42. The Clash - Clampdown

The Clash is one of those bands where I was a little too young to really appreciate when their albums came out. Sure I liked "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go?", but I didn't really get them. Then, in the 90's it became fashionable for people of my age (and even teenagers) to say that they've been fans of cool bands since way back when. The Clash was definitely one of those bands. Slap on a vintage t-shirt you got off of ebay and talk about how you wish you could've seen them live. Never one to strive for being cool, I mostly left my exposure to The Clash exactly as it had been way back when.

In the last few years, however, as the coolness factor of being into older punk bands waned, I decided to give The Clash a serious look. Now as I write this, I realize that not listening to more Clash because it was deemed cool was just as stupid and arbitrary as the people who did listen to them because it was cool. So I guess I owe The Clash an apology for waiting so long. Then again, since I would now list their album London Calling as probably one of my top 20 albums of all time, I guess we're even.

Since this isn't a listing of top albums of my lifetime, I chose my favorite song off of my favorite Clash album. "Clampdown" starts off like your typical punk song - wail of feedback, drummer counting everyone in, but then takes a strange turn. The chord progression turns way more poppy, even having some keyboards in the background and there's the muffled spoken word bit that you can't really understand. The way drummer Topper Headon plays his high hat, added on top of the keyboards actually reminds me of early Duran Duran. But then lead singer Joe Strummer screams out, "What are we gonna do now?" and the song returns to its punk rock direction, albeit with that pop sensibility that many punk bands spat on. The other bands would scream their way through songs and playing with basic instrumentation turned all the way up and distorted to all hell, a la The Sex Pistols. But The Clash took punk rock to a new level, adding layers of complexity and musicianship on top of the basic punk sensibility.

The verses are much more punk rock, the drum simply keeping time as the guitar adds the punches. Bassist Paul Simonon actually gets to play the most intricate parts of the verses, picking his way all around the melody. Since The Clash had a lead singer who could actually play guitar as well, guitarist Mick Jones gets a chance to add some flavor from the top part of the guitar's neck, playing some high fills. Joe sings the verses with a very punk style, but the melody that he sings is more pop than punk and when you add Mick Jones' harmonies, it's clear that this is not your typical punk rock band.

But instead of going to your usual chorus, they go into this bizarre, yet gripping bridge that guitarist Mick Jones sings, completely changing the feel of the song. There's an almost Latin, yet reggae feel to it. You've got bongos and a little disco guitar added in, but it still works within of the context of the song. There are time signature changes throughout the song that help add to the overall complexity and diversity that they were going for. It's almost as if they were trying to win a contest to try and fit as many musical styles into a single song as was possible, while still having it sound like a cohesive song.

The end of the song may just be my favorite part. There's some harmonics that Mick plays while another Mick, session keyboardist Mick Gallagher, plays a very busy hammond organ part until song's end. A hammond organ in a punk song? Awesome! I also love the "Ha! Git along, git along" that Joe adds a few times in the song's last minute. It's just one of those great punctuations that some singers add in songs and in this case, it really works for me. As the song fades, they slow things down and slowly fade out song elements until just a cowbell takes you out. And there's nothing more punk rock than a cowbell, right?

So throughout a single three minute and forty nine second song, The Clash gives you four different, yet distinct styles of music and each is played brilliantly. But even so, it still feels like one song. It's a complete idea that just uses different methods of playing to get you through it, while maintaining the singular cohesiveness of the song itself. It's an amazing feat that makes me listen to this song at least once a week, because I can still hear new and cool things that I may not have noticed before.

So I guess I need to find my new Clash and listen to a band that I always had a cursory interest in but never gave them a full shake.  Aw, hell, I guess I gotta go buy a Grateful Dead album now, don't I?

(Fun Fact #75: For as much hoopla they get in the pantheon of punk rock, The Sex Pistols as band released only one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols.  Less than six months after its release, they broke up.  This is a legendary punk band?  I don't think so.  They couldn't hold a candle to The Clash's.  The Sex Pistols are the Hanson of punk rock.  But at least Hanson could play their own instruments - and they were, like, twelve.)
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