By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For me, the Clash are almost a return to the time when I had to see A Hard Day's Night before I could tell Paul from George. They are the Clash, not four guys who play in the Clashnot a star-and-support outfit or reconstituted supergroup. Drummer Nicky Headon, much the last to join, has yet to achieve his place in the gestalt, but the three front-liners form an indivisible body; their separation on stage (which isn't always absolute, I'm told) strengthens the group's structural unity. Perhaps this is simply because Simonon, the most visual of the three and one of the many punk bassists to reject Bill Wyman-style immobility, makes it impossible for Strummer and/or Jones to take over. But that it should work out this way reflects the English take on the punk attitude, in which hippie love-in-the-sky is replaced by provisional solidarity, alliances no less potent for their suspiciousness. I feel confident that next time I see the band, Nicky Headon will have gained full partnership. That's the kind of lads they are.
Punks are so much a counter-culture that they've produced a reactionthe teddy boys, regrouping and recruiting at an amazing clip in direct response to punk's explicit contempt for the racism and dumb violence of working-class youthcult tradition. In Coventry, an auto-manufacturing city where I saw two punks pogoing to the Boomtown Rats in a disco, the teds were down to a few pathetic father-and-son pairs plus some stragglers only six or eight months ago. Now they dominate many youth clubs. The only music they'll listen to is rockabilly. Another favored pastime is beating up punks.
After the gig, about half of the eight or so groupies I'd spottedincluding the one who'd been trying unsuccessfully to crack a whip backstagewere visible at the hotel. Joe was obviously proud of his catch, announcing genially: "She's a college girl. She speaks French." Then he whispered a message to me in her ear. The young womannervous, attentive, and dressed (like most of her sisters) in Frederick's of Hollywood support garments and Threepenny Opera cosmetics, translated: "Tu ressembles à Woody Allen, mais tu as les cheveux longues." Later I had a talk with Mick about his hobby, which is reading; he recommended Brighton Rock, Decline and Fall, and his favorite, Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. We discussed the Socialist Workers' confrontation strategy for defeating the National Front. And he told me about his mother, a former movie actress who lives in Michigan and sends him Creem. Recently she mailed off some song lyrics; they were, Mick sighed, "all about the desolation of living in the city with safety pins." He'd encouraged her to continue writing, though. He just advised that she try to keep things more optimistic.
Except for the Sex Pistols, the Clash are the biggest punk group in England, but that's not as impressive as American punk fans imagine. Punk is very much a minority music in England; while the Clash were not quite filling a 2200-capacity venue in Leeds, Yes was selling out six nights at London's Wembley, which seats 6000. Anyway, to call the Clash number two is stretching it, like saying the Stones were number two in 1964, when the Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers were both doing better on the charts. United Artists' Stranglers have outsold CBS's Clash by far and may even pass the Pistols. But (as with Gerry and the Pacemakers) nobody takes the Stranglers seriously because (like the Hollies) they commercialize what should be a music of discovery. The Clash have status, significance, symbolic clout. They are the class of the field, defining its possibilities; most of the punk peoples I spoke to in Englandhardly a cross-section, but an influential minoritypreferred them to the Pistols. So do I.
Because its suppositions are critical and apparently pessimistic where those of Beatlemania and hippie were full of hope, punk turns ideas upside down. The Stranglers, who sing about fucking rats and assaulting women, qualify for vilification as commercial because their subject matter recapitulates the received, best-selling, megapolitical macho of heavy metal. And a revised definition of commercial makes for an even stranger reversal: Although the Sex Pistols definitely got there first, always the prime issue in the Beatles-Stones rivalry of the '60s, the Pistols are to the Clash what the Stones were to the Beatles in both musical strategy and general scariness. The switch is that this time the buying public prefers the Pistols/Stones. After all, in a world where nihilistic offensiveness has become a popular option, they offer a relatively uncomplicated message dramatized by a single, visible antihero. And in that sense they're easy to sell.
It is because the Pistols are more accessible that the committed English punk tends to identify with the Clash. For him, it's simple: they're his. But for participant observers like me, it's more complicated. Say that the Pistols' negativismpassionate, closely observed, and good to dance to though it certainly isseems a bit facile compared to the Clash's jubilantly militant ensemble aggression. Even better, say that in 1965 we loved the Beatles' ebullience but found that we wanted (and needed) the cautionary, hard-edged, rather dangerous irony of the Stones, while in 1977 we get off on the Pistols' promise to tear it all down but find that the Clash help us imagine what it might be like to build it back up again. Of course, what makes my first person plural more satisfying is that one can imagine both participant observers and committed punks sharing in the building. But it's best to be careful with what is basically a rhetorical device, a revised version of the rock and roll "we." The solidarity it implies is so theoretical it makes the provisional solidarity among the punks themselves seem as irrevocable as Arthurian fealty.