White Man in Hammersmith Palais — 35 years ago (!) this week

 Thanks for checking out today’s track on radio K-SAT, and happy father’s day to the male breeders among you. If the options are to age gracefully, or to rage against the fading of the light, I figure you’re probably striking a nice balance between the two, if you’re still reading about punk, post-punk, and assorted effluvia. Either way, time waits for no homo sapien, and it was 35 years ago this week when The Clash, alone at the eye of Hurricane Punk, released “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”/”The Prisoner” (17 June 1978). (The single’s wikipedia entry currently notes that it was produced by Sandy Pearlman. If one of you guttersnipes is up for it, please change it to say “Mick Jones (producer) and Simon Humphries (engineer)”–or simply “The Clash,” as noted on the single itself.)

 

Following their eponymous debut LP, upon which they affirmed the pleasures of the pro-cegenation of punk and reggae with their cover of “Police and Thieves,” “White Man” finds Sir Strummer, 25, as a default punk patriarch, sharing the lessons learned from the days of yore (i.e., 1976-1977).

From the opening bars of “ooh-ooh” harmonies to the final self-effacing verse, “White Man” still resonates politically and aesthetically, and it’s no wonder that Strummer included this song on many-a-Mescaleros’ playlists. According to Pat Gilbert (Passion is a Fashion, pp. 371-372) in Strummer’s final live appearance it served as the encore’s coda–and it simply hadn’t been reserved for encores in previous gigs.

“White Man” is often cited as one of The Clash’s best, and today I try to imagine myself as a UK punk encountering “White Man” upon its release. The opening bars are trebly, like all punk circa 1977, but the tempo’s slow, and the melody-and-rhythm’s Caribbean. The “ooh-ooh”s extend the sense of humor from the debut LP, and Jones and Simonon come in strong vocally for  “white youth, black youth” (full lyrics here), in order to hammer the point home. And, by the time Strummer’s singing about my life on the dole, he’s already schooled me on the limits of armed revolution, the tonnage of the British army, and the perils of projecting onto black Britons a more developed revolutionary consciousness. When I hear Strummer snarl, “Punk rockers in the UK,” I get excited, thinking, yes–the reprise of “White Riot”!, only to learn that Strummer figures me-and-my-lot aren’t paying close attention, due in part to our inclination for “fighting”–and male youth is so inclined, because there’s so much at stake, right? But then, in the next line, Strummer suggests that the stakes comprise little more than “a good spot under the lighting.” Oh … ouch. And yes: I suppose the Teds weren’t the real enemy (thank g-d for the reprise on the day of Elvis’s death), and maybe punk masculinity had run amok by 1978, and, well, damn — now what, Joe?

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