Ahead of the launch of Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, the Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk—the book’s editor, Colin Coulter, writes for Rebel on the subject.
In his accomplished biography of the band, Pat Gilbert insists that the “word that summed up The Clash’s approach to their art better than any other” was “passion.” This attribute was exemplified best in the group’s legendary stage performances. The concert footage that continues to accumulate in the digital age often shows iconic front man Joe Strummer bathed in sweat, temples throbbing, as he rails against a world deformed then as it is now by injustice and inequality. While the ‘passion’ of The Clash is routinely acknowledged what is less often recognised is the band’s remarkable facility for ‘pathos.’ Running through the back catalogue of the London punks is a thread of what might be called ‘left melancholia.’ The track that exemplifies this quality best perhaps is one that graces what would prove to be the last album recorded by the band’s ‘classic’ four piece line-up, Combat Rock released in May 1982
‘King Solomon he never lived round here’
Of all the songs that The Clash recorded together, Straight to Hell represents perhaps the band’s finest hour. Opening with Mick Jones’ distinctive guitar signature and sustained by drummer Topper Headon’s queasily insistent bossa nova beat, the song offers a panorama of the wretched of the earth. In some of his most heartfelt lyrics, Joe Strummer begins with a snapshot of those British ‘railhead towns’ devastated by the closure of steel mills that were the first to have their state subsidies revoked when Margaret Thatcher came to power. As recession takes hold, the opportunities that once existed have frozen like ‘winter ice,’ not least for those migrants drawn to the country by the promise of a better life who remain capable only of speaking ‘King’s English in quotation.’ In the following verse, we are transported—not for the first time on Combat Rock—to south-east Asia where we find the offspring of an American soldier and a Vietnamese mother brandishing a photo of her parents as proof of paternity. The Amerasian child pleads to be taken to the United States but is informed by her father that there is no place for her there, that her blood ‘ain’t Coca Cola, it’s rice.’ Perhaps the callous indifference of the United States service man will prove to be a blessing in disguise. The depiction of American society that features in the penultimate verse of the song is after all distinctly hellish. Discarding all his habitual love of Americana, Joe Strummer portrays the United States in the throes of a familiar opioid crisis, where the dispossessed ease their pain with the sedative procaine and remain mindful of the ‘volatile molatov’ seeking to clear their slums for more lucrative residential developments.
The post-colonial melancholia of Straight to Hell provides a compelling and epic travelogue around a planet deformed then, as it is now, by inequality and injustice. It becomes clear, however, that Joe Strummer’s intention here is not merely to document specific instances of poverty, war and displacement but rather to acknowledge their connections within a prevailing social order that is genuinely systemic. In the final verse of the song, Strummer underlines that these moments of injustice are not aberrations but rather the prevailing order of things, that they can, and indeed do, happen ‘anywhere’, on ‘any frontier’, in ‘any hemisphere’. The tone in which these global iniquities are documented here is one not of anger, however, but of sullen resignation. There is simply no prospect of asylum or of justice in this world. King Solomon, after all, ‘he never lived ‘round here.’ The only option that remains for us is to ‘go straight to hell, boys.’
If we are to understand the abject tone of Straight to Hell we need to acknowledge that it documents—or, more precisely, immediately prefigures—a certain historical moment. While the early work of The Clash captures vividly the crisis of social democracy in the mid 1970s, their final recordings narrate the moment at the start of the next decade when that crisis was resolved in favour of the neoliberal project. When the band went into the studio to record Combat Rock not only was Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street but Ronald Reagan had recently taken up residence in the White House. It was never inevitable of course that the policies advocated by these close ideological allies would become hegemonic. For most of her first term, for instance, it seemed unlikely that Mrs Thatcher would survive to serve another, let alone a third. An imperial skirmish in the south Atlantic—at its height the week that Combat Rock hit the shops—would, however, transform the context of British politics. On a tide of patriotic fervour generated by reclaiming the Falklands, Mrs Thatcher was returned to power in June 1983 with a greatly enhanced parliamentary majority. In the course of this second term, the sheer ambition of Thatcherism would become apparent with the Conservatives introducing a series of neoliberal strategies that would leave British society transformed and traumatised and that would in time become the blueprint for other countries across the globe. While Mrs Thatcher may well have survived the perilous political terrain of the early 1980s, the same cannot of course be said of The Clash. Within weeks of her second electoral triumph, it was announced that Mick Jones had been sacked from the band due to ‘musical differences’ both literal and metaphorical, sundering one of the most fruitful song-writing partnerships in the history of popular music.
The specific historical context in which Straight to Hell was written was, therefore, that of the nascent neoliberal conjuncture. At the moment it was recorded, those political forces responsible for the misery and injustice documented in the track were in the ascendant and moving towards what only in hindsight looks like their inevitable triumph. In the song’s lyrics, there is no sense that such a calamity might be avoided. In its refusal to even conceive of a different outcome, Straight to Hell might be said to prefigure the ultimate victory of neoliberalism, an ideological project that from the outset insisted that ‘there is no alternative.’ While it may seem a little counter-intuitive at first, it is precisely this despondency that gives the track its enduring power as a radical song of social protest. In order to understand this apparent paradox, we need to consider what is meant by the term ‘left melancholia.’
‘The sun which is rising in the sky of history’
While Walter Benjamin first coined ‘left-wing melancholy’ as a term of abuse he was, it should be remembered, an exemplary exponent of precisely that political disposition. In his writings on Baudelaire, for instance, Benjamin makes the case that it is ‘images of the melancholy’ that ‘kindle the spiritual’ and ensure that ‘our gaze is fixed on the ideal.’ As Enzo Traverso notes, while Benjamin’s devotion to ‘an empathic and mournful exploration of the world reduced to a field of ruins’ might appear a kind of fatalism it was in fact a form of revolutionary practice. Benjamin contends that the purpose and promise of melancholia is that ‘it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them.’ The role of the writer in this enterprise is the critical one of ‘ragpicker,’ the person who collects ‘rags of speech and verbal scraps,’ images of the dead and tales of the vanquished. The revolutionary potential of these relics only becomes apparent in those periods when radical social transformation seems possible, when we can conceive of making that ‘leap in the open air of history’ that marks the revolutionary project. In these ‘moments of danger’, Benjamin suggests, the living must recognise the tributes of the ragpicker, ‘seize hold of a memory’ that will enable them not merely to reinvent the future but to redeem the past. This revolutionary energy exercises a ‘retroactive force’ that ‘will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.’ It heralds that long awaited moment of redemption when ‘by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.’
The beguiling blend of the material and the messianic that threads the work of Walter Benjamin intimates a way in which we might return to listen to Straight to Hell as though for the very first time. His writings suggest that perhaps the mood of abjection that pervades such a song is precisely the source of its political power, that its heartfelt lyrics are among those ‘rags of speech and verbal scraps’ garnered in the midst of one political crisis that must be reclaimed and repurposed by future generations in the midst of their own. It is to this particular act of reclamation that we turn our attention next.
‘You really think it’s all new’
Although one of the finest songs in the back catalogue of The Clash, Straight to Hell is very far from the band’s most famous. The track would certainly be rather less well known than, say, the almost always hilariously misplaced London Calling or that hardy perennial of bar room karaoke Should I Stay or Should I Go?. Insofar as Straight to Hell enjoys any widespread public recognition at all it does so of course primarily because of its association with another song that borrows explicitly from it. Since the mid 2000s, Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam has produced music that splices together a giddy diversity of contemporary urban and global styles. The songs that she records under the stage name M.I.A. often draw heavily on the singer’s personal experience of violence and displacement. The daughter of a senior figure in the Tamil insurgency, M.I.A was forced to flee her native Sri Lanka as a child and would spend periods of her life in London, Madras and New York. This peripatetic autobiography provides the backdrop to songs that often deal with the plight of migrants and refugees. In view of these preoccupations, it was always likely that M.I.A. would be drawn to the heartsore ballad that is Straight to Hell. Released in February 2008, Paper Planes would become an international hit on the back of its appearance in the global box office success Slumdog Millionaire. The song borrows the distinctive guitar signature from Straight to Hell and like its predecessor seeks to animate the lives of those displaced by conflict and injustice. There, however, the similarity between the two tracks ends. Where the tone of The Clash song is utterly despondent that of M.I.A.’s repurposing of the track is entirely joyous. The migrants who feature in her song are creative and resourceful, manufacturing ‘in a second if you wait’ the bogus visas—the ‘paper planes’ of the title—that render all national borders porous. There is a sense of mischief and romance here that Joe Strummer surely would have loved. The refugees we meet are not only surviving but prospering, making a living from various illegal trades with a certain ‘swagger’ and with a hint of violence that appears entirely comical—most notably, what Ben Thompson calls the ‘irresistible gun-shot/gun-cock/cash-register-ker-ching hook’ of the chorus. While the characters that populate Straight to Hell appear the wretched of the earth, those who feature in Paper Planes seem almost certain to inherit it. At first glance at least, it would be difficult to imagine a pair of connected songs that are so disconnected in their sense of political possibility.
The palpable differences between Straight to Hell and Paper Planes are, predictably, often interpreted as an expression of critical distance. This interpretation tends to centre upon the dramatically contrasting biographies of the people who wrote the lyrics of the two songs: the attempt of the son of a British diplomat to capture the plight of those enduring displacement by war is held to have drawn a stinging rebuke from the daughter of a Third World insurgent whose formative years were spent among the displaced. Samuel Cohen and James Peacock, for instance, suggest that the M.I.A hit represents ‘an act of sedition or revolt’ aimed at a song tainted by its ‘occasionally hamfisted attempts to speak ‘for’ migrants.’ While these interpretations solemnly observe the conventions of contemporary debates on the perils of ‘cultural appropriation’ they do not, alas, capture the spirit of the song that they are attempting to describe. If Paper Planes really does harbour some hostility towards Straight to Hell it is simply inaudible when we actually listen to the song. The joyous and mischievous tone that defines the M.I.A. track suggests that it has in fact a deeply sympathetic relationship to The Clash number from which it draws. This sympathy becomes apparent once we listen to both songs again, this time through the ears of Walter Benjamin.
Straight to Hell was of course recorded at a time when the balance of historical forces was moving, seemingly inexorably, in favour of the neoliberal project. While the sense of melancholy with which the track maps this process might initially make it an unlikely candidate for the status of a radical ‘protest song’ it is, however, precisely that quality that makes it such a compelling one. According to Benjamin, melancholia is a wellspring of creativity, curating and recounting stories with a ‘germinative power’ that only becomes apparent in those sequences of history when the field of political possibility suddenly broadens. It was precisely one of these ‘moments of danger’ of course that gave birth to the M.I.A. track under consideration here. Recorded in the summer of 2007, Paper Planes calls to mind more than any other song perhaps the period when the crisis long since latent within the global financial system finally came to a head. As a sequence of previously impregnable corporations went to the wall, there was for a time the serious prospect of genuinely radical political change. If we are to grasp the revolutionary potential of such moments, Benjamin insists, we must seize those images from the past that flash up before us. And in sampling Straight to Hell that is, precisely, what Paper Planes does. It matters little that the M.I.A track is neither an exact copy nor an homage. The intention of the revolutionary moment, Benjamin insists, is not to repeat history but rather to bring it to a halt. And, for the purposes of the discussion here at least, it does not matter overly if in fact the author of Paper Planes does turn out to have had a problem with a former public school boy attempting to summon the refugee experience. The precise motivations that led to Straight to Hell being recalled are rather less important than the sheer fact of its recollection.
For Benjamin, it is these acts of remembrance that actualise the radical potential of the melancholy cultural artefacts of the past. As the era of neoliberalism appeared to enter the period of its twilight, Paper Planes, with telling symmetry, invoked a song that perhaps more than any other captured its moment of triumph a quarter of a century earlier. In sampling Straight to Hell, M.I.A unleashes the radical energy that was always present within the melancholia of the track. A song that seems unable to conceive of the possibility of a better world suddenly becomes one imagining such a world is already under construction. Paper Planes should not then be heard as a rejection of Straight to Hell but rather as the moment of its redemption. This peculiar sympathy between two classic songs recorded by very different artists at very different times reminds us of something that Walter Benjamin would have known better possibly than any other cultural commentator. It was perhaps only when we had been condemned straight to hell that we could begin to conceive of the possibility of storming heaven once more.
Colin Coulter is the editor of Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, the Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk (Manchester University Press, 2019).