- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Tomorrow night, television viewers can witness a moment of exquisite irony: The induction of the Clash, the militant punk band whose first single vowed "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977," into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony broadcast on VH1, no less.
But it would be too easy to dismiss the Clash as hollow opportunists. Yes, they made compromises. No, their actions didn't always live up to their idealistic rhetoric. But while they were imperfect in their embodiment of their ideals, they were never insincere. They were human, but they were not hypocrites. On a good day, the Clash reinvested rock music with meaning beyond mere commerce. At their best, they may have even proved worthy of their famous tag, "The Only Band That Matters."
Inspired by the Sex Pistols, the band emerged in 1976 from London squats with a furiously fast and loud musical attack that was as angry, urban and unpolished as the Notting Hill riots that they celebrated in the song, "White Riot." As much as any of their peers, the Clash exemplified the "year zero" aesthetic of punk, intimidating journalists and dismissing their own pasts with a vehemence lead singer and songwriter Joe Strummer himself later described as "Stalinist."
Early Clash songs such as "1977" and "Hate And War" denounced previous generations of rock as sold-out, fit only for the ash heap of history. To rock's promise of empty hedonism, the Clash offered the alternative of class warfare. Yet, for all this scowling and uncompromising rhetoric, the same band soon brought Bo Diddley, the slyly witty rock pioneer with the festively syncopated beat, along on their first U.S. tour. And of course, they modeled the cover of their most famous album, "London Calling," after that of Elvis Presley's first LP, albeit with one significant difference: Elvis was playing his guitar, while Clash bassist Paul Simonon was smashing his. One interpretation: Elvis started this, we are ending it. Irony? Perhaps. But in its embrace of a spectrum of rock styles from rockabilly to reggae to Spector-esque wall-of-sound pop, "London Calling" sounded more like an affectionate homage to the Clash's rock 'n' roll forefathers.
Rolling Stone named it "Album of the Decade." The result was compelling but little more avant-garde than your average Bruce Springsteen album. Subsequent albums expanded their musical palette beyond their dirty, garage-land punk beginnings toward some sort of world-beat-punk hodgepodge, with mixed if occasionally galvanizing results.
This tense, crackling rub of conflicting ideas was typical of the Clash. In songs such as "Tommy Gun," the band denounced terrorist violence, while at the same time flirting with visual styles that evoked groups like the Red Brigades.
The Clash railed against corporate domination in "Complete Control" and against "turning rebellion into money" in "White Man In Hammersmith Palais." Yet, the same band was signed to one of the largest multinationals in the world, CBS, now owned by Sony.
They wrote anti-drug anthems, but they were photographed partaking in High Times. Guitarist-singer Mick Jones was arrested for cocaine in 1978, and drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon fell into a deadly heroin addiction that ultimately helped to destroy the band.
No, consistency was not the Clash's strong point. Their very real impact came instead from a passionate, visionary soul, most purely exemplified by the late Joe Strummer. If the Clash's politics were sometimes muddled, they were no less heartfelt. Where groups like the Police (also inducted into the Hall of Fame Monday night) could be seen as opportunistic, exploiting first punk and then reggae, the Clash were true believers, seeing punk not as a sound, but as a rebel spirit, with the potential to liberate across all boundaries.
It was this desire to make common cause with other outsiders that led the Clash to record a rocked-up version of the reggae classic "Police and Thieves" for their first LP. It was a chancy move, but it paid off. Legendary reggae producer Lee Perry agreed to work with them on their follow-up single, "Complete Control." Through Mr. Perry, Bob Marley heard of the band and wrote a tribute: "Punky Reggae Party." This song identified punks and rastas as the fellow "rejected of society," building new bridges between the embattled nonwhite British and their often antagonistic white working class brethren. In this connection, the seeds for Britain's powerful Rock Against Racism movement were sown.
The Clash's ambition sparked other uprisings, large and small. I myself was spurred to leave behind working-class nihilism nourished in harsh rural Montana to embrace campus activism. I ultimately would move to Washington and help found Positive Force D.C., an all-volunteer punk activist collective that has organized benefits, protests, educational events, and direct service to the District's needy since 1985.
Indeed, the entire D.C. punk scene, internationally famous for its radical politics and anti-corporate stance, can be seen, in its way, as an embrace of the Clash's rhetoric paired with a simultaneous rejection of their compromises. The parallel between the Clash and D.C. punk's leading light, Fugazi, has been noted by many; the British music magazine Sounds dubbed Fugazi "America's Clash" in 1990, a description echoed by magazines as disparate as Rolling Stone and the die-hard underground flagship Maximum Rocknroll.
Other bands, including rising local pop-punkers Good Charlotte (signed to Epic, the Clash's U.S. label), also clearly bear their mark. One Washington group, Rain Like the Sound of Trains, revamped the Clash's anti-U.S. imperialism anthem, "Washington Bullets," to poignantly protest the D.C. murder crisis of the early 1990s.
The Clash made many mistakes, but they never made the biggest one: reuniting. Rumors that they would get back together to headline the traveling Lollapalooza festival a few years back never materialized. More recently, chatter was heard (before Mr. Strummer's fatal heart attack in December) of a reunion at the Hall of Fame ceremony. Mr. Simonon has scoffed at that notion, noting the incompatibility of the Clash's populist stance with the event's $100-plus ticket price.
Mr. Simonon's dismissal rings true, for while the Clash were good at many things, cashing in was not one of them. The band sank deep into debt creating hit-and-miss masterpieces including the two-LP "London Calling" and the three-LP"Sandinista" that they then fought to have sold below cost. After finally recording a breakthrough album, "Combat Rock," Mr. Strummer went missing on the eve of a major tour. Upon his return, he, together with bassist Mr. Simonon, fired first Topper Headon and then Mick Jones the authors, between them, of 2 of the Clash's three U.S. hit singles.
Firing your most commercially minded writers, then taking a reconfigured band on the road to play ragged "rebel rock" punk, then dropping that to go on a "busking tour" with only acoustic guitars this is not included in anyone's "How To Make It in the Recording Industry" handbook. Yet, this is what the Clash did in 1983, at the height of their popularity. Not surprisingly, it was all over for the band not long afterward.
Such was the Clash: the embodiment of folly and fury, of unbridled idealism mated to crass compromise. Through it all, they were one of the most human bands ever to enter the rock "pantheon." It is somehow fitting, then, that these romantic punk rebels, uncomfortable with the mantle of rock messianism, yet straining toward it with all their might, should end up honored in that most unrevolutionary of rock venues: the Hall of Fame.

Mark Andersen, co-founder of Positive Force D.C., is the co-author (with Mark Jenkins) of "Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital." He is donating his fee for this article to Positive Force's most recent project a community center in the District's Shaw neighborhood built jointly with Emmaus Services for the Aging in recognition of the project's original inspiration in interviews in which the Clash talked of creating such a center.

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