In 1976, when I was 11 years old, my school took a field trip to see a touring exhibition celebrating the American bicentennial called “The Freedom Train.” Inside the train were a number of Americana items such as Abraham Lincoln’s stove pipe hat, George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, Judy Garland’s dress from The Wizard of OZ, Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks, and Martin Luther King’s pulpit and robes. My class waited HOURS in line just to board the train and walk through the various cars for 30 minutes of Americana. I think I had my Steve Martin “I’m A Wild and Crazy Guy” T-Shirt on for the occasion. Yet what was occurring OUTSIDE the “Freedom Train” in a country that gave birth to ours during that ‘summer of ‘76’ remains with me just as much…
Formed in that summer of ‘76, a new band formed in London that rode the wave of the punk scene and went beyond it – taking ‘punk’ into the mainstream while being true their roots. Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Keith Levene were looking to do something different, trying to move music forward with the edgy attack of the Sex Pistols. What they found was an aggressive kid named Joe Strummer who was fronting a bar band called the 101ers. They recruited Terry Chimes for drums and rock history added a new name:
I didn’t get into The Clash till late – too many singer-songwriters in my diet at the time. It was was in Seminary and studying Liberation Theology that the connection happened. (Liberation Theoloyg is an emphasis-placed reading of Jesus’ mission as described in terms of liberation, and as a bringer of justice. This is interpreted as a call to arms (sometimes literally) to carry out this mission of justice – an activist interpretation which contrasts with the passivist interpretation of Jesus as Redeemer, which leaves devout Christians as passive acceptors of divine redemption and of the earthly status quo.) I remember a guy in my class saying “You know, Gustavo Gutierrez could have written ‘The Guns of Brixton’ on London Calling.” I went to Tower Records and picked up London Calling and then saw (that is heard) what can happen when a band embodying radical passion, idealism and political social zeal blends that impulse with punk, reggae, hip-hop and funk – a smorgasbord of sources drawn from the margins of pop radio in the late 1970’s (when the Bee Gee’s were still selling millions) and crank it up so we have to listen.
The title song off London Calling announces that “…war is declared and battle come down…” It warns against pushing off our responsibility in this life by just turning into fans and expecting The Clash to take care of things alone — “… now don’t look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust…”. The song draws a bleak picture of the times — “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin” — but calls on us as listeners to come out of our drugged-out, overly entertained stupor and take up the fight for those without voices without constantly looking to big city power brokers (London), or the rich and famous (The Clash themselves), for cues — “Forget it, brother, we can go it alone… Quit holding out and draw another breath… I don’t wanna shout / But while we were talking I saw you nodding out…”
If there was ever a time to take seriously the ‘straight edge’ of punk as a methodology for what the church and theology are about… take a listen to The Clash again and let’s “rock the casbah”