The Clash & Misappropriation of Songs

The other night I saw a Nissan commercial that featured the song “Summer Nights” from the movie Grease. The words were re-written to promote an end of the model year close out sale. I called Barb’s attention to the ad and commented that I found it rather ironic that Japanese automobile manufacturer would utilize an almost archetypal American song in their commercial.

Barb replied, as she so often does, “No one pays anywhere near the attention to commercials the way you do.”

My wife may well be correct about my often-obsessive deconstruction of advertising, but the Nissan commercial did get me thinking about the misappropriation of music/songs and, in particular, it started me thinking about Joe Strummer and The Clash.

Before I get to that story, however, I need to tell you about my father’s day present from Andrew.

I drive a PT Cruiser that I ordered in January of 2000 and received in mid-July of the same year. The car I ordered featured a radio with a cassette tape player since, at the time, I didn’t own many CDs. Obviously, over the years, this changed but my car remained behind the times with its cassette player.

So, for father’s day this year, Andrew replaced my existing radio/tape deck with a radio/cd/mp3 system. It took some work on his part: the initial unit he tried to install would not mount securely and after a few weeks of it just resting in my dashboard Andrew surprised me by purchasing and installing a brand new unit. So now when I am driving around running errands or going to see Pulse advertisers I am happily listening to my music.

One more thing you should know is that I tend to listen to music the same way I watch commercials on television. I also prefer to listen to albums. Granted this term is rather archaic, but artists still release a collection of music, whether it is on vinyl or digital. So when I listen to a particular recording artist, I prefer to listen to their entire release. Think of it this way: when I read a novel I read the whole novel and, if I go back to re-read the novel, I read the whole novel. I recognize that an analogy between a novel and a record album is imperfect. Some albums are just collections of songs, and the music can easily be parsed out into individual songs. I don’t buy or own any of those albums.

And that leads me to Joe Strummer and The Clash.

For the past several weeks as you have seen me driving around the county, I have been listening to (and re-listening to) The Clash’s albums London Burning and the double album set, Sandinista! (the first disk of Sandinista! is my favorite recording by the band – over even London Calling which is considered by critics to be one of the top 100 rock albums of all time).

The Clash was a punk band that debuted on July 4, 1976 as one of the opening acts for a Sex Pistols gig in Sheffield, England. The principal members of the band during their years together were Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes, and Nicky “Topper” Headon. Strummer was the band’s front man, singing vocals on the majority of their songs, and was the driving force behind their lyrics and compositions. Strummer’s originally went by “Woody” Mellor but changes his name to Joe Strummer – a rather self-deprecating reference to his ukulele strumming as a street performer in London – before the band formed.

It is important to note that The Clash’s style was far removed from what many of you may commonly think of when you hear the term punk band. No doubt many of you conjure images of mosh pits, screaming, virtually unintelligible lyrics, and three chords played as loud as amplifiers would allow. The Clash, however, quickly developed a rich sound that embraced and employed numerous musical styles. They were one of the first bands to incorporate the Ska (the precursor to Reggae) sound and rhythm into their songs and, later Reggae beats and rhythms (they even worked with legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry who worked with The Wailers and Bob Marley).

What made The Clash punk were their lyrics: more often than not fiercely political at a time when political/current event songs were far from the norm. Indeed, the band was once resoundingly booed when they served as the opening act at a Who concert. Strummer was once asked about the source of his lyrics and he replied, simply, that he read the daily papers.

And all of this brings me back to my original theme: the misappropriation of the songs for other purposes.

The Clash’s biggest hit in the United States was the song “Rock the Casbah,” which hit number 8 on the American chart in 1982. The song appeared, interestingly enough, on the album Combat Rock – a mix of sound collages and offbeat music that even included a spoken word song featuring Beat poet Allen Ginsberg – the band’s most successful album.

Headon, who played percussion, bass, and piano on the recorded version, composed the music for “Casbah.” Strummer, of course, provided the lyrics, which referenced the Iranian crackdown on imports of Western music over Headon’s bouncy, dance-style music.

In 1991, after The Clash had broken up, an interviewer asked Strummer what he thought of American bomber pilots using “Rock the Casbah” as a slogan and theme song during the Gulf War. Ignorant until then of this misappropriation of The Clash’s song, Strummer burst into tears.

Strummer died suddenly of a congenital heart defect on December 22, 2002 – three months before The Clash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

During their hey-day, The Clash was widely known as “The Only Band That Matters” and while those ardent fans of The Grateful Dead may disagree (and I would be quick to disagree, noting instead The Talking Heads), there is no doubt that The Clash has been one of the most influential bands in the past 40 years.