This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #485: (White Man) at Hammersmith Palais by The Clash.
I love this song!
The storytelling in this song is fantastic! It speaks, perhaps better than any song I know, to that moment in all of our lives when the idealism of our youth smacks headlong into the reality of how the world really works. Dealing with that sudden sense of disillusionment often comes to define the shape our adult lives take. Let’s take a look at the context in which The Clash told this story so well.
The Clash are generally considered to be one of the first successful Punk bands to emerge out of that scene in England in the early 80s. The Clash consisted of singer/guitar players, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, bassist, Paul Simonon and drummer, Topper Headon. To The Clash, music was always political. But what ended up separating them from other punk bands at the time was their desire to, not just rail against perceived injustices engrained within society’s rules but, to actively seek alternative solutions. The Clash began writing music in England at the same time as Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sat in the leader’s chair in the UK Parliament. That time in England’s history was marked by racial tension and class strife. As a consequence, many early Clash songs spoke to the topics of race and class, (such as “White Riot” and “Guns of Brixton”). One of the ways that The Clash sought to make things better was by uniting the races through music. It was their contention that the Punk movement and the various manifestations of the Reggae movement shared much in common and, therefore, were natural cultural and musical allies. If Black and White could rally around songs then, perhaps, that could form a positive foundation upon which to build a better, more just society.
“(White man) at Hammersmith Palais” describes a real incident that illustrated to Joe Strummer, in particular, how hard it was going to be to overcome the racial divide that the government sought to exploit. In the song, Strummer describes going to a Reggae concert at The Hammersmith Palais. He went in hopes of the crowd being a mix of blacks and whites. But, when he got there, he found that he was one of the only white people in attendance. Reggae hadn’t become “the people’s music”. It remained predominantly Black in appeal. That was disheartening. Furthermore, he was found the performances underwhelming and ended up being hassled by the crowd for having been there in the first place. Upon reflection, Strummer ends the song by examining the worth of what The Clash were trying to accomplish and then turned his steely gaze toward other bands, like The Jam and Joy Division, and notes that they were already moving in ways that he feels are co-opting their integrity, as they begin chasing fame and fortune, instead of social justice.
The final note of importance about this song is that it was written in a Reggae style. Initially, Joe Strummer feared that there would be a backlash to having a white band release a Reggae-influenced song. But, it turns out that this song was well-received by audiences and ended up being one of Strummer’s favourite Clash songs of all time. In fact, this was one of the songs played at his funeral a few years ago.
Unfortunately, racial tension and class division continue to serve a useful purpose for those who seek money and power and control. Hopefully, somewhere out in our world, there is some young person who believes that our society can be a better, more equal and just place for us all to live. Maybe, they will write a story or a song or a poem that will move us in ways that cause us all to be better people. If they do, hopefully, the idealism that exists within their heart will win the day and they will never have to write a new song about how growing up can truly suck sometimes, as The Clash did so well in “(White man) at Hammersmith Palais”.
The music video for (White Man) at Hammersmith Palais by The Clash can be found here.
The Clash have a website in which you can learn more about why they were one of the most vital and important bands of all time. The link to their website can be found here.
KEXP!!!! You folks are the best. Thanks for helping to inspire me to create this post and, all of the others in this music series. A link to their great website can be found here.