My Pop Life #52 : Complete Control – The Clash

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Complete Control   –   The Clash

…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…

In 1976 I was a cowboy, wandering around Bloomsbury and the LSE  in a poncho and cowboy boots, a Lee Van Cleef hat and jeans.   With a belt.  I was 19 and just back from a 5-month hitch-hike around North America with my best friend Simon Korner.   He was now at Cambridge reading English, where I maybe should or could have been and where my dad would have preferred me to be, but that’s another story.   This is how I became a punk.  It took a while.  In the autumn of 1976 I was all New Riders Of The Purple Sage and Spirit, Wings and Joe Walsh.   Not until 1977 and the release of The Clash LP did the trend really impact on me – and my recollection of this era is blurred.   The Sex Pistols had sworn on telly, we’d heard New Rose by the Damned and Anarchy In The UK  but I never really cared about being trendy.  (Said the dedicated follower of fashion victims).  But the energy around central London that winter and spring of 77 was palpable.

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Various venues, many within walking distance of my Halls of Residence in Fitzroy St W1 were now hosting punk or proto-punk bands.   The Vortex in Soho, the 100 Club on Oxford St, the Roxy in Covent Garden, the Hope & Anchor in Highbury and the Nashville Rooms in Hammersmith became my new stomping grounds.  Songs became shorter, hair became shorter, vocals more shouted, cut-up newspaper lettering, spikes, attitude was everywhere.  I didn’t like the spitting.  Neither did the bands, but they encouraged it.   Anyone could be a punk, but the real ones were working class.  Yeah right.  Like Joe Strummer, leader of The Clash whose dad was a diplomat.  A number of us at LSE embraced the new school and safety pinned our jeans and leathers, I stapled and paperclipped one entire jacket, little badges were back, hair gel and colour.  My first hair bleachout became purple.  God knows when but late ’77 I think. God Save The Queen had been number one during the Queen’s Jubilee in June despite being banned by the BBC.  The whole two fingers up to the establishment was a wonderful burst of energy, a breath of fresh air, and that first LP The Clash was absolutely brilliant.

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It was rock, it was reggae, it was anti-police, anti-racist, anti-dead-end jobs, anti Amerikka, I’m a rebel, what are you against?, well what have you got??  Every band in Britain suddenly cut their hair and their drum solos and it became immediately hard to tell who was who.  It was the New Orthodoxy within a year, hippies were the problem, flares and guitar noodling were out, politics was back.   Of course looking back it was nothing like that – plenty of noodly LPs came out in 77,78,79.   Plenty of longhairs at gigs – including me at the beginning.   But it was a new wave of energy – The Ramones, the quickly-established legend of The Sex Pistols, signing then leaving record labels, upsetting a nation, the DIY ethic of Sniffin’ Glue the fanzine produced by Alternative TV geezer Mark Perry, the startling image of safety pins in faces, shaved and coloured hair, torn clothes – it was a street revolution by the kids.

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Complete Control came out in September 1977 in a picture sleeve – another new trend – and immediately became the Clash’s best song.   It still is.   Probably.   They had a new drummer, Topper Headon, who joined Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and bass player Paul Simenon for the classic line up.  A picture postcard from the front line of rebel-band-meets-music-business, the first line is straight in there :

They Said release Remote Control, we didn’t want it on the label…

THEY SAID fly to Amsterdam, people laughed! the press went mad…”

Remote Control was on the LP and then had been the 2nd Clash single, released by CBS without conferring with the band.  The title of the song comes from a meeting the band had with manager Bernard Rhodes in a pub.  “I want complete control” he’d said and Strummer and Mick Jones fell onto the pavement laughing at his cartoon audacity.

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The song also documents the trouble they’d had on the White Riot Tour of that year, getting their mates in the back door before they were ejected again, and the police showing up to any punk event expecting trouble, thanks to the tabloid coverage of the new youth movement –

“All over the news spread fast – They’re dirty, they’re filthy They ain’t gonna last!”

Complete Control isn’t just an angry blast against The Man though – The Clash were always better than that.  They had the musical chops.  As Mick Jones fingers a deadly riff in the centre of the song, Strummer shouts “You’re my guitar hero!” ironically at him, before asking The Man, as a rough beast that slouches towards bethlehem :

I don’t trust you !  Why should you trust me ??   Huh ?!”

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This is Joe Public speaking.  I’m controlled in the body, I’m controlled in the mind.

It’s astoundingly fantastic, trust me.   Why should you trust me ?  Huh ??  Well you shouldn’t.  Keep an open mind kids, most of what you know is blindingly obvious, just cos it’s not in the papers don’t mean it ain’t true right ??  We knew the Royal Family was a total joke, but never really saw it in the media with such passion and rage before God Save The Queen.  All these songs and gigs captured a frustrated young angry nihilism and bottled it.   Speed fags and beer helped too at gigs.  The singles kept you going between gigs, kept the flame burning.  Walking around looking punk was thrilling, the sense of power and sneer on the streets of London and elsewhere was fun, which is partly why lots of kids did it.  Posing down the King’s Road, Kensington Market or Camden Town.   Later in the 70s tourists would pay money to take your picture.  But that’s another story.  This is how I became a punk.   Actually got the hair cut and fucked myself up and started wearing eyeliner and  Doctor Martens from Kentish Town Road.  What was that shop called ?

I didn’t actually see The Clash until 1978 on Hastings Pier – or was that 1977 too?   That’s another story too.   They were completely brilliant.    But no – I’ve misremembered – I saw them first at Victoria Park Rock Against Racism in spring 1978 with Jimmy Pursey and Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson. What a day that was.

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This song is the cry of the artist against the system.  Within two short years punk had been co-opted into the mainstream and eaten by the culture, mimicked, nullified, de-fanged and major-labelled.  They bottled punk and sold it back to us – and America.  Other groups would come and kick it.   Other youth movements would rise up.  This was mine really.  I was nearly too old be to be a punk, having dedicated the majority of my teen years to glam rock with a hippy fringe, Ben Sherman meets platform shoes meets loons, but I was 19 and happy to go drainpipe, day-glo and angry again.  Although of course I was doing a law degree at the LSE.  Hahaha.   I never called myself Ralph Rebel or Ben Bollocks or anything.  But brother Paul and I had some fun in London Town for a couple of years.   We were both “dragged up on a council estate by a single parent on social security” (only kidding Mum).  We could be punks if we wanted to be.   It was a laugh.  It was a thrill.  It wasn’t exactly Anarchy in the UK, but it felt bloody great.

“This is the Punk Rockers !”