The Clash – White Riot at 40

The Clash in 1977

The Clash in 1977

Celebrating the anniversary of a watershed song, Getintothis’ Paul Cook takes a look at The Clash’s politically charged debut single, White Riot.

This weekend one of the truly great singles of punk reaches its 40th birthday.

A little under two minutes of righteous anger, seething frustration and splenetic sloganeering committed to seven inches of life-changing, life-affirming vinyl.

White Riot was the debut single by The Clash – released on March 18th 1977 -and its appeal by frontman Joe Strummer for `a riot of my own’ still remains as vital and urgent as ever.

The Clash always sounded like they were broadcasting from some mythological front line. In 1977 I knew nothing of the Westway or Ladbroke Grove and the world The Clash inhabited, but the fire and energy of White Riot came along at the time when my eyes and ears were being opened to something other than my parents’ record collection.

I was aware of the release of New Rose by The Damned and the Pistols’ growing notoriety, but it was White Riot and The Clash’s debut album that followed soon after which brought the whole punk explosion home.

This was something wildly exciting. The music, the clothes and the attitude – how could an impressionable young lad fail to be won over?

The politics, I must admit, weren’t the first thing I grabbed on to, but even at this early stage Strummer was nailing his colours to the mast – even if in the case of White Riot, he was initially misunderstood at a time of fervent right-wing National Front activity.

Strummer and The Clash’s support for Rock Against Racism, however, would banish any thoughts that the song was in any way aimed at a nationalist audience.

It was written as a response to Strummer, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, plus their manager Bernie Rhodes, being caught up in the Notting Hill riot of 1976 at the end of the hottest summer on record.

Tensions in West London’s black community were already high due to the police’s use of stop and search laws and 3,000 police officers were sent to the carnival – ten times the number usually allocated to it and a figure seen as a provocative move.

The flashpoint – according to reports – came when police attempted to arrest an alleged pickpocket and black youths tried to intervene, prompting a disturbance which lasted for hours.

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Strummer was impressed by the direct action and sent out a musical calling card to white youths to do the same. It pinned down the restlessness and desire for change amongst young people coming to the end of a blighted decade.

The single was a signpost to what was to come on their debut album but not how their career would go on to develop.

Punk, in reality, was over almost as soon as it had begun and, to me, the much more interesting bands of the New Wave emerged in its stead, but The Clash were able to step away from the smouldering ashes of a movement which flared brilliantly before burning out.

They found a way to incorporate reggae, dub, rockabilly, rap and more into albums as diverse as the six sides of Sandinista and the straight-up classic London Calling.

Seeing them at the Royal Court remains the highlight of my gig-going years in the city. The encores just seemed to be one long blast of 1-2-3-4 followed by Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones and Simonon up front, feet on the monitors, hammering out classic after classic.

It probably wasn’t exactly like that but it’s how I’ll remember them.

I started by asserting White Riot’s claim to be one of British punk’s truly great singles – and to be honest I should have gone further. It’s one of British rock music’s greatest singles.

Oddly I don’t think it’s The Clash’s finest moment, but what it is and what it represents are far more important than the musicianship or songwriting on display.

It was a challenging opening salvo. A call to arms that had thousands thinking differently and believing in something.

`All the power’s in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it’

As relevant now as it was then.