Primal Screen

Titans of the Clash: (left to right) Paul Simonon, Topper Headon, Joe Strummer, and Mick Jones

There they are, staying remarkably on message: Paul Simonon (bassist/vocalist), Mick Jones (guitarist/vocalist), and Joe Strummer (vocalist/guitarist/icon/post-rock-star superhero) are getting grilled by some forgettable old maid on a British newsmagazine show and giving quintessentially pat dawn-of-punk-rock answers. Like: "It's about what's happening now. Innit. I mean it's, it's hard to identify with some ponce up there got a whole string section. And like a Moog synthesizer thing." And: "School I went to, it was like, a factory, and when you're done, they ship you off round the corner where they got a real factory." Then Miss Frumpus goes in for the topic sentence, the thing that makes the band trendy: "So, you hate hippies, do you?"

The Clash, when boiled down to essence, were three sexy, insouciant, sneery-tough, just-ironic-enough antidotes to cock-rock inflation/depression. Remember that in their nascence they were vying with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer concept albums. Critics famously described them as a group of "art-school dropouts," which doesn't mean the same silly, trust-fundy thing in England that it does in the United States, but the phrase still doesn't quite match Strummer's yob-bandito persona. So one has to blanch a little while watching their talking-point responses in this interview segment, preserved for posterity on Epic's new DVD The Essential Clash. By all rights, the Clash should have turned out to be overhyped cupcakes--lucky fashionistas unduly awed by the visitors to their greenroom, kind of like the New York Dolls. Instead, they turned out to be the one unanimously beloved band in contemporary popular music.

An appropriately gritty dossier of interview footage, faux vérité, and Paleolithic, shot-on-film music videos, The Essential Clash recalls an era that feels both close and Valhalla-distant: a time when formal and political daring could coexist with a Top 40 touchdown. In 1976, the Clash's manager, Bernie Rhodes, had an idea of genius: punk-rock snot-eaters who could actually write and play music. (Rhodes's onetime crony, Malcolm McLaren, had a similar but more lo-fi idea: With the Sex Pistols, he turned the tabloid drama of druggy fuckups into street-level performance art.) Three months after the band's inception, Jones, Strummer, and Simonon played publicly with Rhodes pulling the curtain. The ground-level impact was nuclear: Word spread almost instantly to the States (where the 1977 EP The Clash still holds the sales record for import albums) and the Clash were in the curious position of almost instantly transforming into the godlike figures they were born to slay.

An upcoming Strummer tribute at the Triple Rock Social Club, featuring local bands covering his songs in celebration of his birthday, reminds us of the unlikeliness of the Clash's feats of derring-do. (Doubters should recall the number of highbrow music critics who recently handed Avril Lavigne the barbed-wire punk-rock crown.) A political and literary daredevil, Strummer tugged at his mutually contradicting personas like two ends of a strand of yarn. Performing "White Riot" before giant photo blowups of rent-a-cops putting down a Third World riot, Strummer introduced a peculiarly alienated kind of political critique into the "raw" gobsmackery of punk rock. The guerilla posturing beneath the savagery of the great "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" is and is not for real: Like the gorgeous Parisian youths pointing fingers and playing bang-bang in Godard's gangster movies, Strummer threw on Sergio Leone dusters, East End gangster duds, and Robert Mugabe fatigues with equal parts playfulness and authenticity. That effrontery liberated the Clash's music from the object of punk's ultimate destruction: a sincerity that metastasized into pomposity. It turned an art pose into actual art.

Strummer was widely praised, at the time of his harrowingly premature death at 50 last year, for the pre-world-music eclecticism of his work. Other artists stirred that pot more compellingly, but Strummer's unique gift was his unlikely fusion of traditional rock muscle with a skein of British art: the jaundice, the almost decadently taut language, the acrid vision of human nature, and above all the mordant humor of Strummer's higher-brow contemporaries, whether their names were Elvis Costello or Martin Amis. Like Nixon going to China, the rotten-toothed, prole-posturing Strummer was the only artist who could pull this mix-and-match off. In the Dante-esque orbits of "London Calling" and "London's Burning," the Clash built concentric rings of pleasure and apocalyptic disaster that recall Amis's jokey-but-awe-inspiring Armageddons; and the oddly stirring "White Riot"--about a white kid wanting "a riot of my own"--sports a complexity of warring impulses that's unique for the period. (Compare it to a similar anthem from the other side of the pond, an emblem of many disaffected American '80s boyhoods, the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia"--lovable still, but perishably simple-minded.)

On The Essential Clash, the most charming artifact of Strummer's put-on elan is Hell W10, a silent film that he directed on a break from touring in 1983. A gangland Paradise Lost in the style of a super-8 Performance or Get Carter, Hell assembles band members, road crew, and assorted girlfriends to deal out a fast-paced and extremely sordid tale of guns, porn, natty suits, brutal cops, and plucked-out eyeballs in 40 wordless but music-filled minutes. Discovered, incredibly, in a junk sale held in the trunk of someone's car, this print of Hell W10 has the milky nighttime sheen of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, coated in a layer of hepatitis lickspittle. (Someone ought to screen Hell W10 on a double bill with the unbelievably sick John Lydon-Harvey Keitel police flick Cop Killer.)

The Essential Clash reveals the previously unheard-of persona that Strummer made up for himself: near-equal parts pop icon, prole gadfly, political nag, and all-round formal and human provocateur. (Bono flunks out of category four.) The DVD's output is slender, but memorable and startlingly undated--perhaps the only popular music of its period about which that might be said. The legacy is daunting. And the lyrics often form a queerly cheerful tombstone inscription for our era.

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