Listen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released.
The connection to The Harder They Come and Brixton is a pretty solid one, given that the neighbourhood was, and very much still is, a center for Anglo-Caribbean culture. It was one the major areas in Britain settled by waves of mostly black immigrants from the islands from the fifties through to the seventies, a trend that not everyone appreciated. As a result, racial tensions in the area became a major issue, building steadily for many years. That’s where this song comes from, capturing the feelings of those tensions in sympathy with those who suspect that one day, they will break into full-blown violence. That violence most certainly involves the police, those who kick in front doors in the verses of this song, standing as a reflection of how bad the relations were between authorities and the community.
Two years after “Guns Of Brixton” was released, the Brixton riots made the news, the result of a combination of racially motivated tensions and the unemployment crisis felt most strongly in the community. This made the song even more resonant beyond the theatrical connections to the cult movie which is referenced in its lines. Instead, it became an overt political statement, with the anger that is expressed in it becoming more personal, given that its author could see what was happening in his home neighbourhood years before headline-making violence broke out there. Ultimately, “Guns Of Brixton” is the story of a betrayal of a community as perpetrated by mainstream culture that tolerated racism either actively or passively.
In the light of that, this song forces us to ask about the role of violence in our society in the face of that betrayal. It puts a scenario in front of us about what we would do if the authorities came for us. Would we still shun the possibility of turning to violence to protect ourselves? It makes us ask ourselves what we should do when laws meant to protect us from oppression are not enforced by police and are in fact flagrantly ignored by them. Worse: what should we do when laws are passed that actively subjugate us based on the way we look? What is to be done when the mechanisms of civilization and justice have been kept out of our reach? In the face of that, how are you gonna come? With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?
These are all important questions, certainly as applicable now as they were in 1979 or 1981 and maybe even more so. Another important question of course is can we, who currently do not live in the Brixtons of the world, relate to people who do. Do we really understand the hard choices many people have to make in the face of discrimination and violence perpetrated against them every day based on their race, religion, or cultural background? Do their lives matter to us? If they don’t, and we instead bleat out “all lives matter!” in mock-outrage, then how will we process what happens next when authorities find their way to our doors, with boots ready to kick them in?
After creating one of the most resonant bodies of work in pop history, The Clash broke up in 1986. Find out more about them at theclash.com.
For more about the Brixton riots, take a read of this article from BBC.