Classic Music Review: Give ‘Em Enough Rope by The Clash

Give em Enough Rope

They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee
An’ worry about it later

—From “Complete Control,” by The Clash

Once their groundbreaking début album hit the shelves, The Clash kept a frenetic tour schedule, tightening their chops and making a name for themselves as a must-see live act. In between gigs, they also managed to release some of their most iconic singles: “Complete Control,” “Clash City Rockers,” and the game-changing “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” their first original ska composition. Despite all this activity, the music press started grumbling about the absence of a second album, and manager Bernie Rhodes was feeling the heat from the moguls at CBS, particularly the suits in the U. S. A.

After refusing to release The Clash in the United States, CBS said they wanted a “cleaner sound” from The Clash on their second album, something they felt would appeal to the sensitive ears of American audiences. To that end, they gave Bernie a list of acceptable producers, and Bernie circled the name of Sandy Perlman. At first glance, one might reasonably assume that Bernie reached his decision through the eeny-meeny-miny-moe method, since Mr. Perlman’s claim to production fame involved Blue Öyster Cult, whose style oscillated between hard rock and metal and whose lyrics reflected no social consciousness whatsoever (unless you’re into highly imaginative interpretations of “Godzilla”). He certainly didn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d want to produce a punk band whose primary virtues were unbridled energy and intelligent, penetrating, socially-relevant lyrics.

The mystery was cleared up through a little research. Perlman didn’t just produce Blue Öyster Cult, he created them. A more accurate entry on his curriculum vitae would contain the phrase, “Mr. Perlman was responsible for the creation, production and complete control of the band.” Once I realized Perlman was the wizard behind the curtain, it all began to make sense:

Mick: Complete Control was one of Bernie’s favourite phrases and he’d said to us once that he had to have complete control of the situation, and that stuck with us.

Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1282-1283). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.

Bernie’s selection of Perlman was like-hires-like, two kindred spirits united in an ignoble effort to tame The Clash and make them more acceptable to American consumers.

Bernie, Perlman and CBS wanted to control The Clash because they felt uncomfortable with the hard edges of punk and believed that homogenizing the sound would sell more records and make more money. They thought they were in complete control, but were actually in complete denial. American fans didn’t want a homogenized version of The Clash—the import version of The Clash was selling like hotcakes.

The first time I heard Give ‘Em Enough Rope, I felt a wave of disappointment. Perlman’s production felt suffocating, like The Clash were hired to provide the soundtrack to a claustrophobe’s nightmare. He buried Joe Strummer’s distinctive voice in the mix because he didn’t like his singing. The rough edges were sanded down, the spillover of spontaneous energy contained. At times the bass levels fall so low that I wonder if Paul Simonon left the studio to take a piss. That’s not an implausible theory:

Paul: That was the most boring situation ever, making that album. It was so nit-picking and a complete contrast to making the first album. There was no spontaneity and the only way I could get any kind of relief from the boredom of recording was to get some films from the Imperial War Museum and have them back-projected as we recorded, just to get some excitement going. So we had it running and I was enjoying it . . . but Pearlman then said he could hear the projector so we had to stop it.

Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1537-1550). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.

That’s a helluva lot of bad juju to overcome, but despite the incongruous production and ugly vibes, the irrepressible energy of The Clash comes through. Give ‘Em Enough Rope is a great album despite the production, not because of it. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took their songwriting to the next level, the arrival of Topper Headon was a definite upgrade, and when you can hear Paul Simonon, it’s obvious that he worked like a bastard to raise his game. Once I overcame my initial aversion to the limp production, Give ‘Em Enough Rope became one of my favorite albums.

“Safe European Home” is a fabulous opener, an all-out punk bash with a splash of mambo-like, ass-shaking syncopation in the dominant rhythm. The vocal interplay between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is terribly exciting, Paul Simonon displays growing confidence on the bass, and holy shit, can Topper Headon fucking play or what? The story is based on a Jones and Strummer jaunt to Jamaica, where they experienced what it’s like when white people go to places where they are in the minority, where they are viewed with suspicion and targeted as patsies.

Now they got the sun, an’ they got the palm trees
They got the weed, an’ they got the taxis
Whoa, the harder they come, n’ the home of ol’ bluebeat
Yes I’d stay an’ be a tourist but I can’t take the gunplay

I went to the place where every white face is an
Invitation to robbery
An’ sitting here in my safe European home
I don’t wanna go back there again

Given Joe Strummer’s participation in the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot and his vocal support of black immigrants in “White Riot,” the experience in Jamaica must have been doubly uncomfortable. Even so, uncomfortable experiences are often the best learning experiences, and this unfortunate trip to Jamaica wouldn’t stop Strummer and Jones from exploring Jamaican music even further.

“English Civil War” is an update of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the old American Civil War ditty based on “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye,” an even older Irish air where the Johnny of the song comes home from war as thoroughly sliced up as The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We’d sing the original almost every year at the Irish-side-of-the-family New Year’s Eve extravaganza, trading verses and laughing at the exaggerated lilt of the family members born outside the Emerald Isle. My favorite line in the original is “Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg/Ye’ll have to be put out with a bowl to beg.”

God, I love Irish humor!

Seriously, most scholars believe that the original was intended to be humorous and only became an anti-war song because the British kept forcing the Irish to fight the empire’s wars for them. What Joe Strummer did in “English Civil War” was take it a step further and turn it into a anti-war song about a dystopian future, a future where the racists of the National Front are on the march. The Clash are positively ripping on this track, with Paul Simonon and Topper driving the rhythm and Mick Jones delivering a scorching solo. Most remakes of traditional songs are as boring as fuck, but “English Civil War” is an intensely stimulating exception.

Topper Headon opens “Tommy Gun” with a pattern of snare hits that mimic the sound of an assault weapon, the perfect lead-in to a blistering song about the 70’s model of Middle Eastern terrorism exported from Palestine. Although this powerful anti-violence message would have fallen on the deaf ears of those murderous pricks had they ever bothered to listen to it, Joe Strummer’s insights into the twisted motivations and sick rewards of terrorism are timeless. Terrorism has proven to be not only costly not only in terms of the loss of innocent human life, but a complete failure when measured by return on investment:

Tommy gun, you’ll be dead when your war is won
Tommy gun, but did you have to gun down everyone?
I can see it’s kill or be killed
A nation of destiny has got to be fulfilled
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!

But they didn’t get it—there is still no Palestinian state and the terrorism has only made that possibility much more unlikely. If terrorists have no chance of advancing the cause, what’s in it for them? Fifteen fucking minutes of fame:

Tommy gun, you can be a hero in an age of none
Tommy gun, I’m cutting out your picture from page one
I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours
An’ give my false support to your cause
Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it!

The final verse abandons the pattern of the previous verses to make the essential argument . . . an argument unlikely to persuade a professional psychopath, but one that reaffirms the value later expressed in “Know Your Rights,” that “you have the right not to be killed.”

Okay, so let’s agree about the price
And make it one jet airliner for ten prisoners
Boats an’ tanks and planes, it’s your game
Kings an’ queens an’ generals learn your name
I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice
And if death comes so cheap
Then the same goes for life!

Played at maximum strength, “Tommy Gun” is one of The Clash’s most powerful works, and horribly relevant to our world today.

The Clash give us a break from the ugly side of life with a perfectly delightful song about one of the biggest LSD busts in history. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is a paean to the surveillance officer who lent the undercover operation its code name, Ms. Julie Taylor. In Operation Julie, Ms. Taylor played the role of young housewife to fake hubby Detective Sergeant Vince Castle, and with her thick dark hair parted down the middle looked just the type to attract attention from LSD salesmen. The naïve idealists who had been manufacturing LSD by the boatload to a.) transform society through acid and b.) make a shitload of money, fell into the trap:

It’s “Lucy in the Sky” and all kinds of apple pie
She giggle at the screen ’cause it looks so green
There’s carpets on the pavements
And feathers in her eye
But sooner or later her new friends will realise
That Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad
Julie’s been working for the Drug Squad

The song is an absolute gas, thanks in large part to the tightness of the Simonon-Headon rhythm section. The song also features Sandy Perlman’s greatest contribution to the proceedings: having Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allan Lanier join in on the piano to add a rollicking, barrelhouse flavor to the mix.

“Julie” is followed by “Last Gang in Town,” a rocker with fabulous syncopation that catalogues the various and sundry gangs of the era and their absurd determination to fight to the death for whatever meaningless shit gangs fight for. The shift to the minor key on the bridge balances the simple chording in the verses, adding a touch a darkness to the aural imagery.

“Guns on the Roof” opens with a slightly modified version of the intro to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” While the title may have been influenced by the incident involving Topper Headon and Paul Simonon getting hassled by the Metropolitan Police for shooting at pigeons with an air gun on the roof of their rehearsal building, the content of the song is about the madness of gun-related violence in all its ugly forms:

Guns guns
They torture all the women and children
Then they’ve put the men to the gun
‘Cos across the human frontier
Freedom’s always on the run

Guns guns a-shaking in terror
Guns guns killing in error
Guns guns guilty hands
Guns guns shatter the lands

As someone who abandoned her homeland in large part due to the gun-related madness that pervades the United States, it’s impossible for me to be objective about this song. I find guns terrifying, not because I live in deathly fear of getting blown away by some nut, but because of what they symbolize: the willingness of human beings to kill other human beings and to continuously develop new forms of weaponry to make it easier to kill other human beings. Sick, sicker and sickest.

One of the catchiest tunes on Give ‘Em Enough Rope explores the strange dynamics of drug users. “Drug Stabbing Time” is an ironically energetic bash satirizing the paranoiac orientation of people who live in constant fear of the cops and of other drug users. The explosive introduction featuring Mick Jones’ distorted power chords and Topper Headon’s dramatic punctuation is perfectly designed to pull your ass out of your chair and into the mosh pit. The middle section demonstrates that The Clash were absolute masters of dynamics. The song moves like a bat out of hell until the band brings it down just a tad after the sax-enhanced instrumental passage. They return to full bash for a couple of lines then shift to stop time with hard power chords to raise listener anticipation, and in the far distance you hear Topper building steam like a runaway freight train until the band just fucking explodes. God damn, I feel like slamming into a nice, hard body right fucking now! Bruises! I need bruises!

I’ll put my sadomasochistic tendencies on the back burner for a moment and move on to “Stay Free,” one of the most unusual nostalgia songs ever written. Mick Jones reminisces about the good old days at school where he and his pal fucked with teachers and students, eventually getting themselves thrown out to pursue a life of dancing, laughing, fighting, shooting pool and smoking. At a certain point in their story, Mick takes up music while his mate is nabbed for theft and sent to the hoosegow. Unlike most white people who want nothing to do with the riffraff once they’ve made it in the material world, Mick makes a ringing statement of loyalty and the continuing presence of shared values:

When you lot get out
Were gonna hit the town
We’ll burn it fuckin’ down
To a cinder

Mick sings “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down” with obvious delight and commitment. When the man says, “we’ll burn it fuckin’ down,” he fuckin’ means it! The last verse is incredibly touching, an undying statement of the meaning of friendship:

Cos years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I wanna go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cos I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy . . . step lightly . . . stay free

In an unusual moment of clarity on the part of the producer, the song’s forward movement is driven primarily by Paul Simonon’s bass: deep, filling, rhythmic and melodic. Although The Clash play the song with full intensity, the even mix of major and minor chords soften the impact enough to allow the emotional content of the lyrics shine through.

“Cheapskates” is a big fuck you to critics and fans who refused to let The Clash be the pretty regular guys they were. Joe Strummer sings this sucker with blistering resentment, with a tone of “go fuck yourselves” pervading every single note:

Just because we’re in a group
You think we’re stinking rich
‘N we all got model girls
Shedding every stitch
‘N You think the cocaine’s flowing
Like a river up our noses
‘N every sea will part for us
Like the red one did for Moses

Well I hope you make it one day
Just like you always said you would some day
And I’ll get out my money and make a bet
That I’ll be seein’ you down the launderette

Gotcha!

Give ‘Em Enough Rope closes with “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts),” a punk update of “All the Young Dudes,” a song Mick Jones was very familiar with from his days following Mott the Hoople on the concert circuit. The message is pretty much the same message we’ve heard from other disillusioned rockers from The Stones to The Kinks to Traffic, but, shit, nobody tells it quite like The Clash:

Everybody wants to bum a ride
On the rock ‘n’ roller coaster
And we went out
Got our name in small print on a poster
Of course we got a manager
Though he ain’t the mafia
A contract is a contract
When they get ’em out on yer

You gotta drag yourself to work
Drug yourself to sleep
You’re dead from the neck up
By the middle of the week
Face front you got the future shining
Like a piece of gold
But I swear as we get closer
It look more like a lump of coal

But it’s better than the factory
Now that’s no place to waste your youth
I worked there for a week once
I luckily got the boot

The advice to all the young punks (and cunts) is to laugh and live for the moment, whatever your lot in life. “All the Young Punks” is one of the most melodic songs on the album, a melody strengthened by some superb spot harmonizing on the part of Strummer and Jones. This is The Clash, though, so the song rocks hard enough to keep the more energetically-oriented listeners (like me!) completely engaged. I have to confess that I start feeling sad when they get to the fade and Joe and Mick babble on in the background over the dominant chord riff . . . I want MORE!

In Give ‘Em Enough Rope, The Clash defied all the naysayers and management control freaks to create a more than worthy follow-up their maiden album. The crammed tour schedule did for them what the Reeperbahn did for The Beatles—forced them to get tighter and begin exploring more interesting musical and lyrical ideas. The experience was also a lesson to them about how “complete control” manifests itself in the filthy world of the music business, and in the intervening period they’d fire Bernie Rhodes and choose their own producer for the next album: a complete wacko by the name of Guy Stevens, who through unconventional methods indicating the likely presence of a psychological disorder, encouraged the band to let it all fucking out, put all their chips on the table and try to create nothing less than the best rock ‘n’ roll record ever made.

You want more? Man, are you about to get MORE!

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