I'll never forget the first time I heard The Clash: I was 13, and had just acquired a copy of the double-cassette "The Story of the Clash" collection through ill-gotten means. This was the first song on the tape, and, nostalgia notwithstanding, it was life-changing. The beauty and understated brilliance of the music; Joe's terse lyrical elegance; and the ability to look reality in the face. It's a melancholic assessment of the (lack of) hopes for the Left at the very beginning of the Capitalist Counteroffensive of the Thatcher/Reagan years, in a first-person narrative of dashed expectations, and the desire to find a bit of fun in the ashes. All the hopes, failures, and gut instincts gone awry that constitute most of the Left's recent history are on abundant display here.
On the second Clash track I'm showcasing, we flash forward to the mid-80s, to what one historian called the "starless midnight of the left." "This is England" is the last great Clash song, recorded when they hardly even qualified as a band. Strummer & Simonon were the only original members left. By most accounts it was Bernie Rhodes, their first manager, who "created" most of the album it's taken from, scrapping Strummer's versions of songs and recording his own.
The razor-sharp, mechanical quality of the tune is repellant at first. Slowly, though, Joe's bitter, deadened voice emerges from the steel gloom. After a few listens, you realize that the automated soullessness of the track is essential to its beauty. As the glistening machinery slices through verse/chorus, it creates a panorama of smashed communities and ugly, vicious reaction triumphant and gloating. This is the sound of defeat, a defeat without dignity. It's the sound of a boot stomping on a face over and over, sneering and laughing while doing so. If "White Man...." commemorates the failure of one more attempt at rallying the resistance, "This is...." describes a world in which, as Thatcher loved to insist, "there is no alternative." Things are bleak right now, just as they were then, and we need music like this, and don't have it. RIP, Joe.