53. The Clash – London’s Burning (1978)

Riots are by no means a regular occurrence in the UK (seriously: this is NOT something your parents should be worrying about over the holidays!), but I think it’s nevertheless reasonable to suggest that riots play a significant role in British politics, maybe even a productive role, a role that they clearly do not play in the US.

One big factor here, of course, is gun ownership. In the US, there are nearly 89 guns per 100 residents — that’s by far the highest gun ownership in the world. (Serbia comes a distant second at 58, Yemen third at 54.) In England and Wales, the number is just over 6 per 100, and so about 1/15th of what we find in the US. The NRA tells us that having more guns keeps us safer, but the numbers (and, well, common sense) suggest precisely the opposite. Published statistics suggest that you are 27 times more likely to be shot in the US than in the UK. In the riots this summer, riots which David Cameron maintains were primarily driven by gangs and thousands of other criminals and which did £200 million in damage, only one person was shot.

In any case, following these recent riots, the London School of Economics and the Guardian commissioned a massive study whose first results have been published over the past two weeks. You really should check out the Reading the Riots hub at the Guardian — and maybe especially this article about how a great many rioters insist they were focused primarily on defying the police, who had been using racial profiling and behaving like petty tyrants, and this article about the complicated role that race played in the riots. We’ll have lots to talk about in this respect in London, so please take some time over the holidays to explore the articles at the hub.

Back between 1978 and 1982, the Clash gave a lot of thought to the matter of riots. In this respect, they differ from both the Sex Pistols and the Jam. The Pistols definitely advocated violent revolution and anarchy, but I’m not sure I’d say they gave the matter a lot of thought — it was more a question of set-fires-now, find-new-ideas-sometime. The Jam, on the other hand, gave a lot of thought to these matters and offered some fantastic social critique, but they rejected the idea of violent revolution, wanting to fix the system from within rather than overthrowing it. In fact, they even threatened to vote Tory in 1979 as an act of defiance — a terrible idea that they spent years trying to live down.

The Clash, on the other hand, wanted revolution, they wanted it now, and they wanted it to be intelligent. They were especially interested in sifting through the politics of race and class and sorting out ways to coordinate the interests of the disenfranchised. (“White Riot” was an early stab at this — Strummer trying to make sure that riots in the UK were not limited to “race riots,” but were grounded in class revolution as well.) Racism continues to be a problem for progressive politics in the UK, creating divisions between dispossessed groups who would do much better off as allies than enemies: another theme for the course this year.

Anyways, that’s a whole lot of talk for a blog that supposedly gave up on the blahblahblah! So here’s the Clash with “London’s Burning.”

The Clash fans among you might object that this isn’t really a song about riots at all — it’s a song about Joe Strummer racing around town on speed, frustrated that everybody is inside watching TVs like zombies. In many ways, it’s a lot like “Street Fighting Man” in this respect, in that it’s a song about a revolution seething and fomenting beneath the surface, not a revolution already underway.

Check out how the chorus works masterfully through three steps: first we get “LONDON’S BURNING,” which seems pretty intense; but then we get the ironic twist “London’s burning with boredom,” which throws an underhanded punch; and then the last word opens it up all over again, “London’s burning with boredom… now.” Tomorrow, on the other hand, it might be burning with anger. Or even burning with police cars.

(And here, as elsewhere, Strummer proved to be prophetic: Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, and the riots began in earnest soon afterwards.)

Oh what the hell, here’s “White Riot” too, just for good measure.

Handsome devils


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