Why the Clash Ruffled Punk’s Feathers on ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’
After the opening salvo of militant political punk rock on the Clash’s ferocious 1977 self-titled debut, the members had the unenviable task of following it up.
“We didn’t realize how weird the first album sounded to American record people. They weren’t keen to release it at all,” said Joe Strummer in the oral history The Clash by the Clash. “After we recorded the first album, when the record company said, ‘OK, let's talk about the second album.’ Our attitude was, ‘What do you mean second album?’ We weren't really ready to make a second. I think it took so much out of us making the first.”
That second full-length album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, came out on Nov. 10, 1978. It was the band’s first official U.S. release. Deemed unfit by their American label, the Clash’s debut didn’t come out in the United States until July 24, 1979 on CBS/Epic Records. During the interim, it sold more than 100,000 copies as an import.
Epic Records East Coast A&R Director Bruce Harris had described himself in a famous letter that surfaced in 2015 as an “avid Clash fan.” But he felt the first album sounded sonically inferior to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks. He said a cleaner and more commercial production might appeal to listeners and garner radio airplay.
“Behind-the-scenes, I think they were pressuring [manager] Bernie [Rhodes] to bring in something,” Strummer said. “They wanted an American angle to it. Bernie selected Sandy Pearlman off a list of producers that were presented to him as likely candidates.” The choice to use Pearlman, known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult, to oversee the band’s sophomore effort drew immediate cries of selling out.
Recording and mixing took place in London, San Francisco and New York over a period of months. Pearlman had effusive praise for new Clash drummer Topper Headon, dubbing him “The Human Drum Machine.” Sessions did not work out as well for bassist Paul Simonon, who became bored with the meticulous recording approach and repeated takes. Eventually, he brought in World War II films that were projected on the studio walls. Some of those images, as well as stars from his trip to Russia, ended up becoming part of the Clash’s iconic imagery and concert backdrops.
Listen to the Clash Perform 'Safe European Home'
The Clash performed at the Rock Against Racism concert on April 30, 1978 at Victoria Park, in between studio dates, and the backlash was already in motion.
In Marcus Gray's book, Last Gang in Town: The Story and the Myth of the Clash, he describes criticisms hurled at the band prior to and during the recording of Give ‘Em Enough Rope: Mick Jones was accused of acting like a rock star who used cocaine and slept with models, the band was taking much too long to put out a new release and they worked with a producer of bands that punks would avoid at all costs.
The album’s 10 songs were less about England’s youth fighting against the establishment and what Strummer sang a year later on “Clampdown” – “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / D’you know that you can use it?” – and more focused on the band’s lives with attempts to use that as a way to develop a universal vision and unite listeners.
“Safe European Home” opens Give ‘Em Enough Rope with the aggressive style that had to please older fans and even quiet detractors. The lyrics touch upon Strummer and Mick Jones’ disastrous songwriting vacation in Jamaica.
“I remember going to Jamaica with Mick for maybe a week or 10 days and we came up with some tunes …,” Strummer recalled in The Clash, “but mostly I remember searching for Lee Perry in Kingston. I don't know how we weren't filleted and served up on a bed of chips, ‘cos me and Mick wandered around the harbor, and I think they mistook us for merchant sailors. But we were in our full punk regalia and people just left us alone, probably because they presumed we were madmen or something. "'Course me and Mick had no idea about anything; we were just wandering around Kingston like lunatics. We never found Perry, either.”
The song ends with Strummer repeating the “Rudie can’t fail” line in such a way that it sounds like he’s singing “Ruby Soho,” which Clash fans Rancid recorded years later. It also predates the song “Rudie Can’t Fail” on London Calling.
Listen to the Clash Perform 'English Civil War'
The lyrical content of “English Civil War,” with its “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” melody, sounds as relevant today as it did when originally released. It warns of a future ruled by the National Front, a fascist, white nationalist English political organization that reached its violent heyday during the ‘70s.
“Tommy Gun” shows off the duality of Strummer’s political views. The song celebrates and questions the acts of terrorists who battle the firmly entrenched establishment. In The Clash he explained, “It's about the ego of terrorists. It suddenly struck me that they must read their press clippings, like rock stars or actors and actresses do.”
“Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad” relates a real event, Operation Julie, which found policemen impersonating hippies and continually taking mind-altering substances in order to maintain their cover and arrest university graduates for a major drug bust. Musically, it offers a nod to the punky reggae numbers that will be heard on London Calling. Later, "Drug-Stabbing Time" relates a junkie's life that ends in getting busted.
“Last Gang in Town” uses an experience Strummer had at a reggae club where he tried to break up a heated situation by attempting to get both sides to realize they should be united instead. “Guns on the Roof,” like “Clash City Rockers” on the band’s debut album, uses the familiar riff from the Who's “I Can’t Explain.”
"'Guns on the Roof' and 'Last Gang in Town' might use Clash experiences as points of departure for other lyrical explorations," Gray wrote, "but 'Cheapskates,' 'All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)' and Mick’s 'Stay Free' are all inexcusably self-indulgent examples of Mott the Hoople Syndrome. 'Stay Free' even sounds like an Ian Hunter ballad, while the title of 'All the Young Punks' acknowledges Mott's generational anthem, 'All the Young Dudes.'”
Listen to the Clash Perform 'Last Gang in Town'
Obviously, Gray couldn’t handle sentimentality within the punk ideology. Jones described “Stay Free” in The Clash as “about my old school friends, and Robin [Crocker] especially. He was the guy who punched out Sandy Pearlman, who was producing the album of course. Which was kind of ironic.”
The album cover art, designed by Gene Greif, incorporated a painting called “End of the Trail for Capitalism” by Berkeley artist Hugh Brown, which Strummer and Jones saw displayed at a punk-rock hangout they visited during breaks while working at San Francisco’s Automatt studio. Grief paired it with a '50s postcard titled “End of the Trail.” Photographed by Adrian Atwater, it featured cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson’s lifeless body being picked apart by vultures.
When Give ‘Em Enough Rope came out, critical reaction was divided according to each side of the Atlantic. The British press was generally unimpressed, feeling that the Clash left their fans and rebellious ways behind while critics in the United States did not mind the less-raw production and looked at the album as the next step by a buzzworthy British act.
England’s Melody Maker said that “they squander their greatness,” while Nick Kent wrote in regards to the discussion of violence in the lyrics: “one is never sure which side [the band] is supposed to be taking.” On the other hand, in America Lester Bangs viewed Give ‘Em Enough Rope as “more evidence that the Clash are the greatest rock and roll band left standing” and Greil Marcus saw an album “full of questions and honest doubt.”
Despite dealing with fans and press expectations and stressors coming from inside and outside the band’s ranks, Give ‘Em Enough Rope manages to have enough solid moments as it attempts to move past the creative restrictions of punk rock. Still, while certainly listenable, the final result showed this to be a transitional album. Listening to it now, the material hints at what’s to come in the future.
Once enough time passed from being relegated as punk-rock saviors, the Clash’s follow up London Calling left any criticisms in the dust.