Ask Patti Smith, arguably the mother of punk, if poetry and punk go together and she would likely snort with derision and kindly point out to you that not only is poetry important to punk, it is most probably the art form’s musically inclined twin. The two forms of expression cross so effortlessly into one another’s world that whether it’s Smith herself or indeed John Cooper Clarke, poetry has a way of finding itself among the punks. One such crossover was when Allen Ginsberg asked The Clash to join him on a special reading of ‘Capitol Air’.
In 1981, The Clash found themselves at a career crossroads. The band had long been championed as the thinking man’s punks and had taken this moniker to new heights with their legacy-defining album London Calling in 1979, yet 1980’s Sandinista (a politically charged rabble-rouser focusing on the authoritarianism the band saw everywhere they looked) wasn’t sparking much life in the scene.
Now for the new record, they were faced with a simple choice, either stay “punk”, refuse to grow and fall flat artistically. Or, try and continue their musical evolution with the perpetuating punk crucible they had created for themselves – a melting pot of reggae, dub, poetry and protest music – and hope that the people saw through the smoke. The Clash, naturally, would end up choosing the latter for their 1982 album Combat Rock.
One track to feature on that album, as noted by Open Culture, was given an extra dose of poignancy by the incredible Beat poet and activist Allen Ginsberg. ‘Ghetto Defendant’ had a small spoken word performance feature from Ginsberg and had, in fact, been co-written between himself and Strummer. But before Ginsberg and Strummer would share a studio, they would share the stage. Strummer was keen to keep the political edge the band were using to carve out their new niche as sharp as possible and so invited Ginsberg to say something at their Times Square gig, but Ginsberg had other ideas.
As Ginsberg says: “I was listening to a lot of punk, and I’d heard about The Clash from Steven Taylor. I went backstage once at their 17-night gig at Bonds Club on Times Square and Joe Strummer said, “We’ve had somebody say a few words about Nicaragua and (El) Salvador and Central America [they were promoting their album Sandinista at the time], but the kids are throwing eggs and tomatoes at ‘im. Would you like to try?”. I said, “I don’t know about making a speech, but I’ve got a punk song about that.” Simple chords, we rehearsed it five minutes and got it together”
“They led me onstage at the beginning of their second set, and we launched right into the guitar clang. It’s punk in ethos and rhythmic style for abrupt pogo-dancing, jumping up and down, but elegant in the sense of having specific political details. First stanza drags a little, but there’s one point where we all get together for two verses, an anthem-like punk song. Only one tape exists [not entirely true, actually] taken off the board. They gave me a copy and it’s been sitting around all these years like a little toy.”
“So, we rehearsed it for about five minutes during the intermission break and then they took me out on stage. “Allen Ginsberg is going to sing”. And so we improvised it. I gave them the chord changes.”..”It gets kind of Clash-like, good anthem-like music about the middle. but (then) they trail off again. The guy, who was my friend (Charlie Martin?) on the soundboard, mixed my voice real loud so the kids could hear, and so there was a nice reaction, because they could hear common sense being said in the song. You can hear the cheers on the record…”
Joe Strummer: “Yeah, we have something never before seen – and never likely to again either. May I welcome President Ginsberg, come on (out) Ginsberg!”
What transpired was a whirling, swirling rant from Ginsberg backed by, at the time, one of the most important bands on the planet. The themes are largely centred on the authoritarian bureaucracy which Ginsberg saw around the world. He used his moment to challenge the mindset of a consumerist nation, sedated by the rising quality of their needless gadgets. Ginsberg is rabid in his rage and finds a pole to hang so many establishments from. It clearly impressed Strummer.
So much so in fact that Strummer would work tirelessly to ensure that Ginsberg and he could write ‘Ghetto Defendant’ – a song which explores much of the same themes as ‘Capitol Air’ – and with it complete what was ultimately one of The Clash’s best records.
Listen to The Clash and Allen Ginsberg on ‘Ghetto Defendant’ below.