How “Safe European Home” Changed My Life

Give ‘Em Enough RopeYou know how sometimes you hear an album — or even a song — for the first time, and without even realizing it, by the time it’s over, your whole perception of the world has forever been changed?

That was what hearing The Clash for the very first time did to me. It was late 1978, I was a junior in at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, California, and I pretty much liked what other white, suburban males my age liked: Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Yes, etc.

But, something had happened: about a year before, I’d started reading rock magazines — Circus, Rolling Stone and most especially, CREEM. And those rock magazines were all buzzing to various degrees about something called “Punk Rock.” Punk seemed strange and weird, and it was very much unheard on Fresno radio. So even though the Sex Pistols had already crashed and burned on American soil, I actually hadn’t heard a note of their music.

But I had heard The Cars, and their debut album was the very first punk-associated thing I ever bought. But of course, The Cars were really “new wave,” which was a totally different head, man, so I finally took the Punk plunge with Rocket to Russia by the Ramones and Marquee Moon by Television. Those are still two of my favorite records, and they just whetted my appetite for more.

Which is where The Clash came in: while I was leery that they were “too punk” for me, they had finally made their American debut with Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and spurred on by a couple of incredibly positive reviews in CREEM Richard Riegel and Robert Christgau (CREEM used to reprint the Consumer Guide) — I took the plunge.

I still remember the exact moment I took the record out of the ultra-saturated red and yellow cover, put it on the turntable and sat back on my bed as “Safe European Home” came blasting out of the speakers, with a “POW!” and bounced all over the corkboard that covered the walls of my room. It was as hard as any metal as I’d ever heard, but it was lighter on its feet. It had obvious roots in my beloved 60’s Who and Rolling Stones singles, but with the guitars cranked ten years louder. And then there was that breakdown at the end where the deep-voiced guy was ranting about Jamaica and the high-voiced guy repeating “Your-oh-pee-un Home!” over guitars that kept stabbing stabbing stabbing like a serial killer until the drums came back up and sealed the whole thing up.

Holy fuck!!!!! I had never heard anything like that song before in my entire 15 years. What in the hell was it? Why wasn’t this being played every single minute on the radio? Was there more? I had to find out. Before I could even take another breath, I had played that entire album twice, no doubt at “can you please turn that down?!?” volumes.

Now I know that the critical consensus has always been that Give Em Enough Rope is the weak sister in The Clash discography — that it wasn’t as world-changing as The Clash; as all-time classic as London Calling, as experimental as Sandinsta or as populist as Combat Rock. Its greatest sin has always been that it was seen as some kind of compromise between punk and metal. And I say “exactly!” For someone like me, it was exactly the right kind of record: if this was Punk Pock, then I was totally in.

In short order, I bought the import of The Clash, and all of those import singles that were were at Tower Records, as well the other Ramones albums and records by The Jam, Talking Heads, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, etc, so on and so forth world without end amen.

Like the (Minute)man said: Punk Rock changed my life. It changed my life by opening my ears up to a whole universe of music that was never going to get played on the radio. Some of that music was good, some of it was bad, and a lot of it would never be classified as “Punk,” but all of it would have never existed in the same way without Punk.

And if Punk Rock changed my life, then “Safe European Home” was the tipping point — the exact moment where my head was rearranged. I cannot listen to it to this day without thinking of that first time, and all that followed.

Meanwhile, here is what I didn’t do in the wake of my discovery of Punk Rock: cut my hair, dress “punk,” stop listening to other rock music. In other words, I thought that The Clash’s music — and Punk Rock in general — were the next logical extension of the overall story of rock and roll, as opposed to a whole new thing.

Which was why, despite the fact that I’ve primarily focused on music that has radiated from that time and place, I was never a Punk Rocker: because I could never understand why I would want to limit myself that way. For a couple of years, in CREEMs letters page there was always the “Clash vs. Led Zeppelin” debate, as if people couldn’t absolutely love both bands. (And as a matter of fact, nowadays, with both bands so totally venerated, it just seems weird that such a debate even existed.)

Here is what I did do: tried to get my friends to hear what I had heard in The Clash, and all of those other bands they weren’t hearing on the radio. But only my friends: no way I was going to pull my classmates away from Journey and AC/DC. In Fresno in the late 1970s, you had to pick your musical battles. So, to a select few, who I thought might have open minds — or just couldn’t escape me — I preached and I proselytized and I hectored and I harangued. Some got the plot — Tim was an early adopter — but it wasn’t until a few years later, when I got to KFSR, that I started running with people where liking The Clash and/or Punk Rock was a given, as opposed to an anomaly.

But that’s a whole other story. In fact, by the time KFSR went on the air four years later, The Clash had released eight more albums worth of material, all of it mind-blowing in different ways. Thank you, Joe Strummer. Thank you, Mick Jones. Thank you, Paul Simonon. Thank you, Topper Headon. My absolute love of what you accomplished has never waned.

And it all started with “Safe European Home.”

13 Responses to “How “Safe European Home” Changed My Life”

  1. bobby says:

    I am a major fan of The Clash and I also consider Led Zeppelin (particularly from 1968 to ’75) to be without equal in the history of rock music. I graduated from high school in 1977 and always thought it ridiculous that some considered Zeppelin and punk rock mutually exclusive. Almost all the former punkers now admit they were in awe of Zeppelin’s first five or six albums, and were hugely influenced by Zeppelin’s early work (ie Communication Breakdown). When Punk faded, many a rock fan returned to the timeless landmark Zeppelin albums as life rafts, particularly in the barren musical landscape of the 80’s.

  2. Jim says:

    I knew that I wasn’t alone! Though I personally would put Presence up with any of the Zep albums, and need to point out that any decade that produced many amazing records by — off the top of my head — X, U2, R.E.M., The Replacements, Husker Du, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, XTC, Beastie Boys was hardly barren.

  3. Tim G. says:

    So many places to start! First off, I have to give radio credit for introducing me to so many things early on in my listening life. AM radio in the late ’60s, early ’70s and only FM from till around 1980. Fresno had KFIG 101 FM, which had a free-form format and did things like play whole albums or sides. This is where I heard The Who’s Quadrophenia for the first time, the live version of Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, Christmas Day Beatles specials, early KISS, Aerosmith before they there were huge, etc. This was before punk really landed in America, so that was never on the table prior to KFIG’s eventual transformation into an easy listening format. It is now consigned to the rubbish heap of free-form FM stations that now only exist in the college radio format.

    I remember many hours in Jim’s room listening to these bands, with The Jam somehow scoring more directly with my tastes at first than The Clash. I remember to this day when Jim played This is the Modern World. That changed my whole idea of how powerful a song could be in just a couple short minutes.

    From Motown, Tom Jones, Petula Clark and The Beatles early in life, to Woodstock, the ’70s rock, punk/new wave, reggae, etc., I’ve never in my life understood why some people identify with only one or a couple of formats. It’s crazy. One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. As someone once said.

  4. john r says:

    Wonderful post! I think I first heard The Clash on Maximum Rock N Roll on KPFA/KFCF sometime in the late 70’s. Didn’t have any money to buy their albums until 1980.”Safe European Home” will never exit my MP3 player.The only Zep song on my 2gb nano is “Rock N Roll” , it’s a damn good running song.

  5. Jim, I loved your story. You really recreated the excitement of the hard hitting first note on Safe European Home.

    My favorite Clash memory is my brother dragging me to SF Civic Auditorium to see them on the Combat Rock tour. We went with his old high school buddies, who were by then in college. I was 16 I think. I loved the music but, like Jim, was by no means a punk. I was wearing a rust-colored Members Only jacket with matching cords, and thinking I was pretty cool. I vividly remember an older girl sporting gelled hair, lots of makeup, and a wife-beater, dancing to Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love while we were waiting for the show to start. I decided she was a lot cooler than I was. My brother and I made our our way to the front of the stage. When the Clash came out, we were moved around 20 feet at a time in random directions by the force of the excited crowd. They opened with London Calling. Mick Jones looked really pissed off — which was perfect after seeing Rude Boy. It turned out his guitar was not coming through, which I never noticed because the song sounded great. At the end of the song, Joe Strummer announced the problem and then they played London Calling again! I was jumping up and down with excitement! The song was amazing the first time, and Mick made it even better the second time.

  6. kathy says:

    which was a totally different head, man

    “New Wave, not punk. Totally different head, totally.”

  7. Jim says:

    John & Allen,

    Thanks! I never got to see The Clash until they opened for the The Who in 1982, which hardly counts. And of course, the post-Mick Jones Clash show at the Warnor’s theatre, which I was on record as loving back then, and despite the disappointment of Cut The Crap, will trust that — even at half my current age — I knew what I was talking about.

    Kathy,
    Yup, I went and looked up that quote after I wrote this, but forgot to change it.

  8. Mark says:

    I’m with the first commenter, also a 1977 high school graduate. I first heard Safe European Home on the student radio station at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Now Baltimore was kind of a backwater knucklehead sort of town in regards to FM radio: AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and Foreigner seemed to be the Holy Trinity. I was already familiar with protopunk since I spent my high school years in Cleveland Ohio. But this was something different entirely.

    I never understood why this song wasn’t all over the radio, especially considering that it was on a major label.

    Great song, great album.

  9. rocknrollmf says:

    Great memories. The Clash music live forever!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  4. […] Clash – Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978) I have, of course, already written about “Safe European Home,” and the effect it had on my life. Give ‘Em Enough Rope wasn’t the first punk […]