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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, January 10, 2003
    White Man in Hammersmith Palais
     


    I've written about Joe Strummer twice before. In Strait, the Greenbelt magazine of April 1986, I wrote an article tracing the decline of punk's 'radical' edge in the decade since its inception, writing,
      Pioneering punk publicist Mark P has said that "Punk died the day the Clash signed for CBS" (for £100,000 in March 1977).
    I took Mark P's analysis on board suggesting that the big label took the Clash's pioneering raw energy "and convert[ed] it into harmless product".

    In my-and-Jim's failed publication, The Fire Bucket in 1988, I reviewed a Strummer gig at Liverpool's Royal Court, in intemperate language which mimicked the singer's cause celebre that evening. The gig was a benefit for Class War, a "squalid organisation" devoted to "yuppie-bashing, Tory-bashing and police-bashing":
      In their serious moments they say 'we want to destroy capitalism and its class system and replace them with a free and equal society where people have complete control over their own lives'. In practice thay commit themselves to violence of all kinds in order to make their mark on their class enemies.
    Strummer was mistaken to take the platform on their behalf, I reckoned.

    Today Class War remember those gigs proudly: "The "Rock Against the Rich" tour was the biggest event or campaign ever put on by an Anarchist/libertarian organisation in this country," their website states. And if I could do the review over again today, I think I'd want to engage somewhat more deeply with what was going on, and give Strummer a bit more credit than hitherto, for caring about an organisation which may well have got a bit carried away at times with "kicking coppers" (my words again) but which had the serious aim of "bringing politics into all areas of people's lives" (CW website).

    All this has been triggered by a phrase in John King's reflection on Strummer in this week's New Statesman. It's a personal article which concludes,
      For a lot of people who got nothing out of their school days, [Strummer] was an educator. I believe he changed the direction of a lot of people's lives for the better. He definitely had a big effect on mine.
    The force of that witness is undeniable. And in retrospect I was wrong to leave Mark P's throwaway comment unquestioned in 1986, because Strummer's project continued through the time with CBS and on into 2002. In November Strummer played a benefit show for the firefighters' union; before his death he was working on a track - co-written with Bono and Dave Stewart - for Nelson Mandela's AIDS Awareness in Africa.

    Back then, I should have paid closer attention to some of his words. In 1977's 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais' he set himself outside celebrity culture, siding with the outsiders as a champion of reggae, which was still marginal at that time, and expressing frustration with the music scene's political disengagement, be that "UK Pop reggae" ("onstage they ain't got no roots rock rebel"), Punk Rockers "too busy fighting", or, echoing Mark P's critique,
      The new groups are not concerned
      With what there is to be learned
      They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
      Turning rebellion into money
    It's too easy to say anarchism's a failed project, too cheap to snide that Class War's epitaph will be, "I fought the law, and the law won", as I did after seeing Strummer in 1988. I forgot to appreciate how much the music thrilled me and the honest, earnest lyrics politicised me then and how much value they still have now. In a society where class is still a factor, inequality a massive issue and in which the 'majority' celeb culture still serves to disenfranchise so many.