Suggs, Suggs and the City; Marcus Gray, Route 19: The Clash and London Calling – Guardian
When the twenty-first century hits its stride will pop groups start talking about breaking China in the way they used to talk about breaking America? I doubt it. Because even if China becomes the world’s biggest market, the history and meaning of pop will always be bound up with the United States and the immigrant and slave songs that ushered in modernity. Because of this, the English, in the grip of a cultural cringe that has lasted at least as long as rock’n’roll, will go on needing to prove themselves.
Questions of identity and influence dominate two new books from the pop world: one by Madness’s front man, Suggs, explores his lifelong love affair with London and goes rummaging in its “history drawer”; the other by Marcus Gray, looks at the Clash’s double album, London Calling, on its thirtieth anniversary.
“I don’t think you could really mistake Madness for an American band, could you?” Suggs asks pointedly. The question of influence matters because there’s always been a Beatles/Stones divide in England: do you sing in a Liverpudlian accent or adopt an American drawl? Suggs was never in doubt about his stomping ground: “Hollywood?” he brags, “I only got as far as Holloway.” His book grew out of research for Madness’s last album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate, about Spitalfields, one of London’s most fluid and historically-redolent areas. From Protestant Huguenots to European Jews, from Bangladeshis to Poles, “we’re all”, Suggs concludes, “dancing in the moonlight…on borrowed ground”.
But Madness were not always so all-embracing. For a work intended to shore up memory in the face of careless forgetting – its dedicatee is London’s last rag-and-bone man – the author’s own recollections seem partial. Suggs talks fondly of early gigs at the Hope and Anchor in Islington, for instance, but makes no mention of the sieg-heiling, swastika-sporting fans I saw there. Perhaps an autobiography will bring a fuller account of the transition he and his fans have made – something to look forward to, because among his descriptions of Camden’s Irish pubs and Soho nightlife, music halls and race tracks, dandies and bohemians, the most vivid are those etched with stories from his life.
Like Suggs, Joe Strummer insisted that he, too, “sang in English”, yet the Clash’s loyalty was still called into question. If Suggs is concerned with a disappearing past, the Clash reserved their nostalgia for the future. The album’s title track, one of the most rousing and urgent products of punk’s apocalyptic imagination, imagines the band as clandestine Londoners, under threat and sending out distress signals: “London calling to the faraway towns/Now war is declared, and battle come down”. ‘London Calling’, of course, was the BBC call sign to occupied Europe during the Second Word War. In 1979 when this record was made, a new war was under way on London’s streets: Margaret Thatcher had come to power, unemployment was rising and the National Front marched, brandishing the flag of St George. The Clash heralded this new order in songs like ‘Clampdown’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’, tolling the death-knell of Sixties optimism. Now all that swung in London was the policeman’s truncheon.
Gray’s sprawling book has a fan’s tendency to throw in every last scrap of information, and is written in a linguistic mishmash (“the sounds and rhythms of days of yore”; “urgent crosstown dashes by the ever-prosaic bus or Tube”). But the discussion of the band’s influences is interesting. The album also contains American-inspired material: ‘Brand New Cadillac’, ‘Jimmy Jazz’, ‘Kola Kola’ and ‘The Right Profile’ (about Montgomery Clift); and reggae, in ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, ‘Revolution Rock’, and ‘Lover’s Rock’. For the Clash the problem was this: it was a principle of punk that you did-it-yourself, music should be home-made and home-grown. The reason Jagger’s drawl was so loathed was not because anyone hated the black American sound he mimicked, but because it represented a kind of musical tourism. Punk, reacting to the betrayed idealism of the Sixties wanted, above all, to be without illusions, to deflate the phoniness and pomposity of ‘rock’ music, so rather than dry ice and satin shirts, it dressed itself in safety pins and bin liners.
It was for these reasons, Gray reminds us, that Johnny Rotten objected to white kids playing Jamaican music – it was a kind of cultural imperialism, he thought, they hadn’t earned the right to it. It was a persuasive argument but one Strummer strongly refuted: “People say white blokes can’t do reggae, but that’s a load of shit…I didn’t discover reggae in a book, I grew up with it. It’s part of me.”
The dangers of bad faith, however, were there for all to see. In 1974 Eric Clapton remodelled Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sherriff’ and had a number one hit in the States. Two years later he harangued a bewildered Birmingham audience: “I think Enoch’s right…Stop Britain becoming a black colony…get the foreigners out.” The hypocrisy of a man who’d made a career playing black music was more than some music fans could stomach: it was this outburst that lead to the creation of Rock Against Racism, an organisation the Clash played for at the Hackney Carnival in 1978 and again the following year in aid of a Defence Fund set up to help those arrested or injured when the National Front brought mayhem to Southall.
In these Cowell-fuelled times, young musicians would do well to look to Suggs’ historical delving, or the Clash’s internationalism (their next album was called Sandinista!) to see how pop might re-imagine itself. It’s going to be interesting listening to the sound of Britain as the world tilts away from the Atlantic and America starts to lose power.