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Music

The Story Behind The Song: The Clash's hard-hitting 'Straight to Hell'

John Graham Mellor, aka Joe Strummer was nothing short of an icon. The Clash’s frontman was a character who existed in his own individual realm. A champion of social issues, he penned some of the finest protest and punk songs in existence. He followed up his on-stage persona with a burning personal crusade to do his bit in helping to cure the planet of its social, political and environmental ills.

An educated mind, he had the rare pleasure of being able to travel the world at a young age, owing to his father’s high ranking job in the British Civil service, and this undoubtedly informed The Clash’s worldly view. Duly, they stick out like a colourful sore thumb in comparison to the majority of their contemporaries. It is a testament to the band that they managed to outgrow the out and out sound of punk, and move into the realms of dub, funk and new-wave, all the while retaining the core punk principles. For this reason, one would posit they are the ultimate British punk band.

Unrestrained by the futile notions that Johnny Rotten and Co. adhered to, and pushed on by an unwavering sense of progression, there can be no surprise that a lot of The Clash’s music is timeless. Notice how we said “a lot”, obviously some of it was terrible, including their sixth and final album, 1985’s Cut the Crap, which was so bad that the band decided to call it a day once and for all, heeding their own message.

Obviously, this is a very limited account of The Clash, who had no end of their own off-stage problems, but the point remains clear. They were British punk’s shining light and a refreshing antidote to the nihilistic themes that engulfed many of their contemporaries’ work.

Furthermore, it was not all Joe Strummer. Concerning ourselves solely with their classic lineup, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were all brilliant in their own right, and continued to be outside the confines of The Clash. Jones’ work with Big Audio Dynamite and as a producer has confirmed him as a total legend, as has Simonon’s work with Gorrilaz. Headon remains one of the most interesting survivors from the punk scene. His takes on the heady, ground-breaking time are invaluable and teach us many lessons. 

After a live show in 2002 when Headon was informed of the tragic and surprising passing of Strummer, an emotional Headon said: “It’s taken Joe’s death to make me realise just how big The Clash were. We were a political band and Joe was the one who wrote the lyrics. Joe was one of the truest guys you could ever meet. If he said ‘I am behind you’, then you knew he meant it 100 percent.”

It is with this sentiment that we get our story today. Strummer’s lyrics were an extension of himself, and thus, he gave us some of the most important ever written. There is no better example of this than 1982’s ‘Straight to Hell’ taken from Combat Rock. It was released as a double A-side with one of The Clash’s most iconic hits, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’.

One would wager that ‘Straight to Hell’ is the densest song that Strummer ever penned. It was written during the end of the recording sessions for Combat Rockduring a “mad, creative rush” the day before the band were due to fly out of the city for New Year’s Eve. In 1991, Strummer reflected on the writing process: “I’d written the lyric staying up all night at the Iroquois Hotel. I went down to Electric Lady and I just put the vocal down on tape, we finished about twenty to midnight. We took the E train from the Village up to Times Square. I’ll never forget coming out of the subway exit, just before midnight, into a hundred billion people, and I knew we had just done something really great.”

The music is nothing short of iconic, with its catchy Bossa Nova style. However, the lyrics are what really marks it out as special. Decrying global injustices, each verse takes to discussing the ills of the day. The first verse refers to Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the steel mills in Northern England, which were once the community’s central hub, which loom as a constant reminder of what was. It also talks of the subsequent mass unemployment which has continued to span generations right up until the present.

As pertinent as today as they were back then, the line “as railhead towns feel the steel mills rust” is hauntingly true. If you travel across the north of England forty years later, you will heed just how accurate Strummer was. Showing the extent of his lyrical grasp, the first verse also considers the alienation of non-English speaking immigrants in British society: “If you can play on the fiddle/ How’s about a British jig and reel?/ Speaking King’s English in quotation”. Unfortunately, this is also still an issue and one that speaks for itself. 

Joe Strummer, The Clash
(Credit: Alamy)

Showing Strummer to have been the staunch humanitarian that he was, the second verse concerns the abandonment of children in Vietnam who were fathered by American soldiers during the deadly Vietnam War. Strummer directly uses the phrase “Amerasian Blues”, which refers to this fatherless generation, missing their “papa-san”. The child pleas with their father to take them back to America, but is refused. This tale of horrific double standards is still felt by Vietnam today and is a story that needs more discussion. 

The third and fourth verses discuss the impact of the drug trade in the US, and the grave socio-economic implications it has. Again, this is a narrative that modern audiences are acutely aware of, as so many American communities have been ravaged by the drug trade. Need we mention the unjust story of ‘White Boy Rick’, and the disastrous War on Drugs? This line is cutting: “You want to play mind-crazed banjo, on the druggy-drag ragtime USA?, In Parkland International, Hah! Junkiedom USA, Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove”.

Furthermore, at other points, Strummer touches on violent racism, gentrification and poverty, another glaring example of his lyrical genius. The most ingenious line is without a doubt: “It could be anywhere, most likely could be any frontier, any hemisphere, no-man’s land and there ain’t no asylum here, King Solomon he never lived round here”. Here, he aptly ties all of the world’s ills together, showing us that we’re all each other’s keepers and that one man’s problem can quite easily become another’s. Need we discuss the societal implications of global warming or the fact that racism and misogyny are endemic in different forms across the world?

‘Straight to Hell’ is not only an iconic piece of music, but it is also one of The Clash‘s most emotionally affecting. When you dig into its meaning, its density is nothing short of astonishing. It is a fantastic reminder of Joe Strummer’s temperament, and that sadly, when he died, the world lost one of its most extraordinary characters. Luckily for us though, he lives on through his musical work and all the discourse surrounding his remarkable life. 

Listen to ‘Straight to Hell’, below.

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