The reason why The Clash became ‘The only band that matters’ is because of their fierce, uncompromised and authentic view of the world. When other bands were making songs about utter nonsense, The Clash simply couldn’t stand for that and, instead, wrote an anthem in ‘Tommy Gun’ which took aim at terrorism in true punk fashion.
Spearheaded by the enigmatic Joe Strummer, there was no band who could hold a candle to The Clash’s roaring blaze in 1978. They had the substance which the Sex Pistols lacked and they didn’t just make punk music for the sake of making punk — Strummer saw it as the perfect mechanism for spreading his socialist ideology which, he believed, would change the world for the better. However, punk music and nuance aren’t always the greatest bedfellows, which meant that ‘Tommy Gun’ stoked up controversy due to the difficult topic they deal with on the track. Following the success of their debut album, making this the lead single from Give ‘Em Enough Rope and the track secured them their first-ever top 20 single, landing at number 19.
Some saw Strummer as an apologist for terrorism because of some controversial attire that he’d worn live on stage, which acted like catnip to the right-wing tabloids who declared The Clash as public enemy number one. The frontman had previously made controversial comments appearing to support the Red Brigade of Italy, he also often wore a red ‘Brigade Rosse’ T-shirt in support of when playing live, including at their famous Rock Against Racism show in 1978. He also appeared to support the Red Army Faction of Germany, and many Irish fans voiced anger when he wore a ‘H-Block’ T-shirt in solidarity with IRA prisoners held there, which was deemed to be insensitive.
The fury that the song received from some quarters was amplified because of drummer Topper Headon mimicking the sound of bullets with rapid-fire snare hits. This was, of course, coupled with Strummer’s on the bone lyrics, “I’m cutting out your picture from page one/I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours/And give my false support to your cause/Whatever you want, you’re gonna get it,” then he contentiously finishes the song by sniping, “If death comes so cheap/Then the same goes for life.”
“In the late 1970s, the National Front [a right-wing extremist hate group] was spreading across England,” Strummer later reflected on the political sphere in which ‘Tommy Gun’ was born. “They were a terrorist group if there ever was one, but bands like the Clash were deemed dangerous, evil even, by Thatcher and the like,” the late singer then added.
Carl Barat from The Libertines once described ‘Tommy Gun’ perfectly in the liner notes of The Clash’s Singles Box when he said: “It’s (‘Tommy Gun’) a product of the volatile climate of the late seventies — all those references to terrorist organizations like Baader-Meinhof and The Red Brigades. It’s like a punk rock adaptation of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’.”
In the album liner notes to Clash on Broadway, Joe Strummer explained that he believed terrorists probably enjoy reading about their killings in the news, in a similar way to popstars would be elated with a rave review for their latest record. He told the NME: “I was saying us rock ‘n’ rollers are all posers and egomaniacs, but we know that terrorists are as bad, or worse than we are. They definitely love to read their own press… I know they dedicate their life to a cause, but they’re always posing for pictures.”
Of course, ‘Tommy Gun’ didn’t solve any of the world’s big issues that were dividing the world in the late ’70s but it gave Strummer a platform to air his views on a somewhat difficult topic and got people talking about these issues. Now, over 40 years on, ‘Tommy Gun’ also plays a role as a historic artefact showing us in 2020 what life was like during these divisive socio-political times of 1978. As the world edged closer and closer towards the era of Thatcher and Reagan — two politicians who only divided and conquered the population even further — Strummer was taking one last shot.