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Why the Clash Matter

Underneath all the kitsch and marketing pomp, the Clash still have something to teach us about art as a site of struggle.

The Clash play live, 1980. Hulton Archive / Getty

“The only band that matters.” There is charismatic hubris in this phrase, a declaration of radical faith. Fuck the past, the future is here and everything in music will be ruthlessly revamped in its wake. And when the description was applied to the Clash, it was easy to believe.

Today, though, it’s easy to scoff at. Since the death of front-man Joe Strummer in 2002, the Clash have ascended into rock-and-roll mythos. No fewer than thirty books have been released on the band or on Strummer. Some of them are wonderful. Others are shallow and sloppy hagiographies. Their music has been used to hawk everything from boots to smartphones. Centrists in progressive clothing like Beto O’Rourke receive high praise for quoting “The Clampdown” to Ted Cruz. Separating what’s commodity and spectacle from the band’s actual contribution is getting harder.

The latest in the growing list of biographical material is “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash.” Produced by Spotify in collaboration with the BBC and narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D, it’s the first podcast dedicated to the band’s history. It is an excellent piece of work, both in terms of substance and style. Social and cultural context play a prominent role in telling the story of the band’s evolution. Strikes, riots, movements, political explosions and implosions clearly inform their philosophy and musical practices as global capitalism reconstitutes itself in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of which highlight the significance of the Clash’s musical experiments: the ever-expanding incorporation of reggae, hip-hop, and funk into their punk palette; their insistence on selling double and even triple albums at single album prices, much to the chagrin of their record label. Original and archival interviews with the band’s members and friends recount the constant flux and struggle to maintain a vision. Occasionally, Chuck D will switch roles, from narrator to commenter, reflecting on how the Clash impacted his own work with Public Enemy. Pains are taken to assemble the constitutive elements of “cultural resistance” in such a way that the phrase actually carries heft.

It’s good timing. Today’s new generation of socialists has little collective memory of the Clash. We are savvier than our predecessors in terms of aesthetic production and critique. So is the culture industry. So, for that matter, is the Right. We’ve been bombarded with the promises of how the internet and technology will democratize art and ideas, then seen the illusion drop with big data and algorithms that create “freedom to choose what is always the same.”

Given all this, we’re frankly justified in our cynicism toward the kind of hero worship that follows the Clash. But there is bathwater and there are babies. Like many mistakes made when observing culture and society, the fatal flaw isn’t in the answer but the question. Was the band great? We are better off asking what constitutes greatness, or even if the very notion is useful.

John Berger once described the sickness of celebrity as reflecting “a society that has moved toward democracy but stopped halfway.” Refracted through the prism of glamour, “art changes the world” based on individual genius, obscuring the inherently social nature of art and music. It is an implicit justification for the existence of inequality based not on noble birth but on the myth of meritocracy. Berger’s emphasis on democracy also hints that creation and meaning are bound to interact not just with the society that made them but with how free that society is, whether its idea of freedom is based on illusion or reality. It is not merely the art that is made, but how that art positions itself under circumstances — as someone may have once said — not of the artist’s choosing. And if we look at it in these terms, then we also are forced to look for where these circumstances still persist.

Where the “Stay Free” podcast excels most is in tracing these parallels, rough though they may be. A generous amount of time is devoted to the women who helped promote and shape the Clash and the punk scene in general. Paloma McLardy is interviewed not as Strummer’s onetime girlfriend but as “Palmolive,” drummer of the phenomenal yet criminally underrated all-female dub-punks the Slits. Special attention is paid to their opening sets on the Clash’s first tour, where the Slits’ brash and ribald performances invited more than a few male tantrums both in and out of the punk scene.

Then there’s the Carnival Against the Nazis. Images of the Clash’s performance at this event, held in London’s Victoria Park in April of 1978 as a joint effort between Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), are among some of the most recognized in the band’s history. The Carnival was, by any honest account, a watershed moment in British cultural history. All too often, though, the stories that surround the event are sidestepped, with the event itself and Rock Against Racism both painted as affairs of vague liberalish “unity.”

In “Stay Free,” it is made clear that RAR was one side in a fight that was taking place both on the streets and in the concert venues. The rise of the National Front is recounted. So is Eric Clapton’s “keep Britain white” speech, and the attempts by white nationalists to invade and take over punk shows, both of which were catalysts for RAR’s founding. It took organization, a struggle to build oppositional spaces, a conscious ferment of cross-genre and racial solidarity, to make something like the Carnival happen. Strummer’s blunt identification in an interview from the time as “antifascist” is made explicit enough for a MAGA’s jaw to clench, but more importantly it is connected to an ebb and flow of political and cultural hegemony.

In other words, the Clash’s importance lies not in their “genius,” but in their decision to participate as artists in a chaotic and bleak world while never forgetting art and music’s capability to map a different future. Past the overproduced noise interference of marketing, the Clash were willing to dive headlong into contradiction and pull at its stitches until they popped.

Once again — and even in the case of “Stay Free” — we see the nature of these gestures elided, with mainstream reviews of the podcast lauding the Clash as having possessed something “missing” in today’s music. Except that the mandate of the Clash isn’t “missing” in acts today so much as these acts are cleverly obscured, with obstacles posed by a smarter and more insidious culture industry stacked against them.

Algiers and Downtown Boys both incorporate an original and openly far-left worldview into their sound and lyrics alike, garnering great critical acclaim along the way. But they are also not reaching as wide an audience as they might if they had the same resources behind them as the disposable schlock of The Voice or American Idol. Conversely, room for dissent within those highest echelons of the music business is miniscule, justified and explained away with a shady implication that the most famous and adored are also the most talented. (They aren’t.)

And, naturally, ours is not a cultural landscape that has outgrown old-fashioned censorship or repression. M.I.A. has over the past fifteen years continued to deliver provocative, electronicized rebukes to Orientialism. She has also had the weight of the FCC brought down on her. Run the Jewels are one of the most important voices in hip-hop, and they exist at a time when rappers are being sent to jail for their anti-cop lyrics.

The question then becomes not about whether the Clash were “the only band that mattered,” but whether we matter right now. Whether a new and actually-existing Left can rebuild an infrastructure of dissent that is capable of, among other things, supporting these artists, providing them with the space to flourish both creatively and socially, as well as nurture new ones.

These spaces have existed before, in the form of Rock Against Racism, or the artists union launched with the assistance of the Communist Party at the height of the Federal Art Project. Ours will look dramatically different. Given the dramatic differences in our relationship to music, given how adept late capitalism is at culturally worming its way into our daily lives, they will have to. They will also have to serve as vivid reminder that it is not just culture but the whole world that needs to be remade.