Today promises to be an electoral clash between the incumbent ruling party and the emergent, vociferous opposition as Singaporeans head to the polls, many for the first time. With almost all parliamentary seats being contested, you could call it a watershed moment in the nation’s history, or at the very least, a political awakening of sorts. Before making our way to the polling booths, we cast our votes on our favorite songs by The Clash, knowing full well the time is now – Singapore’s calling.
Complete Control (from the U.S. version of The Clash, 1979)
The Clash have always been about defiance to me. From the thumping of the floor toms to the opening guitar riffs, one of the pioneers of the modern punk and post punk styles, has been invigorating generation after generation with a call to arms to stick it to the man. As I listen back to the tunes of The Clash in the heat of political upheaval in Singapore, waves of defiance take over as I remember what it was to be a teenager, and how it was when we had opinions that didn’t matter but we had nothing to lose. All that mattered was that we weren’t the zombies and the cogs in the machine that you wanted us to be, and we could think for ourselves, putting our destiny in the faith of our choices. – Brian.
Train in Vain (from London Calling, 1980)
Sometime around 2002 I bought London Calling and heard The Clash for the first time, but like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I couldn’t connect with the album then. I couldn’t get past Joe Strummer’s accent (what is it, Cockney?) and I was doubly alienated by the lyrical references, from Spanish bombs in Andalucía to the guns of Brixton. These places were as geographically far away from Singapore as they were in my provincial imagination.
However, the biggest wall for me to climb was the music itself. I expected punk music from The Clash, but I didn’t hear anything like punk. I had no idea then that The Clash were such a bold group, whose repertoire included raggae, ska, and funk … far beyond what we think of as punk rock.
But on London Calling one song stood out, and it was the last song on the album. “Train in Vain” is an excellent single, even if it isn’t the most adventurous; musically it doesn’t flirt as much with other genres beyond rock as The Clash do on the rest of the album. The melody is simple and the lyrics straightforward – and I believe this is one of their few love songs. Sung from the perspective of a man deserted by his lover, he bluntly accuses the latter: “Well some things you can explain away/But my heartache’s in me till this day/Did you stand by me?/No not at all.”
When I listen to London Calling now, it’s apparent how complex and forward-thinking The Clash were for their time. I’m also surprised at how my perspective of “Train in Vain” has since changed. The sadness and anger felt by the protagonist used to move me very much; but now what really hits me is how he seems so helpless: “But you don’t understand my point of view. I suppose there’s nothing I can do.” I wonder if that’s true. – Song-Ming.
Straight to Hell (from Combat Rock, 1982)
There are few songs that romanticize the lacerating aura of doom and disillusionment quite as definitively as The Clash do on “Straight To Hell”, a mesmerizing rock odyssey that captures Joe Strummer at his most fervently poetic. While The Clash’s legacy may be defined mostly by the sheer intensity and unfettered revolutionary tenor of their punk anthems, the languid “Straight To Hell” suggests a slight change of pace and injects a heightened mood of despair that devolves into pure sonic fodder for Strummer to flesh out his mournful lament. As with many of Strummer’s compositions, “Straight To Hell” is stuffed with political commentaries, his lyrics protesting the plight of immigrants, among other subjects. Loose and lucid, The Clash members also sounded like they were at the absolute top of their game as musicians on this tune; the rippling sound design conjures a sense of claustrophobia that echoes the conflicted chivalry of outlaws who never stop to consider, even when the end is nigh, about whether it was really all worthwhile. Go straight to hell, boys. – Keith.
Should I Stay or Should I Go (from Live at Shea Stadium, 2008 )
I’ve always found the album version of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” too safe, calculated and deliberate for its own good. It never fails to soldier on with that uncompromising beat, every quickening step just a tease that never got explosive enough for my liking. I can’t quite pin it down, but I get the feeling they were holding something back, and it just doesn’t feel right. A much bigger favorite of mine is the live version of the song, performed at breakneck pace at Shea Stadium in October 1982. Its opening scream hits you harder, the drums thump at greater velocity, and most importantly, it has a swagger that’s hard to beat. With this version, I find my heart fighting to match its pace as I dive right into that classic catch-22, perversely relishing the dilemma and the conflicting drama that unfolds. Of course no answers are given, even in this sterling performance, only nagging, festering indecision. – Dan.