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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  1. 121
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Stay.. go..

    Which seat can I take?

  2. 122
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    To round off the Posho thing: Former Ugly Rumours guitarist and singer features in YouTubePoopish cut-up of this very song!

    [unfortunately unable to link to YouTube at work :(]

  3. 123
    Mark M on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Re 25 (belatedly): Julien Temple has been terrible through much of his career – and I say this as one of the very, very few people who saw Pandaemonium – but I do think Oil City Confidential is terrific, and I wish I’d seen the whole of the Detroit thing, too.

  4. 124
    pink champale on 31 Mar 2011 #

    the detroit thing is teriffic, though you’d have to try quite hard to point a camera at the ruins of detroit and not come away with someting haunting, poetic, etc. the best thing he’s done aside from that is, back when bbc2 had people introduce its film, mumble a fey intro to a saturday night double bill of the outsiders and rumblefish in the late eighties, having a big effect on 14 year old me. er, the films, more than the intro.

  5. 125


  6. 126
    Tommy Mack on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Re: ‘We’ve phoned your mum’ – anyone else smile at the bit in When You’re Strange after the riot at the Doors gig (not the Miami one) where Jim Morrison’s dabbing the girl’s bleeding forehead and telling her ‘I think you’re going to be ok, it’s already coagulating!’: typically verbose, atypically…nice

    Last Gang In Town(again): what I was trying to say before is that people who say they hate rock cliche always argue that it’s the same boring stuff again and again, but when you probe what they’d like to replace the cliches with, 9 times out of 10 it’s something worse, or in the case of most indie, nothing in particular. For example, I’d rather see Grace Jones wearing some preposterous get-up than Joe Punk in a leather jacket, but I’d rather see Joe Punk in a leather jacket than Joseph Indie in his day clothes because he’s too sneery and precious to wear the leather jacket, but can’t think of anything better to do (or would feel silly or fake or showbiz doing so).

    Guns of Brixton is ace schoolboy-gun-fantasy swagger rock. I hope your mates gave you a proper kicking for dissing it ;-)

  7. 127
    TM on 31 Mar 2011 #

    That middle paragraph probably comes across a bit harsh. Just seems that the people hating on the classic rock stuff are never the people doing something better.

  8. 128
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Oil City Confidential – also a hard story to screw up. I enjoyed it enormously but it had plenty of irritating touches. I LOVED The Filth And The Fury when I first saw it (very loud, at Screen On The Green for added authenticity) but re-watched recently and thought much of it was quite embarrassing: J Lydon saying “the thing is, Julien…” in the dialogue – big no no!

  9. 129
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Re 127: “The truth of it is, I didn’t know how much I loathed rock and roll, how much I deeply resented it. That was part of the motivation behind PIL – that deep resentment, and a longing for new forms”, said Keith Levene. He definitely contributed to something better.

  10. 130
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2011 #

    re 129 Maybe I’m being contrarian, but as much as I love ‘Metal Box’ I’m not sure that Keith Levene’s mission has been that successful. Much of his approach to guitar playing was tidied up and appropriated by The Edge for one.

  11. 131

    U2’s triumph has been to trap us in an Eden that has Sandinista! and Metal Box as its unbanished Adam and Eve.

  12. 132
    LondonLee on 31 Mar 2011 #

    With Unknown Pleasures and Scared To Dance as its Cain and Abel?

  13. 133
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2011 #

    …and Siouxsie as its Lillith

  14. 134
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Here’s that link I mentioned, my post #122


  15. 135
    Ed on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #115 Dead right. See also: ‘Little Miss Strange’. The worst thing the JHE put on vinyl, by several light years. Sounds like a rejected out-take from the sessions for ‘Listen to the Flower People’.

  16. 136
    Mark M on 1 Apr 2011 #

    Re 128 – I think you’re being a touch tough on OCC: they are plenty of great stories that get turned into deeply dull documentaries (there were a whole bunch in BBC4’s reggae season). And it’s properly cinematic, too…

  17. 137
    Erithian on 1 Apr 2011 #

    I agree with Mark on that, Wichita – “a hard story to screw up”, maybe, but the use of archive footage of Canvey Island and its historic context in the 1953 flood was superbly handled. I have some fellow feeling over that episode – Erith & Belvedere’s ground was submerged and hundreds of families were left homeless for weeks, but that paled into insignificance next to the effect on Canvey.

    BTW “Siouxsie as its Lilith” – I was scrolling upwards past that post and for a moment I thought you were talking about “Frasier”! She would have made a good Lilith in that as well.

  18. 138
    Mark G on 1 Apr 2011 #

    There were genuinely surprising things on that doc, particularly John Wilkinson’s appearance on Blue Peter as a well-informed teenager/youngster.

  19. 139
    MichaelH on 1 Apr 2011 #

    Jon Savage is interesting on the Clash/Pistols division, and the gang thing. He doesn’t much care for the Clash because, he says, they were always surrounded by heterosexual blokey men and no one else, and did nothing to quell the atmosphere that created. Whereas the Pistols, certainly less overtly progressive in their politics, had plenty of women and gay men in their entourage, making for a less regressive atmosphere around them.

  20. 140
    MichaelH on 1 Apr 2011 #

    PS Has anyone seen Julien Temple’s film about the UK Subs? That must be a treat.

  21. 141
    wichita lineman on 1 Apr 2011 #

    OCC – I was being a bit harsh, but I was thinking of stylistic ticks more than the interviews. Erithian, I can’t see how any documentary maker could have left out the Canvey flood – it’s all anyone knows about the place apart from Dr Feelgood and Concord Rangers.

    Re 140: I assumed that was an April Fool… thought I’d google it just in case… bloody hell! Anyone seen it?

  22. 142
    Ed on 2 Apr 2011 #

    @139 Simon Reynolds coins / borrows a good word for that Clash fanbase: “homosocial”.

  23. 143
    Erithian on 2 Apr 2011 #

    The Clash were responsible for the first punk record I didn’t like!

    I’d read a lot about punk before hearing any, since Sounds was ploughing into it for much of 1976. And there they were one week on the cover, with the headline saying something like: “Are you ready Pistols? CLASH are coming! “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun” – that’s just one of the things these reprobates have to say”. Then, having enjoyed New Rose, Anarchy and the like, I heard Complete Control and was very underwhelmed by what just sounded a racket. But then came that great 1978-80 period when the Clash (and the Jam) were putting out terrific singles every couple of months. Tommy Gun, English Civil War, I Fought The Law, London Calling, Bankrobber – while I never became one of those committed fans who are being recalled in this thread, I was something of a convert. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, on the eve of my interview at London University, the last song I heard on the radio was London Calling, which was a good omen!

    But if, to use the Beatles analogy we were using with “Innuendo”, the aforementioned five singles are “Revolver” peak-period, SISOSIG is a piece of White Album overindulgence. I always preferred Strummer’s vocal passion and rawness to Jones’ somehow unconvincing drawl, and this sounded pretty lame next to their best moments. Like the tom-tom rolls in the faster bits though.

  24. 144
    LondonLee on 2 Apr 2011 #

    Though for all their last-gang blokiness I always thought Mick Jones’ voice sounded ever so slightly fey and camp. I saw them live in 79 and will never forget him introducing ‘Protex Blue’ by saying “This is a song about sex” in a voice that sounded like Larry Grayson.

    ‘Bankrobber’ was a stupid song too.

  25. 145
    thefatgit on 3 Apr 2011 #

    Bankrobber maybe stupid, but it was probably the first record that pointed me in the direction of dub. Lee Perry, Burning Spear, King Tubby et al, opened up a cavern of bass and reverb, where echo chambers stretch and distort reggae into interesting new shapes and forms. I even bought UB40’s Bagariddim, with guest appearances from Chrissie Hynde and Pato Banton, reworking tracks off Geoffrey Morgan and Labour Of Love. If only they had stuck to that formula, instead of the anodyne I Got You Babe. The Clash’s work with Lee Perry definitely opened up some interesting doorways.

  26. 146
    swanstep on 3 Apr 2011 #

    Vaguely relatedly, the Clash of course did a great cover of I Fought the Law. I knew the original only slightly and perhaps never knew that it was by Bobby Fuller. Well, I just watched Wes Anderson’s film The Fantastic Mr Fox with my nieces. It ends with a phenomenal track ‘Let Her Dance’, which the credits told me was by Bobby Fuller. It soundtracks the foxes and other animals dancing in the film, and my nieces and I got the message and were instantly up and boogieing to it. Anyhow, if you haven’t heard the song, I’d say ‘track it down’ – it’s evidently a mostly lost gem (at least until Anderson used it in the film – it must be well on the way now to being a new standard), and may mean that Fuller’s other stuff is well worth exploring: the two songs I know now are basically brilliant. The film’s pretty solid too (assuming you can stand all of Anderson’s stylistic tics yet again) with a nifty score from the ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat.

  27. 147
    MikeMCSG on 4 Apr 2011 #

    # 110 Thanks Tom, have now done the deed. The clincher was the current Q issue. When the only band featured I am even vaguely familiar with are the terminally boring Foo Fighters it was time to let go.

  28. 148
    MichaelH on 4 Apr 2011 #

    #146 One of the great pieces of rock appropriation is Bobby Fuller’s seemingly complete annexation of I Fought the Law. Because it’s not his song. It was originally by the Crickets. The Clash took Fuller’s arrangement and lyrical tweaks (the Crickets rob people with a zip gun, not a six gun), but it’s still the Crickets’ song.

  29. 149
    wichita lineman on 4 Apr 2011 #

    Bobby Fuller was an out-and-proud Buddy Holly nut though, another Texas native, and I always think the Bobby Fuller Four give us a clue as to what the original Crickets might have sounded like in ’64/’65 if fate hadn’t intervened.

    I read that Fuller’s gruesome and unsolved death is being made into a film, which somehow ties it into the Manson killings. Hmmm.

  30. 150
    swanstep on 4 Apr 2011 #

    @148, MichaelH. Ah, thanks for that clarification.
    @149, wichita. I, obviously, only just found out about Fuller’s mysterious death. Unbelievable and a huge loss to music it seems. According to Fuller’s wiki page all sorts of conpiracies have been bruited in connection with it – some linking it to Manson, some to Sam Cooke’s death later… And wiki’s list of artists who’ve explicitly referred to Fuller’s death in their own music over the years is impressive. That I never noticed those tributes before is less impressive!

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