This is the last of the songs that got shoved in after the list was finalized. I don’t remember which song was removed, but I do remember quite well why I suddenly remembered “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.” I was looking for something else and came across a list of the top ten Clash songs. I was reading them aloud to Pete and when #2 was “London Calling” (a song I personally think is great but isn’t their best so is technically overrated, though it pains me to have typed that), I could feel the adrenaline rush with the mystery of what could possibly #1 when the perennial #1 Clash song wasn’t “London Calling.” What could it be?! It was “WMIHP”* and Pete, who has always sort of favored** “White Riot” agreed with me immediately that “WMIHP” is a fair and just and perhaps even correct. This was after I’d finalized my list and had to do some shuffling.
*I don’t like abbreviating song titles and prefer to just shorten them by using the first one or two words in quotes. You know, enough to safely identify them? Like in the case of “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” I can shorten it to “I Believe” in the text of the post because you probably know what I mean. In this case though, “(White Man)” is so laughably awkward, I cannot do that, so I will abbreviate.
**He favored it initially, and I think refuses to take sides in this battle of the ages now. He’s also gone from being a S/T man to a Sandinista! man, so who really knows where his head’s at now? I’d like to think it will end up being “The Sound of Sinners” because it is a great song, he’s mentioned it’s “one of [his] favorites,” and that’s nobody’s answer.
This is also the third and final Clash song on the list (“Safe European Home” came in at #88 and “The Card Cheat” at #46). The Clash did quite well for themselves. Only one other artist has three songs on the list. Several have two. I’m excited to share statistics about this list nobody else will care about but me when all is said and done. This doesn’t really mean that the Clash is my second-favorite musical artist, but they’re close. After numbers 1 and 2, it gets muddy and the order shifts significantly.
How does one even evaluate the Clash? Their relevance is beyond their music but there’s also their music. They have three perfect albums, one profoundly compelling if flawed, one pretty-good, and a final album we must not speak of barely considered a Clash album. They are classified as punk but upon first listen, the majority of their catalog is shockingly un-punk. They blazed the trail for that conscious cross-genre trend I came of age with, so pervasive in the 90s, OF COURSE. But they were also not afraid of being mellow, poppy and even orchestral during an era when their young primary genre was still defining itself. Their best-known song “Rock the Casbah” sounded like straight-up 80s pop to me the first time I heard it. It almost sounded cheesy to me. I was shocked, as a listener in the mid-90s when there were so many goddamned rules in punk rock, that a band that defined the launch of the genre got out of their lane so often. And I hadn’t gotten anywhere NEAR Sandinista! yet.
Their staying power is very likely because of the aggressive experimentation with which they succeeded most of the time. Where the Sex Pistols kind of quickly became a joke the Clash is still widely if not universally treated with the reverence they earned by being amazing. I think a debt is also owed to their just being really good guys. I’ve posted before about how Joe Strummer, even posthumously, is a huge source of comfort for me. His Mescaleros albums in particular, but the Clash is good medicine when you’re feeling vulnerable, too. I’ve already mentioned “The Sound of Sinners.” One of the reasons Pete and I like this fairly obscure track so much is because of the humility. For someone who seemed to have it all figured out, the fact that Joe Strummer was still bothered by the mere existence of Christianity, feeling that he didn’t live up to its standards despite walking away from it is just, well, nice. In my post about “Safe European Home,” I raised this concept as well, where during their first trip to Jamaica they were frankly terrified by local aggression towards foreign tourists. They were consistently cool with admitting they couldn’t hang on opposite ends of the spectrum.
“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” is thematically--not like the others mentioned, but I find it musically very comforting. It was probably one of the first Clash songs I ever heard. I’ve mentioned my history with reggae/ska, and to please me, Pete would favor the reggae/ska-influenced tracks by the Clash on the early mixtapes he made for me. This one is the first track on the second disc on the collection The Story of the Clash,* which included the first recordings I had from them. I was immediately taken by it. Musically, it’s both sad and angry, but at the same time it’s bouncy and catchy, thanks to that ska-inspired backbeat. The backing vocals are pretty much only Mick Jones’ oooh oooh oooh-ing and ahhh-ing during key sections of the verses. I’ve always really loved Mick’s voice and these harmonies are quite honestly--beautiful.
*The Story of the Clash, unlike Descendents’ Somery is not a good collection. It’s in a weird order and some of the song choices are questionable. It was--back when CDs were a thing--a two-CD set and my copy was one of those connected, double-wide cases. I hate those cases. Luckily for history since, there are a ton of other collections to choose from that present the Clash’s works in a logical order and come in reasonable packaging, if any packaging at all.
Pete and I were talking recently about how the Clash were excellent lyricists. I think the true art of writing lyrics involves having an accessible manifest theme, but including complex, anecdotal, or even personal subtext to make the song itself more meaningful to the artist. The latter also provides the listener a prize if they’re able to untangle this more subtle meaning to the music. “The Card Cheat” is both about the human habit of repeating the same mistakes AND about the immorality of British-empire colonialism. I have been grooving to “WMIHP” for 25 years and always read it as a cool-guy’s lament. A put-down to poseurs trying to cop on Joe’s juice as a punk rock pioneer (he did this again later* in “All the Young Punks [New Boots and Contracts]”).
*I’m not sure it was later. “WMIHP” has a complicated release history I’ll get into shortly.
While preparing for this post, I read the verse-by-verse breakdown on what inspired all this bellyaching. In the first couple of verses, Joe describes an all-night live-music reggae party he attended with artists performing in London “for the first time from Jamaica.” Excited to hear what they had to say to stir up the almost-all-Black audience: “If they have anything to say, many Black ears’r here to listen.” But then, he describes the style-over-substance performance they gave, identifying the oppressive context of the time/place, with the British army on hand for crowd control and, seemingly out of nowhere, the need for greater wealth distribution. THEN, he picks on the Jam* for again favoring style over substance, perhaps even holding newer, punk-influenced British groups for rubbing off on the Jamaican reggae artists, or perhaps even identifying it as an easy trap for fundamentally rebellious musical artists to fall into? Finally, almost at the very end, he gives us the ultimate verse, everyone on earth’s favorite:
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They'd send a limousine anyway
IS THERE ANY MORE DEPRESSINGLY EVERGREEN VERSE THAN THIS?! You’d think that if you’d go back and tell Joe Strummer that in the US in 2020 we’d be far more likely to send a limousine to get Adolf Hitler than we were in 1978, it probably would have killed him. Ugh, we’ve failed Joe Strummer and I feel so bad about that. Joe concludes by declaring himself the white man in the Palais, as he was one of a tiny handful of non-Black audience members for that reggae show, saying he’s “only looking for fun,” bitingly sarcastic and fucking depressing as hell.
*The Jam, whose “Going Underground” was supposed to appear fairly high on this list but the day it popped up, I really didn’t feel like writing about politics, so I swapped it out.
This track initially appeared on the US delayed-release version of the self-titled, first album, but was recorded during the Give Em Enough Rope sessions, which makes total sense. The first album is super strong, but they hadn’t gotten stylistically experimental to that point. It also makes sense that my favorite Clash song was recorded along with my favorite Clash album.
This song is so good. I listened to it while writing this up and got really distracted because I wanted to stop writing and focus on it. As I mentioned, I’ve loved this song for a really long time and its shine does not wear off. Re-reviewing the top 17 songs, I fell in love with many of them in college and shortly thereafter, but this is the song I have loved the hardest for longest, and it’s making me rethink the order (AGAIN), and that this should have been placed higher, but the Clash have so much real estate on this list, I will live with “WMIHP” at #18.