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The Story Behind The Song: 'White Riot' The Clash's misunderstood punk masterclass

On this day in 1977, The Clash released their debut single. A song that would go down as one of their most iconic tracks of all time—a new bar with which to measure the immeasurable fury of punk rock. The punk standard, the powerful yet poetic brilliance of Joe Strummer’s foghorn for the masses, ‘White Riot’, is still revered to this day but not without clearing away any confusion beforehand.

Featuring on the band’s self-titled debut record, we’re looking back at The Story Behind The Song of ‘White Riot’, a track that refuses to be beaten down. We’re finding the nugget of hope in this rallying call to arms and why it spent so much time being misunderstood by a particularly ignorant part of the public.

It’s an easy mistake to make, especially looking back. Here in 2021, when you take a brief look at the lyrics of The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ you may be forgiven for thinking that Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were advocating for some kind of race war or, at the very least, an ‘uprising.’ But that notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were living in Notting Hill during the summer of 1976. Though the leafy suburb is now considered one of the most desirable locations in London, at the time, it was largely split into factions. On one side of the neighbourhood lived the affluent members of the capital’s high society and, on the other, lived a high proportion of low-income families and, more often than not, Jamaican immigrants. Strummer and Simonon’s immersion in this culture would greatly influence the band and their debut record.

In fact, the city’s temperature was reaching a fever pitch, and the Jamaican traditions that had been building in the capital would influence almost all of the punk bands as they exploded across the capital. For those involved in the punk scene, it was clear that, upon closer inspection, the oppression being felt across the poor working classes transcended race and culture. This notion would intertwine these two juxtaposing rhythms and not only feature on their debut in the form of ‘White Riot’ and their cover of ‘Police & Thieves’ but also on their seminal album London Calling. However, it was something Strummer and Simonon would lay down on The Clash’s debut single, ‘White Riot’, most clearly.

The duo were surrounded by police brutality and oppression as they lived in their predominantly Black neighbourhood. Seeing members of their community stopped and harassed by police was a near-daily occurrence. The tension between Notting Hill’s residents and the police was beginning to overboil, and it came to a head at the Notting Hill Carnival. The 1976 event combusted into a scene of riots and police violence as the neighbourhood refused to be bullied any further and stood up for themselves. It was a spark of rebellion that Stummer had been waiting to see for a long time.

Leaving the event, Strummer and Simonon pondered on why white kids weren’t fighting the good fight too, and they used ‘White Riot’ to do it: “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.” It was a deliberate foghorn to the masses. Take direct action or be acted upon.

After all, it had been a crushing few years for the working class. The economy was in a deep, dark slump, with inflation topping twenty per cent and, in 1975, unemployment had passed two million — an astronomical number. When you couple that with the kind of pop music drivel that was topping the charts at the time, you could feel the energy of punk bubbling up.

Strummer explained to NME about the song’s contentious lyrics: “The only thing we’re saying about the Blacks is that they’ve got their problems and they’re prepared to deal with them. But white men, they just ain’t prepared to deal with them—everything’s too cosy. They’ve got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars.

“The poor Blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat.”

‘White Riot’ wasn’t a call for a race war; it was a demand for a focusing of issues and a rallying call to pick up your bricks and stones and follow one another into a new, freer world. While it may not have heralded a new age of libertine thinking as hoped, it did incite many political punks to begin their further reading and continue to fight the good fight in the name of political and social justice. In truth, it set the blueprint for Strummer and The Clash’s modus operandi.

Sadly, without a continuous dialogue about the song, it was picked up by undesirable and disreputable factions. Some punks became so enamoured with the track that it began to be misused in racial rallies and was often misquoted as a document of white power. Strummer remained determined to keep control of the narrative and tried to play it wherever he could after some venues asked the band to stop performing the track. While The Clash would always ignore that request, Mick Jones was also keen to drop the song, and during a heated conversation backstage in 1979, Strummer thumped Jones during an argument about the track. It left Jones wearing bandages to complete the group’s encore.

Their rebel attitude, combined with a razor-sharp wit and politically charged lyrics, raised the bar for what was possible in the embryonic moments of punk rock. Billy Bragg once said of the band: “were it not for The Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.” And he’s right.

While other groups may have burned brighter or indeed just been a flash of smoke, The Clash were a furnace of ideals and ethics, the kind that could solidify the porcelain thoughts of punk rock. They churned out the kind of steam that pushed locomotives off the tracks and kept them going through dirt and gravel. And while much of it was propelled by punk tunes, there was a heavy dose of ideology attached too.

‘White Riot’ made The Clash the only band that mattered.