“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.”
Joe Strummer and Mick Jones wrote the Clash’s anarchist anthem 32 years ago because, as Strummer said, “We felt that we were struggling… about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails… and there was no one there to help us.” “London Calling”– both the album and the song were instantly hailed as masterpieces and perfectly captured the disaffected youth of the day– in both England and anywhere else for that matter. The album’s themes were decidedly “punk rock”: social displacement, unemployment, racial unrest, drug use and the oncoming responsibilities of adulthood.
For me, and I imagine for many of my generation, the cover of the album– Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on stage at the Palladium in New York City– became the first image to pop into my head when I heard the term “punk rock”. The picture seemed to capture what a thousand words, or a hundred songs were trying to– it screamed, “I hate you, I hate me, I hate everything…. breaking shit is fun and fucking piss-off world.”
There’s been a helluva lot of guitar smashing in England over the last four days.
So what the hell happened? And why?
Well, you could probably start on a beautiful spring day in April when a young man who’s never, ever felt like he was grasping to hang on with his fingernails, married a gorgeous young woman named Kate at Westminster Abbey. Prince William is the heir to the throne held by Queen Elizabeth, who has held her role as Constitutional Monarch for going on sixty years. Q-E has has earned and held this lofty status for so long because…. um, because she was born and is seemingly never going to die. Privilege is privilege is privilege and we’re going to spend a good two months shoving that down the world’s throat.
On July 9 the British tabloid “News of the World” signed off for good with the banner headline, “THANK YOU & GOODBYE”. After all of the phone-hacking, gossip-mongering and shit-spewing that had been unearthed from Rupert Murdoch’s billions-fueled media mess, most of England and the world thought in reply, “FUCK OFF AND NEVER COME BACK”.
Murdoch appeared embarrassed by the whole fiasco, but his media empire (most notably Fox News in the U.S.) couldn’t help but be hit with some collateral damage. Those who wanted to hate Murdoch and his right-wing warriors were presented with a target the size of England itself. “You fuck-nuts think you can just do or say anything about anyone with seemingly no moral boundries? WTF????”
On Thursday, August 4th, officers of the Metropolitan Police Service (London police), stopped a minicab that was carrying 29-year old Mark Duggan, a father of four with reported ties to London gangs. (Duggan was a black man who looked a lot like Spurs point guard Tony Parker.) Duggan was killed with a single bullet to the chest. Police say Duggan had fired a gun as well, but the only bullet casings in the cab, or nearby, were from police issued guns.
On Saturday, August 6th about 200 folks, including Duggan’s relatives and local residents, marched in Tottenham in what was to be a peaceful protest around the circumstances of his death. After waiting nearly 3 hours for any official police answers surrounding the shooting, many in the swelling crowd began to get violent and the scene quickly descended into rioting.
Paul Simonon had smashed that fucking guitar into a million pieces all over the stage.
That volatile and tiny fuse that is youth in revolt had been lit with a giant blowtorch. One of the greatest punk rock songs ever written was also one of the simplest– the Replacements “Unsatisfied”. The under-privileged, under-educated, under-fed, unwashed underbelly of England were hitting the streets screaming out in Paul Westerberg’s anguished howl, “look me in the eye and tell me… am I satisfied? Are you satisfied? I’m so, I’M SO…. UNSATISFIED”
In short, all hell broke loose.
Gangs of mayhem-bent teenagers and young adults filled the streets of London and many surrounding towns all over England, setting fires, looting stores, attacking police and generally running roughshod over any sort of rules and regulations. Shops that weren’t ransacked were quickly shuttered by their terrified owners as the mayhem spread from the poorest areas of East London to the posh Notting Hill area. For three nights, from Saturday through Monday, dusk and the dark night-time hours brought on a frightening battle zone mentality where police were simply no match for the young and feisty. The rioting took on a decidedly social media age feel– texting, IMing and twitter were being used to coordinate attacks and stay ahead of the police at every turn.
As these things go, public outcry quickly became political debate. A retired social worker was quoted as saying, “the problem is that in this country we live in extremes of rich and poor. We need to live in the middle, like they do in Scandinavia.” Marilyn Moseley, a 49-year old Brixton resident had a simpler explanation, “joblessness is not to blame… it’s just an excuse for the young ones to come and rob shops.”
Obviously the reasons are endless and the solutions are for societies far more advanced than ours…. alienation, anger, boredom and mischief often lead to uprising.
Amy Winehouse, the London born singer who died at age 27 on July 23rd, is probably sorry she missed out on this– being cut from the same cloth as The Clash. Winehouse hit the world stage with 2006’s “Back to Black” album, but it’s a song from her 2003 album “Frank” where she could have been talking to England’s youth of today.
From “Help Yourself”:
“When I walk in your shoes… I understand a man confused…. There must have been, but I don’t care… I feel the way your soul does there. Darling they empathize…. looking through your bloodshot eyes… and I know you, you’re so frustrated. Above we all become what we once hated…. be slight, nobody can be that wise.”
Where there’s rich there will be poor, when there’s haves there will be have-nots, where there’s Queens and Princes living in palaces, there will be the scrubby and unshined living in the streets. When there are those that are happy, it seems there will always be those who are unhappy.
But what is it that can make the unhappy feel good?
Well we don’t need Socrates or Plato for that question– we’ll leave it to the London AP:
“This is the uprising of the working class! We’re re-distributing the wealth”, said Bryn Phillips, a 28-year old self described anarchist— as young people emerged from a looted convenience store behind him carrying chocolate bars and ice cream cones.
As Joe Strummer wails through “London Calling”, the apocolyptic, political rant of it’s time, (which Rolling Stone voted the 15th best song of all-time)…. he ends the song with a wink, singing, “after all of this, won’t you give me a smile?”…. and then it fades out with him singing, “I never felt so much alike…alike…alike”
Chocolate bars and ice cream cones.