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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. 91
    LondonLee on 30 Mar 2011 #

    The Clash are like Ground Zero for every musical/authenticity argument in the book aren’t they? Guess that’s what happens when a band is as strident and open-hearted/naive about their opinions as they were, they made themselves targets. But that first album is still a hell of a record that means a lot to me.

    I never liked this much even before it became such an annoying “anthem” (particularly here in the States where they think London Calling is the greatest “punk” album ever made) and always preferred Straight To Hell – and I say that as someone who generally liked Mick Jones’ voice more than Strummer’s.

    PS: The Sandpipers’ version of ‘Louie Louie’ is wonderful, really slow and trippy.

  2. 92
    inakamono on 30 Mar 2011 #

    This has been a fantastic read.

    I bought the first Clash album the month it was released and there probably wasn’t a day I didn’t play it for the next two years. I think in all I have bought the album five times in either vinyl or CD. It really is hard to express how significant the Clash were to me in their prime. Maybe I am one of those 50-year-olds people are talking about having observed on the Tube, although it would have to be the Marunouchi Line in Tokyo, which is where I’ve been living for the last twenty years. Which, in turn, explains the fact that I didn’t know until today that this song had been used on a jeans commercial. How could they?

    “Should I Stay” didn’t really belong on Combat Rock — it was a Clash-by-numbers thing that sounded like album filler when it was released, the weakest point of the album. It was out-of-date before it was even recorded, and the idea that it went to Number One years later and may have therefore become one of the most recognizable of their songs seems almost sacreligious.

    I can’t really imagine a world where the Clash didn’t exist, but I’d definitely prefer a world where this song never got used to sell trousers, so 3 sounds about right.

  3. 93
    Mark G on 30 Mar 2011 #

    The only “zealot” fans I can think of other than Clash would be The Who.

  4. 94
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2011 #

    I don’t think they did themselves any favours by making Rudeboy: a lot of the time they come across badly, some of the live performances are ropey and Mick Jones looks like Brian May dying of scurvy with his sh1t long hair and waistcoat.

  5. 95

    —-> OASIS!

    All of them — Who, Clash, Wasis — are potentially enormously interesting if you dig into their welter of contradictions; yet all three bands seemed actively to discourage this way to engage with them; to scorn it, in fact, and to dissociate themselves from anyone inclined to listen in such a way.

    (Actually this is a bit unfair to P.Townshend; and haha way TOO fair to Liam G.)

  6. 96
    Tommy Mack on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Re: #89 I’d say at their most pop, the Clash were more so than the Ramones, if only for not being anchored to wall-of-scree power-chord guitar sound.

    Frankly I’m amazed at anyone who’s lived through the torpor of the late nineties complaining about any punk band as a bad example of rock or pop!

  7. 97
    wichita lineman on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Don’t see it with the Who – aren’t fans pretty divided about different eras? Who Sell Out was certainly not generally rated as a great album until pretty recently, Who’s Next or Live at Leeds always getting the nod over their 60s albums. IIRC first record Derrick May bought was Tommy – enigmatically he’s not sure why he wanted it so much

  8. 98
    MichaelH on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #89 I guess I’m thinking of punk that harked back explicitly to 60s pop: maybe the difference lies in Mick Jones’s touchstones being things like Mott, where the Ramones used Phil Spector. Anyway, I’m not a Clash hater – except, once or twice, for effect when I’ve been cornered by a Clash fan insisting on their overarching and all-encompassing greatness – but I’ve never really been able to detect in them the things that inspire so many others. It’s perfectly possible the amount of baggage they come loaded with is what’s neutered any attraction they might hold for me (and believe me, I’ve made the effort: I’ve got most of the albums, got Clash on Broadway, got the live albums, because I keep thinking ‘This time I’ll hear it’): even more than the Pistols, I think, what they represent has come to be more important than how they sound. And when you’re told THIS IS THE RECORD THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING about so much of what they did, what actually comes out of the speakers can be a little underwhelming. This relates to Punctum’s comment upthread about Complete Control: he hears the record that embodies punk musically; I hear some whiny lads complaining about their record company.

    #92 Well before the ad, Should I Stay was the generic Clash song: it was the one on pub jukeboxes, or played at crappy discos, much more so than Rock the Casbah.

  9. 99
    MichaelH on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #97 With the Who I always get the impression that those who call them the ‘Oo love everything unreservedly, and those whose love is less all-encompassing divide into those who (very broadly) like the speedy mod records, and those who like the arena mod records. I believe Johnny Marr refuses to listen to anything after Sell Out (a writer friend once asked him to contribute to a piece about Live at Leeds, and Marr declined, because the Who were terrible after 1967).

  10. 100

    A: I took MichaelH to be contrasting rock and pop, by which usage something rocky CAN”T be an example of popness: because they’re zero-sum opposites. And I think he’s also right that this is how the Clash thought about the music they made, so it’s a perfectly reasonable definitional contrast to bring to bear.

    B: But if you think of rock and pop as parallel (intertwined) qualities, which can both strongly occur in the same song — which arguably the Ramones did, though they were never exactly eloquent theorists in interview, and which is far more the natural assumption these days than it was in the 80s and even the 90s — then yes, what MichaelH says seems to make little sense.

    Insofar as B is now the orthodoxy, the Clash lost the argument, but are somewhat unfairly judged, because their rhetoric was so often out of synch with their praxis.

  11. 101
    Mark G on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #97, I do have sympathy for Marr’s view, and ties with Weller’s “I got Quadrophenia, spent ages looking at the book inside it, never played the records.”

  12. 102

    CSI Themetune Era Who! Waaaaaaaoooorghh!

    *Puts sunglasses on*

  13. 103
    Erithian on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Haven’t got time to air my very limited knowledge of the Clash just now, but this might just be a new record for the fastest century of comments on Popular! – barely 24 hours.

  14. 104
    MichaelH on 30 Mar 2011 #

    re my comment #99: of course I meant to write “arena rock” not “arena mod”.

  15. 105
    thefatgit on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Now there’s another divide, the Mod movement’s schism between The Who and The Small Faces, which must have been some kind of East/West London thing, seemed to spill out and neutralise the whole scene, by the time Daltrey had grown his hair long.

  16. 106

    There was a strong “Real Mods don’t listen to the Who” thing, wasn’t there?

    (If not a full-on “Real Mods don’t listen to ANY live music from hereabouts” thing…)

  17. 107
    LondonLee on 30 Mar 2011 #

    There was, I heard one of the Fulham Wasps (the local Mod crew) say exactly that to some young whippersnapper in a pub the late 70s. The Small Faces and Soul music was the thing if you wanted to be a “proper” Mod.

    Though according to my Uncle Pete who was a Mod in the 60s it was just soul, r&b and Jazz. None of these stupid beat combos.

  18. 108
    MikeMCSG on 30 Mar 2011 #

    While being very pro-punk generally I never really got into The Clash – I think mainly because of Strummer’s sing-and-vomit- simultaneously vocal style and their usually perfunctory melodies. I thought both “Straight To Hell” and “Rock The Casbah” were better songs than this but wouldn’t have connected with Levi’s target market so well.

    I wish someone hadn’t mentioned Mojo readers. I’ve been pondering switching from Q to Mojo (haven’t time for more than one monthly) for a year or so now. I was just about to do the deed and now I’m hesitating again.

  19. 109
    anto on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Just to re-tip the balance a bit I do think The Clash are rather excellent. When push comes to shove I prefer them to the Pistols.
    I think they managed to be several bands at once in a short space of time.

  20. 110
    Tom on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Mojo >>>>>>>> Q! Mojo actually likes music!

    The last music mag I bought was a Mojo, for the flight to India. But the Emirates in-flight entertainment menu* meant I didn’t actually open it and I think it’s still sitting unloved in my laptop bag.

    *v Mojoish anyway, they have an extensive range of classic albums m’lud.

  21. 111
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 30 Mar 2011 #

    “Hitsville UK”, their celebration of the ethos of the independent record label, does actually deserve some kind of Nostradamus of Despair medal for prefiguring the USELESS TWEE WEEDY LANDFILL INDIE VOCAL several years before it became de rigeur, and possibly (1981) before it had even actually evolved in nature. It’s the opposite of laddish, the rhythm track is an ably self-conscious Motown ho-hum carbon-copy, and the words are some of the WORST EVER WRITTEN BY A PERSON NOT NAMED MORRISON:

    They cried the tears, they shed the fears,
    Up and down the land,
    They stole guitars or used guitars
    – So the tape would understand
    ,
    Without even the slightest hope of a 1000 sales
    Just as if, as if there was, a hitsville in UK,
    I know the boy was all alone, til the hitsville hit UK

    They say true talent will always emerge in time,
    When lightning hits small wonder –
    It’s fast rough factory trade
    ,
    No expense accounts, or lunch discounts
    Or hyping up the charts,
    The band went in, ‘n knocked ’em dead, in 2 min. 59

    No slimy deals, with smarmy eels – in hitsville UK
    Lets shake’n say, we’ll operate – in hitsville UK
    The mutants, creeps and musclemen
    Are shaking like a leaf
    It blows a hole in the radio
    When it hasn’t sounded good all week

    A mike & boom, in your living room – in hitsville UK
    No consumer trials, or A.O.R., in hitsville UK,
    Now the boys and girls are not alone,
    Now the hitsville’s hit UK

    They really really REALLY never understood pop. Even when they were actually inadvertently making it (ie certainly not in this song).

  22. 112
    hardtogethits on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #58. I’m sure you really don’t believe that.

    You say the lyric “says that that’s complicated by a trouble factor”. For starters, no, no, it doesn’t. Putting that to one side however, the first verse sets out the conditions (and arguably the reasons) for staying, the second the reasons for leaving. Then, in summing up, the singer assesses that the “trouble” of staying is twice that of going. It’s perhaps not too late to introduce other concepts to augment or counterbalance the “trouble”, but the singer does not and then restates his “trouble” calculations on two further occasions.

    If the singer requires more information, he should say so; it is not really appropriate to furnish someone with information which is known to be incomplete and ask them (in so many words) to make a quick decision based on that incomplete information. It would then be abundantly unfair to pretend that the aggressive demand for an instant decision had actually been a request for more information on which a decision could be based – though the singer doesn’t do that.

  23. 113
    Ed on 31 Mar 2011 #

    More than any other band, perhaps, the Clash throw into sharp relief the difference between “liking the music” and “being a fan”. It’s like sexuality, where self-identification doesn’t always fit perfectly with behaviour. I like a lot of the songs, and love a few (‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Complete Control’, like everybody, maybe ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ and ‘Straight to Hell’, too.) But I would never dream of identifying myself as a Clash fan.

    Like MichaelH and 23 Daves, the Clash have brought me as close as I have ever come to physical violence over questions of taste. At a dinner party in Islington (yes, I am afraid so) I ventured some mild mockery of ‘Guns of Brixton’, which is still my least favourite Clash song. I have learned to love the bassline, but the vocal and lyric feel like misery tourism, and make a particularly embarrassing contrast set against the honesty and insight of ‘White Man’. Anyway, when I suggested as much, two of the other guests – solvent white males in their forties – rounded on me with such ferocity I thought we were going to have to take it outside. Relations have never really been restored, some years later.

    It’s the gang thing, of course, but it amazed me how powerful it still was.

    Another thing: are all the gang members male? That is far from unusual for rock fans, of course, but again, the Clash seem to take it to another level. I remember reading a memoir by a woman who claimed she fell asleep at a Clash gig. That doesn’t really sound very likely, but you have to admire it as a statement.

  24. 114
    Snif on 31 Mar 2011 #

    “I remember reading a memoir by a woman who claimed she fell asleep at a Clash gig.”

    There was a very funny anecdote in the first issue of Q I ever bought, from a woman who went to a Clash gig, but had an epileptic fit. She came to in the dressing room with Jones, Strummer et al craning over concernedly, asking “Are you alright?” “Whew, she’s alive”, ” We’ve rung your mum” …she finished watching the gig from the wings and waved to friends in the audience. For some reason that “We’ve rung your mum” still makes me chuckle.

    Not a major Clash fan, liked “Train In Vain” better, but remember Paul Weller slagging it off a some kind of proof that they weren’t “authentic” (then again he’s always been a grump par excellence).

    PS When it comes to music magazines, how does The Word stand? I quite like David Hepworth’s blog, but that doesn’t mean the magazine’s likely to be any good…opinions?

  25. 115
    LondonLee on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #113. Glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t like ‘Guns of Brixton’ – a quite ridiculous song. I think of it as their Bruce Foxton record.

  26. 116
    Ed on 31 Mar 2011 #

    @114 That’s a great story, which reminds me of what is by far my favourite aspect of the Clash: the Lester Bangs tour diary, which I think is in ‘Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung’. (From memory: I can’t find my copy right now, and it is not on the web, AFAICT.)

    It is wonderfully written, of course, but more than that, it is a revelatory bit of reporting about the character of the band members, who seem like really lovely people. As Bangs observed, in a world of arrogant idiot rockstars, that was particularly special. It completely redeems the band, and nullifies any churlish griping that I or anyone else may be tempted to throw at them.

    And thinking about it, if Bangs was even half-way to the truth about them, then a lot of the militant fandom for the Clash becomes completely understandable.

    “We’ve rung your mum”… That’s going to make me smile for a long time, too. Bless ’em.

  27. 117
    Mark M on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Re 116: Yes, it’s in Psychotic Reactions, Mick Jones asking Bangs to let (then fanzine writer) Adrian Thrills stay in his hotel room…

  28. 118
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Re 104: No, no, “arena mod” is the perfect description for that era of the Who. Can I pinch it?

    The Small Faces… how could I forget? I wrote a piece for the Guide in the late nineties – whenever the Without Walls beat group series ran – and suggested that the pendulum of pop opinion had swung so far in the Small Faces’ favour that their catalogue was now overrated (others in the series included the Troggs and Herman’s Hermits, who, of course, I gave a big thumbs up to).

    This did not go down well with Heavenly acolyte Big Bob (the clue’s in the name) or Paolo Hewitt (a lovely man, otherwise), both of whom brought this up with rather aggressive humour every time I saw them for the next few years. One day I think I might get a smack in the face for it, from a disgruntled ‘mod’ I’ve never met before. The Guardian still put them on the cover of the Guide, rather than the Troggs, bah.

  29. 119
    pink champale on 31 Mar 2011 #

    the small faces are overrated x1million as far as i can tell.

    great review and thread. i totally get the case against the clash and have made it myself from time to time. and i think a lot of their records are fairly humdrum. but for all i know i shouldn’t, there’s a bit of me that can’t help responding to naivety and mad conviction and last gang in town nonsense and when it all came together right i think the clash could be pretty incredible. for me those tend to be the records where they are overreaching themselves most fearlessly and ridiculously, ‘guns of brixton’, ‘straight to hell’, ‘safe european home’. i think their ‘police and thieves’ is pretty good, btw – the way it takes on a completely untouchable original reminds me a lot of the beatles’ version of ‘you’ve really got a hold of me’*. on the other hand for all the good bits that others have identified, sisosig is just too ordinary – my sharona is a great comparison.

    *plus it soundtracks a completely hypnotic sequence in punk doc DOA where a consumptive seventies kid painstakingly constructs and then goes crazy on a rope swing in some desolate urban wasteland.

  30. 120
    swanstep on 31 Mar 2011 #

    @112. I think the rough outlines of what I said earlier are correct (and required by basic charity): the trouble/double trouble comparison is a factor within the go/stay decision not a pair of all-out judgments about those options. I’d add to my original note just that the singer could also be regarded as having a good estimate of t and as looking instead for info about the other baseline factor (and its associated inequality).

    In general, I think people here are holding Clash lyrics to unreasonable standards (for the sake of the argument I suppose). Most of their songs have some fine couplets (e.g., SOSOSIG’s Exactly whom I’m supposed to be/Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?), while much of the rest is at least serviceable…

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