The Clash’s “The Clash”

Cover for the The Clash's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Clash‘s 1977 self-titled debut album. I spent a week with their double-LP “London Calling,” making this the second time I’ve spent a week with one of the Clash’s albums for this project. I knew some of that one, but with this album I am very value.

My new group of friends in Athens, OH introduced me to punk rock in 1994; This one immediately caught my interest. I didn’t realize that this was the same band that did “Rock the Casbah,” a favorite song from my childhood. With a year, I bought this debut album and played it frequently. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth, as well as an album I’ve continued to love as an adult.

Janie Jones

The rocker “Janie Jones” opened the original UK LP release of the Clash’s debut album. The drums start the song with a rapid steady beat like a speeding train. Then Mick Jones’s sharp overdriven guitar cuts in with a burst of a single chord. Joe Strummer’s distinctive raspy vocals jump right into the chorus “He’s in love with rock n’ roll, whoa.” The guitar stabs with the same chord at the start of the next bar, “He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa.” And the same for the next two lines, “He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa. He don’t like his boring job, no.” And with those simple lines they probably embraced half of their audience. Then they repeat the chorus, this time joined by a simple, but energetic bassline.

This is not a complex song; Rather much of its success comes from it’s direct and simple approach. There’s only one chord to the chorus, with the guitar only providing a stab at the beginning of each bar and resting throughout. The verses follow a V-I-IV-V chord progression, with each chord lasting a full two bars. Topper Headon relentlessly beats a near consistent pattern, with basic fills at the end of every two bars. The instrumentation is sparse. We have the drums, bass guitar, a buzz-saw electric guitar, and vocals, but the Clash delivers plenty of energy and attitude that drives this song through its short 2 minute length.

Police & Thieves

In the middle of the second side, The Clash perform a cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” This is both the only cover song and the longest song on the album, at six minutes. Murvin’s song had been release just the previous year and The Clash frequently performed the song as a warm-up during recording sessions. Reggae had a big influence on punk rock, and especially the Clash. These 70s punks, like Joe Strummer and gang, would’ve spent their teenage years hearing songs like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker during the late 1960s. A teenager’s appreciation for reggae in England at the time would’ve been a rebellious act of opposition of the racism of older generations.

I love the interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’s guitars across the stereo field. One is panned hard left, the other hard right. Their overdriven short chord bursts go back and forth. First with one playing a chord that slides up to the next, then rests while the other bursts the chord in response. The bass plays a bouncy little riff at the beginning of each bar, preceded by a lead-in at at the end of the previous bar. All of these elements demonstrate how the Clash translated the sound and rhythms of reggae into their own music.

White Man in Hammersmith Palais

Since the first time I heard this album, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” stands consistently as my favorite Clash song. The melody and singing are outstanding, showing off Strummer’s excellent ability to mix sonorous melodic singing, reggae influence, and British punk attitude. The melody, backing harmonies, and lyrics grabbed me immediately as a teenager. It’s an epic song, aware of its scope. There’s reggae rhythms through out, little percussive taps and ticks. The guitars scratches and bursts chords on the upbeat. It’s an absolutely perfect and essential track.

I think the line that got me first was “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” in response to rock bands and corporations capitalizing on youth. In a later verse he sings “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway,” which I wonder may’ve been in partially in response to David Bowie’s comment the previous year that “Adolf Hitler one of the first rock stars.” WIth Bowie being a huge influence on the group and punk rock in general, that and other statements Bowie made about fascism may’ve been troubling for the punks.

Importantly, I think, Stummer acknowledges his own lack of credibility, “I’m the all-night drug-prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun. I’m the white man in the Palais, just looking for fun.”

Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”

Album cover for Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express

This week, I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk’s LP release “Trans-Europe Express” from 1977. I grew up with the electronic sounds of this group. My father had three Kraftwerk’s among his record collection. Their third album “Ralf und Florian” bored me and I only really liked the title track of their fifth album “Autobahn.” However, I enjoyed their fourth album “Radio-Activity,” listening to it frequently throughout my childhood and teen years. In rural Ohio, nobody I knew had heard of Kraftwerk. I was surprised to learn how important and influencial that had been. Most of this album is too mechanical and repetitive for me, but I did come to appreciate a few songs: mostly “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies.

The title presents the main theme of the album: a European railway service crossing the continent. Through that journey, Kraftwerk visit on other topics including reality vs illusion and celebrity. Much of the music suits the railway journey concept, having the mechanical rhythm of a train and long simple melodies and synth pads that imply long-distance travel and continuously scrolling landscapes. Unfortunately the title of the opening track “Europe Endless” feels all too appropriate, because I often felt that the songs were way too long.

Trans-Europe Express

The title track, “Trans-Europe Express,” travels for a full six and a half minutes and then continues seamlessly into the next track “Metal on Metal.” Thus started the second side of the original vinyl release. A synth percussion resembling something between a snare and a closed hi-hat open the song. A sine-effected short delay effect modulates this sound, which sounds like a phaser. This phase-effect suggests motion. Adding a kick sound and a bass-synth, we have the repetitive accompaniment that runs throughout the song. Orchestron strings play ascending chords. The recurrance suggests passing landmarks. It’s a triumphant motif that gets repeated ad nauseum.

Using a vocoder, Kraftwerk have the synthesizers chant: “Trans-Europe Express.” Again, this with ascending chords. We keep rising and rising and going nowhere. The strings play a melody, with very sparse accompaniment. Afrika Bambaataa sampled this melody and other elements of this album for their 1982 hip-hop classic “Planet Rock.” As with most of Kraftwerk’s melody lines, it’s simple and charming and becomes a motif of the song. Most of their works consist of a small set of two or four bar patterns that get layered in alternating combinations.

The Hall of Mirrors

I most enjoyed the track “The Hall of Mirrors” from side one. Without the on-going robotic rhythms heard throughout most of the album, this song feels warm and hauntingly human. I especially like the quietly echoed pulse-synth bass line combined with the reverb-rich percussion sound. The bass has a beautiful rich rounded sound. Each note of the bassline is played twice, and then echoed so that when the bass rests, it drifts off into the reflections. I believe that percussive sound is an organic sound, something like somebody slapping a show on the hallway floor with the mic far away to capture all of the reverb.

As we hear through much of the album, there is little to no chord progression. There is a hint of I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IV. Most of Kraftwerk’s accompaniment consists of a repeated pattern that stays within the same chord, or repeats a small set of chords in a way that defies the idea of a progression. They create the rhythmic version of a drone overwhich they alternate syth melodies and pads, with oft deadpan chanted vocals with occasional melodies. The lyrics here and chanted, like a sinister warning from beyond, of celebrity and illusion. About self-discover and human transformation.

Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass
Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass