30, 1976, in a turbulent and volatile section of London, a piece
of rock n' roll legend took place. Though the anniversary about
two weeks ago was insignificant to most in the mainstream press,
the events of that insufferably hot summer day were not just important
in their own right, but played a part in shaping one of rock music's
most influential bands, and helped re-establish the link between
popular culture and popular resistance.
been made in recent years of The Clash's immense influence on
both music and culture. Rightfully so.
attitude, combined with a streetwise wit and politically charged
lyrics, raised the bar for what was possible in punk rock, still
in its infancy in the mid-1970s. Billy Bragg summed it up in a
now-famous quote: 'were it not for The Clash, punk would have
been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.'
The Notting Hill Carnival, 30 years ago August 30, was where it
On the morning
of the 30, singer/guitarist Joe Strummer and bass player Paul
Simonon, exhausted and a bit demoralized from a disastrous gig
the night before, wandered with their manager Bernie Rhodes down
to Notting Hill for the annual Caribbean Carnival. At that time
The Clash were still a little known band that had yet to cut a
record and were struggling to get noticed.
Few outside of London and New York had any notion of what 'punk'
was. The charts were full of such acts as Queen and Elton John.
But the stale, overproduced sound of stadium rock had run its
course. Something was needed to inject some life back into rock
n' roll, and the first rumblings could be heard by anyone paying
close attention. On August 7, Melody Maker magazine gave four
skinny, foul-mouthed youths known as 'The Sex Pistols' their first
is interesting how people look
back on it as a black and white riot,'
video-maker Don Letts tells writer
Pat Gilbert. 'It wasn't. It was a
wrong and right riot. It wasn't the
black kids against the white police,
it was youth at a black festival
against the police. Don't forget this
is 1976 you are talking about,
a time when the country was in
a bit of a state, there are
To look at
Britain in the 1970s, one gets the feeling that the Pistols' refrain
of 'no future' wasn't far off. The economy was in a deep slump,
with inflation topping 20 per cent. In 1975 unemployment had passed
two million. And the so-called 'Labour Party' was not just neglecting
its working-class base, they were actively moving to crush it.
'Whereas the Tories had not dared to use troops to break the miners
strike [of 1973],' writes Chris Harman, 'Labour was able to use
them successfully against the refuse workers in Glasgow, traditionally
one of the most militant cities in Britain.'
were even worse for the black and immigrant communities such as
Notting Hill. This neighborhood was a far cry from the well-to-do
row-houses of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts that we know today.
In the mid-70s, it was an impoverished yet colorful world of reggae
parties and record stalls where recent black immigrants from the
Caribbean resided. Like most immigrants, they were shunned and
scapegoated by Her Majesty's Empire. Police harassment had become
a fact of life for black youth, and fascist groups such as the
British Movement and National Front were gaining more and more
of a hearing.
feeling was that Britannia was coming apart at the seams. Still,
Strummer and Simonon had no clue that the powder keg that they
were sitting on was about to blow that day.
They had wandered to the Notting Hill Carnival for the same most
had; to listen to some music, eat some food, and take in the vibrant
costumes and displays. But something else was to transpire that
day. The police presence was, of course, unnecessarily large,
and when a black youth was arrested for a supposed pickpocketing,
the community erupted. People threw bricks and bottles at the
cops, demanding the young man's release. When a line of riot police
assembled to confront them, they were simply met with more flying
debris. As things escalated, Paul and Joe jumped in.
in his Clash biography, Passion Is A Fashion, gives an excellent
account of the two young punks' actions during the riot: 'In the
commotion, Paul and Joe lost Bernie [Rhodes] under the Westway.
Simonon recalls with glee throwing bricks at the lines of police
and almost unseating a police motorcyclist... with a traffic cone.
As the riot exploded, Joe tried to set light to an upturned vehicle
but the matches he lit kept blowing out in the breeze.'
would write The Clash's
first single: 'White Riot.' Clocking in
at just under two minutes, the song
is a brash and loud call to arms.
Interestingly, the frank nature of the
first lyric, 'Black men got a lotta
problems / but they don't mind
throwing a brick,' would lead some
to mistake the song as racist, but
Strummer insisted he was only
generalizing, and the second lyric,
'White people go to school /
where they teach you how
to be thick,' made it clear that
this was a fight for white kids too...
later The Clash's video-maker and himself the son of Caribbean
immigrants, was also at the Carnival that day. A photograph of
him crossing the street in front of a line of cops right before
the riot is itself a piece of Clash history, as it was used for
the cover of the Black Market Clash compilation album. 'It is
interesting how people look back on it as a black and white riot,'
he tells Gilbert. 'It wasn't. It was a wrong and right riot. It
wasn't the black kids against the white police, it was youth at
a black festival against the police. Don't forget this is 1976
you are talking about, a time when the country was in a bit of
a state, there are no opportunities...'
Simonon and Strummer weren't just two kids looking to raise some
hell. They too had every reason to fight back against the cops.
Despite Joe's middle-class upbringing, his anti-authoritarian
streak had longed to take part in the 1968 uprisings as he watched
from afar. Now, after spending the past few years squatting and
busking in London's tube stations, being harassed by the cops
and watching black and Asians being pushed around to no end, he
finally had a chance to fight back.
who had grown up in the heavily Caribbean neighborhoods like Notting
Hill and Brixton, the scene of police harassment must have been
all too familiar to him as well. Paul had spent his teens hanging
out at reggae parties. His high school was described as 'a shit-hole.'
'You felt like you were dumped there until you got a job or signed
on the dole...' he says in Passion Is A Fashion. 'Most of the
pupils were black, Irish or Greek. Very few [English] white. But
there wasn't much racism as I can remember; everyone was in the
same boat. No one had anything.' For him and Joe both, lashing
out at the cops was just as much in defense of themselves as the
that the Notting Hill Riot would have on them and the rest of
the group would be profound. Taking manager Rhodes' encouragement
to 'write about what's happening,' Joe would write The Clash's
first single: 'White Riot.' Clocking in at just under two minutes,
the song is a brash and loud call to arms. Interestingly, the
frank nature of the first lyric, 'Black men got a lotta problems
/ but they don't mind throwing a brick,' would lead some to
mistake the song as racist, but Strummer insisted he was only
generalizing, and the second lyric, 'White people go to school
/ where they teach you how to be thick,' made it clear that
this was a fight for white kids too, against a common enemy:
'All the power in the hands / of the people rich enough to buy
it / while we walk the street / too chicken to even try it.'
would be released as The Clash's first single, and it became clear
that they had touched a nerve: 'White Riot' would reach number
38 on the UK charts.
wrote songs not just about
race and class, but consumerism,
war, police brutality and
sexual politics. They played shows
for anti-racist groups and benefits
for striking miners, organized
against far-right groups, and
made public their support for
liberation fighters in Angola.
They would decry the US' support
for Pinochet's coup in Chile in
songs like 'Washington Bullets,'
and pay tribute to the Spanish
workers' militias in 'Spanish Bombs.'
day on, The Clash's insistence on taking a stand became an integral
part of their music and image. If there was any mistaken notion
that punk was a soundtrack for 'rebels without a cause,' 'White
Riot' put it to rest. Over the next nine years, the group would
make it clear which side they stood on in the riot between 'right
songs not just about race and class, but consumerism, war, police
brutality and sexual politics. They played shows for anti-racist
groups and benefits for striking miners, organized against far-right
groups, and made public their support for liberation fighters
in Angola. They would decry the US' support for Pinochet's coup
in Chile in songs like 'Washington Bullets,' and pay tribute to
the Spanish workers' militias in 'Spanish Bombs.'
In the world
of MTV and Clear Channel, the concept of music reflecting the
outside world and urging us to take a stand seems far away. But
if the story of one of rock 'n' roll's most influential bands
can be so intimately tied with an event such as the Notting Hill
Riots 30 years ago, then we must sit up and take notice.
The legacy of The Clash is safe, and will never be forgotten.
But music, like history, doesn't simply exist to remember the
past. It exists to inspire the future. In a time of war, racism
and poverty, The Clash refused to sit on the sidelines. Today,
musicians, artists and activists alike can learn a great deal
Alexander Billet is a writer and activist living in Washington
DC. He has written and spoken on The Clash for several publications
and forums, including CounterPunch, Socialist Worker (US), Everensel
(Turkey), and Radio Free Adelaide (Australia). He is currently
working on a book tentatively titled The Kids Are Shouting Loud:
The Music and Politics of The Clash. He can be reached at [email protected].