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The Clash, ‘White Riot’ — Lyrics Uncovered

The Clash's Joe Strummer
Chris Moorhouse / Evening Standard, Getty Images

Just like their name suggests, the Clash were never a band to back down from a fight. With their very first single, 1977’s ‘White Riot,’ the legendary British punk rockers came out swinging.

The lyrics to ‘White Riot’ sprouted from the real-life experience of singer-guitarist Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon as observers of the riots at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. The pair witnessed the confrontation, in which black youths clashed with police officers because they felt they were constantly being harassed.

Strummer left the event wondering why young white people didn’t have the same courage to fight the establishment: “Black man gotta lot a problems / But they don’t mind throwing a brick / White people go to school / Where they teach you how to be thick.”

Many people originally misconstrued the tune as a call for a race war, but a deeper look into the lyrics makes it clear that the song is a call to action: “All the power’s in the hands / Of people rich enough to buy it / While we walk the street / Too chicken to even try it.”

‘White Riot’ set the tone for the Clash’s modus operandi during their short, but prolific existence, as many of the band’s songs had anti-establishment themes. One verse in particular served as a message the group would repeat in varied fashions throughout it’s career: “Are you takin’ over? / Or are you takin’ orders? / Are you goin’ backwards? / Or are you goin’ forwards?”

In November 2002, after not playing live together for nearly 20 years, singer-guitarist Mick Jones joined Strummer onstage in London to perform three Clash songs, including ‘White Riot.’ Sadly, about a month later, Strummer died of a heart attack. Three months after that, the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Watch The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Mick Jones Performing ‘White Riot’ in 2002

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