Monday, May 09, 2016

Progressive Music Classics. The Clash: "Something About England"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

One of the highlights of The Clash's 1980 underrated masterpiece, Sandinista! is the haunting "Something About England," a song that gives a whirlwind tour of the disasters of the 20th century. Although the song was released 36 years ago, the opening lyrics seem eerily prescient, as they describe the immigrant bashing that is going on today in both Europe and America.

They say immigrants steal the hubcaps
Of the respected gentlemen.
They say it would be wine and roses
If England were for Englishmen again.

Of course, politicians scapegoating immigrants for a nation's woes is nothing new. But is usually the case with The Clash, the societal problems they described back in the day have only gotten worse over the years (from corrupt governments to the expanding Big Brother surveillance state to widening inequality).

Like many of the cuts on Sandinista!, "Something About England" is a little hard to grasp at first. The band pack so many ideas into the song that with the seemingly rushed production, it almost seems like the whole thing will fly apart at any moment. But that only adds to the sense of urgency and appeal of the song.

At the time of its release, Sandinista! got a lot of flack from critics who complained about its sloppy, haphazard production. But the fact is, a lot of the greatest rock ever recorded has had haphazard production values, from White Light/White Heat to Metallic KO. Indeed, that is often part of its primal appeal. If music is inspired, it doesn't need pristine, state-of-the art production (take a bow, Sun Ra and Robert Johnson).

Love it or hate it, though, Sandinista! definitely had some of the best, most intriguing lyrics that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones ever came up with. Take this heartbreaking lyric from "Something About England," describing the aftermath of World War II:

The few returned to old Piccadilly.
We limped around Leicester Square.
The world was busy rebuilding itself.
The architects could not care.

Back during the horrors of the Reagan years, one of the things that helped a lot of us retain our sanity was the vital, angry protest music of the era from bands like The Clash, Minutemen, Gang of Four, The Jam, The Specials, and many others.

One might think that today's political extremists like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would inspire a new generation of young angry and eloquent musicians. But sadly, all we get are the likes of Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift and the mediocrities of "The X Factor" and "American Idol." Nobody seems to have anything of substance to say any more. It's all the more sad when you realize just how much does need to be said.


John I said...

Jeebus, man. There's still great music being made! And the Clash couldn't get air time in the 70's and 80's because the pop-music crap of that era was dominating the airwaves.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi John, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. You know, there may well be music being made today that is just as great as the likes of primetime Clash, Pistols, The Jam, The Specials, etc. But I've listened to a lot of new music and I just don't find it as worthwhile. In fact, I pretty much lost interest in rock and now I usually listen to stuff like free jazz, old blues, and experimental music. Every now and then, I'll find a "new" gem like Ya Ho Wa 13---but that's a band that recorded in the early 70s and most of us never heard of them back in the day.
And actually, The Clash, against all odds, did get some airtime back in the early 1980s. I recall hearing the likes of "I Fought the Law," "Train in Vain" and "Lost in the Supermarket" quite a bit on my local radio station. And, of course, "Rock the Casbah" was a huge hit. Sadly, nothing from The Clash's first two stellar albums ever got much airtime.