“Coma girl and the excitement gang, nobody dissing the teen-scene gang”
Elmer Rice, the Adding Machine
the Clash, the Clash (American release)
AC/DC, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheep (Australian release)
the Sex Pistols, Nevermind the Bollocks, here’s
movie: a Way of Life
Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times
[Punk music: what does it mean? What problems of society do punk lyricists recognize? What solutions do these groups offer? How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture? If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down? What rhetorical voice does each lyricist use? How low can a punk get? I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and following punk tradition, of their lyrics, mixed with analysis of contemporary cultural theory and a few additional 20th century texts. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column. We will engage in close readings of lyrics, song-titles and album titles, toward the microcosm of the album, and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades.]
The same record company woes whined about by the Sex Pistols are dealt with far more complexly by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, on their first album, the Clash. I like the American release, it furthers criticism of the U.S., but not in Rotten’s rude sexualized terms, but the U.S. as an ideology-pumping megastructure on a global scale.
Clash City Rockers seems a little pale today, but was hard rock at the time. And the critique is there, “don’t complain about your useless employment.” Mic Jones and Joe Strummer’s rhetorical voice is one of the most interesting and dynamic in all punk music. I’m so Bored with the USA follows second on the American release, “Yankee detectives are always on the T.V…. nevermind the stars and stripes lets watch the Watergate tapes.” This is a system of ideology under critique by Strummer. So called air-space, these programed networks– decentralized, which is a mercy– woke us up and put us to sleep from the 1950s to the 1990s.
On the American release, Remote Control and Complete Control are a textual suite, united even in their title theme of control, or lack there of. Remote Control, a Mic Jones song with Strummer interspersed: “can’t make a noise, can’t get no gear, can’t make no money, can’t get out of here. Big business it don’t like you… You got no money, so you got no power. They think you’re useless.” Youth Culture is deemed useless by the corporate entities, according to Jones. The interplay between the two lyricists is dynamic, as well, Jones repeating “repression,” while Strummer struts, “I am a robot.” Straight out of Elmer Rice and Charlie Chaplin, man as machine, not even, as a small part of a machine.
Complete Control completes the suite, turning the fiery critique on the record industry. To do so, Strummer speaks from the rhetorical voice of the corporate record label, “they said, it’s Remote Control, we really want it on the label.” Remote Control is a punk single, edgy, fiery, punchy, yet melodic, and the record company wants it, badly. Complete Control addresses the control corporate record executives executed over the marketable commodity of the record– the same control that butchered AC/DC’s original, Australian release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap. This was originally imagined as a punk-noir crime-narrative concept album– and the Australian release still captures this– though rare on the internet and unaffordable through the market economy. But the record executives over-simplified the narrative and meta-narrative structures for easy consumption by American and European audiences– unconscionable and needless fiddling, tantamount to painting over an artist’s completed canvas.
Later on in the album the Clash, Garage Band, Strummer complains of a corporate label businessman asking “if the group would wear suits,” like the then-hated the Beatles. I won’t go into the Beatles-lore, here, because in punk music the Rolling Stones blues rock was the preferred style of Rock’n’Roll over Lennon/McCarthy complex minstrelsy. But Strummer’s reference is to Brian Epstein, the Beatles Manager who dressed them in their iconic black suits. Punk rock would-a happened much earlier if not for Epstein’s suits– not a critique, on my part, the rhetorical voice of comment.
Racial unrest is used to empower, in Strummer’s White Riot. “Black people gotta lotta problems, but they’re not afraid to throw a brick… We walk the streets too chicken to even try it. Everybody’s doing just what they’re told, nobody wants to go to jail. White riot: I wanna riot… a riot of my own.” This is a simple approach to race relations: one of recognition of differences and mutual empowerment, an approach Robert McRuer calls speaking not for the otherized minority, or worst of all speaking to the otherized minority, “but with the other.” This will become a theme in the most radical of 90’s punk-rock lyrics, that the institutions that oppress and hog-herd the world are in no way representative of Western Youth Culture.
Next on the American release comes White Man in Hammersmith Palais. Nominally centered around a single London reggae concert, the song endorses, “white youth, black youth: better find another solution. Why not phone up Robin Hood, and ask him for some wealth distribution.” The concluding lyrics aimed at young punkers can be abstracted to the rest of society. “They’re all too busy fighting for a good place under the lighting… all over, people changing their colors, along with their overcoats, if Adolf Hitler was here today, they’d send a limousine anyway.” That is some harsh, Juvenalian satire, and a strong anti-Nazi message– important to all the bands I analyze.
London’s Burning opens the much discussed punk theme: how does one avoid boredom while still rejecting neo-Liberal Capitalism? “London’s burning with boredom, now.” And, for the first time in punk music, a solution is arrived at. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the night, than speeding around underneath the yellow lights.” So where exactly is Joe Strummer’s rhetorical voice here, is he sincere? His and Mic Jones’ voice is most often speaking from the voice of authority, with the voice of the despised authority figures: do’s and do nots. On London’s Burning, however, I argue he is occupying the rhetorical space of giving advice. Wander the streets if your bored, Strummer recommends, “all dressed like a creep.”
In Hate and War Jones makes his strongest commentary, and makes use of a subtler satire, Horatian Satire, aimed at the Sex Pistols. This subtle satire– a phrase I cannot use enough while I can– “I’m gonna stay in the city even when the house fall down. I don’t dream of a holiday when hate and war come around.” This is an imbedded reference to the Sex Pistols song, Holiday, which speaks of escape, albeit an escape to the Berlin Wall. But the two punk bands are allies, Jones does not condemn them, or protest them, simply poke fun at their lyrical limits.