A very good morning to you and if you happen to be in Istanbul I hope you’re keeping safe as it seems to be continuing to kick off over there on a daily basis. I’ve been in a few riot situations in my youth (a mad adrenaline rush I assure you) but was never confronted by water cannons or tear gas, just London’s mounted police which can be intimidating in their own right. It does of course always trigger my Clash thoughts back to Notting Hill and the summer of 1976 which helped spawn one of Joe Strummer first great lyrics after getting mixed up in the violence of that summer’s carnival.
I can’t have been more than 12 when I first heard White Riot and the lyrics to me always made perfect sense, a riot of our own as opposed to the Notting Hill Carnival riots which was the (rightful) reaction of young West Indians to the heavy handed policing that saw more than five times as many police on the streets of the carnival as had been the summer before. Tensions simmered all weekend with the violence erupting on the bank holiday Monday afternoon and evening. Paul, Joe and Bernie Rhodes found themselves in the middle of history in the making and according to folklore Joe started working on the lyrics later that night.
I’ve always noticed on marches and gatherings that turned into riots and indeed even at other events, the profile that the police maintain would often let you know if things might get ugly or never gather a full head of steam. The Poll Tax riot was one such day back in 1989 that I attended and during the march the very visible number of police in side streets simply waiting in huge numbers added to the tension that overflowed in Trafalgar Square later that day.
Back to The Clash though, White Riot was taken by some observers to being a song with a racial overtone, somehow inferring that a ‘white only’ riot was being called for (and all that suggests) when it was more simply Joe saying that the young/unemployed/bored/disenfrenchised white majority should be just as pissed off with the state of the nation but they were for the most partinstead taking it laying down – sedated by the relative comforts of mid-seventies Britain. Perhaps one of the most exciting things about The Clash for many (I know it was for me) were that the lyrics tackled issues that were real, current and ultimately needed addressing. The list of bands that could write love and breakup songs was as long as your arm but to hear lyrics about boredom, unemployment, dead end jobs and such pricked your ears even at a young age.
Back then of course there was no internet and no twenty-four hour news cycle to clarify your stance as a musician, politician or even b-list celebrity, weeks and even months could pass between a featured interview in the NME, Sounds or Melody Maker and beyond that there was only the very limited availability of fanzines. In 1976/7 The Guardian (nor any other newspaper) was calling The Clash for interviews and in fact the only punk headlines were the ones of the outrage/lock up your kids variety. With decades of hindsight it seems remarkable that Joe Strummer’s lyrics were misconstrued as racist by some when in fact the very opposite was nearer the truth. In fact he was inspired that the black youth in London had no qualms with matters escalating into a riot – that sometimes riots are absolutely necessary.
The Clash – White Riot