You 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.”