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Terms of interment: retrospecting the Ramones and the Clash


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One of the most durable achievements of punk was the way it undermined pop music's traditional notions of its audience. In the 60s there were the hippie-dippie presumptions of commonality between artist and fan, and the expectation that the two would forge a united front against all sorts of barricades and threats; rock 'n' roll was, after all, the great unifier. (Only Bob Dylan even attempted to question it.) In the 70s, there was a similar, if more sophisticated, notion of psychological interdependence, asserted by singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor: the performers and the audience were mirrored, interchangeable facets of the same personality. As the 70s went on, a new and more pragmatic approach appeared, this one pioneered by the wizened stars of the previous decade, who, awed by Mick Jagger's continuing success at this game, worked at retaining their older fans while sprucing up their acts for sallies at a new generation's top 40. Both of these 70s approaches assumed similar or at least malleable worldviews on the part of the audience, the better for them to appreciate and sympathize with the middle-class (and up) performers and their middle-class problems; both approaches left gaps, demographic and intellectual.

Punk changed all that. The Ramones, four seeming deadbeats from an adopted Bowery (they were actually from Forest Hills, Queens) who flirted with fascist imagery and sang about sniffing glue, created one of punk's most important demarcations simply by the exclusionary nature of their furious attack. Their two-chord frenzy (later three!), though initially it could have been misapprehended as a faster and more efficient species of heavy metal, was in fact shunned by the metal kids (who, for example, repeatedly booed and sometimes drove the Ramones from the stage during an early, bizarre tour with Black Sabbath); it was aimed instead right at those above-mentioned demographic and intellectual gaps. To like the Ramones, you had to either instinctively crave outsider music or instinctively get the joke--which was a complicated one, but something to the effect that Ramones, the group's 14-song, 28-minute debut album, was first and foremost a piece of rock criticism, except that it wasn't; that no one in the band could play his instrument, except that Johnny Ramone was, suddenly and improbably, the best and most important guitarist in the world; and that the Ramones were just a grimy little affectation of the Manhattan art crowd (with all the insignificance the label implies), except that on a short tour of Britain they made a now legendarily legendary stop at the London Palladium, where the boys (we are told) single-handedly inspired British punk, before an audience that included (it is said) future members of the Damned, the Buzzcocks, Generation X, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash.

The Ramones set the tone for much of punk by establishing a line to cross (albeit tacitly, in their case; remember that they were genuinely dumb, if not quite as dumb as they acted). If this approach had a certain cost--alienating some listeners, establishing an aesthetic-in-exile that could not possibly win its battle against the entrenched industry, star system, and audience--that was more than made up for by the drama of the attempt, by the great music, and by the obvious reminder of the days when rock's chief raison d'etre was giving offense. The Ramones and the bands that came after them were not avant-gardists, they were radicals, and their radicalism was the rear-guard, conservative sort--the point of punk was to take back rock 'n' roll, youth, faith, and a lot of other things from doped-up Eagles and rich, mossy Stones.

The Ramones' immediate successors, the Sex Pistols, took things a step or two farther, exchanging implicit analysis for an explicit attack, going after not only the easy targets--every public institution in Britain, for starters--but the hard ones as well, turning the guns on their fans and even themselves. Friendly fire was a concept new to rock 'n' roll, and just about everyone was struck by the genuine emotion that seemed to underlie it. Such hatred is rare in art; it's one of the reasons the Sex Pistols lasted only as long as they did, and why their chief successors--the ambivalent, ruthless, heartbroken Clash--turned away from hate whenever possible. and looked for alternatives.

Not that the Clash hid their disgust: one of their earliest singles was "White Man at the Hammersmith Palais," a song that begins in a quiet faux-reggae mode and builds to a blistering finale. Every Clash song contains references to working-class life, black-white relations, rebellion, and rock 'n' roll; "White Man" combined all of these into a complex tale of a reggae concert--to singer-lyricist Joe Strummer's mind, an ideal opportunity for racial rapprochement--that failed. Strummer attacks the bands ("It was Four Tops all night"), the promoters, the fans black and white, and then halfway through he ratchets up the stakes by taking out after punk bands in particular ("turning rebellion into money") and the world generally ("All over, people changing votes / Along with their overcoats"); finally, as partner Mick Jones sets off guitar mortars behind him, Strummer turns on himself: "I'm the all night drug-prowling wolf / Who looks so sick in the sun / I'm the white man in the Palais / Just looking for fun." Which is to say, I'm a vacuous fan myself. Six months into their career, the Clash already showed themselves the equal of any rock band that had come before them, simply by assaulting the last frontier of rock mythology: the notion that the rock audience, like some sort of bebopping proletariat, was a receptacle of goodness and hope, and that rock 'n' roll offered redemption. Neither, the Clash suggested, was true.

In the wake of these three bands--the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash--punk and postpunk have come and gone, almost all of it informed by their attitudes: Poly Styrene and Pete Shelly and their steely dissections of adolescent emotional pathology; Elvis Costello and his aggressive dislike of the world; and the faceless, almost nameless members of the Gang of Four, who decided that only extreme dialectics would help and then, with a riveting coolness and calculation, delivered them to record buyers couched in the most compelling white dance music the world had yet heard. But the seminal groups are rarely given their due today. Both the Ramones and the Clash are the subjects of recent, two-record retrospectives, and both packages prove that the career-spanning assemblage is dangerous ground. The Clash, which split up more than half a decade ago (though Strummer and Jones work together occasionally), benefits not at all from the air of interment that surrounds The Story of the Clash; and while the Ramones are still going relatively strong, over the past few years that strength has been a bit aimless. Ramones Mania has a career-end feel to it.

That aside, the Ramones collection is the more defensible of the two, simply because one of the band's paradoxes is that while every record the group puts out is, in a sense, a concept album (each being the product of a concept group, however sincere), the concept is that the group puts out records of disposable pop songs just itching to be yanked out of context for a greatest-hits collection. A best-of on the Ramones works for the same reason that their printed lyrics work, especially for songs like "Beat on the Brat" (". . . with a baseball bat / Oh yeah / Oh yeah / Oh yeah") and "I Don't Care" ("I don't care / I don't care / I don't care"). It works, that is, as a devastating reinterpretation of the practice. While the band has gone through a couple of lull periods (some would say the early- to mid-80s Subterranean Jungle-Pleasant Dreams phase), there is still a lot of world-class material on these albums, and two records is not enough to contain all the pop ineffability that the Ramones have recorded. Given a halfway lucid programmer (which is about all we have here), the results can't help but be fine; indeed, song for song, track for track, Ramones Mania is the strongest two-record set since, oh, I don't know, the Beatles' Rock and Roll Music.

Which isn't to say that it's a work of art. There is no chronological or thematic principle behind the sequencing, as far as I can see, making for abrupt ends to promising beginnings (the phenomenal "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" followed by the inferior "Outsider") or just odd juxtapositions, (the first album's exquisite, lilting "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend " followed by the much later and moderately silly "Mama's Boy"). To its credit, the package does include a couple of things that never showed up on American LPs, but they are sometimes the wrong things: the sole B-side offering is "Indian Giver," unnotable despite the fact that it was released only in the UK. Better would have been a different B-side, "Babysitter," and still better last year's poignant "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)." The package should also have included the divine "I Want You Around," the Ramones' best ballad, which was available only on the Rock 'n' Roll High School sound track, and "She's the One," love hysteria at its height.

Most important, Ramones Mania should have made the case for the stultifyingly slow but very real political growth of the band. Though the fascist stuff got lost early, Johnny was long a right-winger, and Joey once admitted that he'd voted for Reagan. But a few years into the Reagan era the guys changed their minds: Joey's appearance in "Sun City" was definitive, and soon afterward came the one-two punch of Too Tough to Die and the unrelieved passion of "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," the funniest cry of betrayal of all time. "Bonzo" sounds like "Born to Run" crossed with "Anarchy in the UK," sacrificing none of the majesty of either; and if the unrepentant Johnny still wouldn't play it live, the important thing is that the band stood up when it mattered, when it seemed as if there was nothing else to do. In the liner notes to Ramones Mania, Billy Altman writes that there will always be rock 'n' roll as long as there are the Ramones, even when--today as in 1977--"much of what fills the air on radio stations and the record stores is still tenth-generation Led Zeppelin, tenth-generation Elton John, over-produced or just plain junk." The point is that the Ramones didn't bring us to this pass. They never lied to us, never asked for anything other than to be Ramones; they were just four dumb punk rockers in the Bowery who ended up looking for truth, and accepted it where they found it: early on in sniffing glue (and in Dee-Dee's case, shooting smack), then at Rock 'n' Roll High, and finally on a TV screen as Reagan laid the flowers at Bitburg. Along the way they inspired a generation and changed history--proof that truth seeking matters.

The Story of the Clash--whimsically subtitled "Volume 1"--is a belated tribute to Strummer and Jones, and a hollow one as well. With the possible exception of Black Market Clash, a collection of singles, all of the Clash's records are must-owns. The 24 songs here are all first rate, but it's important to remember that by early 1980, with the release of the breakthrough London Calling, the group had already recorded nearly twice that many great songs, and were about to record more than that again. Outside of "This Is Radio Clash," which is welcome, there is nothing here not already available on LP; even if you're not a fan of the difficult, sprawling three-record Sandinista! and are just looking for an easy sampler, there are so few submissions from that record here--only two--that the package must be considered a failure on that count alone. We live in a society where archivists plumb the depths of the Monkees catalog, and fans eagerly snatch up five-record retrospectives on noted silly person Ian Anderson, complete with rare tracks, outtakes, and live performances. Meanwhile, the Clash get this.

It's not much, so let's pay it little attention and conduct our own retrospective--look at what really made the group. After their prodigious, focused debut (the UK version of The Clash; the U.S. version is greatly changed but surprisingly enjoyable), the Clash defined themselves with a shotgun-blast approach to music making that finally reached its pinnacle on Sandinista! Mick Jones, despite Johnny Ramone's classicist barrage, soon showed himself to be the most versatile, restless musician in punk or new wave. At home with but never wedded to the standard punk onslaught, he quickly absorbed the lessons of reggae, dub, pop, and good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, and harnessed them all into a loping, distinctive olio. His grasp of dynamics--from the soaring finish of "Stay Free" to the wrenched-out dance-hall groove of "Rock the' Casbah"--was unequaled, and few guitarists in all of rock history have matched the lyrical, never-miss versatility he proffered on London Calling.

Jones courted rock 'n' roll beauty, and on the group's few love songs he sang lead, his weak but engaging voice a vivid contrast to Joe Strummer's rough howl. If Jones was the heart of the band, however, Strummer was its soul, and it was he who gave the group its rebellious philosophy. The Clash were always labeled a group of rigidly leftist doctrinaires, which was unfair; Strummer flirted with everything (and still does; a recent issue of Melody Maker finds him defending a group whose political platform consists solely of quite literal yuppie and police bashing), and the result was a conflicting, inconsistent set of alliances: with the Red Brigades, but also with nonviolence, for example. Mostly Strummer was obsessed with the malignant forces of government and power in modern life, and the way they seemed allied against English youth and their counterparts around the world. He had the canniness of the outsider, however, and felt comfortable routinely attacking drugs throughout his career ("Hateful," for example) and occasionally hitting leftist ideologues--as on "Washington Bullets," a seminal song not included on this greatest-hits package, which, after a tip of the hat to the initial (under Carter) U.S. restraint vis-a-vis the Sandinistas, goes out of its way to slam the USSR and China.

More interesting than their politics, however, was the way the Clash adopted a form--say, the de rigueur punk practice of icon bashing--then twisted it around to their own use, producing minor masterpiece after minor masterpiece of wit, cruelty, and flair. "The Right Profile," from London Calling, is a jaunty, unexpurgated version of Montgomery Clift's career, complete with a graphic description of the car accident that nearly halted it. "The Magnificent Seven," from Sandinista!, makes a stab at urban rap and ends up as a happy, transcendent amalgam of Grandmaster Flash and the Trashmen. By the end of their career, with Combat Rock, the Clash were recording on the outer edges of rock: "Straight to Hell," the culmination of Strummer's war tableaux and the height of his refugee poetry, sounds like nothing before or since.

London Calling, Sandinista!, and Combat Rock defined rock 'n' roll for most of the early 80s. Strummer, the easygoing dialectitian, and Jones, the musical dilettante, came to a parting of the ways shortly after Combat; Jones, Strummer said, was too taken up with being a rock star, so he fired him. Having struck this blow for purist punk, Strummer grabbed bassist Topper Headon and hired a couple of kids to go out on the road. An album, Cut the Crap, followed, its authorship confused because manager Bernie Rhodes redid the record, taking half the songwriting credits, before it was released. The album had some of the old Joe on one cut, "This Is England," but not much else to recommend it. (The Story of the Clash ignores the album.) Strummer went into a deserved exile (Jones, it turned out, had been being something of a fop, but Strummer was being a jerk), and did some low-key soundtrack work for his filmmaker pal Alex Cox, including "Love Kills," a healthy single from Sid & Nancy. Recently, a new group, the Latino Rockabilly War, has been his vehicle. On the sound track to Permanent Record Strummer contributes four songs, each charged with elements of the noise he used to make. One, "Trash City," is an infectious rewrite (musically) of "I Fought the Law," with a brilliant backing track of Latin drumming; another, "Nothin' 'bout Nothin," has a hoarse, plaintive chorus that haunts.

Jones recouped more quickly. His band, Big Audio Dynamite, a partnership with filmmaker Don Letts, is an interracial funk-rap-boombox aggregation that after a promising first record hit the bull's-eye in 1986 with No 10, Upping St., a pan-everything world-beat masterpiece of futuristic dance-pop. It sounded like Sandinista! with a beat. BAD's new release, however, Tighten Up, Vol. 88, is much less ambitious, much more conventional. Songs like "Champagne," though equipped with an undeniable groove, come across like fluff after Upping St. confessionals like "Beyond the Pale"; perhaps it's because a somewhat repentant Strummer pitched in his talents as songwriter and coproducer for that record.

Strummer, Jones, and Joey Ramone, though the prospect must have been unthinkable back in the halcyon late 70s, now have their own future shock and career fears to face. ("What if I have to go out and get a job once this is all over?" Joey recently asked.) Drawing lines, particularly in rock 'n' roll, isn't fashionable anymore; the biggest group in the world, U2, is fronted by an enveloping charismatic who talks about the Clash a lot but looks for inspiration back to older, more comforting heroes like John Lennon. Elsewhere heavy metal rules, synth pop rules, and the Grateful Dead are back in style. Documentary sets like Ramones Mania and The Story of the Clash disturb not just because of the whiff of the charnel about them but because they remind us, uncomfortably, of past glories. Joe, he tells us in "Trash City," has a girl in Kalamazoo; Mick's has got a thing for champagne. The rest of us are unimpressed: we're still out in the Palais, still looking for fun, and no one else these days seems to care.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.


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