English punk heroes The Clash are one of, if not the most important punk band of all time. Even though they were leather-clad like their peers, their music went far beyond the faux-nihilism and anarchy espoused by the likes of the Sex Pistols.
Frontman Joe Strummer was undoubtedly their secret weapon, a true wordsmith whose prose was coloured by flecks of Kerouac and Ginsberg. In addition to this, he was greatly inspired by the protest anthems of American hero Woody Guthrie, and through writing a myriad of his protest songs, he showed his generation the shape of the future. It was without the prejudice and bigotry of ’70s Britain, and all they had to do to realise this utopian vision was to follow him.
Together, Strummer and co-frontman Mick Jones formed a formidable songwriting partnership which was the most potent of the British first wave.
Whilst Strummer, Jones and the band penned many songs that shone a bright light on society’s ills, one of the best is ‘Remote Control’ from their 1977 debut album, The Clash. It’s an upbeat number with one of the band’s most anthemic choruses and an iconic opening riff to boot.
The track was written after the band’s failed ‘Anarchy Tour’, where most of the group’s planned shows were cancelled last minute after public uproar at the proliferation of punk, thanks in part to the Sex Pistols’ notorious appearance on Today with Bill Grundy.
The song was intended as a rallying cry against oppression and conformity, and whilst this was bread and butter for any punk band, the song contains sharper observations about bureaucracy, record companies and of course, the police than their peers. At the time, the track was the most dynamic that the band had composed, with its numerous changes in time signature and the intro/outro riff, which was lifted from the traditional football chant, ‘You’re Gonna Get Your F**kin’ Head Kicked In’. Looking back, the band’s original drummer remembered Strummer exclaiming, “Mick’s written a mini-opera!”
Understandably, The Clash were angry at the inertia of ’70s Britain and at people in positions of power, which was only exacerbated by the fact that the EMI shareholders met on December 7th, 1976, which withdrew the label’s financial support for the ‘Anarchy Tour’, resulting in the cancellation of their shows. The line, “They had a meeting in Mayfair” was a direct reference to this momentous moment.
Despite that, at first, the band were very happy with ‘Remote Control’ as it marked a new creative direction for them, before too long, they were dismissive of the song as it was released without their consent as a single in May 1977, which soured their relationship with it.
It wasn’t that they didn’t want it as a single, they just didn’t want it to be the next single, following the raucous cut ‘White Riot’. In the liner notes to The Vanilla Tapes, Mick Jones explained: “I think Joe [Strummer] disliked it on a symbolic level, because of what happened with the release. But we always liked the tune.”
In an interview given only a matter of weeks before the song’s release with the now-defunct Melody Maker, the band confirmed that they expected the next single to be ‘Janie Jones’. Many have taken the fact that ‘Remote Control’ is less aggressive than many of the songs on The Clash as the reason why the label decided to release it without asking the band. It is alleged that the band were so apoplectic when they found out that they went around London record shops and personally pulled the album from the shelves.
Regardless of the record label ruining the track’s potency for the band, it is still one of their finest moments and will always remain so. Strummer and Jones hit upon something compelling in their lyrics, showing how not much has changed, many of the themes are as pertinent as they were back then.
Listen to ‘Remote Control’ below.