On the virtues of Clash dynamics — input by Bangs, Christgau, and the hilarity of Killer Tracks

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m going with a new look for the blog for a spell, which I like for the colors (yeah!) but less so for smaller images (hmm). This past Friday, I received a lovely letter from the inimitable Ms. Pennie Smith, of greatest rock photograph ever fame (and there’s plenty more in her oeuvre worthy of celebration), in which she offered a few kind words about the book, so that was definitely the highlight of the week.

Killer Tracks   Browse Catalog

A distant second or third was the discovery of Killer Tracks, which is this amazing web site for you commercial directors, as well as pop aficionados who appreciate the codes of popular music and, first and foremost, those musicians who sublimely transgress those codes. (I figure if you’re reading this page, you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.) Killer Tracks, as noted on the About page, “is a leading provider of production music for use in film, television, advertising and interactive media.” There’s a host of fun tracks here, from the “Sports: Dramatic 2” page, which promises “Powerful, dramatic sports tracks with orchestra, drums and guitars.”

Sports: Dramatic 2

The translation: the music you want to accompany receivers scoring touchdowns, linebackers laying bone-rattling hits on less evasive receivers, and the occasional postering via a slam dunk. No strikers on a breakaway or keepers making a diving save need apply. Likewise, on the basketball page, you can find on disc NM308, track 1: “heart of a champion,” which promises “punchy low strings, synth bass and a driving programmed beat with orchestral percussion provide the foundation for a sweeping high strings, brass, and choir melody. Let the games begin!” Boy I’d love to land a job writing this copy. I wonder if she’s the same gal (or guy) behind the inspirational prose on bags of Bear Naked Granola. Once you tune in, you realize you’ve heard it hundreds of times before, and the listening experience speaks to the banality of “canned music,” and to our appreciation of the contrarian sublime.

… which brings us, of course, to the virtues of The Clash. For this note, I want to observe in part Martin Mull’s edict on how “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”–a quote widely attributed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, and others). The proof of course is in the creme caramel, but let us imagine that words can help us understand how “London Calling,” or “White Man in Hamersmith Palais,” or “Radio Clash” put an extra lilt in our step. That lilt is closely connected to the force behind The Clash that led Robert Christgau to tell me,

“[The Clash] really figured out a way to make effective political art, which as we know is very difficult. It’s very difficult. And what do I mean by effective? I don’t mean it changed the world. I mean it was aesthetically effective.”

Stealing All Transmissions, p. 29

The politics, of course, were smart as smart gets, and even the moments in which melody was sacrificed for pedantry (see “Know Your Rights”), the convictions of the band were rarely–if ever–subject to question. (The matter of gender might be worthy of review at a later date. ) The connection here, though, between the nearly laughable codes that dictate the form and content of the tracks available at Killer Tracks and the merits of The Clash is how the Strummer-Jones(-Simonon-Headon) songwriting team never ran the risk of self-parody. Even in the darker moments, even when the UK press issued broadsides against the band with the release of *Rope* (“so do they squander their greatness”–Jon Savage; “The Clash is a dying myth”–Ian Penman: SAT, p. 45), the band could not be accused of formulaic production.

On their debut LP, the took what they wanted from the codes of punk, re-worked them as they say fit, expanded its parameters with the inclusion of “Police and Thieves,” added joy and humor to the mix and, for the subsequent LP, wrote songs in a different vein, turned over too much control to Sandy Perlman, perhaps, and produced a rock LP nearly any other band would have been delighted to claim as their own. In between, these two LPs, they produced a couple singles Lester Bangs described as “white hot little symphonies,” including “Clash City Rockers” and “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” (live below).

For the next LP, a mostly self-guided venture, they looked to the past for inspiration, imagined their future as a band busking between bah mitzvahs, and produced arguably the best LP over 60 minutes long, ever. Sandinista!, of course, has its questionable moments between gems that still glitter brightly, and Combat Rock–on the strength of “Rock the Casbah” and “Straight to Hell” alone–is worthy of selective heavy rotation on any iTunes playlist.

As Mick Jones noted, “Sandinista! is the big reaching out. I knew we were going to make a different record every time. It had to be different. I liked that with other groups like the Rolling Stones: you knew each record was going to be different. We loved the Ramones, but we didn’t want to be like them, doing the same thing” (Redemption Song, p. 302). Unlike so many punk bands, who opted for purity over, well, creativity, The Clash operated like a great white shark, fully aware that to stop moving meant certain death.

To honor the humor and brilliance of the anniversary of The Clash’s debut LP (8 April 77), I’ll be offering a series of tweets, one per track of the LP, over the course of the next two weeks. Please follow me @stealingclash to join in an example of the “dancing about architecture” discourse taken to the extreme.

Thanks again for checking in.  Have a spirited week!

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