Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 18, 1977: The Clash Release 'White Riot'

The debut single by The Only Band That Matters was a clarion call for a generation.

the clash
Source: mega

'No one was more amazed than the record company. It had no idea what it had unleashed.'

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On March 18, 1977, The Clash released their debut single. If “White Riot” would set a thrilling template for the impassioned politicism, furious energy and razor-sharp sloganeering that would come to define the self-proclaimed Only Band That Matters, it would also become sadly misunderstood and hijacked by the very people Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’ outfit were railing against.

The song was a call to arms and a cry of solidarity – railing against the racism and police brutality Strummer saw in the streets of West London, but also urging the white working class to take direct action of their own. As he explained to the NME: “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 cozy. They’ve got stereos, drugs, hi-fis, cars. The poor Blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat.”

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the clash paul simonon joe strummer
Source: mega

'White Riot' was inspired after Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer were caught up in the Notting Hill Riot of 1976.

The song’s genesis lay in a genuine riot. On August 30, 1976, Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon (along with Clash manager Bernie Rhodes) were at the Notting Hill Carnival, when the annual street party suddenly erupted into violence.

Tensions between Notting Hill’s Caribbean immigrant community and the area’s wealthier residents had been heightening, and an increasingly heavy-handed police presence meant that members of the Black community found themselves the subject of near-daily harassment by the authorities. In August 1976, during the Carnival’s annual celebration of Caribbean music and culture, the simmering resentment finally boiled over.

After a typically aggressive apprehension of a suspected pickpocket, members of the crowd reacted – punches were exchanged, truncheons drawn, stones and bottles thrown… and within minutes the street party had become a full-blown riot. Sixty carnival-goers and more than 100 police officers were hospitalized in the ensuing violence – and right in the middle of it were Strummer and Simonon.

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“All hell broke loose, and I do mean hell,” Strummer recalled. “This was one time when people kind of went, ‘We’ve had enough and we’re gonna say so… now!’ And that’s what gave rise to the song ‘White Riot.’ Because we participated in the riot, but I was aware all of the time that it was a black people’s riot. They had more of an ax to grind and they had the guts to do something physical about it.”

Inspired and angered in equal measure, Strummer penned the verses: “Black man gotta lot of problems / But they don’t mind throwing a brick / White people go to school / Where they teach you how to be thick,” and “All the power’s in the hands / Of the people rich enough to buy it / While we walk the street / Too chicken to even try it.”

The verses were not a call for the white working class to take action against the Black community – but to join them in fighting a common enemy. As Strummer later explained in the Westway to the World documentary: “I quickly realized that you either became a power or you were crushed.”

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the clash
Source: mega

Joe Strummer: 'You either became a power or you were crushed'.

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In February 1977, the Clash entered the studio to record what would become their debut album, with the intention of releasing “White Riot” as its lead single. In an interview with Louder, producer Steve Levine remembered the band bringing that anger and energy into the studio with them. The Clash weren’t interested in meticulous multi-layering, overdubbing and other recording techniques that had come to define the mid-70’s quest for a perfect, polished sound… they just wanted to get all the passion that had inspired their songs down, as fast and as furious as possible.

“I remember the first conversation I had with Joe Strummer was when he walked into the studio and he said, ‘what are those?’ and I said that they are screens for the sound and he said ‘why are they there?’” he recalled. “And Simon Humphrey, who was one of the CBS staff engineers who worked with me said [they’re] to create separation and, I quote, Joe Strummer said to him, ‘I don’t know what separation is but I don’t like it!’

“We didn’t spend a lot of time on Joe’s vocals. He just put them down. We did two or three takes on the lead vocals. The way of working then was much more about capturing the live thing of what was happening. It was an exciting period and you got the sense that there was something really happening.”

the clash
Source: mega

The Only Band That Matters.

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“White Riot” would eventually squeeze into the Top 40, peaking at No. 38 on April 9 – the day after The Clash’s self-titled debut album was released. The cover of the single featured Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon facing a wall with hands spread above their heads, in deliberate imitation of the “stop and search” trials faced daily by members of Notting Hill’s Black community.

The lack of production (or “separation”, and there’s an accidental pun to ponder) on the single resulted in a thrilling two-minute burst of impassioned noise – breakneck drums, driving bass, furious guitars and Strummer’s soon-to-be-trademark breathless, shouted delivery, all heralded the arrival of a new kind of politicized punk – a riot of their own, in fact. It remains as electrifying today as it did then; in 2005, Q placed "White Riot" at number 34 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.

the clash white riot
Source: CBS

The original 'White Riot' single sleeve, photo taken by Caroline Coon.

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“’White Riot’ captures the quintessential sound of the Clash,” Simon Humphrey, who engineered the track as well as the first album, told Sound on Sound. “They were given free rein by the record company and at no point did I question the validity of what they were doing. It just is what it is — a working-class riot, not a middle-class one — and that’s why it’s great.

“No one was more amazed than the record company. It had no idea what it had unleashed at that point. It was incredible.”


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