Atomic Punk: The Clash “Complete Control”




One thing I always loved about The Clash was the energy they brought to the stage. They played like there was no tomorrow and you could feel it. Even in songs with just a few simple chords, they somehow made it not just count but stand out. And someone like me who has a very large planetary catalogue of classical music in his head isn’t pompous enough to be auditorily blind to appreciating that. The composers of old had an ethos closer to punk rockers than most of the university professors who analyse and teach the music of high culture. The beautiful deep dense emotively panoramic sonatas and symphonies of the great composers can obscure the people behind them but many of them had more than a few “F*uck the Establishment” bones in their bodies and were the rebels of their time.

“Prince what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”

–Beethoven, from a letter he wrote to Prince Lichnowsky

 

The Clash came out of England alongside The Sex Pistols, Billy Idol (then with Generation X) & Siouxsie and the Banshees—all groups who knew each other often playing on the same bills in the early days when Punk emerged from the primordial soup of muddy Doc Martens and MIA front teeth. The press & media were standing by to perform an abortion on Punk Rock before it’s existence was in the newspapers. They flung the obligatory tomatoes at something new they didn’t understand as it’s easier to dismiss and stereotype than it is to understand people and groups on their own terms. Punk groups were singing about how everything is not bloody well right (no offense to Supertramp) in everyone’s life regardless of what’s on the Tele. In a sense, Punk Rock was early alternate media—telling it like it is, telling the unpopular, telling it from the frontlines, down in the trenches. But people want to hate the messenger, especially if the Postman wears nose rings and rings twice. It’s easier to character assassinate because in many people’s minds, this then negates the message then they don’t have to take responsibility for something actually being wrong. If Punk Rock was “acting out”, then the media and press response was a defense mechanism attempting to preserve a sanitized version of reality for the public, that everything is indeed cheerio and jolly good. Suffice to say, people who need movies with happy endings, probably don’t have a stellar punk rock collection.

 

A part of this first wave of British Punk, The Clash released their debut album The Clash in 1977. It did well in the United Kingdom but their record company feared that it’s rawness and low quality “garage band” quality recording wouldn’t work in the American market. I guess “someone’s really smart.” And what album became the best selling import album in the US during this time? That one they thought wouldn’t sell across the pond. CBS then released a version for the North American market with a different track listing than the original including the new track “Complete Control”, which was ironically inspired by an incident of their doing. Necessity may be the mother of all invention but bullsh*t has been known to give birth on occasion as the paternity test indicates with “Complete Control.”

 

Reggae was huge in England at the time and The Clash did a cover of the Junior Murvin hit “Police and Thieves” produced by Reggae artist Lee “Scratch” Perry on their original UK debut album release. Perry, who lived in Jamaica, heard it and became a fan of the band. As luck would have it, The Clash found out Perry was in London at the time working on an album for Bob Marley & the Wailers. They asked him to produce a single and he was game, Mon. “Complete Control” was also the first track Topper Headon played on with The Clash. Original drummer Terry Chimes, recorded most of the tracks on The Clash but left the band which is the reason only Joe, Mick & Paul are pictured on the album cover. They weren’t taking a page from Spinal Tap.

 

“Complete Control” inaugurated the vintage Clash line up which continued until 1982’s Combat Rock:

Joe Strummer (lead vocals, rhythm guitar). Strummer was born John Graham Mellor and went by the stagename Woody Mellor in his PC days (Pre–Clash).

Paul Simonon (bassist, vocals). Simonon is the one pictured smashing his guitar onstage in the iconic album cover London Calling. He also came up with the band’s name after seeing the term “Clash” repeatedly in newspapers.

Mick Jones (lead guitar, lead vocals). Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.) after the breakup of The Clash who are best known for their #1 single “Rush” in 1991 which can easily be mistaken as a Clash tune. He was also co founder of General Public and played on their hit single “Tenderness.”

Nicky “Topper” Headon (drums & percussion). Paul Simonon gave him the nickname “Topper” as he resembled the Mickey the Monkey character in the Topper comic book. Headon is a well rounded musician who also plays guitar, bass & piano. Headon wrote and performed the piano, bass & drums on their most successful single “Rock The Casbah” (Joe Strummer on lead vocals) which reached #8 in the US. Combat Rock also included the stylized “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (Mick Jones on lead vocals), and was the most successful album of their career. Being in Florida and seeing armadillos running around, I’d have MTV flashbacks and the Pavlovian response expecting to see The Clash performing nearby behind banyan trees.

 

“Complete Control” is a punk rock classic by any standard. I’d say this regardless of wherever it had any chart success due to the authenticity of the angst alone. But I wasn’t the only one who really appreciated this punk rock uppercut to the recording industry. “Complete Control” reached #28 on the charts and is widely considered one of punk’s greatest songs. Even more so, it’s even listed in the Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time which encompasses numerous genres other than punk. With “Complete Control,” The Clash wrote a 3 minute masterpiece. It’s middle finger mayhem, an S.O.S. encased in time, a testament of when raw testosterone goes up against something it can’t bulldoze by itself and needs the backup of wit.

 

The song was even prophetic: At the 1:08 mark the late Joe Strummer sings the phrase “You’re my Guitar Hero!!” to Mick Jones, which years later went on to become the name of the popular video game franchise. No doubt because of the reference, “Complete Control” was included in the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.

 

The price of admission for me though is the breakdown at 1:41 and the outro. The breakdown then ramps up to an even more high energy outro with an awesome display of vocal interplay. The song briefly morphs to a more melodic buildup then guitars shift into overdrive with Mick Jones almost chanting the backing vocal behind Strummer that’s just a beautifully brutal combination.

 

Total
C—o—n control – that means you!

 

Strummer is like a lion in a cage at this point in the song. The guitars and drums are past the point of belligerence and Mick Jones is the sonic boom that sends this ball of fury into orbit:

Musically they achieve the equivalent of a controlled eruption with Strummer ejecting lyrical lava in all directions. What it achieves for the listener is a cathartic caldera in the wake of its seismic soundwaves. “Complete Control” is pure controlled chaos that cauterizes the ear canals from bullsh*t with a timeless sense of psychic camaraderie.

 

How much do I like this tune? Let me put it this way: “Complete Control” is my workout mix along with other selections of metal, hard rock, punk, goth, rock, & industrial. Often I’ll have “Complete Control” on replay through my ENTIRE workout. Yes I’ve listened to it on replay for an hour or more at a time. It’s like an IV of adrenaline for exercising or a pissed off palliative pill when you’ve had more than the average bad hair day with your mohawk.

 

“Complete Control” is a song about the recording industry that spikes the spite meter—a middle finger anthem against the parade of unsavory people & practices that are unfortunately joined at the hip with the entertainment industry. “Complete Control” however is no orphan, only child or C–Note section delivery. It has several vinyl siblings. Other songs in this dysfunctional family include:

 

“The Stroke” by Billy Squier (my niece used to think the chorus was saying “Old Man Muffin” instead of “Stroke Me, Stroke Me.”)
“Rock & Roll Band” by Boston
“Workin’ For MCA” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

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The Clash never cared about being rock stars or becoming media darlings. They weren’t going on stage as pretty boys with perfect hair and designer clothes to make the cover of fashion magazines. In an industry rife with value addeds & hanger ons, its sobering to have a band stripped down to a bare sense of purpose. When you remove all the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry it comes down to the music & your message—the zero point pulse the record companies & peripheral industry sidekicks line their purses with. It took punk to blow the bloated house of cards down.

 

A friend of mine who’s former Army loves The Clash as well. Once when we were talking, I mentioned how The Clash went onstage like they were showing up for battle: The adrenaline, the energy, the take no prisoners attitude. It’s refreshing to have a band out there that wasn’t overly preoccupied with the tits of the girls in the front row. When this is your inspiration for lyrics, the lifestyle of the rock star playing “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” (or hoe??) with the nightly conga line of groupies, those lyrics really don’t age well and someday you’ll become a geriatric juvenile singing them in your golden oldies at casino gigs in New England. At least that’s what my Magic 8 Ball told me.

 

The Clash always picked subject matter outside of the blue plastic kiddie pool other bands can make a career of. And there were plenty of lyrical battles for The Clash to crosshair in their career: greed, ignorance, war, militarism, police brutality, religion, racism, intolerance, repression, unemployment, politics and good ‘ol fashioned basic stupidity. The Clash weren’t about love songs and idealized fairy tale pop song lyrics. And with that, punk and metal tend to be a DMZ (De Merchandised Zone) from cross–merchandising, fashionistas, fluff, hype and “pat ourselves on the back” industry award ceremonies. Like one of my friends said about this industry that he’s survived in and navigated over the years: “It’s a can of beans to them.” Meaning your music, your art, your creativity is just another product to them to market like a can of beans to make a profit. They’re fair weather fans, as long as profits are in the forecast.

 

It’s this mentality which gave the impetus for The Clash to write “Complete Control.” They were peeved that their record label (CBS) released another song off The Clash called “Remote Control” (which they thought was a weak song on the album) without their consent. I interpret “Complete Control” as a narrative song about the kinds of things that happen in the industry and with the media. I don’t think The Clash were naive to the realities of success going in as some critics have said. It seems they get this impression because they interpret the lyrics literally when really you can hear the biting sarcasm in the way Joe Strummer delivers the vocals and the digs he makes at the “record executive” mentality:

 

Ooh ooh ooh someone’s really smart

They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make a lotsa mon-ee
An’ worry about it later

 

Sociologically, it’s two worlds that would probably never intersect but do so only because there’s a ton of money to be made off the success of ANY music. And it seems many record execs wouldn’t be at concerts on their own dime of many of the artists on their roster if they worked in another profession. So many pretend or force themselves to like the majority of “product” in their profession because it’s what lines their pockets. Keep up a fan face to keep that corner office.

 

“Complete Control” presents a photographic slideshow of various hypocrisy; how in the entertainment industry you’ll be told things that aren’t true, told things to string you along, told one thing then have something else done behind your back.

 

They said release ‘Remote Control’
But we didn’t want it on the label

Ooh ooh ooh have we done something wrong?
Ooh ooh ooh complete control, even over this song

Ooh ooh ooh I’ll never understand
Ooh ooh ooh complete control – lemme see your other hand!

 

In the breakdown, Joe Strummer issues a rebuttal in pseudo soliloquy to critics of the punk movement and their band, then catapults a strategic salvo by re–purposing their own words—words their detractors would choke on years later:

 

I don’t judge you why do you judge me…huh?

All over the news spread fast
They’re dirty, they’re filthy
They ain’t gonna last!

 

And this was what they were hearing around the time of their first album in the late 70’s. We don’t need DNA testing to verify these critics weren’t related to Nostradamus. The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Unfortunately Joe Strummer died of just a few weeks prior from a congenital heart defect that went undiagnosed his entire life. It’s amazing he lived as long as he did with such a condition.

 

Part of the reason for the longevity of The Clash is they drew on numerous influences outside of punk such as Reggae, Dub, Funk, Blues, Rock, Rockabilly, Ska & Rap to name a few. If Parliment was “Funkatizing” their musical influences, The Clash were “Punkatizing” theirs. The cultural and musical legacy of The Clash has influenced generations of musicians and continues to do so. Both Bono & The Edge have stated how much The Clash influenced them as well as countless other musicians from all genres.

 

Over time as what usually happens, society at large acquired the digestive enzymes to finally assimilate the movement The Clash helped spearhead. This also dissolved old stereotypes associated with Punk. Speaking of dissolving stereotypes, you may have seen or heard the phrase “Hitler Was A Vegetarian.” It’s often used to negate the purported benefits of being a vegetarian. Next time you hear someone say that, respond in kind with “Well so was Joe Strummer—a Punk Rock icon who ate Fascism for lunch. Even more so, Strummer became a vegetarian at age 20 as a young punk rocker and remained so for the rest of his life. He was also a big fan of folk legend Woody Guthrie and the reason he used “Woody” as an early stagename. Woody Guthrie put a message on his guitar back in 1941 that said “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Guthrie, Strummer & The Clash are as far from Hitler and as Anti–Fascist as one can get.

This is Joe Public speaking
I’m controlled in the body, controlled in the mind

 

For people who want to stereotype punk rockers as low life degenerates, Joe Strummer loved The Beach Boys and said they were “the reason he played music”. It just goes to show you can’t always tell by a group or artist’s music who their influences were. And it’s often surprising. I lived right near some of the nicest white sand beaches in the world for several years and personally don’t know anyone who surfs with Doc Martens.

 

An encouraging thing The Clash proved to musicians of all playing abilities is you don’t need guitar solos or titanic technique to become musically and culturally significant. There’s only a handful of guitar solos in their entire catalogue, one of which is the brief one here in “Complete Control.” Over a decade later, the “Punk Pattern” repeated itself as Grunge came to the forefront of the music industry, dethroning the musical excess, virtuosity and vanity of Hair Metal. It just goes to illustrate how yesterday’s fears and “flaws” can become tomorrow’s cash cow.

 

The slogan “The Only Band That Matters” created to market The Clash became something fans genuinely embraced. It was one of the things their record label did right as it took on a life of it’s own becoming their epitaph. A salute to a band that wasn’t tainted with artificial ingredients. As for critics who so readily expunge venomous verbiage alongside carbon dioxide, we can only wonder “Is there a critic known as ‘The Only Critic That Matters?’ Is there a Critic’s Hall Of Fame?” Critics always have a axe to grind while The Clash grinded with their axes. Instead of writing caustic column inch in Cubicleville, perhaps their time on the planet could have been better spent writing public service announcements with guitars so people can know their rights.

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