PRINT February 1986


The Clash find the sound of silence. Plus the 1985 Top Ten.

“LONDON’S BURNING WITH BOREDOM NOW!” So screamed Joe Strummer for the Clash in 1977; if the fire was inside whoever might respond, the punk project was to feed the fire into the open air. But that was a long time ago. “This Is England”—like the rest of the new Clash album, Cut the Crap (Epic)—seems to be set in a riot; not the idealized “White riot/Wanna riot of my own” Strummer was singing about in ’77, simply one of those white-on-black riots that are necessary anomalies in Margaret Thatcher’s New Britain. As the strict redivision of English society into capitalist and serving classes proceeds, it becomes plain that unemployment—“redundancy"—and disorder are not costs of this project, but linchpins. Under Thatcher, redundancy is not merely economic; it is social exclusion organized as spectacle. Those who are cut out of organized social life make up a third class, which is used to terrorize those who still retain their places into a thank-god-it’s-them-instead-of-me acquiescence, which is silence.

This is power as culture: a form of speech that has answered all questions in advance. Behind the Labour government of ’77, which administered What Is as a final social fact, punk could discover a negative: speaking, punk revealed welfare security as spiritual poverty With Thatcher, who administers What Could Be (you can have everything, she says, which means, you can lose everything), oppositional culture can only discover an affirmative. It can only agree, and agreement is silence. As the redundants riot, the ranter grabs the passing clerk by the collar and tells him the truth: “You could be next!” “Right, mate” says the clerk. “That’s why I’m keeping my nose clean. Hey, aren’t you Joe Strummer?” As public speech, both the riot and the Clash’s song have been contained before the fact.

The first Clash lp in three years, and the first since Strummer kicked out cofounder Mick Jones for alleged popstarism, Cut the Crap communicates as a queer sort of silence. It is a throwback: loud, rough, angry, funny. A hubbub of ambient street-sounds invades skimpy lyrics orchestrated by football-match chants driven by unforgiving guitars riding basic melodies over Strummer’s romantically bitter vocals. The music argues that nothing new has been said since 1977, and so to say what was said then is still to say something new The difference is that what could be heard then cannot be heard now—and speech that cannot be heard is silent.

Fast, loose, and under pressure, most of Cut the Crap rolls right over this contradiction, but a felt knowledge of it is absolutely present in “This Is England” The song exists to make the contradiction real, physical. Strummer searches for speech like a starving man digging in a garbage dump. He finds it: not an argument, exactly, but an insistence that the conversation he helped start in ’77 must go on. Like the music of that time, reduced to the primal rock ’n’ roll combination of guitars-bassdrums, this form of speech is reduced to its irreducible component: the will to speak. “This—is—England:’ Strummer sings over and over, into the silent riot, as a big, anonymous male chorus joins him. The social-fact referents he offers to give his claim meaning (random violence, official murder) fall away, sucked into the Thatcherist quiet; all that’s left is the emotion. ”This is England," the chorus says, and then it vanishes, and so to finish the line Strummer bears down so hard you barely notice he’s alone: “This is how we feel.” There is a hesitation in the second “this”—not a stutter, but a rip in the syllable, a furious, frightened pause between the “th” and the “is”—which carries the full weight of what Strummer is trying to say: carries it, and suspends it. That is the silence. As for the noise, following is the “Speaker to Speaker” Top Ten for 1985.

1. “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Foreigner (Atlantic). This band has been a hit machine for years, but it’s never produced anything like this slowly warming bath of passion. Lou Gramm starts out singing through his nose; when he’s joined by the gospel chorus of the New Jersey Mass Choir, the piece begins a climb to revelation. It’s not as conventional as it seems. The currently ubiquitous use of black backup by white stars speaks for a new, domestic colonialism: black people are hired merely to validate the soulfulness of their white employers. Money talks. But the way the choir supersedes Gramm, the way a woman steps out to shout, “Only love is real!”—doubt is water in your hands.

2. One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (RCA). More than one night would be too much to take.

3. Daddy Rock, Nolan Strong with the Diablos (Fortune). Doo wop from the mid ’50s to the early ’70s—and, with two acapella rehearsal tapes from the early ’60s (“Since I Fell for You” and “[So Long] Gee, I Hate to See You Go”), the apotheosis of a harmony style that by then was already obsolete. Today this sound makes the inspired vocal interplay of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” seem like mere craft.

4. “Nightshift,” the Commodores (Motown). A tribute to Jackie Wilson (1934–84) and Marvin Gaye (1939–84); smooth as 20-year-old whiskey, harsh as the last breath.

5. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” the Ramones (Beggars Banquet, UK). The New York punks who made their name with the likes of “Cretin Hop” here take on the Great Cretinizer himself, and with a disgust that bums the irony they made their name with into the comforting past. A special Least Valuable Player award (a copy of the Bill of Rights) to Seymour Stein, head of the Ramones’ American label, Sire, for his explanation of why he refused to release this record in the USA: “I’m not ready to give up my American citizenship” MVP: George Brett, leading a champagne-soaked locker room rendition of “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” after the Kansas City Royals won the American League pennant.

6. Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp (Riva/Polygram). He used to sing “If I only had a brain”; he doesn’t anymore.

7. “Born in East L.A.,” Cheech and Chong (MCA). Chicano Angeleno gets dumped over the border because he doesn’t have a Green Card—but (he sings in glorious Springsteen cadences) he don’t need no Green Card: “I was / BORN / In East L.A.!” It’s a joke—also a manifesto, and a tearjerker

8. “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley (Geffen). A lament for a discredited idealism hidden in you-used-to-love-me-and-now-you-don’t—but this is also a guitar record, and its truest moments come when Danny Kortchmar fingers a phrase into a mood so L.A.-lackadaisical he seems to be doodling, and then slams down with minor chords so mean they kick Henley’s vocal up to the level of the social statement he wrote his used-to-love-me words to make.

9. “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” Camper Van Beethoven (Independent Project). It isn’t clear whether the singer wants to introduce skinheads to an acceptable form of leisure or use their heads to knock down the pins; nevertheless, he puts this piece of lunacy across with all the sincerity of Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

10. “Money Talks,” Rubella Ballet (Ubiquitous, UK). Punk as a voice never received but always found: “In this co-rrupt so-ci-ety / The rich / Pay / To be free” To prove that she isn’t, one Zilla Minx draws on more freedom than she ever knew she had.

Greil Marcus music column appears monthly in Artforum.