Chicago writer Jim DeRogatis has sound opinions – literally, he co-hosts a syndicated music talk show called Sound Opinions. In his years covering music, he's written books on everyone from The Flaming Lips and The Velvet Underground to Lester Bangs. With his robust music expertise, it only made sense to pick Derogatis' brain on The Clash.
INTERVIEW BY OWEN MURPHY
TRANSCRIPTION BY EMILY HARROP
KEXP: There's so many places to start with the band The Clash. And it's hard to know where to start, but I'll start here. In 2010 I saw online that Sound Opinions dissected London Calling. What did you learn about that album and the band in the process of that?
Jim DeRogatis: You know I think the thing that stands out for me always when I go back to London Calling is just the explosion of energy and creativity. This is a group that is at the peak of its powers. It has so much to say. It's not afraid to go in any direction, in reggae, in American roots music, in punk, you know they haven't turned their back on punk. They never would. They have a lot to say in terms of the lyrical messages, they have a lot to say in terms of the musical exploration, and it's just beginning to end, brilliant. Which is rare on a double album to sustain that energy and that vision. And I don't think they do it on Sandinista. I think that's kind of a rambling mess but London Calling is pretty much a perfect double album.
What do you think fueled that?
Derogatis: I think that's their American album. I mean they'd come to the United States and worked with an American producer, Sandy Perlman, for Give 'em Enough Rope, but they were just barely getting to know America. I think by the time they make London Calling they've spent more time here and really come to understand the American ethos and this music that they've grown up loving, where it came from. And I think between Jones and Strummer, two great songwriters, and spurring each other on, there's a little bit of competition, but also a deep love. And the times. It was also the times. There's a lot to kick back against, it can't be underestimated. Reagan, Thatcher, America, the world is turning conservative and that's not where their heads were at.
Right. Do you remember where you were the first time you heard the clash?
I was really young. I snuck into the famous New York Bonds residency. Bonds was a former men's clothing store in Times Square. So I got to see The Clash at Bonds and it was pretty amazing. I got to see them on the pier too. I forget what street, but there was a theater for a while, an outdoor venue on the Hudson River waterfront on the west side and I saw them there. But I was real precocious. I was like 15 or 16, sneaking in with my older cousin who turned me on to The Clash. And I came in at London Calling and I had to go backward. Especially with the weird way that first album - which is my favorite - Absolutely. I loved the first album. It wasn't released until after the second album in the US. There was so little interest on the part of CBS International in this band they thought it was strictly an English thing. The Americans will never like it. And so that first album came out and then it came out in a watered down version. It was like the Beatles again, or The Stones in the mid 60s. And it's like, "What are you doing?" This record is vital! Important!
Why is it your favorite?
Because of the energy. The energy and the songs, my god! Career Opportunities! Here's this Englishman, and it's a very English song, you know, "Career opportunities, the one that never knock. Every job they offer is to keep you off the dole." What's the dole? I don't know! I'm growning up in Jersey City, man. What's the dole? You know, "You want to make tea for the BBC, I hate the army, they hate the RAF." I'm like a big history buff. Oh yeah. RAF. Battle of Britain, right? But you know it's very English, but in another way it is completely - I teach at Columbia College, Chicago. I had 300 freshmen in two big lecture courses in the fall semester. You know they relate to that song. "Career opportunities, the one that never knock." They're not sure. They're getting out of college with a lot of student debt. They're not sure they've got a job waiting, much less a career. And Janie Jones. I think the greatest song ever written in the history of rock n roll is Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. The joy and exuberance of this young woman pogoing in place to the Ramones. But the second greatest is Janie Jones. I like to think that Sheena's cousin from across the pond is Janie Jones. And every song, just every song on that first album is just an explosion. And they're a punk band in the way that The Ramones were or the Sex Pistols, but there's a complexity. Listen to Career Opportunities and the way that odd breakdown, that syncopated pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop and it only happens like three times in the song, and it comes in unexpected places. And then there's that weird kind of almost pseudo reggae before they would really explore that genre on London Calling. There's this weird kind of almost reggae beat. There's a real complexity in the arrangements of what the Clash are doing.
In doing these conversations for International Clash Day I have spoken a lot of interesting folks. For example, Moby, or Mike Scott of The Waterboys. And inevitably, or surprisingly, to me in every single one of these conversations when I ask, "Did you ever interact with the band?" Those who interacted with Joe Strummer were just, I don't know, taken aback's not the right way of saying it, but they were maybe surprised what a warm, genuine, interesting, gregarious, energetic fellow he was. So my question to you is did you ever interact with the band in any way, shape, or form?
I never got to interview Strummer. I interviewed Jones circa Big Audio Dynamite. And I certainly spent a lot of time looking at The Clash. I wrote a biography of the great rock critic Lester Bangs in 2000, "Let It Blurt". And I'm proud to say, 17 years later, it is still published in eight different languages. It still sells well. There's a play that just ran at Steppenwolf this summer, and at the Public Theater in New York in January.
Thank you! And the centerpiece of my book, and of this play "How to Be a Rock Critic" is Lester's epic feature on The Clash. Bangs goes to the UK, under the aegis of CBS International, to go on the road with The Clash for several weeks. It runs as a 40,000 - 50,000 word two-part piece over two issues of the NME. And he initially thinks this is the greatest band ever, that he's ever seen. The sense of community. They let the fans sleep on their hotel room floors. And then there's this food fight. And one young fan, a 16 year-old kid named Martin, is sort of brutalized. The roadies begin picking on him and beating him up. And The Clash don't do anything. And Lester holds this as, "The Clash, I thought they were different. I thought this is the community I've been agitating for my whole life, and yet they're just like Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin. They don't care." But the thing is, that kid started a band. That kids started a band because of The Clash. And, you know, artists are human beings. And people talk about the charisma of Strummer. They spent a lot of time in New York, so Lester Bangs, and Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches, and Billy Altman - those New York critics - were drinking and partying with The Clash. There was a Lower East Side bar called The Bells of Hell. And at the Bells of Hell they met Sandy Perlman, who would produce the second album, and they got drunk with the rock critics, and this other group of ne'er-do-wells from uptown who were part of a new show called Saturday Night Live. So I interviewed all those people from my Bangs book and they were all talking about that period of interaction with The Clash. And I think, you know, look, rock stars are rock stars. And there is apparently something that was special and very charismatic about Strummer, but at the end of the day he also was an artist and he has his agenda. He's making his music and he's trying to build a career - career opportunity - out of it. What endures is the art and the fact that we can still listen to those Clash records today, and be inspired by them, and want to go start a band. We're at this #metoo movement moment. We are at the Black Lives Matter movement. We're at a moment where students in history are wondering, "Is this 1938 in Germany?" in terms of the future of our democracy. And man, The Clash we're talking about that in '77, '78, '79, '80.
You know, I was going to ask you that. The band had obviously strong beliefs regarding social justice and racial justice. And this is an odd political climate right now, so I'm going to kind of flip it around, and if this is a weird question and you don't want to answer, don't worry about it. I'm curious, in terms of those types of things, what's important to you?
For me: respecting each other, whether we are men, or women, or gay, or straight, or gender nonbinary. Loving and respecting one another, not to sound like a hippie, and also preserving this fragile thing called democracy, where everyone has a voice and the system isn't rigged. Those are the things that are keeping me up at night right now. And The Clash we're talking about them. Despite the specificity of those nods at Margaret Thatcher and all this stuff that I didn't understand then and still don't now. I don't get English culture, for God's sake. But the anger, and the general - it comes through. Especially strange given Strummer was a diplomat's son. I mean he was upper middle class. Not as bad as Mick Jagger. London School of Economics. But he didn't have to care as deeply as he did about socialism, social medicine, and povert,y and these issues of society. I mean, Jesus Christ! Can't you just imagine Bernie Sanders and Joe Strummer sitting and talking for six hours?
Wouldn't that be nice? So you're a drummer as well. What inspired you? Was it the music and message of punk rock? Was it something else that inspired you to pick up sticks and play?
Yeah it was the energy of punk rock and the fact that you didn't really have to know how to play. You know, I can mimic Tommy Ramone and Marky Ramone much easier. I will tell you, The Clash, even Career Opportunities, even on that first album, that's tricky. So this play "How to Be a Rock Critic" with Lester Bangs, the centerpiece of it is that Clash piece that he wrote, and the dialogue from the play is based on his writing. So my band got to play as the second act after this one act play and we covered Career Opportunities. Man, I had to rehearse! I don't like to rehearse! I'm a punk! I had a hard time learning that song. Almost as hard as learning to play the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams". I was like, man I don't want to learn how to play! I'm a punk rocker at 50.
So Topper is an amazing drummer. At least, I think he is.
Yeah, Topper Headon was an amazing drummer.
What do you think made him great?
He doesn't play like an Englishman. Typical English drumming is slightly behind the beat. He plays like an American. He plays like an American who listened to Motown and Stax/Volt. He doesn't play like Charlie Watts. He has a certain sophistication that's almost like, say, Phil Collins, but he's playing with Marky Ramone intensity. So there's something interesting there. And, you know, and look, so Stuart Copeland in The Police is American right? And I just think let the reggae people play reggae. Man, that's not "Walking on the Moon" What the hell are you doing? But when Topper played reggae he understood it.
Sure. When for you, as someone who studied music and knows music backwards and forwards, I would think, when does punk begin for you? Is it The Ramones in '76? Is the Saints in Australia? Is it The Sex Pistols after they see The Ramones? Or maybe even earlier with Iggy, or even garage rock?
Again I'll go to Saint Lester. Lester Bangs I think had so much of this right. He said that the three chords in La Bamba are the same three chords in Louie Louie, are the same three chords in the Stooges' "No Fun", are the same three chords in the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop", and I would add the same three chords in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. I know there's four chords in that song. But Lester was talking metaphorically. The attitude, the approach, the simplicity, the passion unbridled. So punk rock starts whenever that essential "F you" starts. And it's not just political. It's not just "F you" Reagan, or Thatcher, or Trump. It's growling in the face of the forces of death. Of nihilism. Of anything that would stamp out and oppress the human spirit. So we can go back, and I understand that guy Mozart was a real hellraiser. I think there's an attitude inherent in all rock n roll, and I have a very broad definition. I think Public Enemy is rock n roll. I think Funkadelic is rock n rock. It's that essential denial of the nihilistic impulse to give in to the seduction of death and complacency, and that's present in all great art. At least the art that I love. And the Clash are masterful at delivering that. Until they lose the plot and we can debate. OK. Combat Rock. There's moments there, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" is pretty great. You know, bands have a finite life term and the interaction between those individuals where they're inspiring each other. And I think they had reached the end of theirs. It's a shame. The thought of what Strummer could have continued to do as a solo artist is so intriguing and we don't get to hear that. And his loss, I think, was tragic. But what lives on are those albums, and they're every bit as potent when we listen to them today as we did when they were released.
What was the band's biggest misstep?
So I think Sandinista! is a misstep because there's really good stuff on there, but they needed an editor. If that had been a single album it could have been killer. If it had been a double album - it wouldn't have been as good as London Calling - but as a triple album it makes my head hurt.
I forgot it was a triple album!
It's a triple album! It's just too much! I think they got a little bit hubristic. We pulled off London Calling. It was time to retrench and go back to a single album then.
You mentioned Lester Bangs a number of times, and thank you for that. I hope to some day see the play!
Yeah, there's talk of it going to London, and also to Berlin and Paris. And the fact that this guy, who died poverty-stricken, believing he was a complete and utter failure, is now in print in my book and in his two posthumous anthologies, in a dozen languages around the world, all these years after his death in 1982. The music doesn't happen in a vacuum. And I think criticism at its best, or dare I say, what you all - and God bless Kevin Cole - at KEXP do, you know, there's a context. And there's a community. And what we're about, as critics, as deejays, as radio programmers, is to try to underscore this community. And Bang's accomplished that. He didn't live to understand that he had accomplished that. But reading that epic Clash piece, that is the heart and soul of the first and best of his two anthologies, "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung", it will make you love The Clash all the more. Even though it is critical in spots, and asking difficult questions. Lestor's can be heavy and moralistic. On the plane to London He read William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". And he's beginning to wonder if all of rock'n'roll stardom is the fascism of the '30s. So there's heavy questions in there. And Strummer was quoted in the play. Lester goes on this rant that is part of his Clash piece, and it's reproduced on stage, and Strummer, or Jones, it's hard to tell which, "Lester, Lester, Lester! What are you going on about man? If it bothers you so much, why don't you do something?!" I think that's the essential question that The Clash raises: Why don't you do something? And maybe that something is you're working in a record store, or you're doing a fanzine, or you're on a radio station, or you're starting a band. Why don't you do something about it, then? And The Clash has that power to make you feel, "I can do this!"
What made Lester Bangs great, unique?
Derogatis: I think he wrote with the rhythm of the music. The same way that the great beats, Kerouac, in particular, wrote with the energy of bebop. Lester personified writing with the energy of rock n roll, and what's more important, it's the ideas. I think they endure. The idea that virtuosity and technical excellence is nothing compared to having something to say, and the burning desire to say it. And that this stuff has a moral core. That rock n roll matters. You know The Clash, you know, they made money and now we hear "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" in television commercials. But the core of the music has a message, and it has an ethos, and it's about respecting one another and building a community. And when music doesn't do that, and it's just commercial, it's just pop, or something far more evil - R. Kelly, man I have a problem with that. I believe this music can save your life. And therefore when it's used for evil purposes, not to get too heavy about it, do something about it, right? Well, I do do something about it. I'm a critic and I talk about it. Because what's more important to talk about? You know, this comes from Lester. Do we want to fight about politics? Religion? Sex? Well all of that's in the music! So when we're talking about music, we're not just talking about a three minute song. We're talking about the world and how we see the world. And it's this music that gives us the platform for that conversation.
KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.
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