away muttering to themselves…or hung around for an encore that wasn’t to come? It says a lot for Joe that he indulged those Clash fans. The best entertainers know instinctively to give ’em what they want. He may have started as a banner waver, but deep down he was always an entertainer.

  15. 75
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #70/71 – thought it wasn’t up to IP’s usual standard! I stand corrected then.

  16. 76
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Speaking of Louie Louie, I just got hold of this intriguing beast – though have yet to play it. Maybe this lunchtime.

  17. 77
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Nice to know that, like Iggy, she signed off with Louie Louie: ‘I never thought it’d come to this!’

  18. 78
    wichita lineman on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Julie London’s Louie Louie was on Sounds Of The Sixties a couple of weeks back, I’d never heard it before. You’re in for a treat.

  19. 79
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Is it available online?

  20. 80
    Cumbrian on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #74: It probably is a generational thing. Tying in with some of the other comments about Mojo readers and what have you – The Clash’s blokiness might well have started out as the one thing and morphed in to blokes in sheds over time, probably about the time that these blokes realised they were turning into their fathers themselves.

    On the T In The Park bit, I suspect that every man jack of them would have stayed in the Tent whether they played The Clash songs or not – simply because they were up against Starsailor followed by No Doubt on the main stage and Less Than Jake followed by A on the NME stage (I had to look this up, honest), none of which I can imagine too many 40-50 year olds in 2002 being that into! This, of course, could be my prejudice speaking though…

  21. 81
    thefatgit on 30 Mar 2011 #

    A similar thing occurred at Download 2007, Iron Maiden on the Main Stage or Paramore in the Dimebag Tent or Bowling For Soup in the small tent…no prizes for guessing where I went!

  22. 82
    MichaelH on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Not much to add to the Clash debate: I’m agnostic. There are moments where I completely understand why so many people get so worked up about them, but they tend to be the moments where their grasp of rock mythology – their roots in traditionalism – is at its strongest. So, the footage in Rude Boy from the Rock Against Racism show is astounding, and had I been there I’m sure I’d have seized them to my heart. But most of it leaves me cold, and I’m never quite sure why. There’s plenty of punk-era stuff I love, but it tends to be the poppiest – I’d take the Ramones over the Clash every time.

    The thing that baffles me – referred to upthread – is the zealousness of Clash fans, who so often seem to take a shrug of apathy about their heroes as a personal insult. I’ve encountered it several times, but not with fans of any band, and it seems odd: religious devotion seems antipathetical to everything Strummer would have wanted.

  23. 83
    wichita lineman on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Re 81: home?

    Re 82: I have nothing against self-mythology, but it needs to be backed up and believable. Kevin Rowland and Adam Ant are two of my pop heroes, building something new out of the past in their own image and singing, frequently, about themselves.

    The ‘religious’ aspect is connected to their blood brothers mentality, I’d guess, which I can understand.

    I spent the 90s surrounded by Clash zealots, which only made me want to take a pop at their righteous ire – like the fact that “sten guns in Knightsbridge” wasn’t a) spray painted by the group (Sebastian Conran did it) or b) thought up by them (Bernie Rhodes thought of it).

    Bernie Rhodes is the most interesting character in their story.

  24. 84
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    That Julie London LP turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable stuff – very flute heavy, JL shifting between engaged, sleepy and occasionally just baffled (“The Mighty Quinn” a step too far). Well worth hearing.

  25. 85

    ARTSCHOOL SIDEBAR: A long-ago acquaintance of my sister’s owns (or owned) an “original Simonon”. I never saw it; she says it’s terrible.

  26. 86

    JL should have done an LP of Clash covers: “JULIE LONDON CALLING: Give ’em Enough Torch”

  27. 87
    punctum on 30 Mar 2011 #

    I always thought it a pity that Cornelius Cardew never worked with the Clash, given that in his youth he was a dead ringer for Strummer. People’s Music innit.

  28. 88

    POSH KIDS UNITE AND FIGHT! Actually CC got off on the wrong foot re punk: IIRC he denounced “White Riot” as objectively fascist or some such at a Music and Socialism festival (“festival”) in 1977. I’ve got a write-up in an ancient copy of Musics mag; I’ll try and remember to dig it out.

  29. 89
    swanstep on 30 Mar 2011 #

    @82, MichaelH. But there’s plenty of Clash stuff that’s at least as poppy as anything the Ramones ever did: Death or Glory, Train in Vain, Washington Bullets, Rudy Can’t Fail, Lost in the Supermarket, Hitsville UK for god’s sake. Even sticking to just their covers, from I fought the Law to Every Little Bit Hurts it’s pop-arama surely.

    I’m not an especially zealous fan, but I’m baffled at how someone could listen to the Clash’s best 40 or so tracks and not be somewhat impressed. Maybe the Clash has ended up being poorly served by somewhat hectoring fans that their own hectoring political side attracted?

  30. 90
    DietMondrian on 30 Mar 2011 #

    [pedant] @68 and others – it’s Pedantry Corner these days, not Pedants’ Corner. [/pedant]

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