The familiar chords rang out of the first track of side two of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, a bit more staccato than I might have been used to, but utterly recognizable as “I Can’t Explain” to any kid who was discovering The Who at the same time he was discovering The Clash.
Except it wasn’t. The Clash were rewriting Pete Townshend’s rewrite of “You Really Got Me” and going into a completely different direction.
Or so testified St. Joe Strummer:
I swear by almighty God
To tell the whole truth.
And nothing but the truth!
And testify is exactly what he does, trying to explain the inexplicable as those chords rattle around him like machine gun bullets:
Guns guns, and nobody’s kidding
Guns guns, or foolin’ around
Guns guns, the violence is singing
Guns guns, a silence the sound
And then near the end, the song breaks down just a bit and Strummer goes into one of my favorite bits of any Clash song. And not just because he pronounces “Africa” as “A-Fer-EE-Ca!” As the music builds and build and builds, he sings:
And I like to be in Africa
A-beatin’ on the final drum
I like to be in U.S.S.R
Makin’ sure these things will come
I like to be in U.S.A.
Pretending that the wars are done
And I like to be in Europa
Saying goodbye to everyone
And, wham! Mick Jones steps in with a spiraling guitar solo that spins its way through the rest of the song, as they all chant over and over again:
Guns on the roof
Made to shoot
Politics aside, this was the kind of musical forward momentum that completely blew my mind. It was powerful, it was joyous, it was new. It was somehow unlike any other rock ‘n’ roll music I’d ever heard in my life and yet totally and completely connected to the tradition.
Fan-made video for “Guns on the Roof”