Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Except for the reign of the truncheon thing": The Clash, The Brit-Asian, and the Taxi

Harraj Mann was arrested for five hours in Durham, England because he asked his taxi driver to play The Clash's "London Calling" on the way to the airport (via Saheli at Sepia Mutiny News).

My first thought: so maybe the Americans aren't the only hysterical ones after all.

My second thought is to offer the lyrics of "London Calling" in solidarity with Harraj Mann and all the other brown punk rockers out there:

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared - and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don't look to us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
'Cept for the reign of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
Cause London is burning and I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, you can go at it alone
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out - and draw another breath
London calling - and I don't wanna shout
But while we were talking I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain't got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eyes

The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

Now get this
London calling, yes, I was there, too
An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!
London calling at the top of the dial
And after all this, won't you give me a smile?
London Calling

I never felt so much alike, like-a, like-a...

I've asked this question before, but does anyone know what this song is specifically about? I've never quite been able to put my finger on it. There is certainly a general theme of apocalypse, as well as defiance in the face of imminent fascism. Both themes seem to suit Britain circa 1979, an era of the rise of skinheads and the National Front as well as of course Margaret Thatcher, who was not a fascist, though she probably seemed like one if your were eighteen, unemployed, or brown-skinned. It's also not long before the Brixton riots.

But there are some puzzling lines in the song. For instance, what about the "zombies of death"? Is that a reference to drug use (connected to "and we aint got no highs"?) or merely a horror film flight of fancy?

And there are also references to musical fashion -- "phoney beatlemania" in the first verse and "London calling at the top of the dial" at the end -- suggesting that the song might be just a punk manifesto, an assertion of a youth culture stylistic credo. In that sense it reminds me a little of the Nation Of Ulysses, and "N-Sub Ulysses": "Who's got the real anti-parent culture sound"?

Perhaps "London Calling" is just a general smorgasbord of defiance, with no particular thematic unity. Still, I invite any and all interpretations -- come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.


Tom Kim said...

I've always thought it was general punk backlash against Reagan-Thatcher cultural conservatism.

I'm not sure if "phoney Beatlemania" or "zombies of death" has any specific references beyond intense antipathy to the apathy and hegemonic materialism of the time.

10:38 PM  

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