04 May 2007

More Notes From My Old Backyard

When I think of the punk years, particularly 1977, I always think of one particular spot, just at the point where the elevated Westway diverges from Harrow Road and pursues the line of the Hammersmith and City tube tracks to Westbourne Park Station. From the end of 1976, one of the stanchions holding up the Westway was emblazoned with large graffiti which said simply, “THE CLASH.” When first sprayed the graffiti laid a psychic boundary marker for the group – This was their manor, this was how they saw London.
Jon Savage – Punk London
I've already had my say on the revolutionary mythology surrounding the Clash, created in equal parts by the band itself and by starry-eyed romanticists so eager to relive the 1960s that they were willing to glide over a whole raft of inconvenient facts. Now here comes Bernie Rhodes, the Clash's manager during much of their career, weighing in with his opinion: "They've turned Joe [Strummer] into a hippie because they wanted another John Lennon."

That nugget was massively overshadowed, however, by his opining loudly to a crowd of underground media luvvies and punk exhumers, that "If you want to sort out crime in London, sort out the niggers." Not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear in polite company these days, let alone in a room full of Strummerian acolytes, and Rhodes was quickly bundled off stage, the balance of his remarks drowned out by a Clash film clip (look here for another account).

Was Rhodes simply off his face and having a Mel Gibson moment? Possibly. Right thinkers around town were quick to denounce his remarks as racist, and you can't deny that his fit that bill. But replace the N-word with "blacks" or "Afro-Caribbeans" and you wouldn't be saying anything that many Londoners - some of them black themselves - haven't been saying for some time. It's a matter of public record that young black men commit a wildly disproportionate amount of London's crime.

Pointing that out, however, is rather different from advising that "the niggers" be "sorted out." In addition to the obvious offensiveness of the language, it makes no attempt to differentiate between the masses of black people who live ordinary, decent lives and the significant minority of black people who are responsible for a lot of crime. What makes things all the more curious is that Rhodes also managed the 2 Tone ska band, The Specials, who championed black music and had two black members. Not exactly the CV of a racist, but maybe his views have changed since then.

Whatever the reasons for Rhodes' impolitic outburst, I doubt he'll be getting a chance to explain himself; something tells me dinner and speaking engagements will be thin on the ground for a long time to come. And without suggesting that Rhodes' views in any way reflect the thinking of the Clash members themselves, it might be worth bearing in mind that this is the man who played a large role in creating and orchestrating the image they displayed to the world.

1 comment:

Wesley said...

If he (Strummer) had only had the good sense to stay away from "Redemption Song", he wouldn't be having all these posthumous problems.