For the Clash there was no leaving politics off-record or offstage, and more than any of the mainstream punk or post-punk bands, except for maybe Gang of Four, they worked the seam in rock’s goldmine that pitted the disempowered and disenfranchised against authority, entitlement, and impunity. No mistake their hit cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law.” They gave punk a much-needed edge that went beyond simple nihilism, stoking it with purposeful aggression that, even as an act that in part it was, absolutely rocked. The Clash were also a band in the way the British loved their bands, from the Beatles to the Faces — laddish, swaggering, a drama of excess unfolding — a story of their empire in microcosm.
I’m a latecomer to the Clash’s London Calling (1979), but I’ve been listening to it on and off over the last 20 years or so, and in terms of British rock I think it’s the natural next step after the Stones’ Exile on Main Street — like that record it is a glorious, sprawling double album by a band so at the top of their game that they became a cultural filter. Rather than American blues, though, the Clash relied heavily on Jamaican music as a launchpad, investing the songs with an utterly contemporary feel that at once gave the finger to the British post-colonial Man while celebrating the multicultural consequences of empire. Ironies abound.
For years I honestly thought that the “Rudie” in “Rudie Can’t Fail” was just the name of the song’s central character. This is because I’m generally uneducated in Jamaican music, where the “rude boy” as anti-hero has been kicking around since the 60s. It just goes to show what a great song this is, with it’s big undertow of a riff and the back-and-forth singing of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. It’s an ebullient shout-fest with horns, a big-hearted victory lap for punk.