The Clash – ‘White Riot’

More than any other band, The Clash defined British punk. More than any other song, White Riot defined The Clash. Two minutes of lightning-paced, hyper-energized, primeval three chord aggression with a social conscience and a call to action.

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In the summer of 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were among those caught up in events when the annual West London celebration Caribbean culture, the Notting Hill Carnival descended into violence between police and predominantly black protesters. The riots left hundreds injured on both sides and made such an impression Strummer that inspired what became his band’s first single.

The Clash - White Riot

White riot, I wanna riot
White riot, a riot of my own
White riot, I wanna riot
White riot, a riot of my own

Black man got a lotta problems
But they don’t mind throwin’ a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be real thick

Everybody’s doin’
Just what they’re told to
And nobody wants
To go to jail!

It’s difficult to interpret that as anything other than admiration for the black rioters’ assertiveness and a craving for something similar from poor, white communities. But in the racially tense Britain of the 1970s, those lyrics proved controversial and Strummer was called on to explain them:

“The only thing we’re saying about the blacks is that they’ve got their problems and they’re prepared to deal with them. But white men, they just ain’t prepared to deal with them – everything’s too cozy. They’ve got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars. The poor blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat.”

Despite these assurances, White Riot remained controversial, often acting as the cue for aggro at gigs. It was as much for its rudimentary construction as its tendency to spark violence that White Riot was dropped from The Clash’s live set later in their career. But in 1977, announcing the arrival of a vital new band, it was hard to beat. It’s still a seminal Clash track; a track that defines them.

The Clash 1977

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Nick Perry

Nick writes fact, fiction and opinion in various places including
his music blog His musical tastes cover indie, grunge, golden-era hip hop, punk, funk, psychedelia and a big portion of distortion. You can and should follow him on Twitter @NoiseCrumbs.

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