Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Songs #387 & 388 - It's TWOsday!

Song #387 of 9999                                         Song #388 of 9999

Title: Anarchy in the U.K.                               Title: White Riot
Artist: The Sex Pistols                                    Artist: The Clash
Year: 1977                                                      Year: 1977
Album: Never Mind the Bollocks,                  
Album: The Clash
             Here's the Sex Pistols


Nineteen seventy-seven was the year that punk rock became a sensation in the English-speaking world. The New York-based Ramones had already established themselves as a driving force, releasing their third album, Rocket to Russia, which provided their greatest success to date. California punk bands such as The Germs and X were gaining greater prominence. And in Australia, The Saints became the first band to release punk record outside of the United States (thank you Wikipedia—I give credit).

But in England, punk rock was developing into something much bigger than a minor musical movement, gaining prominence—perhaps more accurately, notoriety— in the mainstream. And while the musical influence of the Ramones was obvious, the lyrics dealt with socio-political issues rather than dancing and school. Debut albums by The Sex Pistols and The Clash aimed to incite action, even violence, from those who would listen and were considered shocking and revolting by older generations. 

The two bands apparently had very different goals, at least as evidenced in their musical styles and approach. In "Anarchy in the U.K.", (comma outside the parentheses in honor of the subjects!) Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon) provocatively declares himself an "anti-Christ" in an over-enunciated snarl that is as insistent as his demands are vague. Readily admitting in the lyric that he "don't know what (he) want(s)", Rotten eventually makes a scant political point when name-dropping the MPLA, UDA and IRA (organizations I know little about and don't wish to research at the moment!). The crude instrumentation and performance perfectly compliment Rotten's vitriol and the infectious energy of the track is irresistible to anyone with even a passing interest in the musical genre.

The Clash on the other hand seem to have a long-term strategy. "White Riot" shows a level of maturity that would not jibe with the bratty antics of John Lydon and Co. Faster and more reflective of the NYC bands who influenced them, the track opens with sophisticated guitar work and a real vocal hook in the chorus. The lyrics are clever and impactful ("Are you taking over/Or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?") and the song itself is organized in a way that almost makes it the antithesis of "Anarchy in the U.K." It's so efficient that it makes its point about economic inequality, dares the listener to take action, gives you eight choruses to sing along to (as well as two guitar solos) and still clocks in under two minutes! This is a band with their sights on the long game even as they're just beginning, so it should be no wonder that they went on to release five more studio albums (including the excessively brilliant London Calling) while The Sex Pistols had disbanded less than a year later.


  1. Nice bit of writing, sir! I never liked Lydon until Public Image Ltd came along, so everything I am about to say comes with a certain amount of bias :)

    What I particularly like about "White Riot" is that on the surface it seems as dumb and vague as the Sexers (as no-one is calling them) - I have always found "Black man's gotta lotta problems / but he don't mind throwing brick" slightly problematic as a summation of the Notting Hill riots - but then to follow it with "White people go to school / where they teach you how to be thick" makes it one of my favourite clever /dumb couplets of all time evahhhhh. It's witty, pointed, raises an interesting point, while retaining a bit of controversy (though that may be only through modern day eyes).

    I would point out that the Clash right from the start were influenced by other bands from Britain and elsewhere as much as those "NYC bands" - and profited from that diversity. It's only once Sandy Perlman got his hands on them for "GTER" that the American influence really began to dominate (and peaking on 'LC' tracks like 'The Four Horsemen'). Check out a song like "1977" (the b-side to White Riot if my memory serves me) where the dumbed-down Kinks-esque riff questions the very rejection of the past in the lyric. Clever-dumb. Great stuff.

    Yay for punk. You'll have to address Buzzcocks (note - no "The") soon :)

  2. First of all, thank for the compliment. I get nervous anytime I write about a movement taking root in another country because.....well, I'm not from there and, in this case, I was 9 years old. Which is why I kept my big mouth shut about political parties and other organizations. I love that you commented on this because it sheds light that a couple of hours of internet research couldn't possibly! I suppose talking to me about the Notting Hill riots is like me talking to you about Watts riots. Or is it? I get the impression US news travels further than UK news or I am just ignorant. I'll end my ramble by saying you don't have to sell me on the attributes of The Clash. I hope I made it clear in my writing that I admire them and acknowledge their place as punk pioneers. They don't lose me until they start incorporating a tad too much reggae. Then I check out.