Thursday, April 8, 2010

April 8: The Clash, "White Riot"

Artist: The Clash
Song: "White Riot"
Album: The Clash
Year: 1977


Throughout music history, there are not only a handful of bands that one cannot imagine not existing, but there are a similar number of records that are so important to the development of music, that one can barely recall a time when they were not around.  These albums are so significant, packed with many of the greatest songs ever written, that they live on in their own category as not only amazing works of music, but true historical documents.  Though they were certainly not the first band of their kind, there was simply nothing that could have prepared the world for April 8, 1977 when the self-titled debut from The Clash was first released.  In many ways, The Clash is THE definitive punk rock record, and it not only perfectly captures the spirit of the genre, but even at this early stage in their career, the album gives a peek into the amazing variety of music that the band was capable of creating.  Taking on issues from racial tensions to the rising unemployment to prostitution, The Clash is packed with songs that reached far beyond the "anti-everything" movement that was becoming the norm for both the youth at the time, as well as the punk genre in general.  The fact that The Clash made a point to make their music have more meaning is one of the key reasons why the record is so stunning, and why they are worthy of the title, "The Only Band That Mattered."  While the album is completely devoid of "filler," and every track on The Clash is an absolute punk classic, there is one song that brings more power and attitude than any other, and in many ways perfectly sums up everything there is to love about punk rock; the albums first single, "White Riot."

Truth be told, there are actually two different studio recordings on "White Riot," as The Clash were asked to re-record the song for the U.S. distribution of the album which came about a year after the U.K. release.  The bands' U.S. distributor felt that the original version was not "radio friendly," and the second studio recording of "White Riot" is rather different, not bringing as much punch or power as the original.  While the U.S. version begins with a police siren, the U.K. version brings the "true" punk spirit, as Mick Jones counts in a "1, 2, 3, 4" and the band drops into the song, already in high gear.  Regardless of which recording you hear, "White Riot" is the ultimate punk rock song, revolving around only two chords and a fast, steady beat.  This powerful, unrelenting guitar sound from Jones and the legendary Joe Strummer remains one of the greatest guitar moments in history, and the energy and urgency behind the song remains just as expressive and palpable today as it was three decades ago.  The basswork of Paul Simonon is equally fantastic, as he plays around the guitars, keeping the frenzied, almost chaotic speed firmly intact.  Rounding out the band was drummer Terry Chimes, and this is one of the many examples of a drummer who seems to be trying to destroy their kit, as he smashes away at the unrelenting beat.  In reality, "White Riot" remains one of the fastest punk songs every recorded, and yet live recordings of the song prove that the studio versions were only a fraction of the speed of which The Clash were capable.  The music also stands as a song that perfectly captures the spirit of the composition, as the way that the group plays the song surely whipped audiences into all out mayhem.

Without question, the music of "White Riot" is nothing short of legendary, and yet the song would have never achieved its exalted status without the vocal work of one of music's greatest frontmen ever, Joe Strummer.  Bringing with him one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable voices ever, there are few singers in history that brought a similar amount of power and inspiration as Strummer, and his work on "White Riot" is some of hist finest.  The vocals are truly a call to arms, as Strummer directly addresses the race issues that were going on in London at the time, and his ability to rally people around an issue, regardless of their differences, was one of the key aspects that made the music of The Clash so special.  Making a point to bring some actual depth to the music of the punk genre, Strummer's lyrics are very heated and unforgiving, as he calls out those in power, the wealthy, and anyone else who he sees as ignorant or fascist.  Leaving little to interpretation, Strummer writes the world as he sees it, and there are few more telling lines of his opinion than when he yells, "...all the power's in the hands, of people rich enough to buy it..."  Yet one of the many brilliant aspects of Joe Strummer's writing was the fact that he never let anyone "off the hook," and was as quick to call out those in power for their problems as he was "those on the streets" for different issues.  On "White Riot," Stummer shows this ability to see everyone equally as he questions the youth, saying, "...are you taking over, or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards, or are you going forward?"  This purposeful move to make the youth reconsider exactly "what" they were doing is one of the many reasons why The Clash were so far beyond their peers, and one of the main factors that made Joe Strummer such an unequaled musical talent.

Throughout his career, if there was one thing that Joe Strummer was good at, it was writing songs that inspired people to look within themselves and question why they thought the way they did.  This ability to do this without alienating his audience remains one of the most rare talents, and it is perhaps no better shown than on The Clash's debut single, "White Riot."  Urging the privileged white majority to stop being so complacent and reconsider the clearly failing socioeconomic system of the time, "White Riot" is almost a call to arms for both sides of the issue.  Over the decades, the song has been covered a countless number of times, and in many ways, it stands as "the" quintessential punk rock song, perfectly capturing the true spirit of the punk rock movement.  From the powerful lyrics which call for action and change to the simple yet forceful musical arrangement, the song perfectly reflects its title, as one can easily imagine a riot-like atmosphere at the live performances of the song.  As a majority of the worlds' first exposure to The Clash, the song puts it all on the table, and one could immediately understand that this was a band that refused to be ignored and had far more to say that nearly any other band of any genre from anywhere in the entire history of music.  All four musicians are focused and playing at full force on the song, and this almost unsettling mood that they create is unlike anything else that had previously been recorded.  Topped off by the unrestrained vocals of Joe Strummer, his call to "wake up" and question everything was clear, and it rings just as powerful today as it did more than thirty years ago.  Standing as one of the most important moments in history, thirty-three years ago today, the world was forever changed when the self-titled debut from The Clash hit the streets, and the are few songs that better define both the band as well as the true spirit behind punk rock as their classic debut single, "White Riot."

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