David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 194: The Clash (Know Your Rights)

October 24, 2022

I fully acknowledge that in my last post, I made a pretty thorough case for The Cowsills being under-appreciated. More of my young age musical snobbery has been challenged.

However, all that doesn't change the fact that since then I have felt icky all over. The kind of feeling only obliterated by a long cold shower.

Today is that shower -- The Clash.

Appropriately, I am getting ready to deliver my recurring Punk Lecture for the SMC Pop Culture class. Given the need to explain the fertile (or non-fertile) milieu of the early 1970s, I spend more time talking about the Ramones and The Sex Pistols than I do The Clash. And outside of showing London Calling as an album to listen to if the students have more interest, I basically finish with a quick reference to Give 'Em Enough Rope as the metaphorical death of punk in all its initial glory.

The Clash survived and did so well because they figured out ways to make music that was punkish but not likely to drag them down into the gobbed mosh pit post-Sid Vicious.  From London Calling through Sandinista to Combat Rock, The Clash released 67 songs that ranged from dub to gospel to calypso to rhythm and blues. Through it all the punk manifesto churned.

"Know Your Rights" clicks all the boxes for how I praise the great punk rock songs:

  • Explodes as first song on the album, grabbing you right away lyrically and musically. "This is a public service announcement/with guitar" announces Joe Strummer.
  • Propels along a basic slashing guitar riff with little additional ornamentation. The song truly embodies a Do It Yourself ethos.
  • Contextualizes lyrics through associations of consumer culture. A "Public Service Announcement," which costs nothing to broadcast, evokes Smokey the Bear, after school specials, and a little Schoolhouse Rock.
  • Americanizes the message by the British band. Why didn't Strummer assert it was a "Public Information Film/with guitar?" Doesn't roll off the tongue the same way, does it?  (Or, maybe, they didn't want to film the necessary video?)
  • Brims with righteous attitude.

In fact, that last point seems relevant when one sees the recurring "explanation" about the song as perpetuated by Wikipedia: "The structure of the song revolves around the rights held by the poor and disenfranchised, in which the speaker of the song, presumably a villainous civil servant (whose identity is assumed in the song by vocalist Joe Strummer), names the three actual rights."

I beg to differ. I don't think Strummer has assumed any identity; well, no more of an assumed identity than any other punk who changed their name (from John Graham Mellor) or their musical interests (from American Rhythm & Blues).  With "Know Your Rights," Strummer's the embodiment of nihilism, poking holes in the messaging the masses get from their authority figures.  "Murder Is a crime . . . unless done by" the powerful (policemen or aristocrats). Yeah, we all have the right to free speech, "as long as we are not dumb enough to actually try it." 

Strummer and The Clash evoked more of a wake-up call to the masses than most punks: "White Riot," "Guns of Brixton," "The Call Up" and so many other of their songs sought the same aim as "Know Your Rights": See through the b.s. that your authority figures are feeding you. Sure, Rotten calls you "England's future," but Strummer wants you to make the future now.

I was never a punk. My punk lecture is built around the notion that punk was never for me (middle-class kid for a college town), discovered by me long after its zenith, and exploited extremes for an audience that felt they had nothing else. I had plenty, but what I also had was a sense that rock and roll should be about rebellion against authority figures, and The Clash, more than The Sex Pistols, and certainly much more than Queen, Elton John, or The Cowsills, pushed all those buttons for me. 

There you go, I feel completely cleansed now.

"Know Your Rights." The Clash. Combat Rock. CBS, 1982. Link here.

Day 193: The Cowsills "Hair"

Day 195: Annie Lennox "Sing"

See complete list here.